Dark Arts
Cosmopolitan and debauched, Sickert found inspiration amid the poverty and prostitutes of grimy London.

London is spiffing!", Walter Sickert declared. "Such evil racy faces and such a comfortable feeling of a solid basis of beef and beer. O the whiff of leather and stout from the swing doors of the pubs! Why aren't I Keats to sing them?" Sickert underestimated his own talent and unique sensibility. He was a Keats – a Keats in oils. His paintings, particularly those done in the first decade of the 20th century, fixed a vision of London – grimy, striving, vital – that was novel and compelling. It has proved enduring too.

His pictures of north London lodging-house rooms, of figures in dim interiors, of nudes on rumpled bedsheets, of fleeting social encounters and unspecified domestic dramas, still enthral. They are scenes illumined by pale sunlight muffled by dirty windowpanes and worn lace curtains: quotidian yet mysterious. Seated Woman, Mornington Crescent (offered at Bonhams Modern British Sale in June) takes us into the heart of that world. The figure of the young woman, her breasts bared, gleams among the heavy furniture and faded prints of the dingy interior, as she looks out through a tall first-floor window.

Sickert had returned to London in 1905, at the age of 44, after some five years of self-imposed exile, following his divorce from his first wife, Ellen Cobden. From his bases at Dieppe and Venice, he had established himself as a noted figure on the progressive Parisian art stage. Born in Munich to a Danish father and a French-educated mother, Sickert had a decidedly international outlook and recognised Paris as the centre of the cultural universe.

His original thought was to stay in London only a short while, but he found many reasons to detain him. There was a small coterie of ambitious young artists to teach and inspire. There was the beautiful and talented Mrs Swinton to flirt with and paint. And there was that special flavour of Camden Town life to be enjoyed and depicted.

Sickert was conscious that scenes of London low life might appeal to the French – indeed, might be "a unique weapon for the Paris market". Since the days of Géricault and Gustave Doré, the French had been fascinated by the seedier aspects of the English capital; and Sickert was ready to be coarse – or, as he put it, "canaille". He wanted to be able to make a splash at the Salon d'Automne, the new exhibiting body, where the boldest young talents vied with each other. He wanted to impress Félix Fénéon, the brilliant poet-cum-curator, who had opened a cutting-edge art-space for the Parisian dealers Bernheim- Jeune. Fénéon planned to show Sickert there, alongside Bonnard, Vuillard, Signac and the young Matisse.

So Sickert lingered in London, working and having fun. He took lodgings in a pair of rooms on the first floor at 6 Mornington Crescent, on the edge of Camden Town. The rooms were modest, but the semi-circular communal garden in front of the houses was still intact. (It was only later that the Mornington Crescent freeholders sold their communal garden to developers, who built a mock-Egyptian cigarette factory on the site.) Sickert was delighted that, from his front door, he could see not only the Tube station, but also the statue of Richard Cobden (his former father-in-law) that stood before it.

Although he had rented a studio in his old painting ground of Fitzrovia, just south of Camden Town, he soon began using the Mornington Crescent rooms as a workspace, charmed by the effects of the light; by the pattern of the iron balcony outside the window; and by the ready-made ambience of domestic life.

After his time in France, Sickert was struck by the politeness of British art. It was a world dominated by fashion and money. There seemed little inclination for experiment, and little knowledge – among either artists or collectors – of the advances made by the French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists just across the Channel. Sickert resolved to address the situation. He wanted to assert the importance of painting, of the figurative tradition, of truth in art.

He found a small band of willing disciples – Spencer Gore, Robert Bevan, Sylvia Gosse, Harold Gilman, Charles Ginner, Ethel Sands and Nan Hudson – and preached to them his new gospel of painting – over lunch at L'Étoile on Charlotte Street, at the Saturday receptions in his Fitzroy Street studio, on the tram coming along the Hampstead Road, in letters dashed off at the end of the day, and in the example of his own work.

Seated Woman, Mornington Crescent is alive with those concerns. Beneath the broken touches of colour, it is a carefully constructed image, not painted from life but based on long observation and numerous drawings. This way of working was endorsed by the French tradition, particularly by the example of Degas, Sickert's great hero and friend. On his visits to Paris, Sickert was a regular visitor to the French artist's studio. They shared a love of Ingres and of marmalade.

Degas taught Sickert much – about art and about life. He influenced Sickert's choice of subjects. Although it is less apparent to us now, most of the chosen subjects of the French Impressionists – the modern city, the ballet stage, the racecourse, the bathroom – were shocking to contemporary audiences. And Sickert was never afraid to shock. As he gleefully explained to his young English confrères, "The more our art is serious, the more will it tend to avoid the drawing room... the plastic arts are gross arts, dealing joyously with gross material facts. They call, in their servants, for a robust stomach and a great power of endurance, and while they will flourish in the scullery, or on the dunghill, they fade at a breath from the drawing room." The front room at 6 Mornington Crescent, if not quite the "dunghill", was far-removed from the glamour of any fashionable drawing room, and the suggested form of a chamber pot beneath the bed on which the woman is perched was certainly a "gross material fact".

From Degas, Sickert had imbibed a belief that the human figure – the female nude, above all – was the great subject of art. He had also come to understand that the subject should be treated with unflinching objectivity. It should be drained of sentimental associations and too obvious narrative. At one level, it should be merely an excuse for a composition of light and shade.

The motif of the woman with bared breasts was one to which Sickert often returned. It reached back to the Renaissance portraits of courtesans he had seen in Venice, but he argued that the nude worked best in conjunction with the clothed. Indeed, he considered that "the chief source of pleasure in the aspect of a nude is that it is in the nature of a gleam – a gleam of light and warmth and life. And that it should appear thus, it should be set in surroundings of drapery or other contrasting surfaces." It is an idea brilliantly illustrated by the painting of the partially clothed girl at the Mornington Crescent window. It introduces, too, a note of sexual tension into the scene. Is the woman waiting for a lover, a husband, a client?

For Sickert, painting was always tinged with a sexual element. He described the starting point of any picture as the painter's 'lech' to record a particular scene – and the success of the painting could be judged on the extent to which it communicated that 'lech' to the viewer. Certainly the artist's yearning desire pulses through this little canvas of gleaming light and patterned shade.

Matthew Sturgis is the author of an award-winning biography of Walter Sickert (HarperCollins, 2005).

Sale: Modern British and Irish Art
Wednesday 12 June at 3pm
Enquiries: Penny Day +44 (0) 20 7468 8366 [email protected] bonhams.com/modernbritish

Sickert: life in brief

Walter Richard Sickert was born in 1860 in Munich. His father was an unsuccessful Danish artist, his mother the illegitimate offspring of an Irish dancer on the London stage and a Cambridge professor of mathematics, who had previously trained both in the law and as a clergyman. The family moved to England in 1868, with Sickert going to school in London. Although Walter had early ambitions to be a painter, his father forbade it, and it was only when – at the age of 21 – he became engaged to the independently wealthy Ellen Cobden that he was able to devote himself to painting.

After a brief stint at the Slade, he went to work in the
studio of his artistic hero, James McNeill Whistler. Through Whistler, Sickert was introduced to the most advanced ideas in contemporary art. He also met Degas, who became his mentor. Under Degas' influence he began a remarkable series of paintings of London music halls: rich low-toned scenes of low-life revelry. These he exhibited to almost universal derision. Only slightly less unpopular were his Impressionistic portraits and his deliberately unpicturesque views of Dieppe and Venice.

After getting divorced in 1899, he lived for six years in France (much of the time with his Dieppoise fishwife mistress). Chance brought him back to London in 1905, and – excited by the young painters he encountered – he decided to stay and introduce some much-needed French rigour into the effete English art world. He began a vigorous campaign: founding exhibiting societies (notably the Fitzroy Street Group and the Camden Town Group), writing articles, and giving art classes.

In 1911, Sickert married one of his pupils, Christine Angus, and in the years around the First World War they spent much of their time in – or near – Dieppe. But, after Christine's early death in 1920, Sickert returned permanently to England. He followed an increasingly idiosyncratic artistic path, making paintings from photographs, Victorian prints and even press cuttings. High-toned and often deliberately anti-naturalistic in their colouring, these works oddly prefigured Andy Warhol's Pop Art experiments. Sickert remained an innovator to his death, in 1942, at the age of 81.

Oh, and the notion that Sickert was Jack the Ripper – put forward with such vehemence by the crime writer Patricia Cornwell – is absolute tosh.



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