Walter Richard Sickert (31 May 1860 – 22 January 1942), born in Munich, Germany, was a painter who was a member of the Camden Town Group in London. He was an important influence on distinctively British styles of avant-garde art in the 20th century.
Sickert was a cosmopolitan and eccentric who often favoured ordinary people and urban scenes as his subjects. His oeuvre 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.
Sickert was the eldest son of Oswald Sickert, a Danish-German artist, and his wife, Eleanor Louisa Henry, who was an illegitimate daughter of the British astronomer Richard Sheepshanks. In 1868, the family left Munich to settle in Britain, where Oswald's work had been recommended by Freiherrin Rebecca von Kreusser to Ralph Nicholson Wornum, who was Keeper of the National Gallery at the time. The young Sickert was sent to University College School from 1870–1871, before transferring to King's College School, Wimbledon, where he studied until the age of 18. Though he was the son and grandson of painters, he first sought a career as an actor; he appeared in small parts in Sir Henry Irving's company, before taking up the study of art in 1881. After less than a year's attendance at the Slade School, Sickert left to become a pupil and assistant to James Abbott McNeill Whistler. He later went to Paris and met Edgar Degas, whose use of pictorial space and emphasis on drawing would have a powerful effect on Sickert's own 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". Sickert's earliest major works, dating from the late 1880s, were portrayals of scenes in London music halls, often depicted from complex and ambiguous points of view, so that the spatial relationship between the audience, performer and orchestra becomes confused, as figures gesture into space and others are reflected in mirrors. The isolated rhetorical gestures of singers and actors seem to reach out to no-one in particular, and audience members are portrayed stretching and peering to see things that lie beyond the visible space. This theme of confused or failed communication between people appears frequently in his art. The music hall pictures also announced what would be a recurring interest in sexually provocative themes. Female performers were popularly viewed as morally akin to prostitutes, and Sickert's painting Katie Lawrence at Gatti's, which portrayed a well known music hall singer of the era, incited controversy "more heated than any other surrounding an English painting in the late 19th century."
By emphasising the patterns of wallpaper and architectural decorations, Sickert created abstract decorative arabesques and flattened the three-dimensional space. His music hall pictures, like Degas' paintings of dancers and café-concert entertainers, connect the artificiality of art itself to the conventions of theatrical performance and painted backdrops. Many of these works were exhibited at the New English Art Club, a group of French-influenced realist artists with which Sickert was associated. At this period 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. Between 1894 and 1904 Sickert made a series of visits to Venice, initially focussing 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. The models for many of the Venetian paintings are believed to have been prostitutes, with whom Sickert may have had physical relations.
Sickert's fascination with urban culture accounted for his acquisition of studios in working-class sections of London, first in Cumberland Market in the 1890s, then in Camden Town in 1905. The latter location provided an event that would secure Sickert's prominence in the realist movement in Britain. On 11 September 1907, Emily Dimmock, a prostitute cheating on her partner, was murdered in her home at Agar Grove (then St Paul's Road), Camden. After sexual intercourse the man had slit her throat open while she was asleep, then left in the morning. The "Camden Town murder" became an ongoing source of prurient sensationalism in the press. For several years Sickert had already been painting lugubrious female nudes on beds, and continued to do so, deliberately challenging the conventional approach to life painting—"The modern flood of representations of vacuous images dignified by the name of 'the nude' represents an artistic and intellectual bankruptcy"—giving four of them, which included a male figure, the title, The Camden Town Murder, and causing a controversy, which ensured attention for his work. These paintings do not show violence, however, but a sad thoughtfulness, explained by the fact that three of them were originally exhibited with completely different titles, one more appropriately being What Shall We Do for the Rent?, and the first in the series, Summer Afternoon.
While the painterly handling of the works inspired comparison to Impressionism, and the emotional tone suggested a narrative more akin to genre painting, specifically Degas's Interior, the documentary realism of the Camden Town paintings was without precedent in British art. These and other works were painted in heavy impasto and narrow tonal range. Many other obese nudes were painted at this time, in which the fleshiness of the figures is connected to the thickness of the paint, devices that were later adapted by Lucian Freud. The influence of these paintings on successive generations of British artists has been noted in the works of Freud, David Bomberg, Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach, Howard Hodgkin, and Leon Kossoff.
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. From 1908-1912 and again from 1915-1918 Sickert was an influential teacher at Westminster School of Art. He also briefly set up an art school in Manchester where he was to teach the artist Harry Rutherford, whom he later described as "my intellectual heir".
Sickert's interest in Victorian narrative genres also influenced his best known work, Ennui, in which a couple in a dingy interior gaze abstractedly into empty space, as though they can no longer communicate with each other. In his later work Sickert adapted illustrations by Victorian artists such as Georgie Bowers and John Gilbert, taking the scenes out of context and painting them in poster-like colours so that the narrative and spatial intelligibility partly dissolved. He called these paintings his "Echoes". Sickert also executed a number of works in the 1930s based on news photographs, squared up for enlargement, with their pencil grids plainly visible in the finished paintings. Seen by many of his contemporaries as evidence of the artist's decline, these works are also the artist's most forward-looking, seeming to prefigure the practices of Chuck Close and Gerhard Richter.
Artist Mark Wallinger conjectured that Sickert had known and seen his subject of Sick Doctor prior to death, and rendered from a photograph an image otherwise too macabre.
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. This collection, with a private correspondence between Sickert and Beaverbook, is in the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. In addition to having painted Beaverbrook, Sickert painted 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.
Winston 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's sister was Helena Swanwick, a feminist and pacifist active in the women's suffrage movement.
Sickert died in Bath, Somerset in 1942, at the age of 81. He had been married three times. His first wife, Ellen Cobden, was a daughter of Richard Cobden. His third wife was the painter Thérèse Lessore.
Sickert took a keen interest in the crimes of Jack the Ripper and believed he had lodged in a room used by the infamous serial killer. He had been told this by his landlady, who suspected a previous lodger. Sickert did a painting of the room and titled it "Jack the Ripper's Bedroom." It shows a dark, melancholy room with most details obscured. This painting now resides in the Manchester City Art Gallery in Manchester.
Although for over 70 years there was no mention of Sickert's being a suspect in the Ripper crimes, in modern times three books have been published whose authors maintain that Sickert was Jack the Ripper or his accomplice.
In 2004, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, in its article on Sickert, dismissed as "fantasy" any claim that he was Jack the Ripper.
Walter Sickert's personal papers are held at Islington Local History Centre. Additional papers are held at several other archives, particularly the Tate Gallery Archive.