Walter Richard Sickert NEAC RA RBA (31 May 1860 – 22 January 1942) was one of the most successful, prolific and famous artists of his generation and one of the earliest members of the New English Art Club, elected in 1888. He brought with him the influence of impressionist painting (with his music hall paintings) from France where he spent time painting and where he met artists such as Edgar Degas (who had a profound effect and influence on his work).

Sickert founded the Camden Town Group, bringing together a group of artists to champion the avant-guard approach to painting, and he was also a successful portrait painter. He was a cosmopolitan and eccentric who often favoured ordinary people and urban scenes as his subjects. His work also included portraits of well-known personalities and images derived from press photographs. He is considered a prominent figure in the transition from Impressionism  to Modernism.


Training and early career

Sickert was born in Munich, Germany, on 31 May 1860, the eldest son of Oswald Sickert, a Danish-German artist, and his wife, Eleanor Louisa Henry. In 1868, the family settled in Britain. The young Sickert was sent to University College School from 1870-71 before transferring to King's College School where he studied until the age of 18. After less than a year's attendance at the Slade School, Sickert left to become a pupil and etching assistant to James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Sickert's earliest paintings were small tonal studies painted alla prima from nature after Whistler's example.


In 1883, he travelled to Paris and met Edgar Degas, whose use of pictorial space and emphasis on drawing would have a powerful effect on Sickert's work. He developed a personal version of Impressionism, favouring sombre colouration. Following Degas' advice, Sickert painted in the studio, working from drawings and memory as an escape from "the tyranny of nature". In 1888, he joined the New English Art Club.


Sickert's first major works, dating from the late 1880s, were portrayals of scenes in London music halls. One of the two paintings he exhibited at the NEAC in April 1888, 'Katie Lawrence at Gatti's', which portrayed a well-known music hall singer of the era, incited controversy. Sickert's rendering was denounced as ugly and vulgar, and his choice of subject matter was deplored as too tawdry for art, as female performers were popularly viewed as morally akin to prostitutes. The painting announced what would be Sickert's recurring interest in sexually provocative themes.


In the late 1880s, Sickert spent much of his time in France, especially in Dieppe, which he first visited in mid-1885, and where his mistress, and possibly his illegitimate son, lived. During this period Sickert began writing art criticism for various publications, including Herbert Vivian and Stuart Richard Erskine's "The Whirlwind". Between 1894 and 1904, Sickert made a series of visits to Venice, initially focusing on the city's topography. It was during his last painting trip in 1903–04 that, forced indoors by inclement weather, he developed a distinctive approach to the multiple figure tableau that he further explored on his return to Britain.


Sickert and the Camden Town Group 

Just before World War I, he championed the avant-garde artists Lucien Pissarro, Jacob Epstein, Augustus John and Wyndham Lewis. At the same time, he founded (with other artists) the Camden Town Group of British painters, named from the district of London in which he lived. This group had been meeting informally since 1905 but was officially established in 1911. It was influenced by Post-Impressionism and Expressionism but concentrated on scenes of often drab suburban life. Sickert himself said he preferred the kitchen to the drawing-room as a scene for paintings.


Education, training and teaching 

From 1908-1912 and again from 1915-1918, Sickert was an influential teacher at Westminster School of Art, where David Bomberg, Wendela Boreel, Mary Godwin and John Doman Turner were among his students. In 1910, he founded a private art school, Rowlandson House, in the Hampstead Road. It lasted until 1914, and for most of that period its co-principal and chief financial supporter was the painter Sylvia Gosse, a former student of Sickert's. He also briefly set up an art school in Manchester where his students included Harry Rutherford.


Styles and Subjects

For his earliest paintings, Sickert followed Whistler's practice of rapid, wet-in-wet execution using very fluid paint. He subsequently adopted a more deliberate procedure of painting pictures in multiple stages, and "attached a great deal of importance to what he called the 'cooking' side of painting". He preferred to paint not from nature but from drawings or, after the mid-1920s, from photographs or from popular prints by Victorian illustrators. After transferring the design to canvas by the use of a grid, Sickert made a rapid underpainting using two colours, which was allowed to dry thoroughly before the final colours were applied. He experimented tirelessly with the details of his method, always with the goal, according to his biographer Wendy Baron, of "paint[ing] quickly, in about two sittings, with the maximum economy and minimum of fuss".


Late period

After the death of his second wife in 1920, Sickert relocated to Dieppe, where he painted scenes of casinos and café life until his return to London in 1922. In 1924, he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy (ARA).


In 1926, he suffered an illness, thought to have been a minor stroke. In 1927, he abandoned his first name in favour of his middle name and thereafter chose to be known as Richard Sickert. His style and subject matter also changed: Sickert stopped drawing, and instead painted from snapshots usually taken by his third wife Thérèse Lessore or from news photographs.


Seen by many of his contemporaries as evidence of the artist's decline, Sickert's late works are also his most forward-looking, prefiguring the practices of Chuck Close and Gerhard Richter. Other paintings from Sickert's late period were adapted from illustrations by Victorian artists such as Georgie Bowers and John Gilbert. Sickert, separating these illustrations from their original context and painting them in poster-like colours so that the narrative and spatial intelligibility partly dissolved, called the resulting works his "English Echoes".


Sickert painted an informal portrait of Winston Churchill in about 1927. Churchill's wife Clementine introduced him to Sickert, who had been a friend of her family. The two men got along so well that Churchill, whose hobby was painting, wrote to his wife that "He is really giving me a new lease of life as a painter."


Sickert became a Royal Academician (RA) in March 1934 but resigned from the Academy on 9 May 1935 in protest against the president's refusal to support the preservation of Jacob Epstein's sculptural reliefs on the British Medical Association building in the Strand. In the last decade of his life, he depended increasingly on assistants, especially his wife, for the execution of his paintings.


One of Sickert's closest friends and supporters was newspaper baron Lord Beaverbrook, who accumulated the largest single collection of Sickert paintings in the world. In addition to painting Beaverbrook, Sickert completed portraits of notables including Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies, Hugh Walpole, Valentine Browne, 6th Earl of Kenmare, and less formal depictions of Aubrey Beardsley, King George V, and Peggy Ashcroft.


Sickert died in Bath in 1942, at the age of 81. He had spent much time in the city in his later years, and many of his paintings depict Bath's varied street scenes. 


This is an edited version of the Wikipedia entry for Walter Sickert.

You can view a selection of Sickert's paintings on the ArtUK website.

Featured painting: The Brighton Pierrots (Photo credit: Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford)


Futher reading

Sickert and the Art of Music Hall