Sickert and the Art of Music Hall by Alison Young

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Walter Sickert, 'Gatti’s Hungerford Palace of Varieties. Second Turn of Katie Lawrence' Photo: Yale University Art Gallery

Alison Young will be giving this year’s NEAC Annual Lecture,‘Sickert and the Art of Music Hall’, sponsored by Panter & Hall. In this article, she gives us a little taste of the subject matter to whet your appetite for the lecture . . .

Walter Richard Sickert was many things in his eighty-one years – a German-born émigré, an artist, a writer, a teacher and also an actor.  The stage was his first choice of career; one he relinquished after only a couple of years trying to climb the theatrical ladder. It was then that he enrolled at the Slade School of Art, leaving after only a few months to become an apprentice (and general dogsbody) to J. A. M. Whistler. His love and interest in the theatrical world never left him and throughout his career, he often returned to the stage as the subject for his work. Whilst living in North London in the late 1880s and 1890s, he explored the music halls in his neighbourhood and produced a series of sketches and paintings which give us a wonderful insight into Sickert’s developing style, and what it was like to visit London’s suburban music halls. They capture the excitement and anxiety of performance, which, as a thespian, he would have understood, as well as the thrill, vibrancy and camaraderie of being an audience member.

When Sickert first exhibited at the New English Art Club in 1888, he displayed Gatti’s Hungerford Palace of Varieties – Second Turn of Katie Lawrence. The critical reception this work met was similar to that which had greeted the exhibition of Le Mammoth Comique at the Suffolk Street Galleries the year before. These are some of the words that populated the reviews of both pictures: vulgar, eccentric, unexpected, astonishing, grotesque, roaring, coarse, commonplace and tawdry. Why were Sickert’s paintings so badly received at the time and why did they provoke such an indignant reaction?

The negative critical response was mainly concerned with Sickert’s choice of subject matter – music hall – which was viewed as a working-class entertainment, completely unsuitable as a subject for art and therefore beyond the pale. The subject of that controversial NEAC exhibit, Katie Lawrence, was a popular music hall singer whose name endures only thanks to Sickert’s painting of her. Like many women from working-class backgrounds who went 'on the Halls’ with some degree of success, she is largely forgotten today (in common with other subjects of Sickert’s theatre paintings and sketches – Minnie Cunningham, Dot Hetherington, Ada Lundberg, Hylda Glyder, and Vesta Victoria). The song which Katie Lawrence popularised later in her career, Daisy Bell, endures to this day and was the earliest song ‘sung' using computer speech synthesis by the IBM 704 in 1961, referenced in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

Prior to Sickert displaying his music hall subjects, the most visual exposure the middle classes would have had to these singers and comics would have been through illustrated sheet music covers. The arrival of cheap upright pianos in c.1840 coincided with advances in lithographic printing, which in turn led to the mass availability of cheaply produced sheet music with colour cover illustrations. As a result, homes across the country were filled with the songs of the music hall. Many of those enjoying a singsong around the 'old Joanna' might not have deigned to set foot in a music hall building, such places being the haunt of prostitutes and alcohol, which created a great degree of anxiety amongst the middle classes. The Victorian public and art world was simply not prepared for scenes of modern city life such as those that were being depicted in France by Degas and Manet, and which Sickert had encountered through his travels there as Whistler’s apprentice.

In my forthcoming NEAC lecture, I will be looking at the history of the music halls and Sickert’s interactions with them; examining the lives of some of the performers in his works; and the artists working in sheet music and black-and-white illustration, many of whom Sickert admired.

Alison Young is a former solicitor, writer and researcher of Music Hall (having been inspired by family connections to performers) as well as the Secretary of the British Music Hall Society. She blogs at musichallalice.wordpress.com and is working towards a book on the subject.

Alison will be giving this year’s NEAC Annual Lecture ‘Sickert and the Art of Music Hall’, sponsored by Panter & Hall, Wednesday 30 June, 3pm. Book your ticket here. (Book for 2:30pm on Wednesday 30 June, to make sure you are in the gallery in time for the talk to start.)

Sources: Wendy Baron & Richard Shone (ed), 'Sickert: Paintings' (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 1992); Kenneth McConkey, 'The New English Art Club' (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2006); British Newspaper Archive; Ronald Pearsall, 'Victorian Sheet Music Covers' (Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1972). Images: Walter Sickert, 'Gatti’s Hungerford Palace of Varieties. Second Turn of Katie Lawrence'.Photo:Yale University Art Gallery; Sheet music cover for 'Daisy Bell' (1892), British Music Hall Society Archive