So South Kensington

Julian Bell

‘I regret to say that I must interrupt the logical continuity of this article. I have been lunching with some friends in one of the most beautiful houses in a Bloomsbury square, and …’ Walter Sickert came to art journalism with his instincts intact from the stage, on which he had passed his youth. Lose the thread of your argument by all means, but never lose your audience. A little bluster and buffoonery will stop them fidgeting; besides, it establishes character. Play up the absent-minded professor, quoting Sappho in Greek and cryptically vouchsafing the essence of ‘the most important piece of art-criticism that has appeared in Europe in modern times’ (a translation of Cennino Cennini’s 14th-century Libro dell’arte) as follows: ‘P.vi (Preface). First and last paragraphs. P.143. First three lines. P.183. Third, fourth and fifth lines.’ Break off to hum a few music-hall hits: ‘Par’ ought to know’; ‘When there isn’t a girl about, you do feel lonely.’ Scramble your commentary with polyglot puns and in clashing literary registers: ‘Successful shade, accept my hand in fraternal contrition! We are druv’ to it. John Bull will have it so. Tu l’as voulu John Dandin! And his lady still more! Let us toe the line, my brothers, and invest with care. Londres vaut bien une messe.’ Then catch at your own coat-tails. ‘An unpardonable digression! I am like a bus driver who is perpetually jumping down to fight some passer-by. I apologise to my fares, climb back on the box, and seize the reins. “Bank! Bank! Bank! Charing Cross!”’

Periodically, from the 1880s to the 1930s, one of the sharpest minds in English painting vented his energies on consigning this street-crit persona to print. The writer, to judge by the memoirs of those who encountered him, was all of a piece with the talker: centre of the room, commanding all-comers in the West End gallery crowd with his nimble repartee. His act ran playful rings round the professional art critics (Spielmann of the Pall Mall Gazette was a favourite butt, with his request that Millais be looked at ‘with bowed head’: ‘I cannot understand how the feat is to be achieved, except with a hand mirror’), and made leery mock-bows at academic savants such as Roger Fry and Bernard Berenson (‘making us feel small, and breaking our heads for years with his “inis” and “iccios”’).

This unflaggingly stylish and ebullient performance drew on a well-stocked wardrobe of roles. Early appearances regularly featured the bellettrist, conjuring up rhapsodies on behalf of his teacher Whistler, whose Falling Rocket had ‘no more technique than the night sky itself, or the scattering sparks, or the cold, dark grass’. This was in the aesthetes’ heyday of 1892; later, the poet was more or less retired, yet Sickert could still, in a 1916 elegy for Spencer Gore, lyrically evoke the way that ‘expression descended like snowflakes on his canvases, varied, adequate and economical.’

The fine writer often made way for the specialist, defending the terms of his trade against impostors and ignorant middlemen. Readers of the New York Herald were presented with his terrier-like pursuit of the ‘fraudulent’ Royal Academician, Hubert von Herkomer, over what might properly be sold as etchings; after Whistler’s death he offered an advisory service, through the Times correspondence columns, as to the authenticity of canvases put forward with Whistler’s signature. Ferociously confident in his technicalities and trenchant in his definitions, Sickert must have made a nasty adversary. A more amenable role was the raconteur with private access to the eminences of a past age. ‘It is obvious,’ he wrote in 1917, ‘that I owe to the English-speaking world a note on my recollection of Degas’ – a debt he more than repaid with endless recursions to the master’s bons mots. (The curmudgeon’s take on late Monet: ‘I feel no need to pass out before a pond.’) The other constant source of anecdotes, inevitably, was the irascible Whistler, with his riposte to the hand-on-the-shoulder wisdom of ‘Let bygones be bygones’: ‘That is just what you must never let them be!’ As Sickert settled, more or less willingly, into the role of old buffer in the 1920s and 1930s, he took on more and more responsibility for the old century: he liked to recall how he almost met Manet, who was heard to say through a doorway that he was too ill to receive company; in his seventies, he blithely informed a lecture audience: ‘I knew Corot.’ ‘Corot,’ notes his editor, Anna Gruetzner Robins, ‘died in 1875 when Sickert was 15’ – being at the time a London schoolboy, looking towards an acting career.

Robins has compiled a major document of English art history in exemplary style. She has tracked down a wealth of unrepublished, often pseudonymous articles from Sickert’s early years, as well as lecture transcripts from his late ones; her notes polish them into sense with the help of New English Art Club catalogues, Gaiety Theatre playbills, slang dictionaries, the writings of Martial, Molière, Goethe and Goldoni and the stock of proverbs from their respective languages. Gathered in, Sickert’s voluble energies conjure up a world. Through the early 1890s and the four years before the outbreak of the Great War, his most fertile spells of journalism, he is a matchless conduit for artistic London, in all its institutional minutiae and its disputes, reputations and gossip.

The sense that we are in a confined parochial scene is all the keener because, while this is a patriotic immigrant (of Danish ancestry) talking to fellow Londoners, there is never any doubt where the centre of artistic gravity lies. The hit song he quotes could virtually be his motto: ‘We’ve been to Paris, and we know!’ A regular visitor to Degas’s studio from the age of 22, Sickert always approaches the English scene armed with superior critical weaponry from across the Channel. His status as an exhibitor with Bernheim Jeune et fils gives him a certain lordliness when reviewing the provincials of the Royal Academy. The panache with which he offers his judgments is never – with an exception we’ll come to – allowed to slip. And wherever anyone in English public life happens to invoke the word ‘art’, he is determined to muscle in: we are given his opinion on hanging group shows (go alphabetical), the painting of gasometers (choose white), and the droit de suite legislative proposals of 1930 (he’s against).

Sickert’s commentaries are not simply pungently phrased; many of them retain their power to bite. His own technical experience and the relative cohesiveness of the era’s critical terms allow him to offer a more intimate and more level-headed assessment of 19th-century painting than we’re used to reading now. He writes feelingly in admiration of Millet and Pissarro, but he is also good on frailer, more equivocal talents, among whom he includes Millais and Manet. Always alert and unusually well informed, his collected journalism is consistently rewarding.

Is there anything about the edition to cavil at? The illustrations might have been better selected; if the younger Sickert deserves any credence, a certain Francis E. James is one of the great painters of the 1890s, but maybe his works, like many others mentioned here, have sunk too deep in the historical oubliette to be retrieved. And then, one might complain that the sheer scholarly discretion of the editing under-represents the inherent drama of the text. The undivided sequence of over four hundred articles and letters to the press, gliding across an 11-year gap in Sickert’s writing after 1898, smoothes over a turnaround in his ideas that he certainly intended to play for its maximum gestural impact.

When he slipped away from England and his first wife in 1898, for a self-appointed exile in Dieppe, Paris and Venice, Sickert left behind a reputation as foremost apostle to the ‘genius’, he whose ‘lightest utterance is inspired’, the ‘immortal’, London’s ‘living Old Master’. Whistler was his first point of reference: the wit who taught him how to cut a suave figure in the drawing-rooms of Kensington, the aesthete who opened his eyes to the pictorial possibilities of the sombre urban scene, the cosmopolitan who gave him an introduction to the Parisian art circles he hoped to conquer. When at length he returned to London, opting for a smaller pond in which to make a bigger splash, Sickert’s first intervention in journalism was a review of Mr and Mrs Pennell’s 1908 biography of his mentor, now five years dead. What he wrote mauls Whistler’s reputation. The account of how the Amer-ican painter descended from robust Parisian factuality to effete English wistfulness comes all the harder for being couched in compassion:

I see . . . a confusion – how natural to a young man so isolated – creeping in upon him. Perhaps the aesthetes were right? Perhaps he could retain his good painting and yet satisfy the English thirst for sentimentality? Suppose we get the loveliest woman procurable, and put her in the finest robe imaginable! Suppose we even design the dress! Greco-crinoline, shall it be? No, Japanese, perhaps? Let us surround her with the most precious china! Let there be sprays of azalea, and so on! Perhaps we shall thus create a very Paradise of art! Who knows? Ought not the product to be a very syrup of the purest taste? . . . I find it difficult to say why it cannot, but we all know that it cannot.

Following this baiting, Sickert goes for the coup de grâce. An Art News column headlined ‘Abjuro’ delivers his ‘explicit repudiation of Whistler and his teaching . . . The truth is that Whistler was anything but a master. Still less, pace Mr and Mrs Pennell, was he the master.’ In the doctrine Sickert now pronounces ‘to the students that I aspire to lead’, Whistler is held up as a dire example of a promising painter ruined by ‘taste’: the other peril for the artists of 1910 being the idealism he had formerly admired in High Victorians like Watts. ‘The plastic arts are gross arts, dealing joyously with gross material facts.’ This – his tone announces it – is to be his manifesto, delivered at his true moment of arrival. At 50, he is ready to take the helm. The grungy urban Impressionism of the painters soon to be named the Camden Town Group owes more, he willingly avows, to Spencer Gore than to himself, but he will serve as their leader into battle. The moment coincides with that logic-interrupting lunch in Bloomsbury: what stopped him in his tracks that day in May 1910 was the startling realisation that the performances of Old Masters such as Hogarth and Gainsborough, hanging in some dining-room in Coram’s Fields, were being outstripped in quality by those of his own contemporaries. Here among his fellows, a path to genuine artistic progress was opening up.

He was surprised at this for the same reason that his attempt to lead an avant-garde was to be tentative and brief: for all his banter and revisionism, Sickert was by conviction a conservative. He was Tory in his politics, and profoundly traditionalist in his understanding of art. ‘Je dis toujours la même chose,’ he self-fulfillingly repeats, ‘parce que c’est toujours la même chose’: for if by 1910 he had shaken off the example of the American reactionary aesthete, it was only to cleave harder to the more deeply stoic precepts of Degas. His basic premises were indeed as old as Cennini. The art of painting, now as always, depends on the integrity and power of the artist’s draughtsmanship, shown in his quality of line. All the rest is supplementary. It is in their struggling to delineate the visible world that painters may attain to their own sort of truthfulness. This does not mean that their paintings should simply copy nature: in a gag that’s put through many variations, ‘Hogarth’s Modern Midnight Conversation was not done from 11 men simultaneously drunk in the studio from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with an interval for luncheon.’ No, painters should compose and colour their canvases at a reflective distance from the principal motif, which generally speaking ought to consist of ‘human beings doing something somewhere’. In this, Sickert keeps to the old academic ideal of the istoria – the scene showing a notable action, literature made visible – but presents it weathered down to an unheroic modernity. What he doesn’t give in to is the Augustus John school of composing, which, as he puts it, merely shows ‘people behaving aesthetically’.

In the case of his own painting, the people ‘doing something somewhere’ are those lower orders whose bar and bedroom liaisons he reports with such empathy that he has sometimes been mistaken for a social realist. Actually, the slouchy, cloth-capped boozers and rough, resilient streetgirls that we remember from his pictures are in principle nothing but objects at the service of his art, which has no wish to speak to or for them. ‘My milkman is quite happy without what you call culture.’ Art is the production of beauty, the more admirable the more unpromising its raw material. Beauty creates pleasure among discriminating spectators, and that alone is sufficient cause for the practice of painting.

As to its practitioners, they need to be kept firmly tethered. In his youth Sickert wanted to turn them away from the grandiose vapidities of the ‘exhibition picture’, the pompous, Millais-or-Gérôme-style show-stopper, and force them to paint small; in his Daily Telegraph letter-writing old age, he wants to hear none of their ‘mystical twaddle about Art’; at no time does he want them subsidised. Supply and demand are necessary for the production of necessary art. He pits his no-nonsense views against an imaginary adversary from the chattering classes, a sump of misplaced refinement and idealism whom he christens ‘the supergoose’. (‘An entirely sexist invention’, Robins comments in a rare moment of exasperation.) It is her hankering for ‘niceness’ that has left English art stuck in provincialism. ‘We are all so South Kensington, that is the trouble.’

Sickert’s Toryism was a consistently held creed, and a fairly resilient one. His ‘nothing new under the sun’ posture stood up to the Futurist assault on London in 1912: it is typical of his tactics and his eclecticism that he found a ready precursor for the jumbled perspectives of a Severini in Cruikshank’s didactic Temperance extravaganza painted fifty years earlier (and recently re-exhibited at Tate Britain). In fact, he warms to Marinetti, who brings out his usually submerged authoritarian leanings. ‘Austere, bracing, patriotic, nationalist, positive, anti-archaistic, anti-sentimental, anti-feminist, what Proudhon calls anti-pornocratic’ – Sickert also ran a guerrilla campaign against the cult of the nude – ‘the movement is one from which we in England have a good deal to learn.’

But these words of 1912, with their faintly ominous backswell, are separated from the bullish flag-waving of 1910 by a faultline which emerges in the interval, and which continued to snag Sickert for the rest of his critical life. On one level, Roger Fry’s Post-Impressionist exhibition, which he reviewed in January 1911, was the occasion for another carefree game of critical skittles. He has a friendly disrespect for Fry himself; he admires Gauguin, and can comfortably patronise Van Gogh, mad but magnificent. If he thinks poorly of Picasso for the Portrait of Clovis Sagot, it’s true that this canvas still looks a pretty feeble entrée for Cubism in England. If he thinks worse of Matisse, muttering about ‘patent nonsense . . . all the worst art-school tricks’ – well, here he is in 1924 writing, with the unblinking shamelessness of the true hack, that ‘Matisse is a great painter.’

But when it comes to the painter behind Matisse and Picasso, there can be no such clearing of accounts. Something has gone seriously wrong with Sickert’s world if people look up to Cézanne. Oh, of course he knows about poor old Paul Cézanne – didn’t we all, in Paris back in the 1880s? – Pissarro’s hapless pupil who could never get his drawings to come out straight. Such tenacity but alas! so little talent. ‘To criticise him is, morally, almost like criticising an artist without arms.’ What on earth can have happened to Paris, if its painters are setting such an abject incompetent on a pedestal? They’ve been imposed on; the dealers and critics have worked up a scam, a ‘nonsense boom’. It’ll pass, soon enough.

And in a sense it did. A year later Sickert can claim that ‘the cubical, conical, cylindrical, rhomboidal invasion is, I think, routed, and everything, as they say in France, has re-entered into order.’ Come May 1914 he can salute ‘an age of brilliant achievement in painting’ – in the secure hands of William Orpen, Laura Knight and Robert Anning Bell. (Now that Modernism is orthodoxy, we forget how marginal its initial hold was.) When, after the war and a period of personal troubles, Sickert returned to the critical fray, he had become the genial, roguish grandfather of art, indulgently supportive of young tearaways such as Jacob Epstein, Stanley Spencer and even D.H. Lawrence, part-time painter, when they hit trouble with the British establishment.

Yet the phenomenon of Cézanne persisted, and nagged at him, an affront to his capacity to master the scene. He frets away at this modern critical heresy, seeking to diagnose the nature of the error. Cézanne’s drawing is distorted; it lacks balance; he can’t get two eyes to tally. To be sure, drawings do distort, somewhat, as a rule. In fact, you might even say that that is the source of their artistic interest. Art is not, after all, a mere copy, a photograph. And sometimes, the wildest, most distorted metaphors for nature are the best. (Caricature is a source of delight for Sickert; his hero of 19th-century British art is the comic draughtsman Charles Keene.) But that is mastery. Whereas Cézanne . . . Sickert comes closest to touching the border that divides his own instincts from 20th-century sensibilities when he writes, pondering the problem in 1918, that ‘it is possible that a stimulus is likely to be more effective in proportion as it proceeds from work that is conspicuously incomplete.’

The drawing of late Cézanne – to state what’s now received wisdom – leaves open: it offers nature and perception in a process of mutual emergence. In doing so it renounces the act of defining bodies that Sickert commends as the exemplary practice of the academies. Cézanne’s markings break up, to explore an indefinite continuum previously unfamiliar to Western art. But there is another painter whose later draughtsmanship also breaks up and leaves open: Sickert himself. It scatters itself in a spirit less of exploration than of self-parody; proceeding by elusive, jerky knight’s moves across the picture-plane, it plays out an absurd disintegration that mocks both observed and observer, that almost mourns the possibility of definitively comprehending the motif.

Sickert the writer did not wish to know Sickert the painter. Not, at least, from the mid-career point of Camden Town. An instinctive reading of how the game was changing increasingly pushed Sickert the painter into his own singular and radical form of Post-Impressionism. The one-time castigator of artists covertly relying on the camera came to paint with an explicit dependence on photographic sources, switching the accent away from the masterly contour to emphasise the mechanical grid that enlarges them. The disciple of the linear tradition, with his teasing claim that ‘painting compared to drawing is a very small thing . . . All you have to do in painting is to make red hair red and green grass green’, submitted his motifs to the most unaccountable, magical colour improvisations – mysterious, perhaps, even to himself. He doesn’t want to acknowledge in so many words that he is working in this luridly lit, almost desperate back-end of a tradition. Like the literary Modernists (his glossolalia has a faint foretaste of The Waste Land and Finnegans Wake), his most distinctive work is informed by a sense of a broken history; but in his literary efforts, he preferred to put up the ‘Business As Usual’ sign.

Perhaps that is the way his performing energies ran; he was bound to their habitual mental channels when he sat down to write. It was a powerful act. In describing Degas’s presence in company, he describes his own on the page: ‘the irrepressible laugh of a boxer who gets in blow after blow exactly as he intended’.