The Camden Town Group in Context

Walter Richard Sickert Miss Earhart's Arrival 1932

The source image for this large-scale painting is a photograph of Amelia Earhart’s arrival at Hanworth Air Park in Middlesex, printed on the front page of the Daily Sketch on 23 May 1932 during the aviation hero’s publicity circuit through England. Walter Sickert exhibited his painted version only seven days after the photograph’s publication. The painting shows a mob of supporters greeting Earhart in the shadow of an aeroplane wing under thick, angular raindrops rendered in white impasto. The pilot appears as a pale face in the background which is crowded with umbrellas and overcoats. Sickert was more interested in the sensational rise of Earhart’s celebrity than the commemoration of her record-breaking transatlantic flight.
Walter Richard Sickert 1860–1942
Miss Earhart’s Arrival
1932
Oil paint on canvas
717 x 1832 mm
Purchased 1982
T03360

Entry

Background

Increasingly during the 1930s Walter Sickert scanned the popular press for visual source material for his work. One of the most audacious uses of a contemporary news story was his painting Miss Earhart’s Arrival, which took as its subject the solo flight across the Atlantic of American aviator, Amelia Earhart (1898–1937). Charles Lindbergh had first achieved this milestone of flight history in 1927, but five years later Earhart became the first woman, and only the second person, to complete the epic journey alone. She departed from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland on 20 May 1932 in a red Lockheed Vega plane (now in the collection of the National Air and Space Museum, Washington). Despite a turbulent crossing, during which time her altimeter failed, an electrical storm sent the plane in a flat spin owing to ice on the wings, and one of her engines caught fire, she arrived safely in Ireland just under fifteen hours later.1 The next day she was flown in a Paramount News aeroplane from Londonderry to Stanley Park Aerodrome, Blackpool, and from there to Hanworth Air Park, Middlesex where a large crowd had gathered to welcome her. Sickert’s painting is based upon a press photograph of her arrival at Hanworth which appeared on the front page of the Daily Sketch, accompanied by the headline, ‘Welcome “Lady Lindy”: Heroine of the Air Reaches London in a Storm’ (fig.1).2
Welcome 'Lady Lindy!' Heroine of the Air reaches London in a Storm 1932
Fig.1
Welcome 'Lady Lindy!' Heroine of the Air reaches London in a Storm 1932
Photo © British Newspaper Library, Colindale, London
Aviation was one of the most exciting and dynamic innovations of the early twentieth century and even its dangers served to heighten public interest in the early pioneers. The same front page which announced Earhart’s arrival also reported the tragic deaths of E.V. Barton, a Daily Sketch cameraman, and a pilot, Major I.N. Clarke, killed when their plane crashed in thick fog on their way back from reporting the story. Aviators were the undisputed heroes of the day and the fascination with female fliers, in particular, was insatiable. Earhart was popular because of her youth and the natural counterpoint she presented to her male compatriot Charles Lindbergh (hence her nickname, Lady Lindy). She had been a household name since 1928, after becoming the first woman to cross the Atlantic as a passenger (with two other male pilots). Since then she had sustained the public’s interest through an organised publicity campaign run by her agent and future husband, George Palmer Putnam.3 Appearances on advertising posters and in radio shows, the publication of an autobiography in 1928 and a job as aviation editor for Cosmopolitan Magazine, all fed the public’s obsession with her. Following the 1932 Atlantic feat, media interest and public excitement about her reached new levels.
Earhart stayed in London for several days after her arrival at Hanworth as the guest of Andrew Mellon, the American Ambassador. The flight had made her an international star. She was fêted all over London at public appearances and dinners, received a telegram of congratulations from the Prime Minister, and was given a private audience with the Prince of Wales.4 The department store, Selfridge’s, invited her to sign one of their windows with a diamond-pointed pencil. They also had her plane shipped from Londonderry and placed on public view in the ground floor of the shop.5 In July she became the latest subject of a waxwork model at Madame Tussaud’s.6 On leaving London she embarked on a European lap of honour. She was awarded the Cross of a Knight of the Légion d’honneur in Paris, was entertained by the Belgian Royal Family in Brussels and was received by the Pope and the Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini in Rome.7 Back in America she received a rapturous welcome and was later invited to dinner at the White House with President Hoover who presented her with a gold medal from the National Geographic Society.8

Description

Sickert’s painting offers an alternative view of the woman who was at that moment being catapulted to superstardom. Most press photographs of the event depict Earhart standing on the Paramount News plane waving to her fans. The Daily Sketch photograph, however, focused on the crowd of well-wishers who, despite the driving rain, are thronged around the plane trying to get a glimpse of the famous pilot. The removed distance at which the image was taken enabled the viewer to see the full length of the aircraft, but reduced Earhart herself to a face in the background.
Sickert’s painting faithfully reproduces the compositional arrangement of the central slice of the photograph but enhances the sense of claustrophobia, as though the viewer, too, is jostling amidst the mob of people. One wing of the aeroplane is visible along the top of the canvas. The artist has imposed his own colour scheme upon the scene which is largely described in patches of olive green and two tonal varieties of blue, with areas of canvas also still visible. The crowd has been enlivened by the introduction of a vibrant and intense red for the coat of the central man in the foreground. He provides the natural focus for the viewer’s gaze. The figure of Earhart is almost completely lost in the crush of people and umbrellas. Her profile is just visible beside the hat of the man with his back to the viewer in the right-hand third of the painting. She appears as a pale, almost ghostly face against the shadow of the plane, the insignificance of her presence at odds with the intense interest her recent feat has generated and her rising reputation. Sickert was fascinated by fame and went some way to courting it himself throughout his life. In Miss Earhart’s Arrival his interest lies not in recording the occasion itself as a historic moment. Instead, he is attracted by the event as evidence of a new twentieth-century phenomenon: the rise of the celebrity.
In direct contrast with the speed and excitement of Earhart’s actual record-breaking journey, the onlookers in the crowd in Sickert’s painting appear as a damp and dejected stationary mass. The most noticeable element across the pictorial surface is the rain, bold streaks of a pale colour which provide an opposing sense of movement and dynamism within the image. In relation to this effect Richard Morphet has noted the following observation on Vincent van Gogh by Sickert in a review of the first post-impressionist exhibition of 1910–11:
I have always disliked Van Gogh’s execution most cordially ... But he said what he had to say with fury and sincerity, and he was a colourist. Les Aliscamps is undeniably a great picture, and the landscape of rain does really rain with furia. Blonde dashes of water at an angle of 45 from right to left, and suddenly, across these, a black squirt. The discomfort, the misery, the hopelessness of rain are there. Such intensity is perhaps madness, but the result is interesting and stimulating.9
The art historian Anna Gruetzner Robins has identified the painting to which Sickert is referring as Rain Effect Behind the Hospital 1889 (Philadelphia Museum of Art).10 The painting was exhibited at Manet and the Post-Impressionists at the Grafton Galleries in November 1910–January 1911, lent by Hugo von Tschudi, Director of the Staatliche Galerien in Munich, although it was not listed in the catalogue.11

Reception

According to London’s News Chronicle for June 1932, Earhart ‘is the cynosure of all occasions’; however, if ‘she cannot be present in person, the next best “draw” seems to be her picture’.12 Miss Earhart’s Arrival went on display at the Beaux Arts Gallery only seven days after the original photograph upon which it was based had appeared in the Daily Sketch, an extraordinary achievement given its large size. It accompanied an exhibition of Sickert’s ‘Echoes’ (see Tate T05529) and was hung so high up in the gallery that it was best viewed from the balcony opposite.13 The painting received almost as many notices in the press as the flight itself, with many journalists highlighting the rapidity with which Sickert had turned it out as an angle for a story. The Edinburgh Evening News, for example, christened it ‘High Speed Art’ and explained: ‘The Speed bug which brought Miss Earhart across the Atlantic seems also to have bitten Mr Richard Sickert, the artist’.14 The Glasgow Herald agreed that ‘In executing the painting so rapidly Mr Sickert has added another achievement to an already long list’,15 while the Yorkshire Post thought it was an ‘enterprising’ feat which brought Sickert’s work ‘thoroughly up to date’.16 The most glowing praise came from the Times which called it ‘one of those deceptively easy performances which are, in reality, full of science. It may be described as a disentanglement and co-ordination of the aesthetic values of the thing as it happened ... Thus a “snapshot” effect, retaining all its vivacity, is brought into pictorial order with an unobtrusive skill which provokes a chuckle.’17 News of his painting even reached as far afield as the New York Times, which reported that:
Richard Sickert, one of the leading English artists, is completing a picture of the scene at Hanworth Flying Field ... The artist is treating his subject with a mixture of realism and symbolism. Mrs Putnam’s [Earhart’s married name] young vivid figure greatly appealed to Mr Sickert and he is painting her as the head of a comet with the crowd rushing toward her through the rain forming the tail.18
Critics who saw the painting exhibited at the Beaux Arts Gallery also commented on Sickert’s boldness (or laziness) at leaving the lines of squaring-up visible on the surface of the work. This was a common characteristic of the artist’s work at this time, but in this instance was perhaps a deliberate gesture to emphasise the quick execution of the work. Sickert subsequently reworked the painting and removed much of the grid, prior to sending it to the Carnegie International Exhibition in Pittsburgh the following year.
Not all the critics were impressed with the rapidity of the painting’s execution and many were outraged at the flagrant use of a photographic source. The publisher of the original snapshot, the Daily Sketch, reprinted their image juxtaposed with Sickert’s painting and smugly announced that ‘art is limping behind photography ... Our photographer merely brought back his plates to the office and called it a day’s work. And the photograph is still the better of the two.’19 The Observer declared that, although Sickert was a ‘brilliant’ artist, ‘intellectual passivity’ had made him a ‘slave to the camera’.20 P.G. Konody viewed the work as a gimmick and commented in the Daily Mail: ‘High speed and stunt painting, even when performed by such a competent exponent as Mr Sickert, do not further the interests of art.’21 As far as the artist himself was concerned, however, there was no such thing as bad publicity and according to his friend Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies he was always delighted if he caused controversy in the papers.22
Sickert was one of the first artists to exploit topical news items as a tool for creative inspiration. The theme of his Camden Town Murder series (1909–10), for example, probably suggested itself through the extensive tabloid coverage of the death of Emily Dimmock, and the trial of the man accused of killing her, Robert Wood. Later in his career Sickert frequently selected photographic images from newspapers as the basis for paintings. He understood the nature of the press, and this enabled him to draw upon it as a source of inspiration and to manipulate it as a publicity vehicle for his work. A series of ‘Press Art’ works reflected, fuelled and fed the public’s craving for news, for celebrity and for sensation. Sickert deliberately sought to create contentious paintings derived from journalistic images, which made it back into the newspapers as newsworthy headlines and press photographs themselves. King George V and his Racing Manager: A Conversation Piece at Aintree c.1929–30 (Royal Collection),23 includes a conspicuous acknowledgement of the photographic source within the picture and sparked debate in the press about artistic originality. Theatrical portraits of Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies (Tate N04673) and Peggy Ashcroft (Tate T06601) capitalised on the fame and contemporaneity of these actors. Miss Earhart’s Arrival can therefore be seen as the most blatant example to date in a series of artistic stunts designed to attract the interest of the newspapers and the general public. Sickert was knowingly engaging with the public’s fascination with Earhart and deliberately cornering some of the publicity surrounding her record-breaking flight.
Amelia Earhart herself disappeared five years later in the South Pacific in 1937, during another record-breaking attempt to fly round the world.

Nicola Moorby
April 2006

Notes

1
George Palmer Putnam, Soaring Wings: A Biography of Amelia Earhart, London 1940, p.110.
2
Daily Sketch, 23 May 1932, p.1.
3
Susan Ware, Still Missing: Amelia Earhart and the Search for Modern Feminism, New York and London 1993, p.90.
4
Jean L. Backus, Letter from Amelia 1901–1937, Boston 1982, p.127; see also Nevin Bell, Amelia Earhart, Geneva 1970, p.129.
5
Putnam 1940, p.110.
6
Times, 2 July 1932, p.10.
7
Bell 1970, p.130.
8
Ibid., p.134.
9
Walter Sickert, ‘Post-Impressionists’, Fortnightly Review, January 1911, in Anna Gruetzner Robins, Walter Sickert: The Complete Writings on Art, Oxford 2000, p.280, also quoted in Richard Morphet, The Tate Gallery 1982–84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986.
10
Robins 2000, p.282.
11
Anna Gruetzner Robins, Modern Art in Britain 1910–1914, exhibition catalogue, Barbican Art Gallery, London 1997, p.187, reproduced fig.10.
12
‘The Round of the Day’, News Chronicle, 1 June 1932.
13
Daily Mail, 31 May 1932.
14
Edinburgh Evening News, 31 May 1932.
15
‘Rapid Painting’, Glasgow Herald, 31 May 1932.
16
‘Mr Sickert and Miss Earhart’, Yorkshire Post, 1 June 1932.
17
Times, 8 June 1932.
18
New York Times, 29 May 1932, p.3.
19
Daily Sketch, 31 May 1932.
20
The Observer, 5 June 1932.
21
P.G. Konody, ‘Painting of Miss Earhart’, Daily Mail, 31 May 1932.
22
Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies, Walter Sickert 1860–1942: Sketch for a Portrait, 10 February 1961, BBC Home Service, LP 26657, Side 1.
23
Wendy Baron, Sickert: Paintings and Drawings, New Haven and London 2006, no.697.

How to cite

Nicola Moorby, ‘Miss Earhart’s Arrival 1932 by Walter Richard Sickert’, catalogue entry, April 2006, 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-miss-earharts-arrival-r1135622, accessed 19 April 2014.