Walter Sickert 1860-1942


R. A. Harari
Belgrave Gallery, 1989
Private Collection


1932, London, Beaux Arts Gallery, cat. no. 7
1949, London, Beaux Arts Gallery, cat. no. 13


H. Lessore, 'Richard Sickert: "Originals" and "Echoes"', in The Studio, vol. 103, Jan-June 1932, b/w ill. p. 270. 
W. Baron, Sickert: Paintings and Drawings (Yale University Press, 2006), cat. no. 624, p. 508, b/w ill. p. 508 (reproduction incorrectly captioned as cat. no. 625). 
The output of the last thirteen years of Sickert’s life were dominated by a collection of works he called the ‘Echoes’. Sickert suffered a serious illness in 1926, possibly a stroke, and during his convalescence he read old copies of popular Victorian newspapers, like the London Journal, The Illustrated London News and the Penny Magazine. Taken by the wood engraving designs that accompanied these publications by famous illustrators like Sir John Gilbert, Kenny Meadows and Francesco Sargent, Sickert began sampling these images for use in his paintings. Transfering the composition in its entirety and unedited from illustration to canvas, Sickert coloured the black-and-white images with an extremely heightened and artificial palette. The ‘Echoes’ were commercially successful but, initially, critically derided. The source material – Victorian tales of morality and sentiment – was disparaged as nostalgic indulgence on Sickert’s part, a decadent and weak return to the images of his boyhood. In particular, the ‘Echoes’ were judged harshly against Sickert’s concurrent work that utilised photographs, a modern technology, of contemporary personalities. The ‘Echoes’ have now, however, been the subject of serious critical re-evaluation including an exhibition in 1981 of ‘Late Sickert’ at the Hayward Gallery and a focus on Sickert’s late productivity by Richard Shone and Wendy Baron. Baron argued that, “The liberties he took and his easy familiarity with pre-existing designs were entirely modern. His use of ready-made sources anticipates the brazen effrontery of Pop Art by over twenty years.” [W. Baron, Sickert: Paintings and Drawings (Yale University Press, 2006), p. 122.].

Painted in 1931-2 and exhibited in 1932 at the Beaux Arts Gallery, the source of ‘The Proposal’ is a work by Robert Barnes, a Victorian illustrator. Famous for providing the designs for wood engraving illustrations to accompany evangelical and other magazines, as well as the illustrations to accompany Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, Barnes often depicted tales of morality – or lack of – and the hardships of poverty. In ‘The Proposal’ Sickert has quoted a scene depicting a grand domestic interior with an elegantly dressed Victorian woman reading a letter she has just been handed by another woman to her left. The letter is, presumably, the source of the eponymous ‘proposal’, the nature of which is left open to interpretation. Is this a marriage proposal or a proposal of a more indecent nature? The enigmatic suggestion of the narrative implied in ‘The Proposal’ evidently appealed to Sickert, corresponding with his career-long fascination with the hidden, the unspoken, and the disreputable.

Taking the composition wholemeal, the colouring of ‘The Proposal’ was entirely the product of Sickert’s imagination and dominated by tones of burgundy red and mandrake green. The affectedness of these colours makes manifest the self-conscious layers of meaning within each painting: Sickert quoting a wood engraving of an illustration for a story in a magazine. Assumptions of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art were challenged with oil on canvas paintings derived from illustrations in magazines aimed at the masses, and the very notion of authorship and ‘artistic genius’ questioned. Time became a problematic concept as Sickert, the veritable modernist, turned to the Victorians for subject matter whilst his students were looking to the avant-garde in France. In probing convention and custom through quotation and transformation, Sickert foreshadowed some of the most searching questions posed by artists such as Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman at the end of the twentieth-century.