Between the death of Turner and advent of Bacon, there was no greater British painter

The Pallant House Gallery’s excellent new show reveals Sickert in all his glory and contradiction

22 August 2015

9:00 AM

22 August 2015

9:00 AM

Sickert in Dieppe

Pallant House Gallery, until 4 October

Walter Sickert was fluid in both his art and his personality: changeable in style and technique, mutable in appearance — now dressing as a French fisherman, now as a dandy, next shaving his head — and even in name (for a while he styled himself Richard, not Walter, Sickert). All of which makes his long artistic association with the seaside resort of Dieppe apt in more ways than one. This is the theme of an excellent exhibition at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester. A century ago Dieppe was a very Sickertian place.

In ancestry and artistic attitudes, Sickert was an exemplary cosmopolitan. His father was Danish-German; his mother the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy astronomer from Leeds and an Irish dancer (it was from the last, one suspects, that he inherited his handsome looks, and perhaps the impish strain in his character).

Walter Sickert ‘The Fair at Night’ (c.1902)

Thanks to the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway and the steamboat from Newhaven, the French port was one of the closest bits of abroad to the West End. In the late 19th century, the journey took 11 hours. On one occasion, Sickert’s friends Aubrey Beardsley, Charles Conder and the writer Ernest Dowson set off impromptu on the boat train after an evening’s drinking. When they arrived the next day, these luggage-less decadents would have found a Norman town with ancient churches and picturesque streets, but also grand hotels, nightspots and a casino.

Dieppe was crumbly and up-to-date, seedy and smart all at the same time — a touch of Brighton and a smidgeon of Monte Carlo, with a Norman accent. Over nearly 40 years, from the mid-1880s to the early 1920s, Sickert (1860–1942) painted all these different aspects of the place. The results, as the exhibition demonstrates, were varied in approach, but also uneven in quality.

Walter Sickert, L’Hotel Royal, Dieppe, 1894, Museum Sheffield
Walter Sickert ‘L’Hotel Royal, Dieppe’ (1894)

Sickert at his best was a connoisseur of urban moods that were a bit like the still life he painted of a piece of Roquefort cheese: piquant and pungent. His ‘L’Hôtel Royal’ (1894) — the sky behind a light mauve, the structure itself greenish in the twilight — perfectly catches that desolate, slightly weird quality that seaside places often have.

In that vein, ‘Le Grand Duquesne, Dieppe’ (1902) is an out-and-out masterpiece. It depicts the statue of a local naval hero, Admiral Duquesne, silhouetted in deep shadow against brilliantly sunlit buildings. Around the railings at the base of the monument a few figures are standing aimlessly.

You could not confuse ‘Le Grand Duquesne’ with a work by anyone else (though the enigmatic melancholy is reminiscent of Edward Hopper and also De Chirico). Yet several of the pictures in the same room are nondescript; so, too, are almost all the landscapes done in the country near to Dieppe. ‘Le Vieux Colombier’ (1913) manages to be lurid and dull at the same time.

It is not uncommon for major artists to veer between mediocre and marvellous in this way (Gauguin is another example). In Sickert’s case, the inconsistency was perhaps to do with the complexity of his origins. He was, he once insisted, ‘a French painter’, by which he meant that his two teachers were first Whistler — an expatriate American whose sensibility was formed in France — and later Degas. Sickert produced pictures heavily influenced by both (and featured himself in Degas’s group portrait of ‘Six Friends at Dieppe’ from 1885).

Walter Sickert ‘Statue of Duquesne, Dieppe’ (1902)

Sickert painted the Church of St Jacques in Dieppe over and over again, which might seem reminiscent of Monet’s depictions of Rouen Cathedral. But Monet analysed the fluctuations of light and air on the façade; Sickert seemed more interested in the dark and brooding aspect of the Gothic structure.There were, however, other ingredients in Sickert’s make-up. He had a pronounced affection for Victorian painting of the ‘every picture tells a story’ variety (and hence an unexpected taste for the works of Frith). This led him to produce eccentric images such as ‘The Blind Sea Captain’ (1914), a tear-jerker in the Pre-Raphaelite mould executed in a technique close to Monet or Pissarro. Also he had a tendency — perhaps derived from his Nordic painter father — towards crepuscular atmospherics.

When all the strains in Sickert’s complex temperament blended together — which was by no means always — the results were compelling. Then, despite his claim — possibly cantankerous — to be a French artist, he can seem the most notable British painter in the century between the death of Turner and the advent of Francis Bacon.

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  • angus westmorland

    Francis Bacon had a rather tortured view of life and the human condition. Obviously a man of immense talent but rather dark in his suggestion of moral depravity. Perhaps if I could humbly suggest any of the Pre-Raphaelites or the Scottish Colourists . Take your pick , Rossetti or Fregusson ?etc.

    • Jambo25

      I agree that there are a couple of late 19th century/early 20th century Scottish painters who are at least Sickert’s equal. However, I think if you are nominating the greatest British painter between Turner and Bacon you would have to say that Stanley Spencer fills that space.

      • angus westmorland

        You say Stanley Spencer ,well possibly. His paintings during W.W.2 depicting the Glasgow shipyards and people show a strength and understanding that makes art a reflection of time,space and history. i have never been able to make a clear appreciation of Mr Spencer. Sorry , that should be Sir Stanley. Perhaps surviving W.W. 1 might have made him a bit eccentric in his approach to painting. a good suggestion by you but I am not really able to give you a clear,concise opinion of this talented artist. Peace be with you.

        • Jambo25

          I first came across Spencer with his work at the Sandham Memorial Chapel when I was a rather young man. It simply moved me intensely. I later saw a few of his Cookham paintings and they likewise struck me as having the stamp of greatness on them. It wasn’t until later that I really saw and appreciated his Glasgow paintings from WW2.
          You can often judge a painter by how well his work compares, in galleries, to the work of already acknowledged greats round about it. There’s a fairly simple self portrait of Spencer in the Stejdelijk Museum. Its one of the greatest paintings there.
          You can also make some kind of judgement of their ability by the range of their work and how good it is across the range. That’s one of the reasons I have qualms about Bacon. How often can you portray self loathing, disgust and a general misanthropy before the repetition becomes boring? One of the things that marks Turner out as a true great is the breadth of his work and how good he was at virtually every aspect of it. While Spencer isn’t in quite the same class as Turner the same thing applies to him. From fairly simple portraiture, through landscapes, his Clydeside paintings to his great, visionary religious works he displays great technique and vision. I’ll revise my opinion. Spencer isn’t the greatest British painter between Turner and Bacon. He is simply the greatest British painter since Turner.

          • angus westmorland

            Well Jambo25, I will certainly have a closer look at the works of Spencer. Glad I am not the only one who finds Mr Bacon hard to like.

          • Jambo25

            Thank god there are others. I thought I was alone in my qualms about Bacon.

  • angus westmorland

    Apologies for mix up in the name of John Duncan Fergusson.

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  • Gilbert White

    What about Rolf?