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December 10, 2007

Christie Davies urges you to go and enjoy Sickert's The Camden Town Nudes and The Camden Town Murders at The Courtauld but don't expect stories and don't expect to be shocked: Walter Sickert: The Camden Town Nudes at the Courtauld Gallery

Posted by Christie Davies

Walter Sickert: The Camden Town Nudes
Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House
25th October 2007 - 20th January 2008
Daily 10am - 6pm (last admission 17.30pm)

Both the organisers of this excellent Sickert exhibition and those who have written opinion pieces about The Camden Town Nudes are wrong about Sickert. They assume the settings for the nudes are utterly sordid on the basis that they are portrayals of prostitutes in admittedly seedy Camden Town. They see Sickert as a teller of stories. Neither of these widely held beliefs is true.

Rather Sickert was a jokester, a trickster, a prankster whose pictures are tease as well as strip tease. Even as you enjoy his paintings, somewhere in your mind you know that the artist is laughing at you. Sickert was after all the man who sent several Jack the Ripper letters to the Metropolitan police, even though he had been in France at the time and had no connection whatsoever with what he always referred to in conversation as l'affaire mystérieuse de Jack l’Étrangleur, qui n'a jamais pu être classée.

Sickert cheeked the police nephritically and, as in the case of his contemporary, Toad of Toad Hall, it was very bad cheek indeed. The letters did not in any way hinder the investigations, they merely infuriated Sir Charles Warren, rather in the way that sending used teddy bears named and labelled Mohammed to the Sudanese ambassador would do today. I am not suggesting this would be an appropriate thing to do but merely providing a contemporary comparison.

Sickert was always dashing off letters to the press signed Nemo (nobody). He was a talented actor and loved as well as painted the fun of the music hall. Photographs of Sickert in early middle age show him to have borne an extraordinary resemblance to that much admired Irish comedian Dave Allen. Now you see me, now you don't. Here is a story, no it isn't.

The exhibition of Sickert's Camden Town nudes has set off a great deal of Twenty-first century social comment:

Shabby interiors were unmistakeable to contemporary viewers as the dark realms of London's poorest working class. His nudes played unflinchingly to middle class fears of such "dens of iniquity", known as the mysterious haunts of prostitutes, slum landlords and petty criminals.
[Sue Bond]

…. he was fascinated with the edgy side of Edwardian life and was attracted to Camden Town for its proliferation of brothels, rundown pubs and cheap lodgings that were the homes of a large underclass.
[Camden New Journal]

This is anti-nostalgia gone mad. There were a lot of very poor people in Edwardian London, far poorer than today's poor, who by Edwardian standards are very wealthy indeed.

The "underclass" was, however, smaller and less menacing than the one we have today. There was less crime, both violent and acquisitive, less illegitimacy, less drug abuse then than today. Levels of public drunkenness were high but in Blair-Brown's bingeing, boozy, blotto Britain we have probably caught up with the Edwardians. Your chances of being mugged or murdered in Edwardian London were far less than they are today.

If you walked through Camden Town at night dressed like a swell in a David Cameron top hat, you would probably face a degree of rudeness from the lower-orders but an ordinary shabby member of the middle classes would have little to fear. Indeed the fears of the members of this section of the middle class - the lower-lower middle (by far the largest section) - were not that the Camden Towners would arise and dispossess them but that some chance economic mishap, such as a mass redundancy of clerks, the sack without references for a sexual misdemeanour or the failure and bankruptcy of a small business would topple them into a similar state of poverty.

Beggar: "I've seen better days, sir."

Prosperous Scotsman visiting London: "Yes and so have I, but this is no time to talk about the weather."

A far more threatening group for the upper-middle class in Edwardian England was the organised, respectable, trade unionised working class, ever ready to fight their employers for wages and to defend the substantial differentials that set them decisively apart from the poor.

Violent class conflict in Edwardian England was not about disorganized riots in places like Camden but about organized clashes in Shotton or Tonypandy. Ask yourself what worried the British middle classes most in the 1980s - rioting West Indians in Bristol St. Paul's or Arthur Scargill's strikers fighting with the police at the Orgreave coking plant near Rotherham, the subject of an entire dreadful room at the otherwise engaging exhibition The World as a Stage at Tate Modern?

Sickert's rooms are nothing like as desperate as the critics make out. To say that Sickert's

shabby interiors were unmistakeable to contemporary viewers as the dark realms of London's poorest working class
considerably underestimates how very dark the darkest realms of London's poorest were. The nudes sprawled on the beds no doubt have a hard life but they have beds, the bed linen is clean, and the dark threadbare carpet on the floor and the faded or darkened with age walls differ little from those of the room I rented in Camden Town half a century later. There was even an iron bedstead. That is how most people lived.

The iron bed is not a mark of extreme poverty but of ordinary seediness. Caroline Lewis calls the bed "gritty realism" but unless you eat biscuits in bed there is nothing gritty about it. The very poorest Edwardians would have been glad to have a bed at all and not simply a lumpy, falling apart mattress on the floor and a couple of grubby, buggy, scabrous blankets. The iron bed serves Sickert partly as a black grid that helps him to place and frame his nudes and partly as a reminder of the caged life.

Nor is Sickert in any simple sense a realist, for he was also an Impressionist and a trickster. The rooms where the whores lie sprawled are dark, partly because, by choice. he used a dark palette (even to depict Beardsley) and partly because the curtains are almost drawn closed; the neighbours probably know what her business is but why have them peering in.

Sickert used the same dark colours when painting Woman Washing her Hair, 1906, even though hair washing naked women, like bathing ones, are merely a mundane standby for the painter of nudes. Who knows but that some of the subjects of the Camden Town nudes are lying down exhausted after a particularly vigorous bout of hair washing?

Sickert could when he chose let the light of day stream through between the curtains to pick out a handsome naked woman sprawled on bright sheets as in Mornington Crescent Nude, 1907.

Nor would all the middle class have been shocked by the scenes of prostitution since many of the males would have been customers. A young clerk or shopman or schoolmaster could not have afforded Sickert's Cocotte de Soho, 1905, half naked beneath her large black hat, but would have to settle for and on Le Lit de Fer, 1905, in Camden Town. Translated into English it means that a bed of iron in Camden is cheaper than a shared little cot in Soho. Originally it is rhyming slang - cocotte: pretty hot; lit de fer: tell me where.

Most respectable parents were relieved that these lower middle class men-about-suburb did seek their pleasures here, because it meant that they would not try to seduce their daughters. The marriage age for middle class men was high and rising but the illegitimacy ratio at 3% was very low, half what it had been fifty years before; it was particularly low in London.

This infuriated the hysterical, frustrated suffragettes whose slogan was "Votes for Women and Chastity for Men". Some of the feminists even joined forces with the clergy in the Social Purity League to denounce the social evil and to pursued pimps with racist ferocity, since then as now most of them were of alien hue or creed and foreign origin.

Thanks to feminist agitation the law was specifically amended, so that men living off the earnings of prostitutes could be punished by flogging, no doubt an exciting thought for the strange sisters. But the general acceptance of the status quo meant that prostitution was never made an offence and street prostitution was not seriously curbed until 1959, by which time there were phone boxes everywhere and respectable girls were less inhibited than they had been in 1905. Affirmative action and unchastity for women became the new feminist slogan.

The issue comes up again in Jack Ashore, where a black-haired, typical Sickhertian, heavy thighed and droopy-breasted naked woman sits on her bed listening to a fully clothed sailor. Everyone knew that sailors who hadn't seen a woman for weeks were paid off at the end of a voyage and could not wait to be fleeced by a woman such as this. It was how the world was and most of the Edwardian middle classes, apart from the very virtuous ones who ran missions for seamen, accepted this.

The alternative would have been to permit homosexual activities on board ship, something strictly forbidden by the criminal law on merchant ships until 1994 and in the navy even off duty ashore until 2000, when the meddling scoundrels in Strasburg intervened. Skippers and the middle classes alike were quite happy to tolerate wine, women and song on shore but definitely not rum, bum and concertina at sea. At an earlier time, when the Navy feared desertion in port and disallowed shore leave, the women would arrive to share hammocks at night and show a leg in the morning. Detected sodomites by contrast would be hanged at the yard-arm.

Sickert's nudes are, as he sought them to be, the antithesis of the idealised female perfection that was sought by other British artists whom he disdained but his whores are not the sad, withered drabs broken down by ill-health, drunkenness, fatigue and ageing that he could have chosen. Such women did no doubt ply their trade at the lower end of the market in Camden but they are not the ones Sickert chose to paint.

Indeed some of Sickert's women are young, shapely and attractive. Many of them are obese and ugly but then in 1905 most women over 25 of their class would have been. A diet of white bread, chips and sugary tea, quite the opposite of today's healthy eating, took its toll on the appearance of the poor and they accepted that they would from a young age get fat and also look old, much as bald men do today.

Sickert deliberately obscures their faces, which not only anonymises them but forces us to look first at their lumpy bodies which he has carefully angled to confront us Just bodies as with La Hollandaise, 1906. She is no longer La belle Hollandaise. It is a short road from zaftig to fatigue.

In the later Camden Town nudes, Sickert capitalised on a spectacular local murder that had filled the press. He introduced a fully clothed man into each picture and called this later set The Camden Town Murders. There is nothing in any of them that directly indicates murder. The man just stands or sits in the same room as the naked woman, looking not aggressive or menacing but if anything dejected. Patricia Cornwall screamed

what I see when I look at them is morbidity, violence and a hatred of women,
but she has the strangely creative imagination of a former morgue-assistant turned professional writer of morgue and murder.

Prostitutes are very unlikely to be killed by their clients, even though it is a greater occupational hazard than for women in other professions, except perhaps for social workers, who also deal with raw emotion. We remember serial murders of prostitutes like Jack the Ripper or the Yorkshire Ripper - but they are freak events. Stranger murders were rare in Edwardian England; they are far more common today in the violent Britain of Gordon Brown, where the lower orders carry knives and are quite happy to stab a stranger in a manner almost unknown in Sickert's day.

Sickert said in 1912:

All the great draughtsmen tell a story.
Sickert was a great draughtsman but he told no stories. Here are a man and a naked woman but that is all. Sickert would often arbitrarily give his paintings new names. One of his murder pictures he also called What shall we do for the Rent, 1908, and another of them Summer Afternoon, 1909, implying respectively domestic despair and domestic humdrum much as Ennui, 1914, does.

Summer Afternoon for some reason is now usually to be found in old-lino Kirkcaldy where they don't have any and Sickert's Camden is as tropically exotic as Gauguin's Tahiti. The folk there are, though, fond of portraits and in particular collect portraits of their most famous son and tuck them under the mattresses of their iron bedsteads.

Virginia Woolf commented how many complex narratives could be generated by a Sickert picture. Yet it is for precisely this reason that they tell no story. Sickert's work is not ambiguous, for that merely implies uncertainty between alternatives. Sickert is enigmatic. You don't know where to begin and cannot be sure that at any moment Sickert the prankster may change the title, change the rules. Not that it matters in the least.

Sickert's greatest prank in the exhibition is The Prussians in Belgium, 1915. A young and rather appealing whore, bare to the waist, sits on the bed. A gross client with a solid bald head and a heavy moustache slumps back in an armchair. He wears very bright socks with stylish boots; he is not a soldier and not threatening. He looks as if he has just come in to chat and she sits far away from him on her iron bed, the trademark, as if thinking "Why can't he get on with it. I'm losing money on this time-waster".

You may say my account is fanciful but it is no more fanciful than Sickert's title or indeed the fictitious atrocities invented by British propaganda that Sickert is using to sell his picture. Possibly the bilingual Sickert, who had lived in Dieppe with his French mistress who kept a fish-shop and his illegitimate son Maurice, really did believe British official atrocity lies invented to hide the fact that the war had been planned by the French. It doesn't matter. Sickert is mocking us. He is saying that the story can mean anything, that is to say nothing.

Christie Davies is the author of The Mirth of Nations, 2002, about the necessity of mockery and The Strange Death of Moral Britain, 2006, about how we lost the moral outlook of Edwardian England.

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Thank you so much for this piece.

I agree absolutely that Sickert wasn't a miserablist. And I think you are right to stress that anyone alive in his time would have recognised his scenes as being "common" at most or worst.

It is possibly worth stressing that many of us, looking at these little Sickert paintings, do indeed see them in the terms he meant them, and as Viriginia Woolf, for instance, saw them. She talked about the glowing, dust-filled light of London pubs, etc, and understood the importance of theatricality to Sickert (and perhaps more to his age than ours).

Sickert's nudes are beautiful. They glory in the unpromising, they make the unpromising glorious. They use paint so well and use it to cut through everything which might be over-familiar and lazy.

My impression is that Sickert's fans like him on exactly the terms he offered and demanded.

Thanks again.

Posted by: Richard D North at December 11, 2007 01:43 PM
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