Walter Sickert used places in a similar way to people, drawing inspiration from favoured subjects until he exhausted their artistic possibilities and then abandoning them in search of new motifs. In 1922, after his wife Christine’s death, he returned to England from Dieppe and sought the comfortable familiarity of his favourite London haunts. He took a bedsit at 15 Fitzroy Street and resumed work in his studio behind the building, the ‘Frith’.1 Although initially reclusive, Sickert gradually resumed connections and habits from his old life, dining out with friends, visiting local establishments and rediscovering his love of the city. He no doubt drew personal strength and comfort from his old stamping ground, but professionally he seems to have reached an artistic impasse. The Tottenham Distillery is one of a small number of London scenes that Sickert painted during this period. He quickly tired of the area around Fitzroy Street and Camden Town that was already so well known to him. In the spring of 1924, in search of a new source of inspiration, he moved to rooms at Noel Street in Islington, and this part of London henceforth became the subject of a number of landscapes. It seems likely that The Tottenham Distillery belongs to the period prior to this move and therefore dates from around 1922–4. Another interior from this time is The Bar Parlour 1922 (private collection),2 which probably depicts the bar of the Bachelor’s Hotel, Covent Garden, where Sickert stayed for a time in 1922.3
The Tottenham Distillery is a portrayal of a scene of everyday life characteristic of Sickert’s detached, objective stance. With its half-seen forms and ambiguous title, it is simultaneously acutely observed and misleadingly confusing. The painting appears to show the corner of a canteen or public eating house. In the centre of the room is a blackboard covered in white chalk writing, presumably the menu or daily specials although the script is indecipherable. There are two men occupying the room who stand absorbed in tasks with only a profile view visible to the viewer. The man on the left dressed in a white chef’s tunic and hat appears to be preparing food on a stove or open grill against the wall. He is perhaps in the process of frying since a small curl of smoke rises up from the counter. The other man, standing apart and to the right, is dressed in dark brown-green and may also be preparing or helping himself to food. He seems to have a cloth thrown over his left shoulder and is standing underneath an overhanging metal canopy. A chair and table occupy the right-hand corner of the painting suggesting the presence of a customer waiting for food.
Matthew Sturgis, Walter Sickert: A Life, London 2005, p.530.
Reproduced in Drawing and Design, vol.4, June 1928, p.170.
Wendy Baron, Sickert, London 1973, no.393.
Reproduced in Harold Gilman and William Ratcliffe, exhibition catalogue, Southampton City Art Gallery 2002, p.27.
Tate Catalogue file.
Randolph Schwabe, ‘Three Teachers: Brown, Tonks and Steer’, Burlington Magazine, vol.82, June 1943, p.145.
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery Catalogues: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, vol.2, London 1964, p.628.
‘A Private Art Collection’, Times, 27 June 1928, p.17.
Reproduced in J.B. Manson, ‘Walter Richard Sickert, A.R.A.’, Drawing and Design, July 1927, p.9.
Wendy Baron, Sickert: Paintings and Drawings, New Haven and London 2006, p.489 under no.572.1–2.