The Camden Town Group in Context

Walter Richard Sickert Lady Martin 1935

Ada Martin is shown seated in the same deep blue drawing room of Sickert’s house at St-Peter’s-in-Thanet, near Broadstairs in Kent, as her husband Alec (Tate T00221). A clustered easel, chair and books piled on the floor in the background of the interior, along with the discarded hat and clothing strewn on the sofa against which Martin leans, contrast with the placidity of her figure and pale expression. Sickert used a camaieu preparation to achieve the visual effect of a slightly over-exposed photograph, and has left the white ground of the canvas exposed in places to describe areas of light. The work was the subject of a drawing by Frank Auerbach, Sketch from Sickert’s ‘Lady Martin’ c.1977–83 (Tate T07631).
Walter Richard Sickert 1860–1942
Lady Martin
1935
Oil paint on canvas
1397 x 1079 mm
Inscribed by the artist ‘Sickert’ in black paint bottom left
Presented by Sir Alec Martin, K.B.E., through the National Art Collections Fund 1958
T00222

Entry

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.
Walter Richard Sickert 'Sir Alec Martin, KBE' 1935
Fig.1
Walter Richard Sickert
Sir Alec Martin, KBE 1935
© Tate
Walter Richard Sickert 'Claude Phillip Martin' 1935
Fig.2
Walter Richard Sickert
Claude Phillip Martin 1935
© Tate

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.
The three Martin portraits were conceived as a trio, although the paintings of Sir Alec and Lady Martin form a more natural pairing, being of an identical size and similar colouring. It is not known if the three works were hung together in the Martins’ family home. The first time they seem to have been displayed together in public was in the Hayward Gallery’s 1981 exhibition, Late Sickert: Paintings 1927 to 1942.
Frank Auerbach 'Sketch from Sickert's `Lady Martin'' circa 1977-83
Fig.3
Frank Auerbach
Sketch from Sickert's `Lady Martin' circa 1977–83
© Frank Auerbach
Sickert’s portrait formed the basis for a drawing by Frank Auerbach (born 1931) in Tate’s collection, Sketch from Sickert’s ‘Lady Martin’ c.1977–83 (Tate T07631, fig.3). Auerbach was taught drawing during the late 1940s and 1950s at the Borough Polytechnic by David Bomberg (1890–1942), who had in turn been a student of Sickert’s at the Westminster School of Art. He has acknowledged Sickert as one of his most important artistic influences.2 Furthermore, Auerbach was represented during the 1950s by Helen Lessore at the Beaux-Arts Gallery who encouraged him to look at Sickert’s work, and where he was able to see examples such as the late self-portrait, The Servant of Abraham 1929 (Tate T00259). Auerbach’s studio in Camden Town is close to Sickert’s former residence in Mornington Crescent, and his work shares Sickert’s interest in the raw materiality of paint and the same attachment to the dingy realities of everyday life. He placed himself at the forefront of the reassessment of Sickert’s late, photo-based work as a member of the advisory panel to the Hayward’s 1981 exhibition, Late Sickert.
Auerbach’s Sketch from Sickert’s ‘Lady Martin’ belongs to a group of drawings derived from works by other artists, usually Old Master paintings from the collection of the National Gallery. Sickert is one of the few twentieth-century artists to whose work Auerbach has referred in his drawings. The ‘Lady Martin’ sketch closely follows the compositional details of the original painting. Auerbach, however, blocks in the tonal masses of the image using repeated energetic lines which infuse the image with a dynamism absent from the placidity of Sickert’s portrait. The exact date of the drawing is unknown, but possibly dates from the same period as Auerbach’s work on the Hayward exhibition at which the original canvas was displayed.

Nicola Moorby
January 2006

Notes

1
Sir Alec Martin, letter to Tate Gallery, 1 January 1958, Tate Catalogue file.
2
Robert Hughes, Frank Auerbach, London 1990, p.8, n.5.

How to cite

Nicola Moorby, ‘Lady Martin 1935 by Walter Richard Sickert’, catalogue entry, January 2006, in Helena Bonett, Ysanne Holt, Jennifer Mundy (eds.), The Camden Town Group in Context, May 2012, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/camden-town-group/walter-richard-sickert-lady-martin-r1139006, accessed 26 July 2014.