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Your place to explore new perspectives on British art from 1900 to now. Through interviews, films, image galleries and essays, we uncover the creative lives of the people behind the art on our walls.

Walter Sickert: A Radical Painter of Nudes

Alan Bradford

[ Artist in Focus )

Gallery volunteer Alan Bradford explores the life of Walter Sickert and his controversial Camden Town Nudes.

Walter Sickert’s painting of Jack Ashore was the last work in his Camden Town Nudes series. It demonstrates the uncompromising realism of his nudes set in his now familiar setting of ‘’iron bedsteads in murky interiors of cheap lodging houses, which challenged artist conventions and divided critical opinion.’’ Nevertheless, this body of work is regarded as having within it some of his finest pictures.

Sickert was 52 when he made a start on Jack Ashore. A painter for over 30 years, Sickert had been through many phases, but at the core of them all was the question – are his works pictures or stories?

A female nude sitting in a dingy bedroom with her legs crossed and resting her chin on her hand facing away from the viewer.

Walter Sickert, Jack Ashore, 1912-13, Oil on canvas, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester (Wilson Gift through the Art Fund 2006)

Sickert was born in 1860 in Munich, Germany and came to England when he was just 8 years old. Having received a good classical education, at 17 he went off to train for three years as an actor. This was not a success, so he reverted to his love of painting.

For a short period in 1881, he was a student at the Slade School of Fine Art, but soon left to join American artist James Abbott McNeil Whistler as his Student Assistant. The following year, Whistler sent Sickert over to Paris to supervise the hanging of Whistler’s famous painting, ‘Whistler’s Mother’ (Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, 1871). Interestingly, this painting had been pawned by Whistler and was still being pawned when Sickert took it over to Paris and was not redeemed by Whistler until 1888.

For his visit to Paris, Whistler gave Sickert letters of introduction to both Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas. Manet was alas dying from syphilis, but Sickert heard his voice calling to his brother ‘’to let the young friend of Whistler see around my studio’’, and what a time to go there! Sickert saw Manet’s last great masterpiece, ‘At the Bar of the Folies Bergere’.

Sickert did however get to meet Degas. He was known to be charming to family and friends, but could be very difficult with everyone else. Luckily for Sickert, they got on well, both sharing similar interests in choice of subject. Degas enjoyed painting the ballet, while Sickert painted the London music halls and their performers. They became friends for life, with Degas having a strong influence on Sickert’s work.

A black and white etching of Manet's famous painting Olympia. A naked, white sex worker reclines on cushions while staring out at the viewer. A black servant to the right is proffering a large bouquet of flowers. There is also a small black cat at the end of the bed.

Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1867, etching with aquatint on paper. Accepted in lieu of Inheritance Tax by HM Government from the estate of MJ Long / Wilson 2021, © Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, UK

Born in Germany, raised in England, yet his great interest was indicated by his frequent visits and extended stays in France, especially in Dieppe, and Italy. In 1903 he once again visited Venice during the winter. St. Mark’s square was flooded forcing him to paint in his studio, which he had maintained there for some years. He was delighted to have obtained the services of two young female sex workers, who he told his friends, were only too happy to please him with their jolly conversations and only too happy to model for him with their clothes on or their clothes off.

It was in Venice that he found himself as a painter of figures. It was however in 1905, having met the young English artist, Spencer Gore, that he decided to return to London’s Camden Town. Gore told him about a talented group of young artists there who had made their home in this working class part of the city. There Sickert had his favourite eating houses and pubs where, ‘’the smell of leather, stout, and pie’’ came through the swing doors. Not for him the upmarket studios in Chelsea or Kensington, the haunts of painters such as, John Singer Sargen, John Lavery and William Opren.

The Camden Town Group were formed in 1911 with Sickert at its fore. Despite only exhibiting on three occasions, the group was enormously influential in encouraging English avant-garde art. Sickert, 45, the established painter, gathered around him young artists, including Gore, Ginner, Gilman, Pissarro and Bevan, who was just 16! Not just a successful artist, Sickert was also a wonderful teacher, who was well loved by his students. His good looks, charm and wit made him irresistible, with a least one writer suggesting that he had ‘’as many liaisons as studio’s, which at the last count was 38!’’.

A street scene at night, looking at a building on right, with a prominent window. Light shines through closed red curtains and a single figure stands by the window on the street.

Oil on canvas, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester (On Loan from a Private Collection, 1995)

Sickert was also a prolific writer of all things art, with over 50% in French, in which he was fluent, together with German and Italian. He also had a working knowledge of Danish, Greek and Latin, which he also taught.

Sickert was larger than life. He was often regarded as eccentric, bohemian, cosmopolitan, but above all as a radical and a persistent critic of the art establishment of the day, especially in the genre of the nude. He was weary of seeing those ‘’classical nudes still on the walls of the Royal Academy in settings of history, mythology and the like.’’ Sickert promoted more realism and with his working relationship across the Channel, he had seen plenty of examples. His fellow artists and friends in France, Bonnard, Vuillard and Degas all painted realistic nudes. Degas when not painting his charming ballet subjects, could turn his attention to producing works, such as ‘The Serious Customer’. In this work the woman’s curvaceous body was executed almost entirely with his finger.

Sickert continued as a severe critic of Edwardian society, which he thought far too prudish and gentile. Between 1905 and 1907 he set about painting some realistic nudes of his own. He was prolific with paintings, drawings and etchings. His Camden Town nudes, however, soon settled down to the images familiar as a series of bedsits in rundown tenement buildings, dominated by an old iron bed and posed for by a fleshy nude.

Pencil sketch of naked woman leaning elbow on crossed knee sitting on bed with outlined figure behind her

Walter Sickert, Study for Jack Ashore, 1912, Pencil and crayon on paper, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester (Wilson Gift through the Art Fund 2006)

After a two year break, Sickert started work on ‘Jack Ashore’ in 1912 or 1913, after his first four nude paintings were shown in Paris. He was well known there and had exhibited 15 times in the city. In London the paintings did not receive quite the same reception. The public, the press and even his friends were united in outrage and disgust of his work. Sickert was accused of painting pornography, slum art and his old friend, Fred Brown, Professor of Drawing at the Slade, wrote ‘’you are getting down into the gutter with these paintings: our friendship cannot continue like this.’’

While Sickert was not upset by these reactions, he did leave the subject for several years before returning to ‘Jack Ashore’. In this painting a clothed man and a naked woman are centre stage but with none of the sexual frisson of the earlier nude series. He used ochres and various shades of brown around the background of the painting, accentuated by dark lines. The paint is applied thickly allowing him to model the woman with a heavy body in full light. Having applied layers of thick paint, which he subsequently worked back in places to expose the priming and canvas, the painting feels spontaneous with a lively paint surface. We are also encouraged to notice that this painting has been executed in quite a brisk way, an example of Sickert’s unusual take on the nude.

When Sickert was painting Jack Ashore in the early 20th century he was at the height of his powers as an artist. As with all great artists, he challenges us and invites us into his work to use our imagination to comprehend what is being communicated to us, the viewer.

Sickert moved on after this period to a number of new phases, particularly in his great interest in photography. This would influence his paintings until in the last three years of his life, when he was dependent on his wife, Therese Lessore (herself a celebrated artist). He passed away on the evening of 22nd January 1942.

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