The Walker Art Gallery stands over a burgeoning Christmas fairground which threatens to block its imposing, marble statue guarded façade. A large pink sign stands out over the drab of the afternoon like a flagged promise; SICKERT: A LIFE IN ART is the Walker’s examination of one of Britain’s most ubiquitous painters, and is hoisted high and proud amid the sandstone columns. No wonder the little cafe in the atrium is full of scone-eating tourists – the understated magnitude of the exhibition has brought a swill of London accents to Liverpool. Boasting over two hundred paintings and one hundred drawings, and like an extended orchestral piece, it offers a penetrative look at Sickert’s tenacious oeuvre through the various sweeping movements of his life.
Glossing over his youth, the exhibit first examines the interest which reputedly served his development in style and would continue to be a returning point throughout his career – the Music Halls of London and, more aptly, its array of working-class patrons and performers. Exquisitely and almost photographically composed, the dark scenes of shouting bowler-hatted men surround a painting of the music hall singer, Minnie Cunnignham, a shot of post-impressionist vermillion amid a sea of murk. In this, we see clearly the influence of Degas, a lifelong friend and influence of Sickert’s, since his first visit to France in the late 1800s.
Far from taking a zoomed-in approach, the exhibit strives to contextualise Sickert’s art. Emblazoned on the walls are notes on art theory, journal entries and quotes from his letters to friends. “Twenty years of intermittent fidelity is a record!” reads Sickert’s devotion to the Old Bedford theatre, a subtle nod to his various infidelities over the years, which the exhibition tries not to sensationalise.
A certain neutrality is maintained for the most part. In fact, the exhibition attempts to avoid framing Sickert in any obvious light, but it is in a middle room stuffed full of drawings that the pride of the gallery is seen. With a collection of 348 drawings, the Walker holds the largest collection of Sickert in the world, and it is here where one facet of his personality is most aptly displayed: a meticulous, studious and shrewd observer of character and 20th Century-life. Indeed, the exhibit displays some of his (and British art’s) most famous paintings, such as the languid kitchen sink piece, Ennui, made during his Camden Town phase and which now hangs near the colourful Brighton Pierrots. One thing the exhibition does express with clarity is Sickert as a shrewd self-promoter, seen most clearly in his dark, sexual and disturbing series of Camden Town Nudes – warped daubs of prostitutes whose most famous sparked a rumour that Sickert was behind Jack the Ripper.
One thing the Walker actively chooses to promote is the work of Therese Lessore, Sickert’s third wife. Often mistaken as his assistant rather than frequent and talented collaborator, a whole section of the exhibition champions her beautiful and prosaic oils and watercolours, some of the strongest it has to offer. Eschewing the form of a chronologically linear exhibit, it overlaps time, offers possibilities and unveils nuances with a slow, enveloping take on an artist who found and captured the drama of everyday living, and truly lived a life in art.