The Camden Town Group in Context

Walter Richard Sickert Belvedere, Bath c.1917

This view looks down onto Bath from Belvedere, part of the Lansdown Road just east of the Royal Crescent. Shops and houses line either side of the street leading into town, and a horse and cart drive into the frame on the right side of the painting. Sickert depicts everyday details – such as a ladder leaning against the façade of a building – with as much care as the architecture and foliage. He spent two summers in Bath in 1917–18 with his second wife Christine, when crossing the Channel was not possible in wartime.
Walter Richard Sickert 1860–1942
Belvedere, Bath
c.1917
Oil paint on canvas
711 x 711 mm
Bequeathed by Lady Henry Cavendish-Bentinck 1940
N05087

Entry

Early on in his career Walter Sickert had formed the habit of leaving London during the summer months and vacationing in a chosen location, usually Dieppe, which he adopted as a second home. During the war years, however, Sickert was unable to cross the Channel and was forced to seek a new holiday destination. The search for a suitable alternative led him to Brighton, Sussex in 1915 and Chagford, Devon in 1916. Finally in 1917 he visited the historic city of Bath and liked it so much that he established himself there in 1918. He and his wife, Christine, rented a house named ‘The Lodge’ at Entry Hill, and a studio room at 10 Bladud Buildings in the heart of town. By the following year, the war was over and Sickert was able to resume his annual trip to France. Bath evidently retained happy memories for him, however, and he returned twenty years later to live in nearby Bathampton, which was to be his last home.
In his summer retreat Sickert was seeking a place where he could rest and work, find inspiration in new sights and yet strengthen ties and connections to the place, revelling in a sense of familiarity and belonging. With some places he exhausted the possibilities and resources quickly and moved on, while with others he returned year after year. Bath had long been famous for its Roman baths and Georgian architecture and Sickert was probably drawn to its reputation as a place for restorative recreation and rest. A contemporary guide to the area describes the aesthetic attractions of the city and the particular quality of the light to be found there:
It lies in a hollow among the beautiful hills; its charming terraces and crescents, even as seen from the railway, are an alluring view, especially when evening is covering them in its haze, we cannot pass through it without a stirring of the imagination, a conjuring of old ghosts ... Bath’s hills ... are gentle and pastoral, and they give the town its own peculiar climate which some persons find relaxing ... there is often a touch of dream, of unreality, fitly clinging to a spot whose true life seems to belong to the past.1
Sickert found Bath both relaxing and stimulating. He was enchanted by the elegance of the Regency terraces and crescents surrounded by Somerset countryside and the Avon valley. There was also the additional attraction of his own family connection to the place: his great-uncle, Mr John Sheepshanks, had once lived in a house at the end of Camden Crescent.2 Sheepshanks was famous for founding the paintings collection of the South Kensington Museums (later the Victoria and Albert Museum) with his bequest of over two hundred works to the nation in 1857. ‘Bath is it!’ the artist wrote to Ethel Sands. ‘There never was such a place for rest & comfort & leisurely work. Such country & such town. And the mellifluous amiability of the west-country gaffers and maidens, all speaking the dialect which became the American we know and love!’3 In 1918, he persuaded his latest protégée, Nina Hamnett (see Tate N05288) to join him, eager for her to share his enthusiasm for the city. He found lodgings for her in town:
a little house ... half way down Beechen Cliff, 2 minutes from station and five from pump room ... The place is divine. It is on our way down to town ... The beauty of the place is incredible. My walk down after breakfasting à la Anglaise in the kitchen at about 6 is like a German woodcut of the views down through beech trees on the elaborate town ... You could walk in these gardens and orchards in perfect peace. Such roofs, such roses, such contorted walls ... such bracing air.4
The visit did not work out as happily as either party had anticipated.5 Sickert was too self-absorbed to keep the gregarious Hamnett entertained and she failed to show as much interest in adopting his painting regime as he had hoped. His didactic efforts fell on deaf ears and she eventually departed back to London leaving Sickert still as enchanted as ever with his Bath motifs.
Sickert seems to have found the city a particularly conducive location for work. He established a daily routine of drawing, painting, bathing and painting again. Belvedere, Bath is one of a number of landscapes Sickert produced during his two summers in the city and depicts the view looking down from Belvedere, part of the Lansdown Road, just east of the Royal Crescent. The scene shows the sweeping curve of the road with the shops and houses on either side of the street. As with his earlier Dieppe townscapes Sickert favoured certain locations, which he drew and painted repeatedly. Besides the Belvedere, his favourite subjects were Pulteney Bridge, Landsdown Crescent and Mr Sheepshank’s House. The Bath pictures were well received in London. The critic of the Times wrote that ‘Mr Walter Sickert ... seems to have been enchanted by the soft Western air and the warm Western light. He gives us colour that might be pretty if it were not beautiful.’6 The Evening Standard expressed the hope that ‘Mr Sickert will paint many pictures of a city that thoroughly deserves him’.7
In the background of Belvedere, Bath Sickert painted the mauve-green mass of the hill known as Beechen Cliff, a popular tourist spot due to the panoramic vista it afforded over the city. By painting the view towards Beechen Cliff from the town, instead of vice versa, Sickert is subverting the remit of traditional landscape painting. The elegant picturesque qualities for which Bath is so famous are relinquished in favour of a humbler, everyday view of the working life of the city. Details such as the ladder leaning against the front of one of the buildings feature in the painting with as much importance as the architecture or natural features such as trees. One of the first buildings on the right at the crest of the hill has a shop front window onto the street and a sign which reads ‘[?]R. Pavel, Chemist’. The left-hand foreground of the painting has been left bare deliberately to emphasise the sweeping curve of the road, leading the eye down the hill to the centre of the painting. Sickert’s solution to the technical difficulty of describing the tricky perspective of the descending view is to include enough buildings in the middle ground that recede in size. In the right-hand corner is the figure of a man in a bowler hat standing behind a small horse or pony pulling a wheeled cart. The animal appears to be standing still with its feet braced firmly apart as though anxious to venture further down the steep decline.
Like most of Sickert’s paintings at this time, Belvedere, Bath was conceived and executed from drawings, a method which the artist believed achieved the best results. He rejected the practice of painting from life as too undisciplined and tried to convert his fellow artists to his technique. In a letter to Hamnett he condemned ‘prima’ painting, explaining:
You couldn’t, for instance, do a certain view of Bath I am doing from where I sat for the studies in the street, and the wind and the dust and the changing light. Besides carts and horses don’t stand still while you execute them in oil.8
Walter Richard Sickert 'Beechen Cliff, Bath' not dated
Fig.1
Walter Richard Sickert
Beechen Cliff, Bath not dated
© Estate of Walter R. Sickert / DACS Photo © The Trustees of the British Museum
There are a number of studies related to the painting.9 One study corresponds closely with the Tate painting and is squared for transfer to canvas (fig.1).10 Sickert seems to have been unsure whether to include figures in the foreground of the scene. A drawing in the collection of Islington Public Libraries includes a woman with a bicycle on the left side of the scene, by the curve of the pavement.11 Two further drawings, one in the British Museum,12 and another in a private collection,13 feature a female figure with three baskets in the centre of the foreground. Traces of underpainting in this area of Tate’s painting suggest that Sickert originally intended to include the baskets at least but ultimately decided to leave the foreground bare.
Sickert painted more than one version of the view from the Belvedere. In addition to Tate’s painting there are two other similar works, The Belvedere or Beechen Cliff, Bath c.1916–18 (private collection, formerly Sir George Sutton),14 and a smaller version, Belvedere, Bath (formerly Hugh Beaumont Esq.).15 There is also an oil study on board, View of Bath from Belvedere (Victoria Art Gallery, Bath),16 which broadly sketches out the compositional elements of the scene, and another small panel (Tatham Art Gallery, South Africa).17 It is not known in which order these paintings were completed but, since there is very little alteration between the pictures, Sickert probably repeated the scene because it was a saleable subject.

Nicola Moorby
September 2005

Notes

1
Arthur L. Salmon, Bath and Wells, London, Glasgow, Bombay 1914, pp.5–6.
2
Matthew Sturgis, Walter Sickert: A Life, London 2005, p.493.
3
Walter Sickert, letter to Ethel Sands, [?1918], Tate Archive TGA 9125/5, no.81.
4
Walter Sickert, letter to Nina Hamnett, [1918]; quoted in Marjorie Lilly, Sickert: The Painter and his Circle, New Jersey 1973, p.85.
5
Denise Hooker, Nina Hamnett: Queen of Bohemia, London 1986, pp.119–20.
6
‘Old and New Methods in Art’, Times, 10 November 1919.
7
‘The Week’s Art’, Evening Standard, 8 November 1919.
8
Lilly 1973, p.87.
9
See Wendy Baron, Sickert: Paintings and Drawings, New Haven and London 2006, nos.493.5–10.
10
Ibid., no.493.6.
11
Sickert Archive, Islington Public Libraries.
12
Accession number 1933–11–14–8.
13
Reproduced in Lillian Browse and R.H. Wilenski, Sickert, London 1943, pl.48a.
14
Reproduced in British and Irish Traditionalist and Modernist Painting, Drawings and Sculpture, Christie’s, London, 3 March 1989 (lot 313) and Baron 2006, no.493.
15
Reproduced in Witt Library, Courtauld Institute of Art, London and Baron 2006, no.493.2.
16
Ibid., no.493.3.
17
Ibid., no.493.4.

How to cite

Nicola Moorby, ‘Belvedere, Bath c.1917 by Walter Richard Sickert’, catalogue entry, September 2005, in Helena Bonett, Ysanne Holt, Jennifer Mundy (eds.), The Camden Town Group in Context, May 2012, http://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/camden-town-group/walter-richard-sickert-belvedere-bath-r1139305, accessed 16 April 2014.