Sickert in Dieppe

Dieppe Harbour c.1885The Pallant House Gallery in Chichester has achieved a duel triumph with ‘Sickert in Dieppe’.  The exhibition is both a focused study of the development of Sickert’s technique and a biography of the artist and the city as both underwent seismic change during the turbulent years of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  It brings together many disparate works that I had never seen before and which revealed a different side to Sickert’s life and work.

La Plage c.1885Whistler was the first great influence on Sickert, who left the Slade to work as his ‘apprentice’. Whistler’s motto was “we have only one enemy and that is funk”; his method was to work ‘wet on wet’ with thin oil paint, which demanded confidence as there was little margin for error.  When done well this gave a smooth surface and subtly graduated tonality. Some of Sickert’s small early oils on panel (which he called ‘sunlight pochades’ – pocket sized and completed en plein air), such as ‘La Plage’ (c.1885, above) and ‘The Harbour, Dieppe’ (c.1885, top), are very Whistlerian in this respect.  The panel is unprimed, so that the colours have a muted quality and yet retain an enigmatic resonance.

The Red Shop (The October Sun) c.1888Sickert knew Dieppe from an early age; his mother had been to school there and returned with her small children for holidays.  In the 1880s Whistler travelled to Dieppe with Ellen Cobden (whom he married in 1885). Through Whistler, Sickert was introduced to the French Impressionists, and formed a particularly close rapport with Degas.  ‘The Red Shop (The October Sun)’ (c.1888, above left), a small oil on panel, shows a new approach to colour with its vibrant geometric planes of vermilion against soft ochre tones – it has all the impact of a Rothko in miniature.  If anyone inspired the use of such daring tones it was Degas; he uses the same shade in ‘Miss Lala at the Cirque Fernando’, completed just a few years before the two artists met.

The Laundry Shop 1885Degas also encouraged more structure in Sickert’s compositions, and a greater emphasis on the human and the architectural.  ‘The Laundry Shop’ (1885, right), on a similar scale to ‘The Red Shop’, shows in the nearby preparatory drawing the technique of ‘squaring up’ that Sickert now adopted and which is visible in much of his later work, a technique based on the Renaissance practice of transferring designs from cartoons to frescos on a vast scale.  It is also closely cropped, like a snapshot of everyday life taken in passing – another Degas-esque trait that perhaps stemmed from the fashion for Japonisme in the late 19th century, particularly the elongated and stylised woodblock prints.

The Fair at Night c.1902-3Larger paintings of this early period include ‘The Fair at Night’ (1902-3, left) which is much freer in execution, as if Sickert is sketching directly onto canvas.  The shadowy, silhouetted foreground giving way to bright sunlit architecture beyond would become something of a feature in Sickert’s Dieppe paintings.  ‘L’Hotel Royal, Dieppe’ (1894, below) is quite different, a beguiling, mysterious painting with no movement or noise and unsettling, slightly sickly, shades of mauve and peppermint green.  It embodies the melancholy of dusk and the end of summer.

L'Hotel Royal, Dieppe 1894Appropriately perhaps, the Decadent poet Arthur Symons dedicated the following  verses to Sickert – they sum it up beautifully…

Le Grand Duquesne, Dieppe 1902The grey-green stretch of sandy grass,
Indefinitely desolate;
A sea of lead, a sky of slate;
Already autumn in the air, alas!

One stark monotony of stone,
The long hotel, acutely white,
Against the after-sunset light
Withers grey-green, and takes the grass’s tone.

Listless and endless it outlies,
And means, to you and me, no more
Than any pebble on the shore,
Or this indifferent moment as it dies.

The Facade of Saint Jacques c.1899-1900Other landmarks of Dieppe were painted with equally restrained drama. ‘Le Grand Duquesne, Dieppe’ (1902, above right), a statue of the Dieppois navel hero, is depicted in silhouette as the façade behind is bathed in evening sunlight.  The church of Saint Jacques was one subject that Sickert returned to countless times (an example of c.1899-1900, right).  These paintings have been compared to Monet’s series of Rouen Cathedral, but there is less interest in the changing effects of light and season than in technical experimentation – some are loosely handled, some tightly squared up; some use a bright peach-coloured ground, some darker; some use the separated brushwork of Impressionism, some the flat planes of Symbolism.

Les Arcades de la Poisonnerie c.1900In 1898, after separating from Ellen, Sickert began a relationship with the Dieppoise fishwife Augustine Villain and soon after moved in with her.  He became very fond of her small horde of children and of the simple working class life. ‘Les Arcades de la Poisonnerie’ (c.1900, left) was next to the fish market where Augustine worked and was a view that Sickert painted several times during this period.

Cafe Suisse, Dieppe 1914When war was declared in 1914 Sickert was living in the countryside outside Dieppe with his second wife, Christine (nee Angus), a pupil whom he had married in 1911.  The happy pre-war years at the Villa d’Aumale at Envermeu inspired Sickert to paint landscapes again; his tones became lighter and paint thinned after a period using a more impasto style during the Camden Town paintings of the late 1910s.  ‘The Obelisk’ (1914, below left) is one such idyllic landscape, though the curator Katy Norris points The Obelisk 1914out the symbolism of this war memorial being painted just as war was looming once again – Sickert had struggled with the perspective of this picture and, using this analogy, declared that he could only deal with ‘one war at a time’.  Another similarly bucolic scene of corn stooks is also given more sombre significance; harvesting was stopped as conscription papers were issued, the stooks themselves seeming to presage the serried ranks of soldiers who had disappeared from the fields.

Back in Dieppe, Sickert painted ‘Café Suisse, Dieppe’ (1914, above right), a typical scene of sunlit facades from a shaded arcade; but here too the war makes itself felt, with soldiers recognisable by their red and blue uniforms and schoolgirls in their straw hats, perhaps preparing to return to England.

Christine Drummond Sickert (nee Angus) buys a Gendarmerie c.1920

The Sickerts had to return too for the duration of the war.  However, they returned to Envermeu as soon as it was over and regained their quiet country life.  In 1920 the Sickerts bought a house, the Maison Mouton; the occasion is recorded by Sickert’s lovely lamp-lit portrait, ‘Christine Drummond Sickert, nee Angus, buys a Gendarmerie’ (c.1920, right) – for the house had indeed a chequered history, as a gendarmerie, a horse dealer’s and an inn: the bedrooms were all numbered.  Tragically, Christine’s tuberculosis began to worsen again and she died shortly after moving into their new home.

The System 1924-6Ever since returning to Envermeu (‘The Happy Valley’ as he titled it on his etchings) Sickert had made forays into Dieppe, frequenting the cafes chantants and the casino.  Now he could no longer bear the scenery of Envermeu that was so deeply connected with Christine – ‘[the landscapes] are like still-born children’, he wrote – and moved into an apartment in the town.  He took up figure subjects again, picking out, with shades of Degas’ absinthe drinkers, the down-and-outs on the fringes of society. ‘The System’ (1924-6, left) picks out just such a character who, amidst the anonymous crowds, is caught in a moment of private desperation.

Au Cafe Concert, Vernet's Dance Hall, 1920‘Au Cafe Concert, Vernet’s Dance Hall’ (1920, right) and ‘O Nuit d’Amour’ (c.1922, below) are two views Sickert made of this cafe concert which seem to position the artist – and with him the viewer – on the outside looking in; though full of lights and music the sense of melancholy is exacerbated by the empty tables in the foreground.  Despite his grief, this final spell in Dieppe certainly proved fruitful; in his studio on the rue Aguado Sickert painted shadowy interiors akin to the Camden Town paintings, such as ‘The Prevaricator’ and ‘L’Armoire a Glace’, as well as one of his most striking portraits, of Victor Lecourt – ‘a superb creature’ – standing in Sickert’s apartment among the myriad patterns of the furnishings and with the Dieppe dusk framed though the window beyond, solid and erect.Walter-Sickert_-O-_3359160k

Sickert returned to London in early 1922, and though he visited Dieppe from time to time it was never again his home.  The town deserves this dedicated exhibition; Sickert’s reputation is based excessively on the notorious Camden Town murder paintings – on the basis of this show, it should rest in Dieppe.

Watercolours Explored at the Fitzwilliam Museum

The Fitzwilliam’s recent exhibition, ‘Watercolour: Elements of Nature’, is a concise tour de force, presenting a medium that while often subtle is at its best spectacularly beautiful.  With works drawn from the Fitzwilliam’s own collection, the show traces the history of watercolour from the 16th century to the present day, at the same time showing its vast technical range and adaptability.

Nicholas-Hilliard-1547-1619-Henry-Percy-9th-Earl-of-Northumberland-c.1595-299x250At one extreme are miniatures, with examples by Nicholas Hilliard (‘Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland’, c.1595, above) and Isaac Oliver, the watercolour portraits painted onto ivory or vellum with brushes of only a hair’s breadth.  Plants were studied with  similar precision; a Magnolia painted on vellum (1811, below right) by the famed botanical painter, Pierre-Joseph Redoute, looks so immaculate it is difficult to discern any brushstroke at all. Gum arabic was frequently mixed with the paint to give a glossier and more transparent effect as well as heightening the intensity of the colours.

Pierre-Joseph-Redouté 1811 Magnolia macrophylla-1811 vellum

It was in the 18th and 19th centuries that watercolour reached its peak.  Alexander Cozens’s paintings illustrate his radical ‘blot technique’ by which he encouraged his students to create landscape compositions from the imagination by starting with a blot of ink or watercolour (earning him the nickname ‘Mr Dingy Digit’!). This echoed a move away from the rigidly topographical towards ideas of the ‘sublime’ and Romanticism, which became fashionable in art and landscape design in the late 18th century.

1131299John White Abbott, a pupil of Francis Towne (the stunning ‘The Source of the Arveyron’, 1781, was shown at the recent Tate Watercolours exhibition), shows the influence of his master in his use of pen and ink outlines with a thin colour wash, for instance in ‘Trees at Peamore Park, Exeter’, 1799 (left), which flattens the forms making them both decorative and slightly ethereal.

Cornelius-Varley-Three-studies-of-Mount-Snowdon-c.1805Cornelius Varley’s ‘Three Studies of Mount Snowdon’ of c.1805 (right) shows even looser and more experimental brushwork. Designed as a sketch and therefore not comparable to the finished pieces next to which it hangs, it is nonetheless fascinating to see the artist playing with watercolour’s unique capacity for the graduation of colour tones.

Peter De Wint is an artist I knew little about, but who, along with David Cox, was one of the great English watercolorists. Examples of both artists’ work are chosen to show their use of variously textured papers – Cox used ‘Scotch’ wrapping paper for its rough texture and dark flecks – and paint used on a dry brush, diluted or with gum arabic, to achieve different results that bring alive the contrasts within their landscapes (Peter De Wint, ‘Yorkshire Fells, c.1812, watercolour with gum arabic, below).

Yorkshire-fells, c.1812, wc with gum arabic, Peter de Wint

I have always loved John Sell Cotman, whose style I associated with that of Francis Towne; here some very different works are picked out in which he uses a thickening agent to create much more intense colours than the typical pale washes of ‘A Shady Pool’ or even ‘Dolgelly’ (1804-5, below top).  ‘Postwick Grove’ (c.1835-40, below bottom) and ‘Bass Rock’ both use a deep turquoise shade to turn the pallid idyll of an English afternoon sky into a vivid, dusky, almost mystical firmament.

Cotman-Dolgelly 1804-5

Postwick-Grove, c.1835-40, wc, Cotman

Several artist focus closely – like the earlier botanical painters – on the tiny details of nature; William Dyce’s ‘A Landscape Study of Rocks and Grasses’ is as 1132996immaculately observed as Durer’s famous ‘Great Piece of Turf’ (1503) while Ruskin’s ‘In the Pass of Killiecrankie’ (1857) uses watercolour with a more opaque bodycolour on board to evoke the rocky banks of a Scottish burn – every minute crack of granite and frond of heather is extolled in paint. 7.-The-Magic-Apple-Tree c.1830Samuel Palmer also mixes his paint with gum arabic or similar medium in ‘The Magic Apple Tree’ (c.1830, left), using this alongside Indian ink to create vivid colours that achieve a depth, solidity and substance at the centre where the apples cluster.  Palmer was a follower of William Blake whose visionary subjects and technical experimentation he inherited, standing apart from the mainstream British landscape watercolour tradition. John Linnell, who introduced Palmer and Blake, is also featured, though his lovely ‘Sunset’ (1812) is without the strange otherworldliness conjured by his colleagues.

Shakespeare-Cliff, Dover, c.1825, wc, Turner

Then of course there is Turner, master of the watercolour.  Here there is only ‘Shakespeare Cliff, Dover’ (c.1825, above) to represent him – though an excellent choice to show how his twin interests in the effects of nature and the use of watercolour as a medium sometimes resulted in almost abstract, highly expressionistic compositions that were well ahead of his time. (There was, however, an room adjacent dedicated to the Ruskin bequest of Turner watercolours, full of exquisite examples such as ‘Brunnen, Lake Lucerne in the Distance’ 1841-3, ‘Orleans, Twilight’, c.1826-31, and ‘Venice from the Lagoon’, c.1840).Giudecca, 1913, wc over graphite Sargent


Appropriate then that he should immediately precede the French and English Impressionist and Post-Imp watercolorists.  This last, ‘modern’, section of the exhibition is disparate – but understandably so, as art diverged in the late 19th and early 20th century into so many different movements.  And it doesn’t matter given the objective of this show – rather, considering that it represents the Fitzwilliam’s own collection, is says a lot for the eye the purchaser and the calibre of bequests – for each work selected illustrates an outstanding mastery of the medium, each in an entirely different style running the gamut from fluid washes of sunlight or mist made solid through to carefully composed still lifes emerging from a void of white paper. (John Singer Sargent, ‘Giudecca’, 1913, above; Whistler, ‘Grey and Silver, North Sea’, c.1884, below).

Grey and Silver, North Sea, c.1884, wc, Whistler

Pissarro’s landscape studies of Eragny and Gisors in springtime sing with limpid colour redolent of sunlight after rain; Signac’s Mediterranean scenes of boats in harbour place colour in careful harmony, a light-handed lesson in Chevreul’s theories; Cezanne’s ‘Still Life – Flowers in a Jar’ (c.1890, below left) uses pale tints of watery colour to outline the skeleton of his composition, leaving the bare space to speak of volumes.

8.-Still-life-flowers-in-a-jar c.1890Philip Wilson Steer, a leading British Impressionist and founder of the New English Art Club, now out of fashion and usually overlooked, is represented by a loose watercolour sketch, ‘Chalk Pits, Painswick’ (1915) – a short reprieve from his war work as an artist with the Royal Navy. British Modernism is represented by Paul Nash’s ‘Monster Field Studies’ – surreal, anthropomorphic postwar depictions of the ancient landscape of southern England – and by David Jones’ intricate yet ephemeral interior ‘The Shepherdess’ (1930); the contemporary finale by a lone Barbara Rae abstract that looked a bit lost by the door.  I had peered in at every painting, initially interested in the technique, then transfixed by its small, beautiful, unknowable world; an hour later I had reached the far end of the room and left with energy and inspiration.

Whistler and the Thames

We made a last minute dash to Dulwich Picture Gallery on Sunday afternoon to see ‘Whistler and the Thames’- with just two hours left until the exhibition closed. A long trail of latecomers snaked through the gallery and, once in, queued to peer at each exquisite etching in turn.  Whistler’s etchings and aquatints are comparable to those of Rembrandt or Durer in my view, but deal exclusively with contemporary, secular life; in this case even more specifically with the river Thames and the teeming maritime commerce of London.  The characters, their activities, the boats, the taverns and


warehouses – all are represented in minute detail, even the names painted on the shopboards or advertisements on warehouse walls are legible, giving a sense of just what a different, almost alien world much of London was, even in the late nineteenth century.  The techniques Whistler used are described, and we are shown the lengths that he went to in altering and correcting the plates to finally get his desired effect, with five or six proofs of a single image displayed together.


Throughout the exhibition, alongside Whistler’s prints or paintings, are shown contemporaneous photographs of the sites depicted as well as maps of the relevant parts of London.  These testify both to the accuracy of Whistler’s hand, and to how utterly different London looked, aesthetically and topographically – Fulham was still a patchwork of green fields, ‘New Brompton’ a scattering of newly-built suburban villas.

Then the focus homed in on one of Whistler’s enduring subjects: Old Battersea Bridge.  Some early paintings were in a ‘traditional’ Impressionist style, with naturalistic colours (predominantly brown and grey – of mud and mist and wooden piers), and though recording atmospheric effects, still rooted in the real, if mundane, activities of the metropolis – like Monet’s paintings of the Bridge at Argenteuil as it was rebuilt following the Franco-Prussian and civil wars.


Gradually the detail disappears and Whistler seems to favour more and more the ghostly light of dawn or dusk.  The misty stillness gives the water a looking-glass effect and obscures the functionality of the bridge and the factories on the far side in Battersea, reinventing them as pure architectural forms, in a hauntingly beautiful harmony of  colour and composition. Simultaneously, Whistler starts to explore the technique of lithography and lithotints, reiterating his increasing preference for the indistinct and suggestive as opposed to the clarity and factual qualities of etching.


The extraordinary change comes when Whistler discovers Japanese art.  How immediate the effect actually was is hard to know, but from one room of the exhibition to the next we leap from the grey reality of London to a dream-like floating world of Europeanised geisha and cherry-blossoms.  Could such a scene as this really depict the Embankment?! It could just as easily depict the Bosphorus or the South China Sea.


The examples of Japanese prints displayed show just how uncannily similar their depictions of bridges are to Whistler’s vision of Battersea – whose piers from this point on become gradually elongated as the low viewpoint exaggerates them and distorts the scene.  It is easy to imagine how the increasing focus, first on one archway of the bridge, then on just one pier stretching up into the sky, confounded


audiences – to the extent that the infamous ‘Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge’ (below) caused Ruskin to sue the artist for ‘throwing a pot of paint in the face of the public’.  It wasn’t a portrait, a genre scene or even an architectural study  – the subject of the painting was, it appeared, nothing at all, and this seemed subversive to Victorian traditionalists such as Ruskin.


That Ruskin brought the issue to court in 1878 is less easy to understand; Whistler’s work did not stand entirely alone, for Monet had created ‘Impression: Sunrise’ in 1872 and Turner’s ‘Snow Storm: Steam Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth’ had been exhibited in 1842.  Both were equally concerned with atmospheric effects at the cost of identifiable subject matter.  So perhaps it was his title – ‘Nocturne’ – which grated, rejecting even the suggestion of narrative in favour of musical connotations.

In Whistler’s words:

“By using the word ‘nocturne’ I wished to indicate an artistic interest alone, divesting the picture of any outside anecdotal interest which might have been otherwise attached to it. A nocturne is an arrangement of line, form and colour first.”

This painting serves as a triumphant finale to the exhibition – the culmination of almost two decades studying, sketching and painting the Thames.  It is also breathtakingly beautiful – serene, luminous, mysterious and timeless, with a firework that seems to symbolise the brief, vain spark of each individual human life in contrast to the eternal river and the endless night sky.  Perhaps that was the thought that subconsciously troubled the London public who, when the painting came up for auction in 1886, hissed.