An exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, 18th September, 2021 to 27th February, 2022


By Charlotte Keenan McDonald

National Museums Liverpool. 104 pages. £14.95. ISBN 978-1-9027-00632

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Walter Sickert was born in Munich in 1860. His father, a painter and illustrator for a weekly satirical paper, was Danish, and his mother was the daughter of an Irish dancer who worked on the London stage. The family moved to England in 1868, “partly owing to the increasing political and social tensions in Prussia”. He had no conventional art training, but received “an informal arts education” through his father and “the family’s artistic social network”, which included Oscar Wilde, William Morris, and Edward Burne-Jones. 

It’s relevant, also, to point to Sickert’s early activities as an actor. He had some success on the stage, but suddenly decided to turn to painting. There is a suggestion that this may have been brought about by his friendship with the American artist, James Abbott McNeill Whistler. He enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art in 1881, but didn’t stay long, disillusioned by the “formal teaching and rigid hierarchies”, and then became an apprentice in Whistler’s studio. Learning on the job suited him better. Years later, in 1907, Sickert painted a self-portrait with the title, “The Juvenile Lead”, which was a somewhat satirical look at his early days as an actor.

Sickert met Edgar Degas in 1883 and through him began to pick up ideas from the Impressionists, though it would be wrong to suggest that he can be easily slotted into that category. His work, almost from the beginning, was far too original, and with its own colour interests, to place him alongside the French painters, or even those English artists who more-closely followed the Impressionist leanings in relation to light and colour. “The Laundry Shop, Dieppe”, painted in 1885, is darker in tone than most Impressionist works.

I think Sickert really began to come into his own when, in the mid-1880s, he painted pictures set in the music halls. Some of the resultant canvases are possibly among his best-known paintings. “The Gallery of the Old Bedford”, with its working-class audience almost hanging over the balcony, had me humming one of the most charming of music-hall songs, “The Boy I Love is up in the Gallery”, as I stood in front of it. In his own way Sickert was recording the music-hall before it began to bring in more middle-class customers and toned down the bawdiness and working-class participation that often marked performances.

The music-hall section of the exhibition particularly delighted me, but there is much to be gained from Sickert’s work as he painted in Dieppe and Venice. Some people, expecting a lightness of touch about the views of both places, might be disappointed with what they see. Colour is there, but Sickert did not overplay it in the way that a more-conventional painter might have done in order to create an attractive picture. His darker colours refuted some Impressionist ideas, and in fact Sickert was critical of Monet’s attempts to record shifting arrangements of light and shade in, for example,  his Haystack series.

I have to admit that I was a little disappointed that the exhibition didn’t devote much attention to Sickert’s involvements with the artists of the Fitzroy Street, Camden Town, and London Groups. Sickert’s presence was important to all of them. There are passing references to some of the painters and, considering that he can be seen as a key influence in their activities, more might have been made of what they did. There are some examples of a number of women painters who worked  alongside Sickert – Sylvia Gosse, Ethel Sands, Anna Hope Hudson, and most of all Thérèse Lessore – and, to be fair, the catalogue for the exhibition does mention Spencer Gore, Harold Gilman, and one or two others. Some examples of their work could have been useful. Sickert was a firm believer in getting art out of the drawing-room and into the kitchen. In other words, in portraying what might be dismissed as the “ordinary” and not considered as suitable for painting.

Leaving that aside, it was good to see that quite a few of Lessore’s works are on display. It’s noted that her “Brighter palette and delicate brushwork were more in keeping with the style associated with the Bloomsbury Group”.  She had links to it through her marriage to her first husband, Bernard Adeney. Sickert is reputed to have commented that Lessore, who married Sickert after his second wife died, “was the first women who took no notice of what he said and did exactly as she wanted”. But they appeared to have had a good, working relationship, with Lessore’s contributions to his later work (particularly the photo-based paintings) being considerable. It may also have been a fact that she “completed works bearing Sickert’s signature when, towards the end of his life, he was too infirm to finish them”. 

Sickert’s so-called Camden Town Nudes are often seen as among his best-known works and have gained a degree of notoriety because of stories about his supposed involvement in the Jack the Ripper saga. He did create a canvas called, “Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom”, and a painting with the title, “The Camden Town Murder or What Shall We do for the Rent?” but that was in 1908. The Ripper murders had had taken place many years before in Whitechapel and not Camden Town. Sickert’s painting had been based on newspaper reports of the 1908 murder of a prostitute.

There are a great many of Sickert’s drawings in the exhibition, the Walker having a major collection, and the catalogue has a useful guide to them by Keith Oliver: “The drawings range from quick on-the-spot sketches made to capture a particular pose or detail, to squared-up final studies for paintings, as well as drawings made as art works in their own right”.  Taken together they support the paintings in the exhibition and indicate how Sickert arrived at his final version of a scene or portrait.

Both the exhibition and the catalogue follow Sickert’s life in art from his early days as a student to his final years when ill-health sometimes prevented him from working, but at other times he often used photographs as a basis for paintings. And he collaborated with Lessore on some works. He did have a degree of popular success in his late-years, though it’s noted that critics have occasionally tended to overlook the paintings based on photography, primarily because they’re not seen as original compositions. But they seem to me to work in their way. And their inclusion in what is, in effect, a study of Sickert’s career, completes a splendid exhibition. He had a long, productive life, and died in 1942.

It should be noted that the catalogue is well-produced, has informative texts, and is liberally illustrated.