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Walker Art Gallery's Sickert retrospective offers colour and controversy

In April 1880 Liverpool’s capacious Royal Amphitheatre hosted actor and theatre impresario George Rignold and his company in a 10-day run of Shakespeare’s Henry V.

Among that company was a teenage thespian called Walter Richard Sickert – a young man of German-Irish heritage whose own grandmother had been on the stage.

Sickert by all accounts acquitted himself well (even if, later in the same season, his Demetrius in an Alexandra Theatre Liverpool production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at Sadler’s Wells was given a more ambivalent reception by critics).

And at some point during that 10-day stay, according to a photograph taken at the time, he must have made a trip across the Mersey to New Brighton.

While Sickert’s professional stage career was short-lived, he would capture the Victorian and Edwardian theatre in some of his early paintings in what turned out to be a six-decade career as one of Britain’s most important artists.

The painter would also go on to exhibit in the Walker Art Gallery Autumn Exhibition in 1892, where bizarrely his portrait of Irish novelist and dramatist George Moore came second in voting in the animal painting class, sandwiched between HWB Davis’s painting of cattle and Sydney Cooper’s On a Farm at Noon.

Later, the Walker would acquire not only artworks like Gallery of the Old Bedford and Bathers, Dieppe, but also – after the death of Sickert’s widow, the artist Thérèse Lessore – a large collection of his preparatory sketches.

A 'mood board' of Sickert's works on paper

Now many of those treasures, long stored in the Walker’s collection but never publicly seen, have been brought out as part of a major new retrospective Sickert: A Life in Art which charts the painter’s career and the development of his style and artistic practise in a chronological odyssey through four gallery spaces at the William Brown Street venue.

The show has been eight years in the making, the idea dating from when its curator Charlotte Keenan McDonald joined National Museums as curator of works on paper and started researching the Sickert collection in earnest.

Initially there was talk of a small exhibition of those sketches, but then the plans grew to what visitors will see now, with (despite the extra challenges of the pandemic) 200 key works on paper exhibited alongside a vast wealth of Sickert’s canvasses – around 100 in all - loaned from across the country and all helping tell the story of his life and career.

A slideshow of works featured in the exhibition

Keenan McDonald says: “The chronological approach felt like the best way to unpack his technique, from his early works influenced by Degas and Whistler through the development of a lighter palette and then in his final paintings where he built patches of colour and minimal detailing.

“Over time technique became the biggest focus of his work – he was known as a painter’s painter.”

You don’t have to be an expert on painting technique though to enjoy the exhibition which takes visitors on a journey from the darkness of London’s theatreland – chronicling some of its earliest emancipated female performers in works many contemporaries found shocking, to the luminosity of Venice to the seaside at Dieppe.

One coup for the curatorial team is bringing together a series of large-scale works Sickert originally painted for the French resort’s Hotel de la Plage, along with the Walker’s own popular painting of the painter’s fellow stripy-costumed bathers.

Above: Sickert's paintings for Hotel de la Plage in Dieppe

Sickert’s own palettes, with traces still of paints, are on display with ‘mood boards’ of sketches of people and faces, while his time as a luminary of the pre-First World War Camden Group is examined through paintings of coster girls in their American sailor hats, Sickert’s favourite models Hubby and Marie – who feature in two of the five versions of his key work Ennui which are on display here – and a self-portrait.

This work, archly titled The Juvenile Lead (archly because he was 47 at the time), harks back to Sickert’s own early days on the stage in places like Liverpool – but also puts him firmly as a character within his own life story and harks back to a pensive self-portrait from a decade earlier.

“Sickert was very aware of his self-image,” says Keenan McDonald. “He presented himself through self-portraits and photographs.”

He was also, in her words, “not shy of attracting a bit of controversy. He knew the power of a good headline.”

His Camden Town Nudes, painted in the first decade of the 20th Century, are one example.

Above: Sickert's The Camden Town Murder, or What Shall We Do for the Rent?

Another is his fascination with murder and with Jack the Ripper, highlighted in his painting which he variously called The Camden Town Murder or What Shall We Do for the Rent? – Keenan McDonald allows he was “quite slippery with titles” – and one of the Whitechapel serial killer’s bedroom, for which he used his own room as a model.

These helped fuel the wild theory that gained traction in the 1970s that Sickert could have been the Ripper himself – one of many would-be Jacks including poisoned Liverpool cotton merchant James Maybrick.

Meanwhile one of the final sections of this extensive exhibition highlights not Sickert himself but women artists whom he mentored or whose profile he helped to raise – artists like Sylvia Gosse, Ethel Sands, Nan Hudson, and painter Thérèse Lessore who in 1926 became his third wife as well as artistic collaborator.

Sickert: A Life in Art is at the Walker Art Gallery until February 27. Tickets are £12 in advance or £13.50 on the door, with concessions. More on the website HERE


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