On the National Rust we pride ourselves that we bridge sport and art both of which feature prominently. I cannot recall why I became a WBA fan, it might have been that the first soccer game I watched was the 1968 Cup Final when Dad bought a colour tv and we watched Albion beat Everton 1-0. I sometimes like to categorise painters by football clubs and Sickert I would classify as Everton: in the top flight as of right but never a real contender for honours. Martin Gayford called him “Very good but not quite top class.”
I felt this when I saw the exhibition Sickert in Dieppe at the Pallant Gallery in Chichester. There was a marvellous picture of the church , but not as magnificent as that of Monet of the cathedral at Rouen. There were some haystacks in the field but pallid in colour compared to the rich yellow, golden ones of a Van Gogh. Henry felt he was not as committed as he might be to his art. I believe Sickert took his work seriously. However he was a massive personality with 3 wives, numerous mistresses, the founder of the Camden School, friend of Degas, mentored by Whistler, close to Jaques Emile Blanche, the society portraitist, once rumoured to be Jack the Ripper. The man was as big as his art. Whilst in Dieppe his beloved second wife Christine passed away and you can sense a melancholia in his subdued tints. The owner of a hotel in Dieppe rejected the painting of it as too sombre and I don’t blame him. The paintings of the music hall cafe Vernet were the most animated. One of the traits of Sickert’s life was that he married into wealth and society but as in the spirit of the Camden school was much attracted to low life. After the death of Christine, whose rich father was suspicious of Sickert, he set up home with a local fisherwoman called Augustine nicknamed Titine. There is a arresting painting of her son Maurice. The curator in her caption doubts if he was Sickert’s son but certainly Sickert treated and mistreated him as such. Famously he asked a family to look after him for a night and turned up 6 months later to collect him.
Henry and I both agreed that the exhibition was well-curated. The picture captions were well informed. Covering 5 rooms it was not crowded, unlike a London museum spectacular and easy to navigate to enjoy the paintings in quietude. Yet both of us left somewhat deflated. I would have preferred to see some of the Camden work (my favourite is “Ennui”) that tell more of a story.
There is no doubting Sickert’s importance in British art. His figurative work influences Bernard Dunstan so much that one of of the latter’s, a study of woman in a Venetian bedroom , could have been painted by Sickert. Ken Howard, though more upbeat in his light, must have been influenced too. “Influence” interests me. I advised somebody on a painting of Jaques Emile Blanche of Brighton. I said his portraits – he painted Aubrey Beardsley and Sickert – were superior to his scenic work. The composition right down to ladies promenading adorned in flowing white dresses along the front was almost identical to one of his great friend, Sickert, on view.
As we finished the exhibition we spent some time studying the pop art section, the Peter Blakes, Frank Auerbach, Patrick Caulfield and Richard Hamiltons – far bolder in colour and less figurative. I thought of the way British art developed in the twentieth century from Sickert to these artists via the Norfolk painters like Seago and Munnings, and the more spiritual Stanley Spencer and after pop art the Arsenal and Manchester United – Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud – till the new wave of nouveau Brit pop painters like Hirst and Emin rule the roost now like Chelsea and Manchester City. Will these be exhibited in the Pallant 75 years after their death like Sickert, or will they be more famous in their own era like Blanche ? Your guess is as good as mine.