Walter Richard Sickert

Despair

c.1908–9

View this artwork by appointment, at Tate Britain's Prints and Drawings Rooms

Artist
Walter Richard Sickert 1860–1942
Medium
Graphite on paper
Dimensions
Support: 270 x 200 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1917
Reference
N03183

Catalogue entry

Entry

The subject of this drawing is a man, wearing a waistcoat and soft flat cap, seated on a bed with his elbows leaning on his knees in an attitude of abject exhaustion and depression. His slumped pose clearly relates to that of the male figure in the oil painting, Dawn, Camden Town c.1909 (fig.1),1 Walter Sickert’s main contribution to the third and last Camden Town Group exhibition in December 1912. The picture, which was displayed under the abstruse title, Summer in Naples, depicts a naked woman on an iron bedstead looking at the back of a fully dressed man seated beside her, and is closely related to the sequence of works known as the ‘Camden Town Murder’ series. Taking as their context the brutal 1907 murder of a prostitute, Emily Dimmock, in Camden Town, the paintings paired a nude female with a clothed man to disturbing psychological effect, and attracted the lion’s share of media attention in coverage of the exhibition.2 Newspaper reviews of Dawn, Camden Town, for example, described the work as an ‘ugly, sensitive, bitter and accomplished artistry’,3 concerned with the ‘musty, flabby realities’ of ‘unstimulating realism’.4 The consensus was that Sickert was presenting a study of lower class life. Critics variously interpreted the male figure as ‘a British navvy’,5 ‘a colourless male creature’,6 ‘a quite recognisable British working-man’,7 and ‘an ordinary street-corner loafer ... suffering from some kind of internal discomfort’.8 In the painting the role of the man is translated as something sordid and disaffected, the paying client in a sexual transaction. The combination of the dark and patchy tones of Sickert’s characteristic painterly style, the juxtaposition with the corpulent nudity of the woman, and the perceived griminess of the bedroom interior are interpreted as analogous to social degradation. In the drawing, however, the same motif of the man seated on a bed carries a different quality, free from moral ambiguity. The body language of the working class male here seems suggestive of physical or mental tiredness and wretchedness, the result of a lifestyle of manual labour and economic hardship. This is reinforced by the title, Despair, and the word, ‘Fatigue’, inscribed by the artist at the bottom of the sheet.9

Nicola Moorby
June 2009

Notes

1
Wendy Baron, Sickert: Paintings and Drawings, New Haven and London 2006, no.357.
2
See Robert Upstone, ‘Sensation: The Camden Town Murder’, in Modern Painters: The Camden Town Group, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2008, pp.131–7.
3
Charles Lewis Hind, ‘Camden Town Expression’, Daily Chronicle, 19 December 1912.
4
Sir Claude Phillips, ‘The Camden Town Group’, Daily Telegraph, 17 December 1912, p.14.
5
‘The Camden Town Group’, Yorkshire Observer, 1 December 1912.
6
Phillips, 17 December 1912.
7
G.R.H., ‘Gallery and Studio’, Pall Mall Gazette, 12 December 1912.
8
A.J. Finberg, ‘Art and Artists’, Star, 10 December 1912.
9
The inscription has previously been erroneously recorded as ‘Fat Girl’; see Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery Catalogues: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, vol.2, London 1964, p.622 and Wendy Baron, Sickert, London 1973, p.349. It was first correctly interpreted by Tate conservator, Sheila Fairbrass; see Tate Gallery Conservation Department Memorandum, June 1983, Tate Catalogue file.
10
Baron 2006, p.375.
11
Walter Sickert, letter to Nan Hudson, dated on the envelope 22 February 1914, Tate Archive TGA 9125/5, no.88; quoted in Wendy Baron, ‘The Domestic Theatre’, in Walter Sickert: ‘drawing is the thing’, exhibition catalogue, Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester 2004, p.6.
12
Baron 2006, p.375.
13
Ibid., no.361, reproduced.
14
For more on this, see William Rough, ‘Walter Sickert and Contemporary Drama’, The Camden Town Group, Tate 2011, http://www.tate.org.uk.
15
Virginia Woolf, Walter Sickert: A Conversation, London 1934, p.17; quoted in Baron 2006, p.7.
16
Baron 2006, no.358; reproduced in Anna Gruetzner Robins, Walter Sickert: Drawings, Aldershot and Vermont 1996, no.36, p.69.
17
Baron 2006, p.375.
18
New Age, 13 July 1911, p.252.
19
Paintings and Drawings by Walter Sickert, Carfax Gallery, exhibition catalogue, London 1912 (1). There is an annotated copy of the catalogue in the Tate Archive, reproduced in Robins 1996, pp.91–3. Beside the title and catalogue number of this work an anonymous hand has written ‘Bt by the Contemporary Art Soc CAS’.
20
Robins 1996, p.42.

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