Great Works: Brighton Pierrots 1915 (64x76 cm), Walter Sickert

Tate Britain, London

Many poets and many painters have found a fitting image of themselves in the cheerfully melancholy likeness of the clown, in the putting on and the taking off the mask of the self. Think of Picasso (who was forever painting Pierrots and Harlequins), Goya or, in our own day, Paul McCarthy. The poet Charles Baudelaire wrote of this very fact in a poeme en prose of 1861 called "Le Vieux Saltimbanque". In that shunned and decrepit creature, Baudelaire mused, "I could see an image of an old man of letters, a survivor of his generation, which he had delighted so brilliantly; akin to an old poet without friends, family, children, made wretched by misery and the ingratitude of the public." Those bitter words said much about the recent rejection of his great collection of poems, Les Fleurs du Mal.

Almost 60 years later, in the midst of war, Walter Sickert painted a troupe of pierrots, in Brighton. This was familiar country to Sickert. He too had spent some time treading the boards. In spite of its gay colours – although it is painted in oils, it looks as if it might have been drawn with the aid of an exuberant fistful of child's chalks – an air of dragging sadness hangs over this work, infecting it like a stain. The focus of our attention is a group of clownish entertainers, performing to a meagre audience. Their identity is known. They were called The Highwaymen, and they were managed by a local impresario called Jack Sheppard. The evening sky – the light is evidently falling – is painted in a delicious admixture of colours. Its pinky-orangey-yellowy-purply-reddish-blue reminds us of face make-up and stage lighting in its strange air of garish artifice, as much rouged-up flesh as a phenomenon of nature. There is almost nothing of war in this painting (which was made during the year of the Gallipoli Campaign) except that strangely ominous colouration of the sky – and the fact that so many of the deck chairs remain unfilled. That degree of understatement is more than enough. Sickert was much taken by places of popular entertainment. He painted circuses and music halls again and again in the course of his long career. Like some of his earliest heroes, Hogarth, Rowlandson and Cruickshank, he had a passion for low-life scenes. He found an earthy truth in them, which was not perhaps to be found in more refined cultural locations.

This is a painting which, from the point of the viewer, looks just a touch off-centre. It is as if we are not quite seeing it from the correct vantage point. As onlookers at the scene, we have found ourselves off to the side of the makeshift stage, in the position of the less fortunate spectators who have not paid quite enough to get the best of views. The fortunate ones are those whose faces we can see quite as well as – in fact, almost better than – the faces of some of the entertainers themselves. The best view of all is being enjoyed by the inhabitants of that handsome Regency terrace, which is set swankingly high to the right of the stage.

Some are dressed as Pierrots, others wear suits and straw boaters. The foremost entertainer, the one who is standing at the front of the stage, facing away from us, is wearing a straw boater, its brim singled out in a dazzling loop of white. He brandishes a drooped cane. There seems such lassitude in that droop. Although some vamping of the joanna is evidently going on, the pianist herself, who seems to be looking directly back at us, has an air of idling weariness about her. The entertainer at the front of the stage seems singled out in order to embody the mood of the painting, which is curiously flaccid and lifeless. He is utterly motionless and, being separated from most of the rest by the column of the makeshift proscenium arch, he looks oddly isolated too. Where has all the gaiety gone, all the rollicking interaction with this seaside audience? There are others disposed about the stage too, like so many lifeless props. Another, dressed identically to the man at the front, is partially obscured by that candy-striped column. His face is not visible at all. The best that we see of him is a kicking leg.

The entire scene possesses a kind of sketchy, makeshift fragility. The application of single, frisky dabs of colour gives it the appearance of a thing that has been composed of bits and pieces, precarious fragments of itself, and which may yet collapse back into those component parts. This helps to emphasise the fact that what is going on here is brilliantly, beguilingly, fleetingly ephemeral, the stuff of passing dreams. The painting feels a little too small for its own good. Generally speaking, scenes like this seem to demand the trumpeting and the posturing of size. Not so this one, which is shrunken into itself, almost self-reflective. In short, it seems to be showing us the end of something, a last, brave huzzah.

ABOUT THE ARTIST

Walter Richard Sickert (1860-1942) was an important and influential painter for more than half a century who gave vigorous new life to the figurative tradition. His first master was Whistler, who taught him to follow his instincts and to paint his own image of the real. Much given to low-life scenes – one of his most celebrated and most controversial sequences of paintings took as its theme the Camden Town Murders – he also painted society portraits, cockney music halls, the brilliant artifice of Venice, the low-life of Dieppe and, anticipating Warhol and the 1960s, used newspaper images as source material. A man much given to histrionic gestures, he painted, drank and read hard.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable