Walter Sickert and Camden Town

We take a look at the post-impressionist and his association with London.

Walter Sickert is most famous for painting the darker, seedier side of life in Camden in the early 20th century. He was influenced initially by mentor Whistler, then by Edgar Degas, but eventually his own Post-Impressionist style would impact several generations of painters.

Born in Munich, the young Sickert and his family moved to London in 1868. In the 1890s he moved abroad, and after being away for almost a decade, he returned to London in 1905, choosing to live in Camden, first on Mornington Crescent and then on Hampstead Road.

Ironically the famous clan of artists of which he became leader was not formed until five years after his most famous Camden paintings. Sickert had moved to no 19 Fitzroy Street, just off Warren Street, and on Saturday afternoons he hosted meetings where fans, acquaintances and hangers-on would visit to buy works. The Fitzroy Street Group thus began, from which the Camden Town Group emerged in 1911. The group was not so-called because of the residence of its members, or even their subject matter, but rather, according to member and Sickert protégée Walter Bayes, because his mentor stated that “the district had been so watered with his tears that something important must sooner or later spring from its soil”.

But some of Sickert’s greatest pieces were painted in Camden, inspired by its inhabitants. The area at the time was in flux – having once been a well-to-do middle class enclave filled with artists, the industrial revolution had changed its fortune. Its bohemian aspect thrived but became sleazy, as Camden became synonymous with prostitution, drinking and gambling. Sickert was attracted to all this, as he had little but disdain for the upper classes and their customs.

During his time at no 6 Mornington Crescent, he painted several of his most important pieces, among them a series of nudes. The women portrayed, all prostitutes, were usually depicted in somewhat grotesque poses, their faces turned away or roughly painted, and their sexual organs emphasised. Sickert attempted to turn the viewer into a voyeur, and at the same time expose his own prudishness. Although some historians believe that on the contrary, he was something of a sexual predator, what is certain is that his nudes were not intended to be pretty or inviting, quite the opposite.
‘La Hollandaise’, painted in 1906, is one example. The name is inspired by the prostitute in Goseck, an 1830 novel by Honoré de Balzac. In the painting she is seen reclining on a cheap bed with an iron frame, her curves are obvious but her face is partly in shadow, so roughly painted it is impossible to make out her features (there have also been suggestions that the careless brushstrokes on her face are meant to suggest the ravages of syphilis). She remains anonymous to the beholder, and has deliberately been painted as if to suggest the viewer is standing above her, surveying her form.

He employed the same crude methods throughout his famous Camden Town Nudes series; an iron bed, shabby surroundings, dim lighting, and indistinct women with their legs parted. In 1907 Sickert became fascinated by the details surrounding the murder of prostitute Emily Dimmock, discovered in her bedroom with her throat cut. He painted the victim in the same style in a series entitled The Camden Town Murder, adding a clothed male figure, intended to be the murderer, although no actual violence is depicted.

His obsession with the killing has led to rumours of him being linked to the Jack the Ripper case, most famously when in 2001 crime novelist Patricia Cornwell ripped apart one of his paintings, attempting to prove his guilt. Cornwell’s belief stems from the fact that in some of the paintings the poses of the females are the same as that of the murdered women, however she conveniently forgets Sickert’s penchant for realism (and that he was one of the first artists to paint from photographs). The theories will continue ad infinitum unless Jack the Ripper’s real identity is established once and for all, but much of the art world have rubbished the writer’s claims.
It wasn’t just nudity that Sickert focused his attention on while in Camden. He was also drawn to the urban squalor that was dominating the local landscape in the early 1900s, and to the lives of the area’s residents. Arguments and tense emotional scenes were characterised in works like ‘Off to the Pub’, painted in 1911. The raw feelings he wanted to convey are best summed up by referring back to one of the Camden Town Murder paintings, featuring a man hunched over the bed, hands clasped as if in despair, which Sickert also titled ‘What Shall We Do for the Rent?’ giving it dual significance.

The Old Bedford Music Hall stood at 122-133 Camden High Street, and was a favourite with members of the Camden Town Group. Sickert painted the venue and its performers several times from the 1890s onwards. Minnie Cunningham, an actress and singer whom Sickert was a fan of, was painted in the Impressionist style, sporting a red hooded coat in 1892. The music hall was destroyed by fire and subsequently rebuilt, and Sickert did other, brighter paintings to reflect the more lavish décor of the new venue circa 1914-15.

Another work called ‘Old Heffel at Rowton House’, created in 1916, shows an old man playing the violin. Rowton Houses were hostels for the poor, one of which was situated on Camden’s Arlington Road. According to George Orwell in ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ these were the best lodgings he came across while he was homeless, as the bathrooms were clean and lodgers had a cubicle to themselves.

From the 1920s till his death in 1942, Sickert moved between Dieppe, London, Margate and Bath. He painted increasingly salubrious landscapes inspired by his new surroundings, but these works haven’t made a fraction of the impact his Camden paintings had on future artists. Take Francis Bacon for instance, one of the best painters the UK has ever produced. His isolated figures may never have existed without Sickert’s morbid imagery.


Author: Leila Hawkins