Walter Sickert : The Camden Town Nudes

Londres, Courtauld Gallery, from 25 October 2007 to 20 January 2008

1. Walter Sickert (1860-1942)
The Rose Shoe, c. 1902-1905
Oil on canvas - 38,1 x 47,7 cm
Private collection
Photo : Press office

It is probably no exaggeration to say that Walter Sickert (1860-1942) is little known among the general public. Outside the art world, however, his name is familiar to British social historians for his series on the seedy tenements of Camden Town at the time of a new case reminiscent of Jack the Ripper. It is precisely this series which provides the focus of the very “compact” exhibition (with only about twenty-five works) at the Courtauld Gallery [1] – a focus in the literal sense since the pictures which constitute it are hung in the centre of the room.

2. Walter Sickert (1860-1942)
Le Lit de fer,1905
Pastel - 33 x 50,1 cm
Private collection
Photo : Press office

The visit begins with a canvas which was presumably painted near Dieppe around 1902-1904, The Rose Shoe (ill. 1), Sickert’s first nude. The shoe, a source of innumerable fantasies, as excellently encapsulated in Cinderella’s glass slipper, suggests thanks to its gaudy colours that the scene is one of commercial sex – as confirmed by the anti-academic pose of the woman-subject/woman-object. We learn in the Press notes that Sickert regarded the nudes exhibited at the Salon de Paris or at the Royal Academy as “obscene monsters”, and we can therefore see that his very first foray into the genre is the exact opposite of this insipid and hypocritical tradition [2]. As many commentators have rightly pointed out in the British press, there was hardly anything new in painting the world of prostitution after Toulouse-Lautrec – or even scenes of violence inflicted to women in a bedroom, following Le Viol (“The Rape”) by Degas [3], an artist with whom, it must be borne in mind, Sickert claimed some filiation. But as others have argued just as correctly, it is in the treatment and not in the subject that Sickert innovates : one only has to compare Degas’s fragile (and dressed, at that) victim to the repulsive fleshy figures ostentatiously displayed by Sickert.

3. Walter Sickert (1860-1942)
The Iron Bedstead, c.
Oil on canvas - 39,5 x 50 cm
Earl and Countess of Harewood
Photo : Press office

On his return to Britain in 1905, Sickert settled in a district which was then going through a process of “degentrification” : the middle-class dwellings built in the early 19th century in Camden Town, at the time a London suburb, were now split into slum tenements for the Irish navvies who had been recruited for the construction of the three great and almost contiguous railway stations of the north of the metropolis, King’s Cross, St Pancras and Euston. The irony is that the recent reopening of St Pancras as the ritzy terminal of the Eurostar line is completing a new process of “regentrification” which has led to complaints on the part of the prostitutes who continued to claim the area as their own. Sickert took lodgings at Number 6, Mornington Crescent, where he was to paint many of the pictures exhibited, beginning with Reclining Nude – Mornington Crescent (c. 1905-1906), which features at least two of the characteristics which were to become his “signature” : the iron bed and the “realistic props” (like the water basin on the table and the chamber-pot under the bed).

4. Walter Sickert (1860-1942)
Mornington Crescent Nude, c. 1907
Oil on canvas - 45,7 x 50,8 cm
Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum
Photo : Press office

Sickert did not lose contact with Paris, however. He exhibited two pastels at the 1905 Salon d’automne : Cocotte de Soho [4], and Le lit de fer (“The iron bed”, ill. 2) which, even more than The Rose Shoe, is a deliberate aggression directed at amateurs of academic nudes. Next to Le lit de fer, the curators have hung its opposite number on canvas, Le lit de cuivre (“The brass bed”, c. 1906), as well as its “English version”, The Iron Bedstead (another oil on canvas, also c. 1906, ill. 3), which this time flouts all the taboos of the time by having the model fold a leg, thereby uncovering the abundant pilosity of her mons Veneris. Critics all agree that Sickert deliberately turns the spectator into a voyeur, and the rest of the Exhibition only confirms this malaise, as his focusing on his models’ genitals becomes increasingly explicit. Two other 1907 oils on canvas, both entitled Mornington Crescent Nude [5], incidentally and metaphorically reflect the spectator/voyeur’s own unhealthy image via the mirror which faces him. A third 1907 Mornington Crescent Nude (ill. 4), just as the Seated Nude of the previous year (ill. 5), in an unusual choice shows the model in a light and in a pose which do not uglify her body, contrary to e.g. La Hollandaise (“The Dutch Woman”, c. 1906, ill.6), apparently a character drawn from Honoré de Balzac’s The Comedy of Human Life : the Belle Hollandaise, Gobseck’s niece and a prostitute in Cousin Bette. His Hollandaise is the absolute antithesis of the fille de joie, with her distorted face which prefigures those of Bacon, her big breast set in full light and her huge thigh, whose almost deformed size is enhanced by the “shooting” angle, which in contrast shortens her calves by contracting them. The iron bedstead, most prominent in the composition, from the fore- to the background, reinforces the suggestion of imprisonment in a cage. The same holds true for Nuit d’été (“Summer Night”, c. 1906), which led at least one French commentator to despair. Indeed, what “client”, one cannot refrain from wondering, would be prepared to pay good money for such “charms” ?

5. Walter Sickert (1860-1942)
Seated Nude, c. 1906
Oil on canvas - 45 x 37,5 cm
Private collection
Photo : Press office

It is at that stage that one comes to the famous murky series on the unsolved murder of the prostitute, Emily Dimmock, in September 1907. Before broaching it, it is in order to bear in mind that some sensationalist authors’ fertile imagination led them, by dint of pseudo-scientific deductions and associations of coincidences, to proclaim that Jack the Ripper was no other than Walter Sickert [6]. The only value in the thesis [7] – though it is not insignificant – is that the morbidity of his painting makes this audacious theoretical construction perfectly credible. L’affaire de Camden Town (“The Camden Town Affair”, 1909), a canvas acquired by the French painter with progressive political idea, Paul Signac (1863-1935), concentrates all that a cheap “psycho-analysm” can “reveal” on the painter’s mental degeneracy. If Sickert is not the dressed client on the picture who looks at the whore’s unappetising “love handles”, it must be his alter ego. The scene can only arouse erotic desire in a “sexual maniac”. In the meantime, it is that voyeur, the spectator, who is frontally hit by the hideous cavernous folds set in high relief between the gaping thighs of the model, as well as the repugnant chamber-pot, invisible to the client. Who other than a psychopath, a mentally sick man – the client/painter – can find pleasure in vilifying the female body in this way, taking the spectator/voyeur hostage before his nauseous fantasies ? It is easy to follow the underlying syllogism : if Sickert is such a pervert in his painting, he may well have performed his “acting out” under the disguise of Jack the Ripper. This is in fact even worse than Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde [8], for at the beginning at least Dr Jekyll had his periods of humaneness, which is nowhere to be found in Sickert’s shabby bedrooms. Admittedly, all the preparatory drawings and sketches which surround the masterpiece and illustrate its genesis converge towards the same conclusion – but there is no need to identify Sickert as Jack the Ripper to underline all the complexity of the artist.

6. Walter Sickert (1860-1942)
La Hollandaise, c. 1906
Oil on canvas - 50,8 x 40,6
London, Tate Gallery

There remains the mystery of the enigmatic The Camden Town Murder or What shall we do for the Rent ? [9] (c.1908, ill. 7). In fact, Sickert only added the first part of the title (The Camden Town Murder) in the 1930s. Until then, it was What shall we do for the Rent ? that prevailed. All interpretations remain possible. The explanatory text provided next to the picture speaks both of the mood of domestic crisis and despair which it conveys and of the more sinister suggestions that one can detect in it, notably in the woman’s rigid pose (rigor mortis ?) and in the wringing of the man’s hands. But then the Camden Town prostitute had her throat cut – she was not strangled to death. The polysemy remains therefore total, as was undoubtedly intended by Sickert himself.

7. Walter Sickert (1860-1942)
The Camden Town Murder
or What Shall we do for Rent ?
, c. 1908
Oil on canvas - 25,6 x 35,6 cm
New Haven, Yale Center for British Art

After seeing the very unsettling set of pictures linked with the Camden Town murders, with all its thematic, if not chromatic, darkness the visitor is in no mood to concentrate on anything else. Whatever their – naturally undeniable – intrinsic quality, the last works on display (Jack Ashore, c. 1912-1913 ; The Prussians in Belgium, c. 1912 [1915 title] ; Stemmo Insieme, c. 1907-1908) do not add anything to the show : this is the only negative note on this excellent exhibition, assembling pieces which are usually scattered all over the world, and which one will not have the opportunity to see together in the same location again before long. In an interview which appeared in January [10], Wendy Baron, co-author of the catalogue [11], argues that Sickert is “the greatest British artist since Turner”. No less. The reader is of course encouraged to see for himself at the Courtauld Gallery.

Antoine Capet

Antoine Capet, lundi 26 novembre 2007


[1] Curator : Barnaby Wright.

[2] To perceive the reasons for his deliberate rejection, one can usefully compare his Rose Shoe and Cabanel’s Naissance de Vénus (1863, Musée d’Orsay).

[3] Degas, Edgar (1834-1917). Le Viol (c. 1868-69, Philadelphia Museum of Art). See also Bell, Quentin. Degas : “Le viol” . Charlton Lectures on Art. University of Newcastle upon Tyne, 1965. 8p. + 1 folded leaf of plates.

[4] The titles given in French in this text are the original French titles attributed by Sickert.

[5] Only one is exhibited. The other is at the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.

[6] Cf. Cornwell, Patricia. Portrait of a Killer : Jack the Ripper - Case Closed. London : Little, Brown, 2002. 387 p. + 48p. of plates.

[7] Pitilessly demolished in the standard biography. Sturgis, Matthew. Walter Sickert : A Life. London : HarperCollins, 2005. xvi, 768 p. + 32 p. of plates.

[8] Stevenson, Robert Louis. The strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. London : Amalgamated Press, 1886.

[9] Also sometimes captioned The Camden Town Murder or What shall we do about the Rent.

[10] Interview with Tom Rosenthal. The Independent, 14 January 2007.

[11] And additionally of a magnum opus on Sickert’s works : Baron, Wendy. Sickert : Paintings and Drawings. Published for The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. New Haven : Yale University Press, 2006. ix, 586 p. It must also be noted that in 1967 she submitted an (unpublished) 500-page Ph.D. thesis at the Courtauld Institute of Art on ‘Walter Richard Sickert : A chronological and critical study of his development’.

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