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Walter Richard Sickert (1860-1942)


English painter, art critic, and one of the persons suggested as Jack the Ripper. Walter Sickert was a dominant figure in 19th-century British Impressionism, but not a typical Impressionist for much of his career he painted in a shadowy naturalistic way. Sickert's most famous works include the Camden Town paintings, which present the grim, seedy side of urban life. A number of important galleries, such as the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Museum of London, Tate Gallery, and J. Paul Getty Museum, have examples of his work.

"To me Sickert always seems more of a novelist than a biographer... He likes to set his characters in motion, to watch them in action. As I remember, his show was full of pictures that might be stories, as indeed their names suggest Rose et Marie; Christine Buys a House; A Difficult Moment. The figures are motionless, of course, but each has been seized in a moment of crisis; it is difficult to look at them and not to invent a plot, to hear what they are saying." (Virginia Woolf, 1934)

Walter Richard Sickert was born in Munich into a Danish-German family. His father, Oswald Adalbert Sickert, was an artist. With others he contributed to the satiric magazine Die fliegenden Blätter. Sickert's mother, Eleanor Louisa Moravia, on account of the money he received from one of her relatives, was in practice the financial mainstay of the family. Sickert's sister, Helena, became later a champion of women's rights and published a book of memoirs in 1935.

In 1868 the family moved to London. Later he told the writer Virginia Woolf that he went to Reading, to a school kept by a drunken old woman, who beat a boy who had broken his arm. "And we thirty little wretches lay there cowed." Sickert attended University College School, Bayswater Collegiate School, and Kings College School. He had shown early artistic talent, but he first worked unsuccessfully as an actor, and then studied painting under Alphonse Legros at the Slade School, London. For a while he was James McNeill Whistler's assistant, and painted with him in 1884 in Cornwall. Sickert's early works were signed "pupil of Whistler."

Sickert, like Oscar Wilde, William Morris and Bernard Shaw, was a friend of Sergei Mikhailovich Kravchinski, better known as Stepnyak, a Russian revolutionary who had assassinated the head of Russian secret police and escaped to London. In Paris Sickert worked with Edgar Degas. Later he described the elder master as having a "rollicking and somewhat bear like sense of fun, half regarded and half affected to regard me, erroneously I fear, as the typical and undoubted Englishman" (in Edgar Degas: Life and Work by Denys Sutton, 1986).

Sickert lived in Dieppe and spent some time in Venice. When Wilde was released from prison, he fled the ostracism of London for France, where he met Sickert and Aubrey Beardsley in Dieppe, then full of artists. They, however, were not happy to see him. In 1905 Sickert returned to London, where he again started to produce sketches of music halls and their audiences. Stage scenes were also one of Degas' favorite subjects, but whereas his work had considerable erotic quality, Sickert's paintings were often full of undefined psychological tensions. Attitudes towards sexuality in Victorian England were far from liberal; and Sickert was secretive in many ways about his personal life. His nudes, painted without apparent sexual interest, were lower class women in cheap rooms. "Compositions consisting solely of nudes are usually (I have not forgotten certain exceptional flights of genius, such as the Rubens, in Munich, of the Descent into Hell) not only repellent," Sickert said in 1910, "but slightly absurd. Even the picture or two (I think there are two) of the master Ingres, which is a conglomeration of nudes, has something absurd and repellent, a suggestion of a dish of macaroni, something wriggling and distasteful." The name of one of his paintings, La Hollandaise (1905-06), was probably derived from one of Balzac's characters in Gobseck, a prostitute nicknamed "la belle Hollandaise."

In 1885 Sickert married Ellen Melicent Ashburner Cobden, the daughter of the influential Liberal politician Richard Cobden. Born in 1848, she was much older that Sickert. The marriage was childless, and apparently unhappy. According to some sources, Sickert had an affair with an attractive artist's model named Annie Crook, who gave birth to Joseph "Hobo" Sickert. Sickert spent much of his time away from home, afraid that his infidelity would be made public. Officially Ellen divorced him in 1899. At that time Sickert lived in France and suffered from paranoia. In 1911 he married Christine Drummond Angus, his student, who was eighteen years his junior. She died in 1920.

Sickert had studios in the East End, a working-class section of London, where between August and November 1888 five prostitutes were murdered. In 1909, Sickert produced a series of paintings, known as the Camden Town Murders, which were based on these killings. The killer was given the nickname "Jack the Ripper." It came from the flow of letters, signed "Yours truly, Jack the Ripper." One of Sickert's works was named "Jack the Ripper's Bedroom" which he painted in 1908. This kind of subject matter was unusual for an Impressionist painter, but not for an Expressionist.

In his own aesthetic theory of Impressionism, Sickert linked in 1899 his program to Edgar Allan Poe, who was known for such horror stories as 'The Murders at the Rue Morgue.' Sickert wrote in an unsigned preface to the London Impressionists' exhibition at the Goupil Gallery, that Impressionism "accepts, as the aim of the picture, what Edgar Allan Poe asserts the be the sole legitimate province of the poem, beauty." Sickert continued, that it is "strong in the belief that for those who live in the most wonderful and complex city in the world, the most fruitful course of study lies in a persistent effort to render the magic and poetry which they daily see around them." However, instead of actually examining the "magic and poetry" of London, his work in general showed more dispassionate or occasionally nervous attention to activities of the shabby side of the town. In this he followed Whistler, who made nocturnes and was interested in places at night.

After Sickert returned to London, his studio become the center of a loose association of young artists, which, at Sickert's suggestion, called themselves the Camden Town Group. The group consisted of sixteen artists, most in their thirties. Lucien Pisarro was among the oldest members: he was forty-eight; and Wyndham Lewis, who went off in his own direction, was born in 1882. The group held three exhibitions in 1911 and 1912 at the Carfax Gallery. They were not so much interested in developing color theories as to capture fleeting moments of life in murky, urban surroundings. Sickert himself used Impressionist methods, but it was not until the late 1920s that his sombre colors and tones drastically lightened. The countryside had no appeal for him.

Between 1908 and 1910 Sickert taught at Westminster Institute. Later he ran the private school Rowlandson House and other schools. Enid Bagnold, one of his female students, later said, that "Sickert liked his pupils as the Old Masters, protective, disrespectful, chiding, kind and half contemptuous. 'My flock  poor creatures.' He hammered their heads with his wit... He was such a teacher as would make a kitchen-maid exhibit once." Wendy Baron developed this admiration even further in her introduction to an exhibition catalogue: "Sickert, handsome, witty, gallant, charming, with an intuitive understanding of women, particularly women with latent artistic talents, possessed an enormous appeal for the opposite sex. Many of his pupils could not help loving him..." (from The Sickert Women and the Sickert Girls, 1974) Sickert could also be outspoken with his views. When the aspiring artist Nina Hamnett showed her pictures to him, Sickert was horrified and hated them. "I rather admired them myself at that time," she wrote later, "but, having seen some of them recently, am inclined to think that he was right."

In 1920-22 Sickert lived in Dieppe. His third wife, whom he married in 1926, was the painter Thérèse Lessore. With her he lived in Islington. In 1934 he took a studio at 10 Cecil Square, Margate; he also had a house near Margate. In 1938 he moved to Bathhampton, Bath, where he painted scenes  not necessarily on the spot  and made a series of pictures based on photographs or Victorian magazine illustrations. One of Sickert's most famous late paintings, the portrait of Edward VIII stepping from a car, was based also on a news photograph. From 1924 Sickert was an associate of the Royal Academy. In 1934 he become a member, but resigned in 1935. As a well-known figure, he met briefly Winston Churchill, a talented amateur painter, who invited him to Chartwell to give advice on technique. In 1938 he received an honorary D. Litt. from the University of Reading; he also had an honorary LL D from the University of Manchester. Walter Sickert died on January 23, 1942, in Bathampton.

Sickert's dark, heavy style was widely imitated in British art schools well into the 1950s. Often Sickert's people outdoors or in dark rooms were frozen in the middle of some obscure action. Virginia Woolf, who met Sickert in 1923 and 1933, argued that Sickert's pictures could be classified as stories in their ability to stimulate and develop plots and dialogue. An example of Woolf's notice is Ennui (c.1913), Sickert's most famous painting, in which the relationship of the two characters  a man and a woman  is as bleak as the colors of the work. An indistinct painting on the wall behind the characters is witness to the scene. Woolf confessed that she envied painters who can portray "the complexity and intrigue of character" without having to fall into "the three or four hundred pages of compromise, evasion, understatement, overstatement, irrelevance and downright falsehood which we call biography." When Quentin Bell, Vanessa Bell's son, sat as Sickert's model, he recalled that his studio was large, dusty, chaotic and full of books of all shapes and sizes. "... the visitor had to make his way between precipitous cliffs of literature which threatened at any moment to fall and leave the painter imprisoned within an impenetrable wilderness of printed matter."

Woolf visited Sickert's retrospective show in 1933. Afterwards, they met at a dinner party. Woolf wrote in her diary: "Sickert is sunk and old till warmed with wine. He scarcely eats. At last he expanded, and sang a French song and kissed Nessa's hand  spontaneously; mine more formally. I think a difficult old man probably. But the ingrained artist." Sickert did not have an overcoat although it was December and freezing cold outside. He told her that he had always been a literary painter and she was the only person who had ever understood him.

In 'Walter Sickert', an essay from 1934, Woolf examined Sickert's work within the frame of a fictional conversation, which reveals a deep rift between avant-garde painters and people who do not have an access to their language. "They are making passes with their hands to express what they cannot say; what excites them in [the photographs from Sickert's paintings] is something so deeply sunk that they cannot put words to it. But we, like most English people, have been trained not to see but to talk." Sickert himself once said that "it is natural to all ages to like the narrative picture, and I fancy, if we spoke the truth, and our memories were clear enough, we liked at first the narrative picture in the proportion that it can be said to be lurid."

Sickert was a prolific and influential art critic and an eager letter writer. He first began writing art criticism under a pseudomyn, "St P" (for St Peter) in The Speaker. Sickert's views on art were not always coherent and he had a talent for stimulating heated arguments. Among his opponents was Ezra Pound who attacked him in the New Age. Sickert's reviews appeared in New York Herald, Scots Observer, Art Weekly, The Whirlwind and elsewhere. Sickert also wrote several hundred letters to the press. He criticized van Gogh  "I execrate his treatment of the instrument I love, these strips of metallic paint that catch the light like so many dyed straws"  and Cézanne, whom he considered immensely overrated. He also criticized the technique of his former teacher, James Whistler. Sickert's recollections of Degas are without malice; moreover, he did not tolerate any criticism of Degas, whom he called "the lighthouse" of his existence. Once his friend, Roger Fry, an influential critic and also a painter, said: "It took Degas forty years to get rid of his cleverness." Sickert replied: "And it will take you eighty years to get it."

Patricia Cornwell claims in Portrait of a Killer, that Sickert become a serial killer, Jack the Ripper, after Whistler, whom Sickert idolized, went on honeymoon with his new bride. "For Walter Sickert to imagine Whistler in love and enjoying a sexual relationship with a woman might well have been the catalyst that made Sickert one of the most dangerous and confounding killers of all time." Sickert was also born with a deformity of his penis. In his childhood he experienced traumatic surgeries and he probably was incapable of an erection. And moreover, Cornwell believes he was a psychopath, and never stopped killing. Portrait of a Killer received mixed reviews. Caleb Carr, the author of The Alienist, dismissed it as " a sloppy book, insulting to both its target and its audience." (The New York Times, December 15, 2002). Jean Overton Fuller also has suggested in her Sickert and the Ripper Crimes (1990), that Sickert was Jack the Ripper. Cornwell has examined systematically the murder scenes and forensic clues. One of the most interesting points is that several of the Jack the Ripper letters were written on similar watermarked paper, made by A Pirie & Sons, that Sickert also used. However, although it is possible that Sickert sent some dubious letters, to have fun with the police, it does not prove that he actually was involved with the murders.

The Ripper murders have been dealt with in several books, films and, comics and even in an opera. Except Queen Victoria, no other historical figure of that time period has inspired writers more than this mysterious serial killer. In G.W. Pabst's classic silent film Pandora's Box (1928) Louise Brooks played Lulu and Gustav Diessl was Jack the Ripper. Alban Berg's unfinished opera in three acts, Lulu (1937), used partly the same material. The text was adapted from Frank Wedekind's Erdgeist and Die Büchse der Pandora. In Robert Bloch's much anthologized short story, 'Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper' (1943), the narrator is the famous killer. Several historical novels on the subject include Bloch's The Night of the Ripper (1984), Richard Gordon's The Private Life of Jack the Ripper (1980), and Pamela West's Your's Truly, Jack the Ripper (1987). Michael Dibdin's The Last Sherlock Holmes Story (1984) combined Arthur Conan Doyle's detective with the Ripper.

For further reading: Walter Sickert: A Conversation by Virginia Woolf (1934); The Life and Opinions of William R. Sickert by Robert V.B. Emmons (1941); Sickert, ed. by Lillian Browse (1943); Sickert by A. Bertram (1955); Sickert by Lilian Browse (1960); Sickert by John Rubinstein (1961); Sickert: The Painter and His Circle by Marjorie Lilly (1971); Sickert by Wendy Baron (1973); Sickert: A Biography by Denys Sutton (1976); Walter Sickert as Printmaker by Aimée Troyen (1979); Walter Sickert by Richard Shone (1988); Sickert and the Ripper Crimes by Jean Overton Fuller (1990); Walter Sickert and the Camden Town Group by Maureen Connett (1992); Walter Sickert: Drawings: Theory and Practice: Word and Image by Anna Gruetzner Robins (1996); The Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper by Maxim Jakubowski (1999); Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper - Case Closed by Patricia Cornwell (2002); Walter Sickert: The Camden Town Murder in Focus by Anna Gruetzner Robins (2003); Walter Sickert by Matthew Sturgis (2003); Walter Sickert: The Camden Town Nudes, edited by Barnaby Wright (2007) 

Selected works:

  • Sickert, 1943 (edited by Lillian Browse, with an essay on his life and notes on his paintings; and with an essay on his art by R.H. Wilenski)
  • A Free House!, 1947
  • Sickert, 1955
  • Sickert, 1860-1942: An Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings, 1964
  • Our own Sickerts: An Exhibition of Drawings, Paintings and Etchings from the Collection of Islington Libraries, 1970
  • Sickert in Dieppe, 1974 (cat)
  • Late Sickert: Paintings 1927 to 1942, 1981
  • Advice to Young Artists, 1986
  • The Sickerts in Islington, 1987 (compiled by David Withey)
  • A Free House or the Artist As Craftsman, Being the Writings of Walter R. Sickert, 1989 (edited by Osbert Sitwell)
  • W.R. Sickert: Drawings and Paintings, 1890-1942, 1989
  • Sickert, Paintings, 1992 (edited by Wendy Baron and Richard Shone)
  • Sickert, 1993
  • Walter Sickert: Prints - A Catalogue Raisonne, 2000 (by Ruth Bromberg)
  • Walter Sickert: The Complete Writings on Art, 2001 (edited by Anna Gruetzner Robins)

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