Walter Sickert – an artist of controversy and complexity

England was copying France in this late Victorian era. It was really just an American named Whistler and Sickert challenging French supremacy. But these two had to go to France and learn to paint in the first place. And it was the Impressionists and the Post-Impressionists, and Edgar Degas in particular, that they had to learn.

Old Bedford Gallery, painted in 1894, shows the influence transmitted to him by Degas. Degas liked to paint theater scenes that show parts of the audience, like photographic clippings. So you don’t necessarily see the stage, but the audience watching. This tableau is brilliant with its subdued light and color and its almost cartoonish audience in the gods, in the cheapest seats.

Increasingly, Sickert showed the poor side of Victorian and then Edwardian life. The gloom of city life, even duller than anything the French painted at the time. There was nothing good in this world, poor and defeated. It was the world beyond polite society. There was little or no enjoyment in the kind of decay that Sickert was increasingly describing. His later work Boredom (1914), showing a couple unable to decide what to do next, lost in their living room, is one of the best of this style of painting of defeated life. No wonder Sickert was associated with a flea-ridden world, as he took a series of cheap rooms in run-down boarding houses and used them to paint.

His interest in the Ripper murders in the 1880s and the subsequent murders in the run-down London of Camden Town helped make him a suspect in Knight’s book. On the contrary, I imagine he enjoyed the risky and threatening world of poverty and the depressed, enjoying – as a tourist would – a visit to the seedy and dodgy. Many artists have made the rundown world of poverty their focus and subject.

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For me, Sickert’s painting flourished towards the end of his life in a way that I have never seen in any other artist. He started painting from photographs taken from newspapers, leaving you with the feeling that they are in fact cut from the pages of the popular press. A stunning painting from a press photo of King George V talking to his horse trainer is a must see. And the landing of the first woman to circumnavigate the globe – Amelia Earhart – is taken from a photograph to which, in cartoon style, he even added gusts of rain.

This turning point towards the end of his life is beautiful to see in countless paintings. This is the show if you want to see perhaps the greatest British painter of the late 19th and 20th century. Know also the dark underside of the life of our ancestors. But Sickert is more than a social recorder. He’s a reinventor.

Walter Sickert exhibits at Tate Britain until September 18

John Bird is the founder and editor of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

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Sharon D. Cole