Ennui? Here's life on a plate

Walter Sickert
July 21, 2000

Walter Richard Sickert is perhaps the quintessential English artist who straddles the 19th and 20th centuries. His version of England is utterly authentic, and when he ventures abroad it is to those two staunch favourites of the travelling British, Venice and Dieppe, the latter almost a de facto English colony at that time. Yet he was born in Munich in 1860 to a Danish artist father. His mother was the illegitimate daughter of the distinguished English astronomer Richard Sheepshanks. The Schleswig-Holstein question meant that Walter could one day be conscripted into the German army, so the family came to England in 1868 and Walter went to school here, failed to get a job in the department of coins and medals at the British Museum, decided to become an actor and went on provincial tours using the pseudonym Mr Nemo. When the family took their holiday in Dieppe, the house guests included the matinee idol Johnston Forbes-Robertson and Oscar Wilde.

Sickert enrolled at the Slade in 1881, but soon left to become Whistler's assistant, an opportunity worth 20 years of study at any art school. In 1883, Sickert was deputed by Whistler to take one of his pictures to the Paris Salon. Whistler generously gave his assistant letters of introduction to Manet - who, dying, was too ill to see him - and Degas, who gave him a warm welcome and plenty of good advice.

Thus, at the age of 23, Sickert had encountered the three great influences of his life: the theatre, Whistler and Degas. All three seeds took expansive root, and it is surely no coincidence that Degas was one of the greatest painters of the theatre and Whistler was, in every respect, the most theatrical of artists. From these three lodestars Sickert never really looked back, while resolutely becoming his own man.

From Whistler, as Ruth Bromberg rightly points out, he inherited the almost compulsive need to observe and record instantly for future reference and work. He would carry small, prepared copper plates and an etching needle in his pocket. He even copied, openly including the words "after Whistler" in his titles, some of his mentor's Venetian subjects, deliberately reversing the images to ensure significant difference. Sickert also shared with Whistler a love of words as well as images. Although never as deadly a wit as the American, his literary output was much more prolific and he could be sardonic if he wished: "Nothing knits man to man, the Manchester School wisely taught, like the frequent passage from hand to hand of cash," he wrote in The New Age in 1910. As the frequent quotations from his letters used by Bromberg show, he was always a trenchant, if not actually pungent stylist. Concerning his changing his long-term dealer, he wrote to Ethel Sands: "No I haven't fallen out with Clifton. It is my way to love the erring the more, in that, erring, they have more need of my support. But he has cashiered - quite handsomely, entre parenthèses - his 25 years' wife for a young person. I thought it probable that fewer customers might visit his establishment and I didn't see why I should be fined some hundreds a year for his adultery. So he no longer has the agency for my work."

Sickert, notes Bromberg, "seems to have had little trouble squaring his open-mindedness on questions of sexual morality with a sharp business sense". He had little experience of starving in garrets, and Clifton's Carfax Gallery had done well by him: "I drag so much money out of Clifton that he sweats gold and I have even insisted on there being no summer holiday at Carfax's."

One of the joys of Sickert's graphic oeuvre is that, with the exception of a handful of tiny plates, each of his prints has been accompanied by one or more drawings of the same subject and often a work in some other medium including full-scale oil paintings. Given also that Sickert frequently produced several different states and even sizes for his etchings, Bromberg has here produced a marvellous Sickert cornucopia in which every known etching has been reproduced, in all its states and with the related drawings and paintings. Thus, while there are some 226 different prints by Sickert, the book contains something like 500 illustrations and constitutes a unique record of his virtuoso skills in this medium.

One need only look at item 52, The Acting Manager of 1884. Done when Sickert was only 24, it is a kind of paradigm of his work and his interests. It shows Helen Couper-Black, the manager of the D'Oyly Carte Theatre Company, secretary and subsequently second wife to Richard D'Oyly Carte. She is a perfect Sickert subject, a strong-featured, handsome woman and a pillar of the theatre he adored all his life.

I have always admired Sickert, but one must not make excessive claims for him. As a printmaker he is no Rembrandt, no Goya. But he is certainly one of the finest, with his master Whistler, of all British graphic artists, and his portrait of Couper-Black is a powerful piece of chiaroscuro that would certainly not have displeased Rembrandt.

There is a great range and variety in the prints, even more than in his painting. Architectural details, town and landscapes, sea views, dramatic perspectives of the great Victorian music halls, stunning portraits of women, caricatures - like that of his long-term friend and intellectual sparring partner Roger Fry - and, above all, the somewhat sinister and erotically charged studies of men, women and beds. There are few stronger English prints than Sickert's Camden Town Murder series and his studies of Jack Ashore, the universal image of the sailor and the prostitute. The thrice-married Sickert was a rumbustious and charismatic man, and in his graphic work in particular, as another newspaper might put it, "All human life is here".

There are some blemishes in this otherwise most distinguished volume. We have the word "disavowel", and I suppose that in a book published by an American press, it is inevitable that the Tiller Girls have to be glossed as "a famous troupe of dancers". While as handsomely designed and produced as all of Yale's Mellon-supported art books, it is sad that the long, unillustrated introduction should be printed with so exiguous a gutter margin. What is probably Sickert's greatest etching, Ennui , is accompanied by a reproduction of one of the oil paintings of that dazzling subject. It is credited to the Tate Gallery, which owns the largest version, but this smaller one, in my view the best, is owned by the Queen Mother.

These are, however, minor faults in one of those many invaluable American contributions (the author is American) to the history of English art. This is a scholarly, deeply researched and essential addition to the relatively meagre shelf of books on a consistently undervalued artist, and it will surely be the last word on Sickert as an outstanding, prolific master printmaker.

Tom Rosenthal is the author of The Art of Jack B. Yeats and is currently writing on Sidney Nolan.

Walter Sickert: Prints, the Catalogue Raisonne

Author - Ruth Bromberg
ISBN - 0 300 08161 8
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £75.00
Pages - 312

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