Opinion

Walter Sickert – an artist of controversy and complexity

He has been linked to Jack the Ripper and remains a figure of mystery and debate, but his subdued paintings depicting the drabness of Edwardian society are masterly works of skill and reinvention.

Brighton Pierrots (1915) by Walter Sickert Photo: Tate Britain/ Purchased with assistance from the Art Fund and the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1996

In 1976 an author called Stephen Knight released a book about Jack the Ripper, and he had concluded that an accomplice of the un-caught perpetrator of the murders was Walter Sickert, a painter who at the moment enjoys a major exhibition at the Tate Britain (which I have suggested we rename the Tate Britney in the hope it will attract more visitors). 

I was fascinated by the idea that Knight’s book was true, with the author putting up a number of supposedly well-reasoned arguments why Sickert was involved in the murders of all of the East End women that fell to the Ripper’s knife. And for a while the charges kind of stuck, with TV films made and other books written about it. It certainly upped the idea that it might have been some well-placed Victorian and not some street loser who did the murders, what with Knight also bringing in members of the royal family to add to the flavour. 

Whatever, Sickert remains a major British painter, even though he was born in Germany of an English mother and a Danish father. The exhibition is the biggest I have seen of his paintings, and one day last week I went there to savour virtually all of his major works. 

I first came across Sickert in a badly made book that showed dull-coloured paintings when I was 16. I was perplexed why anyone would waste so much effort in putting those works into a book. But later I realised that one thing you can say about Sickert is that his work does not shine. Its colour has been subdued into variations on grey. Occasionally something brighter, but never likely to knock you over with its luminosity.

They look Victorian, and to some extent they look clumsy and awkward. Many of his nudes, with women lying on what look like unmade beds, have a feeling of dejection, not joy. Only in his later work do you notice brighter colours and lighter uses of paint. But mainly you can see that the great, mighty and much-revered Sickert uses a whole lot of mud in his palette. 

So if you step from our too-hot summer streets into the Tate you might feel you have entered a visual fridge, for it will drive all colour and ‘eye candy’ delight from your eyes. And yet that is Sickert’s great beauty. It is the subduing of the light and the colour. It’s the holding back that I love. It is the murk that never lifts that inspires me to look at him again and again. 

England was copying France in those late-Victorian days. It was only really an American called Whistler and Sickert who challenged French supremacy. But these two had to go to France and learn how to paint in the first instance. And it was the impressionists and the post-impressionists, and Edgar Degas in particular, who they had to learn from. 

Gallery of the Old Bedford, painted in 1894, shows the influence passed over to him by Degas. Degas loved painting theatre scenes that show parts of the audience, like photographic cut-offs. So you see not necessarily the stage, but the audience looking on. This painting is brilliant with its subdued light and colour and its almost caricatured audience up in the gods, in the cheapest of seats. 

Increasingly Sickert showed the poor side of Victorian and then Edwardian life. The drabness of city life, even drabber than anything the French were painting at the time. There was nothing fine about this world, poor and defeated. This was the world beyond polite society. There was little or any fun in the kind of rundown-ness that Sickert increasingly described. His later work Ennui (1914), showing a couple unable to know what to do next, lost in their living room, is one of the best of this style of defeated life painting. No wonder Sickert was associated with a flea-bitten world, because he took a series of cheap rooms in run-down boarding houses and used them to paint in. 

His interest in the murders of the Ripper in the 1880s, and subsequent murders in the run-down London of Camden Town, helped to make him a suspect in Knight’s book. Rather, I imagine that he liked the risqué and threatening world of poverty and the dejected, enjoying – as a tourist might – a visit to the seedy and sleazy. Many artists have made the run-down world of poverty their interest and subject matter. 

To me Sickert’s painting blossoms towards the end of his life in a way I have not seen with any other artist. He started to paint from photographs taken from newspapers, leaving you with the feeling that they are in fact cut out of the pages of the popular press. A great painting taken from a press photo of King George V talking to his horse trainer is definitely to be seen. And the landing of the first woman to fly round the world – Amelia Earhart – is from a photograph to which, in a cartoonish fashion, he has even added slashes of rain. 

That turn towards the end of his life is beautiful to see in countless paintings. This is the show if you want to see possibly Britain’s greatest painter of the late 19th and the 20th century. To know also the grim underside of our forefathers’ lives. But Sickert is more than a social recorder. He is a reinventor. 

Walter Sickert is showing at Tate Britain until September 18

John Bird is the founder and editor in chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

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