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.

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