In 1911, Walter Sickert (1860–1942) formed the Camden Town Group of sixteen elected male painters. They met every Saturday afternoon in rooms on the first floor of Sickert’s studio at 19 Fitzroy Street, Camden Town, in north London, and held three annual exhibitions.
Typical of Sickert’s work at this time is Off to the Pub (1911), which suggests the man about to leave for the pub has just finished arguing with his partner sat behind, who wears her hat as if she too had been hoping to go out. The male model is ‘Hubby’, Sickert’s assistant and a favourite between 1911-14, who then relapsed into alcoholism and was dismissed.
After only two years, the Camden Town Group merged with the Fitzroy Street Group and the Vorticists to form the London Group, which continues to operate today with artist leadership, and an annual open exhibition. The following year, the Great War started.
The best-known of Sickert’s paintings from this period is Ennui (c 1914), which was exhibited at the New English Art Club in the summer of 1914. It comes close to the sub-genre of the ‘problem picture’, which had been highly successful with the public but a few years earlier. This is the major version of several which the artist painted, and the best-finished.
Probably painted as his reaction to the start of the war, Tipperary (1914) shows Sickert’s model ‘Chicken’ sat at the piano playing the contemporary hit, It’s a Long Way to Tipperary. That had swept to popularity with British troops as they went off to fight in the trenches on the other side of the Channel.
He next returned to his enduring theme of music halls in The New Bedford, painted in about 1914-15, which captures the splendour of the interior at its height.
Sickert spent much of the summer of 1915 visiting Brighton, where he made studies for Brighton Pierrots. This is a commissioned copy of his original, which remains in a private collection, and like that was painted following his return to his London studio. It shows a small group of entertainers who performed daily on a temporary stage set up on the beach, which Sickert observed and sketched over a period of about five weeks.
Late during the war, probably in 1917, Sickert painted this view of Belvedere, Bath. As he was unable to go to Dieppe in the summer, he instead visited resorts in England. These included Brighton, Chagford near Dartmoor in Devon, and Bath twice. This view looks down towards the Regency centre of Bath from Belvedere, taking in the fronts of shops which lined the street, and a horse and cart on the right.
Despite its appearance as an oil sketch which might have been completed briskly in front of the motif, Sickert created this following a series of sketches and studies, including at least one compositional sketch in oils. This final version was made in the studio he rented in the city during his visit, and was praised by the critics when exhibited.
Sickert painted this view of Maple Street, London between about 1915-23. It’s unclear whether this is a nocturne, or was seen under the dark grey sky of imminent rain. This street is in what’s known as Fitzrovia, not far to the west of the British Museum.
Sickert continued to visit the south coast of England after the war. In 1932, he painted this late view of the adjacent town, The Front at Hove (Turpe Senex Miles Turpe Senilis Amor), apparently based on sketches that he had made during a visit in 1926.
This shows the Brunswick area, looking from the sea towards the Regency façade of Adelaide Crescent, in Hove. Its Latin sub-title is a quotation from Ovid’s Amores, generally translated as An old soldier is a wretched thing, so also is love in old age, and is reflected in the decay of those once grand houses, as much as in the figures. Sickert probably intended the bearded man in a brown coat and hat, on the right, as a self-portrait.
Sickert died in Bath during the Second World War, in 1942. From the late 1880s until well after the First World War he had been among those at the forefront of British painting, and was a major influence to many. Today he’s mainly remembered for his Camden Town nudes, and the outlandish claim that he was Jack the Ripper.
Robert Upstone (ed) (2008), Modern Painters: The Camden Town Group, Tate Publishing. ISBN 978 1 85437 781 4.