The Camden Town Group in Context

Walter Richard Sickert The Servant of Abraham 1929

This small-scale canvas is compositionally dominated by a disembodied head, rendered in broad strokes of dull brown and tilted at a dramatic angle. The picture’s source was a photograph of the sixty-nine-year-old Walter Sickert taken by his third wife, Thérèse Lessore, here translated into an ambiguously grim expression in paint emphasised by the glowing square-cut beard and cryptic title. It is one of three late self-portraits casting the artist as a Biblical character, appropriating the monumentality of the Old Masters as well as provoking public perception of Sickert in the national press at the time. The Manchester Guardian named it a ‘terrific statement of an artist ego’.
Walter Richard Sickert 1860–1942
The Servant of Abraham
1929
Oil paint on canvas
610 x 508 mm
Inscribed by the artist in brown paint ‘Sickert’ top right and ‘The Servant of Abraham’ bottom left
Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1959
T00259

Entry

Background and subject

The Servant of Abraham is one of a trio of important late pictures in which Walter Sickert combined self-portraiture with the persona of a Biblical character. Painted at the artist’s studio at 1 Highbury Place, Islington,1 it was first exhibited at the Savile Gallery, London, in 1930 where it was shown in conjunction with another self-portrait, Lazarus Breaks his Fast c.1927 (Estorick Collection, London).2 The culmination of the series was the large painting, The Raising of Lazarus c.1929 (fig.5),3 first exhibited at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition in 1932.
Thérèse Lessore 'Squared-up Photograph of Walter Richard Sickert' c.1929
Fig.1
Thérèse Lessore
Squared-up Photograph of Walter Richard Sickert c.1929
© Estate of Thérèse Lessore Photo © Islington Local History Centre
The visual source for the painting was a snapshot of Sickert taken by his third wife, the artist Thérèse Lessore, which was then squared-up for transfer onto canvas (fig.1). Taken slightly from below so that the subject appears to loom over the viewer, the photograph is a close-up shot of the sixty-nine-year-old artist looking directly and soberly at the camera. Sickert has been lit from behind so that his face is largely in shadow, but his head, with the distinctive square-cut beard, is dramatically outlined in white light. The critic of the Connoisseur compared the artist’s dramatic use of ‘angle’ with modern forms of image-making such as photography and cinematography.4 The composition of the painting closely follows the general appearance of the source photograph. However, Sickert employed subtle alterations to change the mood and visual impact of the image. The selection of a small-scale canvas is effectively offset by the larger-than-life size of the painted head, which almost completely fills the pictorial space. Sickert has slightly cropped the available background above the head, which enhances the uncompromising sense of a forceful presence. The self-assured, penetrating gaze of the photograph is also replaced by a more ambivalent and complex expression. The Servant of Abraham is universally recognised as an emotionally powerful painting, but the precise nature of that emotion, and the meaning of the cryptic title so deliberately emblazoned across the canvas, has proved difficult to define.
According to the Old Testament, the servant of Abraham was sent from Canaan to find a wife for his master’s son, Isaac, among Abraham’s people in Mesopotamia. Guided by God, the servant made his way to the town of Nahor and found Rebekah, a woman from Abraham’s family, drawing water from the well. She returned with him to Canaan and married Isaac and through their union God’s covenant with Abraham was fulfilled.5 Historically, the episode has been a theme for paintings of religious subjects, for example, Rebecca and Eliezar c.1650 (Museo del Prado, Madrid), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617–1682) and Eliezer et Rebecca 1648 (Louvre, Paris),6 by Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665). The Book of Genesis records the name of the servant of Abraham as Eliezer of Damascus, a Gentile.7 He is portrayed as a man of intelligence and loyalty whom Abraham had made the steward of his household and at one point considered making his heir. Yet in the Bible his name is only used once and at all other times he is known simply as the ‘servant of Abraham’. His independent identity is subsumed within his complete devotion to his master, an example which has become a paradigm for selfless devotion to God. As a metaphor, however, the character can also be seen to represent a sense of identity that is problematic, uncertain or contradictory.
As a young man Sickert had trained as an actor and his love of assuming a role persisted throughout his life. He painted self-portraits intermittently through his career, using them as a vehicle by which to portray various aspects of his character, rather than merely recording the superficial changes of his physical appearance. For example, the struggling artist depicted in The Juvenile Lead 1907 (fig.2),8 is a different figure from that of the defiant eccentric in Self-Portrait: The Bust of Tom Sayers 1913 (fig.3).9 The greatest concentration of self-portraits was executed during the last fifteen years of his life when he adopted a variety of appropriate character roles, deliberately playing up his advancing years. His association with ‘The Servant of Abraham’, however, is harder to interpret. The role is representative of ambiguous self-expression and Sickert is therefore making a comment on the nature of identity itself.
Walter Richard Sickert 'The Juvenile Lead (Self-Portrait)' 1907
Fig.2
Walter Richard Sickert
The Juvenile Lead (Self-Portrait) 1907
© Estate of Walter R. Sickert / DACS Photo © Southampton City Art Gallery, Hampshire, UK / The Bridgeman Art Library
Walter Richard Sickert 'Self-Portrait: The Bust of Tom Sayers' 1913
Fig.3
Walter Richard Sickert
Self-Portrait: The Bust of Tom Sayers 1913
© Estate of Walter R. Sickert / DACS Photo © Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Reception

Following its first exhibition at the Savile Gallery in 1930, various interpretations of The Servant of Abraham were offered in the newspapers. The critic of the Manchester Guardian saw the painting as a defiant statement, both technically and metaphorically reinforcing Sickert’s artistic powers:
The arrogant bearded face is painted with tremendous summary force, with something of the fierceness of a bird in its expression. Nowhere has he shown more conclusively his mastery of his material and complete understanding of exactly what he wants to do. It is like sculpture in the elimination of everything that does not finely contribute to a foreseen end ... In this age of synthetic art, where the forcible-feeble so flourishes, this terrific statement of an artist ego must stand as one of the marking pictures of our time. One would like to see it in the Uffizi beside the other self-portraits of famous artists.10
The Morning Post, however, thought that the portrait was a ‘problematic mask’ that posed a direct challenge to the viewer:
Anyone who would solve the enigma known nowadays as Richard Sickert, A.R.A., must see his self-portrait ‘The Servant of Abraham’ as subscribed on the canvas itself, with his customary blague. The left eye, looking as purposely as the point of a fencing foil, arrests you as soon as you enter the Savile Gallery ... and the right eye, half shut in the shade, sardonically directs the attack on the intellectuality or humour of the visitor. The shaggy face cannot be read as easily as a tale with a happy ending. There is in it, as in his art, something that gives you seriously to think.11
The artist Walter Bayes, writing in the Saturday Review, described the work as:
A cruel caricature, following on the previous discovery that by stressing the character of the ‘man who understands the commercial side of Art’ which he frequently affects, he could turn himself into a rather formidable Jew. The portrait is an excellent rendering of one of his favourite impersonations; but it is not, of course, in the least like the real Sickert, the delicacy of whose expression that impersonation never for long concedes.12
Bayes believed that the persona adopted in the painting was a fictional conceit, rather than an insight into the artist’s inner soul. Later commentators have been inclined to view the work as possessing a deeper, subconscious, psychological message. Wendy Baron has interpreted it as an acknowledgement that, like the servant of Abraham, Sickert too was ‘an instrument of divine will, but to aesthetic rather than spiritual ends’.13 David Peters Corbett has described the face as a ‘badge of suffering’, symbolic of a man who has forfeited his pre-eminence and no longer occupies the position he once commanded.14 He sees the painting as an act of self-questioning by Sickert of his career and achievements at a time when he could no longer be considered to be at the centre stage of artistic development.
The ambiguous nature of The Servant of Abraham and the potential for multiple readings is a deliberate strategy, typical both of Sickert’s personality and his art. He had always proved a problematic artist for critics to categorise owing to his apparent refusal to conform within the frameworks of available artistic movements and his tendency towards self-contradiction. From the early 1920s, however, particularly after he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy, Sickert’s own identity became the subject of much discussion in the press. At a late stage in his career the national newspapers began to take affectionate pride in one of the few artists whose work was recognised and admired on the continent, and this recognition was accompanied by an acceptance, even a celebration, of his unconventional nature. He began to be feted not only as a significant artist, but also as something of a local London celebrity, with his movements, witticisms and sartorial peculiarities regularly reported in the papers. Sickert, unlike his more reticent and bashful colleague Philip Wilson Steer, made good copy.15
Particularly alluring to the press was his abandonment of the name ‘Walter Richard Sickert’ in around 1925–7, in favour of the terser ‘Richard Sickert’. ‘Few artists ... are more ready to change their names, their beard, and the titles of their pictures’, noted the Daily Express in 1929.16 Words frequently used to describe him, such as ‘irrepressible’, ‘protean’ and ‘eccentric’, testify to the emerging sense of a Sickertian myth. As an avid reader of the newspapers and a subscriber to a press cuttings service, Sickert would have been well aware of the public’s fascination with him. He relished the attention and played up shamelessly to the part of an ageing eccentric, choosing roles which vindicated certain aspects of his behaviour. The late self-portraits, including The Servant of Abraham, demonstrate a conscious engagement with his own public perception at a time when the mythologising process was underway in the national press. This engagement is simultaneously humorous, perceptive, provocative and serious.

Biblical self-portraits

Richard Shone has discussed the numerous other roles Sickert projected in his late self-portraits.17 These include the dignified gentleman of The Rural Dean c.1932 (private collection), A Domestic Bully c.1935–8 (Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh), the frail, disillusioned figure in Self-Portrait in Grisaille c.1935 (National Portrait Gallery, London),18 the mischievous but harmless rascal sneaking some bottles of wine in Home Life 1937 (private collection),19 and The Invalid c.1939–40 (private collection).20 The three Biblical self-portraits of 1927–9 present a patriarchal image of the artist. This notion may have suggested itself to Sickert because of his current fashion for wearing a full, square-cut beard, a fad that gave him something of the air of a generic Old Testament character. He may even have been inspired by a particular image. Rebecca and Abraham’s Servant at the Well, exhibited 1833 (Tate N00338, fig.4), by William Hilton the Younger (1786–1839), was one of a large number of British paintings bequeathed to the nation by Robert Vernon in 1847 and could have been seen by Sickert at the Tate Gallery. The bearded profile of the figure of the servant resembles the artist’s own appearance at this time.
William Hilton the Younger 'Rebecca and Abraham's Servant at the Well' exhibited 1833
Fig.4
William Hilton the Younger
Rebecca and Abraham's Servant at the Well exhibited 1833
Walter Richard Sickert 'The Raising of Lazarus' c.1929
Fig.5
Walter Richard Sickert
The Raising of Lazarus c.1929
© Estate of Walter R. Sickert / DACS

The three Biblical paintings are powerful independent images, but a certain dialogue also exists across them, chronicling the artist’s obsession with his own public image. In Lazarus Breaks his Fast an unkempt and vulnerable-looking Sickert tucks into a plate of food with a napkin tied around his neck. The role of Lazarus, a man raised from the dead by Jesus, may represent a celebration of Sickert’s recovery after a long and serious illness,21 but may also be an oblique reference to his self-reinvention around this period with a new name. While The Servant of Abraham presents a problematic view of an identity in crisis, the culmination of the series, The Raising of Lazarus c.1929 (fig.5), posits the artist in the role of God or Christ, tenderly laying his hands on the shrouded body of the dead Lazarus. This represents a triumphal and confident, although hardly modest, assertion of Sickert’s artistic and creative powers.
The three Biblical self-portraits also made ambitious claims for the ability of modern art to achieve the monumentality and power of the Old Masters. T.W. Earp, the art critic for the New Statesman, praised The Servant of Abraham for exhibiting ‘the timelessness of all great work, the massive planning and the exuberance of the masters’.22 In the preface to an exhibition of Twentieth-Century Art at the Leicester Galleries in January 1932, Sickert marvelled at the ‘artifice of a colossal head with a miniature execution by Picasso’.23 He argued that ‘We cannot well have pictures on a large scale nowadays, but we can have small fragments of pictures on a colossal scale’, a quotation which the art historian Lilian Browse has employed in connection with The Servant of Abraham.24 The artist’s sister-in-law, Helen Lessore, recorded that Sickert deliberately used a broad technique to demonstrate how he would have treated a grand-scale commission for a mural decoration.25 The contours of the face are built up entirely with amorphous patches of layered colour. Despite his assertion that the production of large-scale pictures was not a feasible objective for contemporary art, Sickert regularly experimented with big canvases in the last few years of his career. The first of these was The Raising of Lazarus (2439 x 915 mm). One newspaper reported that The Servant of Abraham was a study for this ‘forthcoming’ work.26 This theory is unsubstantiated anywhere else, but the scale of the head of the Servant is certainly roughly comparable to that of the bearded head of Christ in The Raising of Lazarus. It is possible that the source photograph for the Servant was a by-product taken during the preparations for the later work.

Ownership

The painting was bought from the artist by his brother-in-law, Major Frederick Lessore, and remained in the possession of the family until 1959 when it was purchased for the Tate Gallery. Frederick Lessore, a portrait sculptor and the brother of Sickert’s third wife, Thérèse, founded the Beaux Arts Gallery in 1923. Alongside R.E.A. Wilson of the Savile Gallery and Oliver Brown of the Leicester Galleries, he acted as one of Sickert’s main dealers during the last years of the artist’s life. With typical financial insouciance, Sickert refused to work on a commission basis but continued to sell his paintings to his dealers for a fixed sum, sometimes in excess of, but more often less, than they were worth. The gallery staged some of the most important solo exhibitions of Sickert during the 1930s.
After Lessore’s death in November 1951 the Beaux Arts Gallery was managed by his wife, Helen, also a painter. Under her direction the gallery became renowned for promoting young British artists working in a realist manner. The Servant of Abraham was hung by her in the gallery as a sort of ‘talisman’ by which she tested the quality of contemporary, rising artists.27 She often hung work by new painters next to it to help her make up her mind.28 When it was not on display, however, the painting resided with the family in the small flat where they lived under the gallery.29 Helen and Frederick’s son, the painter John Lessore, remembers it hanging over one of the beds.

Nicola Moorby
July 2005

Notes

1
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery Catalogues: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, vol.2, London 1964, p.640.
2
Reproduced in Wendy Baron, Sickert: Paintings and Drawings, New Haven and London 2006, no.681 and Sickert: Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy, London 1992 (103).
3
Baron 2006, no.698.
4
Connoisseur, April 1930, Walter Sickert press cuttings, Islington Public Libraries, London.
5
Genesis 24.
7
Genesis 15, verse 2.
8
Baron 2006, no.330.
9
Baron 2006, no.408.
10
Manchester Guardian, 20 February 1930.
11
‘Richard Sickert: An Enigmatical Painter in a New Mood’, Morning Post, 19 February 1930.
12
Walter Bayes, ‘Art: Mr Sickert and Others’, Saturday Review, 1 March 1930.
13
Royal Academy 1992, p.290.
14
David Peters Corbett, Walter Sickert, London 2001, p.66.
15
Daily Mail, 2 January 1931.
16
Daily Express, 5 June 1929.
17
Royal Academy 1992, p.338.
18
All three reproduced ibid., p.338, figs.229–331 respectively; Baron 2006, nos.706, 708.1, 729, 730 and 737.
19
Reproduced in Royal Academy 1992 (128).
20
Wendy Baron, Sickert, London 1973, no.450.
21
Royal Academy 1992, p.288.
22
T.W. Earp, ‘Painting without Tears’, New Statesman, 1 March 1930.
23
Walter Richard Sickert, ‘The Twentieth Century’, in Twentieth Century French Art, exhibition catalogue, Leicester Galleries, London 1932, in Anna Gruetzner Robins (ed.), Walter Sickert: The Complete Writings on Art, Oxford 2000, p.614.
24
Ibid.
25
Chamot, Farr and Butlin 1964, p.640.
26
‘Mr Sickert’s New Pictures’, Manchester Guardian, 20 February 1930.
27
James Hyman, The Battle for Realism, New Haven and London 2001, p.122.
28
Andrew Forge, Helen Lessore and the Beaux-Arts Gallery, exhibition catalogue, Marlborough Fine Art, London 1968, p.6.
29
Information from John Lessore, October 2004, Tate Catalogue file.

How to cite

Nicola Moorby, ‘The Servant of Abraham 1929 by Walter Richard Sickert’, catalogue entry, July 2005, 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-the-servant-of-abraham-r1135621, accessed 21 December 2014.