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.
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