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Walter Sickert may have tackled some taboos – but that doesn’t make him a serial killer

4 April 2022

From the April 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

Twenty years ago, popular crime writer Patricia Cornwell published a non-fiction book called Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper – Case Closed in which she proposed that artist Walter Sickert had been the 19th century’s most famous serial killer. Cornwell’s arguments, in which botched penile surgery played a significant role, were received with much scepticism in both literary and artistic circles, and one suspects they will not feature in the exhibition of his work opening at Tate Britain this month.

It is, however, to be hoped that the organisers of the show read an article on Sickert which appeared 60 years ago, in the April 1962 issue of Apollo. Written by art historian Ronald Pickvance, the text also incorporates a selection of Victorian and Edwardian music hall ballads ‘which Sickert might have sung’.

Pickvance rightly focuses on the painter’s images of music halls, not least because these were what brought him renown, or rather notoriety. As Pickvance notes, no artist before Sickert ‘had attempted to capture the distinctive atmosphere of the music hall’. London’s first purpose-built music hall, the New Canterbury, had opened its doors only in December 1856. The heyday for these venues coincided with Sickert’s career and by the time he died in 1942, many of them were being demolished, or converted into cinemas. But there was also an ingrained hostility to visual depictions of such places. When the artist showed Gatti’s Hungerford Palace of Varieties at the New English Art Club in April 1888, The Artist and Journal of Home Culture judged the picture to be symptomatic of ‘the aggressive squalor that pervades to a greater or lesser extent the whole of modern existence’.

Pickvance observes that while many authors of the period were writing about music halls, their visual representation remained taboo. Pictures were there to serve a purpose, ideally moral. Pickvance quotes Henry James, in a review of the Royal Academy exhibition of 1878, who observed that ‘The artist must tell a story or preach a sermon; his pictures must not be an image but, in some fashion or other, a lesson; not a reproduction of form and colour, but of life and experience.’

Not only did Sickert’s paintings of music halls fail to tell a story, but they presented an image of what, to the respectable general public, was vulgar mass entertainment. One suspects that, rather like the use of garlic in cooking, while pictures of this sort were considered all very well for Johnny Foreigner, they were deemed to have no place in English art.

Of course, Sickert himself was not entirely English: he was born, and passed his early childhood, in Germany and then spent many years of his adult life in France. Furthermore, one of his greatest sources of inspiration, not least for the music hall pictures, was Degas and his paintings of the Café Concert. Pickvance makes the point that both men, as artists, ‘were isolated pioneers in subjects which found stronger adherents among their literary confrères’. However, he also quotes a letter Sickert wrote to the press in 1889, in which he denied his music hall pictures were derived from Degas, insisting ‘It is surely unnecessary to go so far afield as Paris to find an explanation of the fact that a Londoner should seek to render on canvas a familiar and striking scene in the midst of the town in which he lives.’ A year later, Sickert remarked on ‘the universal mania of the advanced writer on art for tracing all things British to some French original’. In the popular imagination of the time, France represented not just modernity but also decadence, and so it is easy to understand why critics and exhibition audiences alike would seek to trace the inspiration for Sickert’s paintings to a continental source.

In fact, the music hall paintings are resolutely English in character, works such as The Boy I Love is up in the Gallery (1895) capturing the very distinctive, frenetic atmosphere of these venues. Pickvance is right to emphasise that they have an historical interest ‘illustrating a vanished phase of English social history’. But he also points out that because they remained a favourite subject across several decades, ‘Impressive in quantity and in their variety of media, they have their own intrinsic importance and illustrate more fully than any other of Sickert’s themes, the development of his art.’ As an argument, this is more convincing than anything yet produced about the painter by Patricia Cornwell.

From the April 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.