Tuesday, February 7

Walter Sickert painted himself in many roles … but not Jack the Ripper | art and design

to major Tate Britain exhibition opening this month will be the first to display a rare early self-portrait of Walter Sickert, the influential English painter, that shows how his early career on the stage drove his ever-changing art.

The string of self-portraits includes a small pen and ink sketch from 1882, found in Islington’s Local History Centre, in which the artist leans forward in a pose taken from his idol, the actor-manager Henry Irving. Sickert, born in 1860, had joined Irving’s stage company in his youth as a performer, before leaving to study art at the Slade School in 1881.

“The self-portraits are a revealing look at the different ways Sickert saw himself,” said Tate assistant curator Thomas Kennedy, ahead of the retrospective show, which marks 80 years since the artist’s death.

Sickert’s habit of playing with identities, and of dropping into contrasting elements of Victorian nightlife, also gave him a sinister reputation that experts believe he does not deserve. His crime scenes and unglamorous depiction of nudes, both shocking in his day, were simply a symptom of his curiosity about the city around him and no evidence of the artist’s moral depravity.

Sickert’s Brighton Pierrots (1915). Photograph: Tate

Infamously, Sickert’s four paintings of the Camden Town murder of 1907 led the American novelist Patricia Cornwell to argue he was actually Jack the Ripper. But this theory has been widely discredited. And, as Kennedy points out, the Camden murder took place just around the corner from Sickert’s north London home, while his interest in him in Jack the Ripper was one shared by most Victorians.

“Sickert was almost playing up to it,” said Kennedy. “He was very interested in Jack the Ripper, but so was everyone else.”

Matthew Sturgis, who wrote an acclaimed biography of the artist in 2005, also regards the Ripper slur as “nonsense”. “It was an unfortunate conflation of events of Sickert’s own murder painting of him, and then the story told to him by his landlady of him in Mornington Crescent that the Ripper had lodged there 20 years ago.” In fact, the artist was in France when the Ripper struck in 1888.

The influence of French impressionists on his portraits of nudes was scandalous at the time. While such pictures were common across the Channel, particularly in the work of Degas, the friend who most influenced Sickert, and Bonnard, Britain remained in a prudish pre-Raphaelite phase, depicting women as angels, or as a Venus emerging from the waves.

Sickert much preferred realism. “He was reacting against the idealized nude,” says Sturgis. “I thought the British approach to the subject was too polite and too concerned with status. Remember, too, that Sickert saw himself as a perpetual enfant terrible.”

Kennedy argues that the artist also had a radically sophisticated approach to newspaper coverage and was often inspired by stories, including those about himself. “We have another work from the National Portrait Gallery, Self-Portrait in Grisaille (1935), which shows how self-aware he was. It is based on a 1932 photograph of Sickert, looking old, arriving at the Royal Academy of Arts on Piccadilly to see his own work by him, ”he said.

“The idea that artists only started playing with public images of themselves in recent times is wrong. Sickert was doing it 60 or 70 years before.”

This interest in news reflected in art was controversial at the time, but in an interview for the Pall Mall Gazette titled The Gospel of Impressionism, Sickert made his position clear: “We don’t go back to other days,” the artist said. “Our history is of today.”

Painting of a young woman dressed in white on stage, picked out brightly by a spotlight, pointing up towards the dimly lir gallery, as seen from the stalls
Little Dot Hetherington at the Bedford Music Hall (1888–89), another study of the performer at work. Photograph: James Mann/Tate

But it was the stage, and the chance to pretend, that was perhaps the key influence on his work. One self-portrait, The Juvenile Leadshows Sickert in the role of an English intellectual, while in his The Bust of Tom Sayers: a Self-Portrait (1913-15), he poses in a beard next to a marble bust of a celebrated Victorian bare-knuckle fighter.

“Did he dye his facial hair and leave his bushy eyebrows untrimmed, or has he pasted on a false beard and eyebrows for a bit of make-believe?” asks the Sickert expert Anna Gruetzner Robins.

“Until his old age Sickert continued to be a consummate performer who loved to appear in fresh disguises and had a bewildering number of ways of speaking and behaving. Those who knew him claimed that it was impossible to discover the man behind his many people and egos, ”she says.

“We don’t know why he stopped acting but we do know he admired performers,” said Kennedy. “These people I have adopted were almost emulating music hall performers in paint.”

During the 1880s and 1890s, venues for variety shows were under moral scrutiny. Critics accused them of being dens of vice, but Sickert repeatedly visited and painted them, in particular the Bedford, which opened in 1861 and stood between Arlington Street and Camden High Street.

“It was the transformative power of performance – that ephemeral moment when the audience gives itself over to the performer and becomes lost in their song – that truly enthralled him,” writes the art historian Billy Rough in his catalog essay The Much-Abused Apostle of Music Hall Art: Sickert and the Stage.


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