Picasso reportedly declared that lesser artists borrow and great artists steal. Walter Sickert was an avowed thief, routinely making use of imagery produced by other artists and photographers.
In his late period, Sickert (1860–1942) was an egregious translator of images. He was proud of his source material and often referenced the author whose image he had re-imagined. In his painting Miss Gwen Ffrangçon-Davies as Isabella of France, he laid out the complicated chain of images in the picture itself. The lower edge of the painting is inscribed ‘Sickert p.’ (‘p’ for ‘pinxt.’ or ‘painter’) and ‘Bertram Park phot.’ (‘phot.’ for ‘photographer’). The same is true of The Proposal, which is signed by Sickert in the bottom right-hand corner and inscribed ‘R.B.’ in the bottom left-hand corner – this being a reference to Robert Barnes (1840–1895), whose illustration was used as a starting point. Both of these paintings were executed in Sickert’s Islington home studio in Barnsbury Park, where he lived and worked between 1931 and ’34.
The Echoes were partly inspired by nostalgia for the world in which Sickert had grown up. Aside from Robert Barnes, he used the work of other Victorian illustrators like Kenny Meadows and John Gilbert. The origin of the Echoes series was briefly summarised by Sickert’s friend and early biographer Robert Emmons.
The idea came to him from the renewal of his acquaintance with the London Journal and the Penny Magazine, and the black-and-white illustrators with whom he had been so familiar in the 70s and ‘80s. The first was actually done from a pot lid, but all the rest were from wood-blocks in these papers […].
In contrast to the essentially retrospective nature of the imagery, Sickert’s project explored and partook in the processes of image reproduction – one of the industrial era’s defining features. This subtle manifestation of modernity was accompanied in paintings like The Proposal by exaggerated and non-naturalistic colouring. The complementary combination of pink and green was a recurring preference throughout his career, and certain works recall the pungent colours which Degas had favoured in his choice of drawing paper and pastel colours.