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March 09, 2005

Sickert's Drawings at Southampton City Art Gallery

Posted by Richard D. North

Walter Sickert: Drawing is the Thing
Southampton City Art Gallery
21st January - 20th March 2005
Tuesday to Saturday 10am - 5pm
Sunday 1pm - 4pm

Sharing one's affection for Sickert's work is made a little more difficult than it should be by the disreputable and sinister aura which hangs around him. It did not take the animadversions of Patricia Cornwell and her attempts at muck-raking to associate his name with prostitutes, squalor and even Jack the Ripper. At a casual glance, much of his work is gloomy. It is not so much that shadiness of life or shadedness of work is unappealing: a bit of romantic madness or gloom can be just the populist ticket. It's more that the theatrical darkness of the Sickert world can send one's nose in the wrong direction. Sickert did not paint joy or the lighter side of life, and yet there is a great joyful engagement in almost everything he does.

The spiritedness in Sickert was never less obvious than in the show of his drawings which has come to Southampton City Art Gallery from Abbot Hall, Kendal - and was organised by the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester. Thank goodness, the offerings include some great paintings. The famous Beaverbrook portrait done from a photograph stands out. But there are also a lovely portrait of an elderly fiddle player and a gorgeous account of St Mark's, Venice (it is imbued with a lustrous personality, as though it might speak). These paintings are there to show what the sketches became, rather than in their own right. Somewhere on the voyage from monochrome pen and paper to oil, Sickert's own delicious liveliness creeps in. But the drawings alone hardly ever convey it. The watercolour sketches are another story: they stand on their own two feet. My parents had a wishy-washy little Sickert, of a Camden Town bed-stead with a hint of a couple of lurking figures (I had to sell it during an indigent period): this show has similar, vague watercolours, with a characteristic blush of pale yellows, greys and mauves, and they do add up to a striking body of work in their own right. But they are at best elusive.

In Southampton, there is a lovely sketch of a theatre, which has all the jolly accuracy of an Ardizzone, and then one discovers that it was done by Sylvia Gosse, who was adored by her father Edmund, and adoring of her teacher Sickert, we learn from Ann Thwaite's masterly biography, Edmund Gosse: A Literary Landscape.

Anyone who visits Southampton's elegant gallery could be forgiven for passing with something like relief from the Sickerts to the very strong permanent collection of twentieth century "straight" painting (much of it collected on the advice of Dr David Brown, late of the city and by an amazing route - the Tate).

Luckily, those of us who saw the fabulous Royal Academy show in the winter of 1992/3 know that it is the luminosity of Sickert which matters at least as much as his gloom and shadow. There may not be much light shining on any number of the large female breasts he painted, but the flesh is fleshily reflecting it with a luxury which takes you to the place and the moment with (to borrow from Waugh) a bat's squeak of recognition and even desire. That is the story of his art: it gleams and glows. To a degree not at all obvious in one so sparing of bright colour, his eye lusts after colour and revels in it.

So too does Sickert relish accuracy of observation. He is not an impressionist if one means by that the art of conveying more the impression made by an object than its objective reality. He is a wonderfully creative figure if one means that he wanted to use the least of everything (the least flashiness, the least detail, the least colour, the least light) to convey the most of its factiness and excitement.

He is of course a pivotal figure. He is certainly a striking one. These drawings give us the Sickert of Camden Town bedsits, and of music halls. Photographs of him sometimes belie the handsomeness for which he was famous: he can seem saturnine. But he was sociable, surprisingly respectable, and did not frighten the horses. A new biography, Walter Sickert: A Life, by Matthew Sturgis faithfully records his many kindnesses, his amiability, but its cover plays up to the older cliche.

The book shows how he was his own man, but happily acknowledged influences. He knew and loved the work of Degas and Whistler he was Whistler's student, apostle, and mainstay. He knew (and was mostly very much liked by) everybody, including the men who would eclipse him in reputation during his own life: William Nicholson, William Orpen and Augustus John. All these have received very recent attention in what were in the case of the two Williams the first serious shows for many, many years. (William Orpen's exhibition is reviewed at length for the Social Affairs Unit by Bunny Smedley).

Bruce Arnold's 1981 biography Orpen: Mirror to an Age, has Orpen predicting that Sickert's reputation would prove longer lasting than his own. And the judgement is surely right: brilliant, sharp and uplifting as some of Orpen's observation is (as we can see now at the Imperial War Museum), it doesn't in my view have the deep artistry of the older man.

Augustus John (as one could see at the Tate until the show moved to its current location at his spiritual home at the Welsh National Museum and Gallery, Cardiff) could certainly capture the human spirit, and his portraits of his own children seem to show with blinding honesty the dubious merits the pain that a bohemian upbringing can bring the young. But John's is not often great work, whilst that of his sister Gwen has only intermittent strength, for all that this pair epitomise the artistic life. (This exhibition is reviewed for the Social Affairs Unit by Christie Davies).

Oddly, it is William Nicholson whose reputation most needs rehabilitation and should match Sickert's. His recent Royal Academy show was a revelation: here was almost painfully straight painting, with even less of the Impressionist than Sickert's. Nicholson's strengths took a large show to convey: portrait, landscape, still life and illustration were all there, all done with unshowy skill pressed to the point of genius. But Nicholson is not a "signature" painter: not one who was pressing on toward originality of expression. His work looks to be aiming for an almost pedestrian perfection until one spots something sly about it. My grandfather, Stanley Kennedy North, was credited in the Royal Academy show (and in Stanford Schwartz's new and usefully intellectual biography for Yale University Press, William Nicholson) as having spotted in a 1923 essay an important feature of Nicholson: his being ungraspable, almost to the point of evasiveness.

He was also worldly, dapper, almost suave, as his portraits by John and Orpen show. Knowing this helps one see the power and loveliness of his painting. He is at pains not be pained, or to strain. Sickert, Nicholson and Orpen were all humorous, stagey, alert: they had a playfulness which one does not expect. They are all wry and knowing. They are observant of foible, including their own. This is obvious in Nicholson or Orpen, but it is no less true of Sickert. This may be the key to the "Englishness" of these painters. They are none of them gorgeous or lush: they do not let their brushes run away with them. A stubborn honesty is combined with a larky deceptiveness. Or is this just to pander to a peculiar self-deception amongst us English: that we are a subtle and insightful people, happy to be thought little of by those too stupid to know our strengths?

So we have an enigmatic Sickert. He has always struck critics as standing in a peculiar relationship with Impressionism. He was certainly prepared to hoover up things from those he thought great (Degas and Whistler especially, but many more almost certainly and mostly French) if he thought they would take him deeper into expressiveness. Anyway, what one feels about Sickert is that he absorbs everything from Paris and unflinchingly loves it. But he also stands, peculiarly, as a bulwark against it. He stands as the figure from whom we can comfortably deduce a Francis Bacon or a Lucien Freud, as well as a Nicholson, because he so strongly asserts that painting should aim at psychological truths about the human condition. It can only do so by addressing appearances, which can be very deceptive, and are necessarily skin-deep. But it isn't about light, it is about what light bounces off.

We fans look at his drawings to see our way into his painting, and are intrigued. But for all that the Southampton show takes as its subtitle his remark that "drawing is the thing", in his case the results are not of great beauty. Whilst they have been very necessary to his painting, they don't I fear have much meaning for us.

Richard D. North's Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence will be published in April by the Social Affairs Unit.

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