Walter Richard Sickert

Variation on Peggy

1934–5

On display at Tate Britain

Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Unconfirmed: 578 x 718 mm
frame: 807 x 941 x 96 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Bequeathed by Dame Peggy Ashcroft 1992
Reference
T06601

Summary

Sickert had used photographs as source material since the 1890s, but it was not until the 1930s that their use became a routine part of his practice. The image for Variation on Peggy was taken from a black and white photograph of Peggy Ashcroft (1907-91), the classical actress, on holiday in Venice, which was published in the Radio Times. She is seen against the parapet wall of the Accademia Bridge with the Grand Canal behind, and the domes of the Church of Santa Maria della Salute visible above her head.

The loose handling of paint is typical of Sickert's late paintings. Pigment is brushed in roughly with little attention to the minutiae of naturalistic detail, even in sections that would traditionally warrant such attention such as the sitter's face, and in many areas patches of canvas show through the lattice of coloured marks. In the lower half the squaring-up lines used to facilitate the transfer of the photographic image onto the canvas are clearly visible. Reference to the mechanical procedure of picture making belies the sense of immediacy suggested by the carefree application of paint.

Even in the context of the lightened palette of Sickert's late work, the colours in Variation on Peggy are exceptional both in their tone and their eccentricity. Subtle modulations of pale chalky blue in the sky continue down through parts of the church and surrounding buildings to the canal. The blue expanse of water is interspersed with touches of green representing boats and piers, and with large passages of green and pink suggesting the reflections and shadows of buildings. The details of the buildings themselves are shown in pink, green and dark brown, and rendered in the same cursory manner as the rest of the painting. The figure of Ashcroft is modeled in various shades of green: the pale green of her dress blends with the warmer green of her face and neck, and the rich, deep green of her hair. Her profile is highlighted by the contrast between the blue water and the green of her face and further accentuated by the dark outline of her forehead, nose, lips and chin. By contrast, the right side of the figure blends more harmoniously with its predominantly pink and green background.

Though the theatre had been an important subject matter in Sickert's work since the late 1880s, it was only in the mid 1920s that he began to paint large scale portraits of leading actors and actresses on and off the stage. Ashcroft's performance next to Paul Robeson in Ellen Van Volkenburg's 1930 production of Othello had brought the actress to prominence. Variation on Peggy is one of at least fifteen paintings by Sickert of her.

Further reading:
Late Sickert: Paintings 1927 to 1942, exhibition catalogue, Arts Council, London 1981, reproduced p.34, pl.19 (colour)
Wendy Baron and Richard Shone (eds.), Sickert: Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy of Arts, London 1992, reproduced p.326, fig.225

Toby Treves
May 2000

Display caption

Sickert loved the theatre. He had admired the actress Peggy Ashcroft from one of her earliest stage appearances, as Desdemona in Shakespeare's tragedy Othello in 1930. This portrait was painted when Sickert was in his seventies; at this stage he often chose his subjects from newspaper images, in this case a photograph from the Radio Times of the actress on holiday in Venice. The painting's dry, grainy texture, and non-naturalistic, shadowless colouring puts a distance between background, figure and viewer. This painting combines two of Sickert's favourite themes: Venice and theatre.

Gallery label, August 2004

Catalogue entry

Entry

Variation on Peggy presents a profile view of the actress, Peggy Ashcroft (1907–1991), dressed in a short-sleeved summer dress with her hair tied back in a bun. She is standing on the new wooden Accademia Bridge in Venice, looking back across the Grand Canal with the silhouette of the church of Santa Maria della Salute in the background. The painting was based upon a black and white photograph which appeared in a feature on famous female broadcasters in the Radio Times, 16 November 1934.1 Sickert invented his own colour scheme for the picture, transforming the staid press photograph into a thrillingly intense combination of three colours. The Venice cityscape and water is rendered in velvety blue and chalky pink with the outline detail sketched in dark brown, green and black. Ashcroft herself is a study in shades of green.
In a recorded conversation with Tate Gallery staff in 1989, the actress Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies described, without rancour, how to Sickert she ‘was the sun, moon and stars for two years and then, when I had faded out, then Peggy [Ashcroft] became the sun, moon and stars, and after that he lived in the country and I don’t think there were any stars’.2 In a similar manner to the start of his infatuation with Ffrangcon-Davies (see Tate N04673), Sickert invited Ashcroft to lunch with him and his wife after seeing her perform with Paul Robeson in Othello in May 1930. She duly attended, meeting him at the building he was then using as a studio, a circular disused bus station in Canonbury. It seems to have been the first of many such engagements.
At the time of their first meeting Ashcroft was twenty-three and just beginning to make a name for herself as a stage actress. Sickert, on the other hand, was seventy and enjoying the last years of his career as something of a national treasure. She was attracted to ‘writers and creators, people who created from nothing’,3 and he found in her the embodiment of contemporary theatrical talent, writing to the Times: ‘No-one can have spoken the poems of Shakespeare more exquisitely than Peggy Ashcroft does.’4 He attended many of her early famous performances and witnessed her rise to stardom, including her appointment as leading lady at the Old Vic theatre in 1931 and the role considered to be her finest, as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. She later recalled: ‘I always knew when he was in the house ... If he liked a line he would break into solitary applause, usually at the matinées. He would also bring a photographer with him who, when nudged by Sickert, would audibly snap us in a particular pose.’5 The photographs provided the inspiration for a large number of paintings of Ashcroft on the stage, including:

Nicola Moorby
February 2006

Notes

1
Reproduced in Rebecca Daniels, ‘Press Art: The Late Oeuvre of Walter Richard Sickert’, Apollo, October 2002, p.33, fig.8.
2
Tate Archive TAV 564A.
3
Gary O’Connor, The Secret Woman: A Life of Peggy Ashcroft, London 1998, p.196.
4
‘Letters to the Editor’, Times, 26 October 1932, p.8.
5
Michael Billington, Peggy Ashcroft, London 1988, p.60.
6
Wendy Baron, Sickert: Paintings and Drawings, New Haven and London 2006, no.747. See also no.747.1.
7
Reproduced ibid., no.748.1.
8
Ibid., no.748; reproduced in Late Sickert: Paintings 1927 to 1942, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London 1981 (46).
9
Baron 2006, no.748.2; reproduced in Richard Shone, Walter Sickert, London 1988, pl.80.
10
Baron 2006, no.748.3.
11
Modern British and Irish Art, Sotheby’s, London, 3 December 2003 (lot 35, reproduced); Baron 2006, no.749.
12
Reproduced in Baron 2006, no.755.
13
Ibid., no.756.
14
Reproduced ibid., no.758.
15
Reproduced ibid., no.759.
16
British Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Paintings and Drawings, Sotheby’s, London, 11 March 1981 (lot 131, reproduced); Baron 2006, no.761.1.
17
For example, As You Like It. Peggy Ashcroft, Valerie Tudor and William Fox, pencil, pen and ink on squared up paper, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool; reproduced in Baron 2006, no.746.
18
O’Connor 1998, p.196.
19
Baron 2006, no.710; reproduced in Witt Library, Courtauld Institute of Art, London.
20
O’Connor 1998, p.61.
21
Ibid., p.45.
22
‘An Old Man’s Brilliance’, by ‘Palette’, News Chronicle, 15 July 1935.
23
Daniels 2002, p.33.
24
Reproduced in Baron 2006, no.79 and From Beardsley to Beaverbrook: Portraits by Walter Richard Sickert, exhibition catalogue, Victoria Art Gallery, Bath 1990 (16).
25
Reproduced in Baron 2006, no.241 and Victoria Art Gallery (21).
26
Matthew Sturgis, Walter Sickert: A Life, London 2005, p.574.
27
Baron 2006, no.685; Hayward Gallery 1981, p.19, (11, reproduced).
28
Victoria Art Gallery 1990, p.40.
29
For example, Times, 25 June 1992.

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Tate Etc.

Sickert and Photography

Rebecca Daniels on how Walter Sickert deftly combined art history and photography in his paintings