Ada Mary Fell married Alec Martin in 1909, and with her husband’s knighthood in 1934 she became Lady Martin. Walter Sickert painted her portrait in 1935 along with that of her husband and one of her sons (Tate T00221 and T00223, figs.1 and 2). He depicted her in the same room in Hauteville, his house in St-Peter’s-in-Thanet, in which he painted Sir Alec Martin. The walls are the same deep shade of blue and the same framed picture appears in both works. Ada Martin is shown seated on the edge of what is probably a chaise-longue. The room is in a state of some disarray. She is leaning against some clothes strewn on the back of her seat while behind her is a discarded black hat perched on top of some cushions. In the background against the wall stands a painting easel and small table and there is a pile of books on the floor. In contrast to the unconventional muddle of the interior, Martin herself appears calm and serene, with her hands folded in her lap and a slight, relaxed smile apparent on her face.
Martin told her husband that she remembered Sickert’s wife, Thérèse Lessore, unexpectedly taking a photograph of her one day as she entered the room.1 Although it seems unlikely that the composition of the portrait was based entirely upon that snapshot, it nevertheless seems reasonable to suppose that the painting was at least partially based upon the photographic record. Sickert particularly liked using photographs to define the tonal passages of a composition. This is apparent in his depiction of the face and hands of Martin. The shadows and tones have been dramatically simplified to describe the contours and expression of her face and Sickert has used his characteristic camaieu technique of two colours applied over a dry underlayer that is similar in tone. The visual effect is reminiscent of a slightly over-exposed photograph. The artist uses minimum detail to maximum effect. There is no evidence of squaring-up beneath the painted surface, but there are traces of black lines which might indicate the use of a ‘grille’ for transferring an image.