Walter Richard Sickert A.R.A. (British, 1860-1942)
The Artist's Home in New Orleans oil on canvas 51 x 30.5 cm. (20 1/8 x 12 in.) Painted 1913-14
PROVENANCE: With The Redfern Gallery, London, July 1947 (125 guineas) where acquired by the father of the present owner Private Collection, U.K.
EXHIBITED: London, The Redfern Gallery, May-November, 1946 (as Artist's Studio, New Orleans)
The title of this painting could hardly be more misleading. The setting is not an artist's home in New Orleans; it is a large corner house (now destroyed - the site an Addison Lee car store) at the junction of 247 Hampstead Road and Granby Street in Camden Town. The house had once been a school, Wellington House Academy, attended by Charles Dickens from 1824-7. Sickert, always fascinated by the history and associations of buildings, immediately resurrected the former name. From 1908 until 1914 it was one of his favourite studios and the setting for some of this best-known works, including Ennui (Tate).
In a letter to Anna Hope (Nan) Hudson in February 1914 Sickert wrote: 'The daylight is coming back to London which shifts my centre of activity ... to my theatre in Granby Street...' The term 'theatre' is revealing. To Sickert each of the many rooms he rented as studios in houses in and around Camden Town was a stage. He rearranged the furniture iron bedsteads, bedside cabinets, mantelshelf ornaments, chests of drawers, a sagging chaise-longue, washstands, even a grand piano - to create individual stage sets. It took little to spark off his imagination. In this case, it seems to have been the black model who between 1912 and 1914 features in the work of several painters besides Sickert, including Glyn Philpot and Malcolm Drummond. Black models were uncommon at this period. Sickert immediately thought of a place where black people were not rare, the Deep South of the United States, which in turn led him to remember his mentor, Edgar Degas, whose mother was a Creole from New Orleans. Hence the allusive title: in his mind's eye, Sickert visualised his own Camden Town studio as the De Gas family home.
The rooms Sickert rented at Wellington House Academy were spacious and high-ceilinged. However, he makes the corner represented in Ennui look stuffy and cluttered with the table, chest of drawers and incidental ornaments crowding in upon the two protagonists and locking them into their life of mutual tedium. In the drawing exhibited at the Carfax Gallery in April 1914 under the title The Artist's Home in New Orleans (reproduced Wendy Baron, Sickert: Paintings and Drawings, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2006, cat.no.419) the setting is transformed into a grand salon. A chaise-longue replaces the chest of drawers, the whole of the huge overmantel glass is shown, a favourite sculpted bust of the boxer Tom Sayers is on the mantelshelf. A woman lounges on the couch while Sickert's model Hubby (who drinks beer in Ennui) stands in proprietorial fashion in front of the fireplace, hands behind his back, being served by a black waiter holding a tray.
Within this setting, juggling with the same components, sometimes zooming in close, sometimes distancing himself from the scene, Sickert drew and painted many different interiors with figures. All but one featured Hubby with a female model; each told a different story. Until the reappearance of the present work I knew of only one painting (not necessarily painted at Wellington House) which included the black model: Negro Sprituals (Op.Cit cat.no.420). The newly discovered painting represents only the left side of the drawing with the same title: the presence of a white master (played by Hubby in the drawing) is implied but not explicit. The black model clearly impressed Sickert. In Negro Spirituals he is the principal subject, with his female companion reduced to a summary sketch in the background. This is even more obvious in a drawing (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) for Negro Spirituals which defines the head of the black man in precise pen and ink hatching but barely outlines his companion. In the painting of The Artist's Home in New Orleans the black man - waiter, footman or butler - stands tall, straight and dignified, dominating the scene. The woman on the chaise-longue is reduced in size and significance, her sloppy posture emphasised by the fact that her feet do not even reach the ground. This disparity in scale can hardly have been an accident or a mistake: rather it was a deliberate compositional device to give weight to the central male figure who is the focus of Sickert's interest.
We are grateful to Dr. Wendy Baron for compiling this catalogue entry.