Sickert: Paintings and drawings by Wendy Baron

Poor old Walter Sickert. Not many groundbreaking British artists have been accused of being psychopathic sex killers. Tom Rosenthal welcomes the sanity of a major new study, a landmark in Sickert studies which confirms that, rather than a candidate for Jack the Ripper, he was a gregarious, diligent and fascinating man
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Walter Richard Sickert (1860-1942) was much affected by both diplomatic history and unusual parentage. He was born in Munich to a Danish painter father and an English mother. There was a strong likelihood that little Walter and his brothers would eventually become conscripts in the Prussian army, so the family moved to England. From his father, Sickert inherited painterly gifts which, like many a good son before and after him, he greatly exceeded. From his mother's father he clearly absorbed genetically a character of much energy and considerable eccentricity.

Richard Sheepshanks, a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, was a brilliant mathematician who took holy orders and always called himself the Reverend Sheepshanks (although he never took on any church duties). He was a qualified lawyer, a gifted astronomer, an FRS and a lifelong bachelor who fathered Sickert's mother on a dancer with a complaisant husband who accepted the legal paternity of the child while Sheepshanks provided appropriate financial support. While Walter Sickert married three times, he was, like his grandfather, in many ways a lifelong bachelor and, in a long life, it's a moot point whether he had more mistresses than he had studios, which he changed with insouciant rapidity.

As a young man he had little formal education; he failed to get a job at the British Museum and, briefly, took to the stage, was an extra in Henry Irving's Lyceum company and once acted in A Midsummer Night's Dream at Sadler's Wells. When his family took a house in Dieppe for the summer, their house guests included Oscar Wilde and the matinée idol Johnston Forbes-Robertson.

Sickert was tall, well built, swam every day until his seventies and, if he soon quit the stage, had in his maturity the striking good looks of a matinée idol himself. He also possessed formidable charm, so that few of his mistresses, and none of his wives or the beautiful women with whom he had platonic friendships, spoke ill of him. While still married to his first wife, he set up house in Dieppe with a spectacular, red-haired beauty who was a fishwife at the market. In the same town he inspired a crush in an English schoolgirl, whom he befriended and teased, but did not seduce. She was Clementine Hozier and, when she married Winston Churchill, already an enthusiastic amateur painter, she persuaded Sickert to give him painting lessons.

Sickert's formal artistic education was minimal. He used to describe himself as a pupil of Whistler, but in reality Whistler took him on as his dogsbody. Whistler was no pedagogue and it was Sickert who, for long periods of his life, founded and ran a series of art schools which managed, together with subsidies from his wives, to keep him just ahead of the bailiffs. His time with Whistler was worth much more than his brief stint at the Slade in 1881. In 1883, Whistler sent him to deliver a painting to the Paris Salon and gave him introductions to both Manet and Degas. Manet, already dying, was too ill to receive him; Degas welcomed and befriended him. The influence of Whistler and Degas on him and his art was wholly beneficent and invaluable and he thrived.

Until now, apart from Wendy Baron's first, much briefer study of Sickert in 1973, there have been three pillars of Sickert studies: Ruth Bromberg's Catalogue Raisonné of his prints, Matthew Sturgis's superb biography - both in the past decade - and Osbert Sitwell's marvellous anthology of Sickert's writing, A Free House! or The Artist as Craftsman (1947). The other significant contributor to the Sickert canon is Virginia Woolf. Her Walter Sickert: A Conversation was published as a 28-page pamphlet by the Hogarth Press, with a very un-Sickert-like cover drawn by Vanessa Bell, in 1934 at one shilling and sixpence, ie less than 8p. (I paid £10 for my copy and I've seen it priced at £75 today.) It is not of course a conversation; only Woolf is talking, musing, speculating. But it is not without perceptions: "Not in our lifetime will anyone write a life as Sickert paints it. Words are an impure medium; better far to have been born into the silent kingdom of paint."

It is the silent kingdom of paint that Baron brings to life in a book which will surely be the definitive account of the artist's work. She places him in his time, bestriding both the 19th and 20th centuries. She points out that he interpreted his own learning curve "primarily through its relationship to the mainstream of French 19th-century painting" and quotes his own statement: "For the understanding of Whistler's painting I had the good fortune to be prepared, in the Seventies, by the fact that I had received my earliest artistic education from two painters, both also affiliated to the French school. The one was my father, who had studied at Couture's, and was influenced by Courbet, and the other was Otto Scholderer, who had been subjected to the same influence."

Partly of his own volition and partly by his exposure to, and friendship with, Degas, Sickert moved away artistically from Whistler and towards the technical choices of Degas, and it is almost too obvious to relate his passion for the theatre to Degas's own enthusiasm for that subject. While Sickert supported Whistler's view that the subject was subordinate to the treatment, he soon differed from his master over the quality of paint, finding Whistler's technique too thin for his taste, with too many layers and too much turpentine. He favoured a thicker, petroleum oil paint applied with great speed, even applying paint wet on wet.

Sickert, in his frequent attempts to run painting schools as well as his own studio, was a more dedicated teacher than Whistler. One of his pupils was the future writer Enid Bagnold, who wrote that Sickert "was such a teacher as would make a kitchen-maid exhibit once... His lightning teaching tore across clouds of muddle and broke them up."

Sickert must have been highly entertaining, intensely gregarious and distinctly contumacious. There was virtually no artistic group he did not join and none that he did not resign from, from the Royal Academy to the New English Art Club, the Fitzroy Group, the London Group, the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, the Camden Town Group. One suspects that, despite the army of friends and colleagues, he was a one-man awkward squad; perhaps, to pursue the military metaphor, he was always the only man in step.

As an etcher he soon outstripped Whistler and was an almost compulsive worker who always kept a small, prepared etching plate and needles in his pocket. As a painter and draughtsman he was a man of almost sublime versatility, always experimenting with the medium and trying to break new ground. To sample his genius one need only study the nearly 800 subjects so beautifully printed in Baron's Catalogue section, many reproduced with related drawings, sketches or variant versions, so that there must be close on 1,000 illustrations altogether. It's thanks to the generosity of the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art that this vast book - which weighs half a stone - is affordable.

The landscapes and cityscapes, particularly those of Dieppe and Venice, would alone give Sickert a great reputation. His formal portrait commissions are at times second only to those of Sargent and frequently on the same level as the American's. His theatre paintings, particularly the endless studies of music halls, are probably superior even to Degas's ballet studies. Degas imbued his girl dancers with a somewhat sugary sentimentality while Sickert, with his extraordinary chiaroscuro effects, gave the Old Bedford and similar theatres an innate sense of drama; there's a vivid contrast between the harshly illuminated performers and the audiences in semi-darkness and, above all, a whiff of reality, if not actual squalor. You can smell not only the greasepaint but also sweat, booze and tobacco. He might have been stage-struck since his teens, but there's no false glamour in his theatrical paintings.

Nor, in his best portraits, is there any hint of sycophancy or any respect for female beauty, political power or any other apparent virtue. With Sickert, respect always has to be earned. As for his lowlife paintings, the Jack Ashore works, the Camden Town Murders, these are among the finest interior studies ever done in England. They are really English only by location. In spirit, they are closer to the lowlife paintings of Degas or Toulouse-Lautrec, full of nostalgie de la boue.

I asked Wendy Baron why and how she became, as it were, Ms Sickert. In addition to her books and all the exhibition catalogues and articles in the learned art journals, she has also written the Sickert essays in Grove Art and the DNB. It began with a tutorial essay on a Sickert exhibition by the distinguished dealer Lillian Browse (to whose memory the book is dedicated) in 1957. She "immediately fell in love with his paintings and I've never fallen out of love since. It's partly that he poses so many problems." This book represents "50 years of research. I've done other things as well, but it took three years, working 16 hours a day, to organise all my material. It was a hard slog."

Baron is unduly modest about her great achievement: "You become very conscious that there are other people exploring all sorts of aspects of Sickert, and I'm quite pleased to have set a sort of skeletal framework so people don't have to try to work out what dates, what relates to what. I will be quite pleased - not to relinquish him, I'll never relinquish him - that other people are taking him up."

When I asked where in the league table she would place him, she said: "Very near the top. If we're talking late 19th and first half of 20th century, I would put Sickert and possibly Stanley Spencer as the leaders of the field. Sickert leads by being adventurous, by exploring and doing different things in a 60-year career. He's the greatest British artist since Turner - which doesn't mean that he wasn't capable of doing some appalling paintings sometimes. But his failures were all the results of his explorations."

We disagreed about the quality of his paintings based on photographs, often crudely printed images from newspapers, which I disliked but in which Baron found much virtue. "What he achieved was a sort of raw, abstract patchwork... his cropping, his sense of design was superlative and I think in the Edward VIII [which I had singled out for particular opprobrium], just where he cut the figure, tottering forward, almost on tiptoe, it shows his [the King's] weakness."

On Sickert the writer, she says: "He was phenomenal... his judgements were not always sound, but his writing about art has a liveliness, also a break from all received opinion - as if he didn't even know what received opinion was. He used his own independent eye, his own independent judgement. He wrote with enormous skill."

When Baron married and had two young children, she wanted to work at home to be with them and to write her PhD (on Sickert, naturally), and envied those who could go to work in an office. Later, she got the job of curating the Government Art Collection, in effect buying British art for the nation to use in government premises likely to be visited by foreign dignitaries and for our embassies abroad. "Buying two or three Sickerts of course. Particularly one work, The Integrity of Belgium, which was recorded in my 1973 book as lost. It suddenly cropped up at a Phillips auction where they didn't know what it was. I identified it, bought it for the nation and it was, of course, sent to our embassy in Brussels. For me it was a quarter century of education in the history of British art."

Baron is, on the whole, of a sunny disposition. She only showed her teeth when I asked her views of the absurd book by Patricia Cornwell which claimed that Sickert was Jack the Ripper. After a stream of erudite put-downs she said: "Of course it's a novel. Quite an interesting novel, but still a novel." In this, as in all her carefully wrought judgements on Sickert, we can only salute her.