Walter Richard Sickert

Brighton Pierrots

1915

On display at Tate Britain

Artist
Walter Richard Sickert 1860–1942
Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Unconfirmed: 635 x 762 mm
frame: 901 x 1030 x 120 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased with assistance from the Art Fund and the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1996
Reference
T07041

Summary

In 1887, two years after he had been introduced to Edgar Degas and French Impressionism

, Sickert painted the first of his music hall scenes. Thereafter popular entertainment was a recurring theme in his work. While Brighton Pierrots belongs to that strand of his production, its highly original composition

and its use of warm, vivid colour marks a departure from earlier work and points to developments in Sickert's work of the 1920s and 1930s.

Sickert spent much of the late summer of 1915 in Brighton as the guest of his patron, the painter Walter Taylor. For five weeks he regularly went to see the Pierrot's perform on a small, temporary stage erected on Brighton beach, making as he did so several preparatory sketches for a painting

. On his return to London, Sickert produced the first of his Brighton Pierrots (private collection, reproduced Baron 1973, p.272, cat.no.254), and was immediately asked by another of his patrons for a copy. Though Sickert rarely accepted such commissions, on this occasion he did. The second version is the painting seen here. The major compositional difference between the two is that in the first the actor at the front of the stage holds a short golden cane, which is omitted in the second painting. In addition, the colouring is generally brighter and more acid in the later version.

By placing the viewer apart from the audience and the performers, the stage-side standpoint gives a detached view of both. This unusual angle creates difficulties in reading some areas of the painting, in particular the figure of the nearest Pierrot and the space around him. While the garish green and pink striped column obscures much of his body, including his face, his disproportionate size relative to the stage creates a spatial ambiguity at the centre of the picture. Sickert overturns established conventions of composition with this arrangement and introduces a sense of disorientation.

The unusually intense chromatic accents in the painting are achieved by paint smudged dry and flat onto the canvas

This technique is used to great effect in the maroon colouring of the two Pierrots. Colour and light are also used to evoke the underlying melancholy of the scene. The twilight glow suffusing the audience and seafront in peach and purple is broken by the glare of phosphorous stage lights, the acid tints of which catch on the performers' clothes and faces. The juxtaposition of dying daylight with garish illuminations and a depleted audience underscores the end of season atmosphere. In the context of the First World War (1914-18) and the reports filtering back to Britain in the summer of 1915 of very heavy losses at the Front, the empty deckchairs may suggest the desolation of war.

Further reading:
Wendy Baron and Richard Shone (eds.), Sickert: Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy of Arts, London 1992, reproduced p.252, pl.88 (colour)
Wendy Baron, Sickert, London 1973, pp.151-2

Toby Treves
May 2000

Display caption

Sickert painted this work during the early part of the First World War, and it has a pervasive atmosphere of strangeness and melancholy. A party of vaudeville entertainers perform on the Brighton seafront under the setting sun and artificial stage lights. Many of the deckchairs are empty, perhaps hinting at the absence of so many men in the war; the gunfire of the Western Front could sometimes be heard along the south coast of England. Against that and the deep pink of the sky, the performers seem a bit ridiculous, if not pathetic.

Gallery label, September 2016

Catalogue entry

Entry

Background

Walter Sickert’s painting depicts a group of seaside pierrots performing to an audience along the seafront at Brighton on a dusky evening in late summer. The twilight sky is suffused with vibrant colours of peach, gold and purple from the setting sun. The painting’s standpoint is at the right-hand side of the stage, looking up towards the pierrot group from the side as they perform their act on a temporary wooden platform, lit from above and below by artificial electric lights. Tate’s version is Sickert’s second depiction of the subject. The first painting, which Sickert completed on his return to London, was bought almost immediately by Morton Sands, the brother of Ethel. It is now in the collection of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (fig.1).1 The painting was seen in Sickert’s studio by William and Lesley Jowitt and they were so impressed with it that they commissioned a second version for themselves. It was unusual for Sickert to accept such a commission, but he may have felt unable to turn down the offer. The Jowitts were an affluent, influential couple who were also friendly with the artist (Lesley’s sister, Jean MacIntyre, was Sickert’s ‘best whole-time pupil’,2 at his private art school, Rowlandson House).3
The two versions of Brighton Pierrots are very similar and only differ in small details of composition and appearance. In the original painting, there are streaks of light emanating from one of the overhanging stage lights and the foremost pierrot is holding a short walking cane. Tate’s later version is brighter and more acidic in colour with reduced modelling in the shadows. The definition of forms is also somewhat stronger and there are areas of simplified detail, such as the starker outlines of the stage footlights. Tate’s Brighton Pierrots is therefore perhaps rather more dramatic and bleak in effect. In addition, there are visible traces of another pierrot figure standing beyond the pink pierrette at the piano which Sickert has partially rubbed out but not entirely painted over.

Sickert in Brighton

Related sketches

Colour

Seaside Pierrots

Pierrot

Brighton and the First World War

Nicola Moorby
February 2004

Notes

1
Wendy Baron, Sickert: Paintings and Drawings, New Haven and London 2006, no.472.
2
Walter Sickert, letter to Nan Hudson, not dated, Tate Archive TGA 9125/5, no.31.
3
Wendy Baron, Miss Ethel Sands and her Circle, London 1977, p.206, n.21.
4
Wendy Baron, Perfect Moderns: A History of the Camden Town Group, Aldershot and Vermont 2000, p.134.
5
Walter Sickert, letter to Ethel Sands, not dated [August/September 1915], Tate Archive TGA 9125/5, no.93.
6
Walter Sickert, letter to Ethel Sands, not dated [1914], Tate Archive TGA 9125/5, no. 151.
7
Walter Sickert, letter to Ethel Sands, not dated [1914], Tate Archive TGA 9125/5, nos.132 and 151.
8
Walter Sickert, letter to Ethel Sands, not dated [October 1915], Tate Archive TGA 9125/5, no.39.
9
Ibid.
10
Baron 2006, nos.472.3 and 472.4.
11
Baron 2006, no.472.2; reproduction in the Witt Library, Courtauld Institute of Art, London.
12
Walter Sickert, letter to Ethel Sands, not dated [August/September 1915], Tate Archive TGA 9125/5, no.93.
13
Walter Sickert, letter to Ethel Sands, not dated [October 1915], Tate Archive TGA 9125/5, no.39.
14
Suggested by Matthew Sturgis, March 2004.
15
Reproduced in Tate Catalogue file.
16
Wyndham Lewis and Louis F. Fergusson, Harold Gilman: An Appreciation, London 1919, p.13.
17
Stephen Hackney, Rica Jones, Joyce Townsend (eds.), Paint and Purpose: A Study of Technique in British Art, London 1999, p.125.
18
Ibid., p.123.
19
Wendy Baron and Richard Shone (eds.), Sickert: Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy, London 1992, p.252.
20
Walter Sickert, letter to Ethel Sands, not dated [July/August 1915], Tate Archive TGA 9125/5, no.5.
21
Janice Anderson and Edmund Swinglehurst, The Victorian and Edwardian Seaside, London and New York 1978, p.111.
22
Bill Pertwee, Pertwee’s Promenades and Pierrots: One Hundred Years of Seaside Entertainment, Newton Abbot 1979, pp.12–14.
23
Paul Herring, The Pierrots on the Pier, London 1914, pp.68–75.
24
Pertwee 1979, p.26.
25
Anderson and Swinglehurst 1978, p.117.
26
Royal Academy 1992, p.252.
27
Tony Wales, The Archive Photographs Series: Brighton and Hove, Stroud 1997, p.88.
28
Pertwee 1979, p.40.
29
Judy Middleton, Brighton and Hove Volume 1: A Portrait in Old Picture Postcards, Market Drayton 1991, p.36.
30
Brighton Herald, 7 August 1915, p.5.
31
Brighton Herald; and Judy Middleton, Brighton and Hove in Old Photographs, Gloucester 1988, p.36.
32
Martin Green and John Swan, The Triumph of Pierrot: The Commedia dell’Arte and the Modern Imagination, New York 1986, p.1.
33
Ibid., pp.26, 189, 193–4.
34
Ibid., p.194.
35
Reproduced in Wendy Baron, Sickert, London 1973, fig.104.
36
Sir Claude Phillips, ‘Walter Sickert’s Paintings’, Daily Telegraph, 28 November 1916.
37
Brighton Herald, 14 August 1915, p.5.
38
Walter Sickert, letter to Ethel Sands, not dated [1914], Tate Archive TGA 9125/5, no.56.
39
Walter Sickert, letter to Ethel Sands, not dated [August/September 1915 and 1914], Tate Archive TGA 9125/5, nos.93 and 132.
40
Walter Sickert, letter to Nan Hudson, not dated [October 1914], Tate Archive TGA 9125/5, no.35.
41
Andrew Wilton, board note, Tate Acquisition file PC.10.1.

Read full Catalogue entry

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