Rebecca Daniels on how Walter Sickert deftly combined art history and photography in his paintings

Detail from The Radio Times, 16 November 1934
Detail from a page of The Radio Times, 16 November 1934, showing Peggy Ashcroft in Venice
Walter Richard Sickert, 'Variation on Peggy' 1934-5
Walter Richard Sickert
Variation on Peggy 1934-5
Oil paint on canvas
unconfirmed: 578 x 718 mm
frame: 807 x 941 x 96 mm
Bequeathed by Dame Peggy Ashcroft 1992© Tate

While lecturing at the Thanet School of Art in November 1934, Walter Sickert observed that the artist ‘Carpaccio used to put in the background of his compositions exact copies of the architecture that was current in his day, such things as one sees nowadays in such papers as the Mirror and the Sketch’. This was part of an impassioned plea that the art of the past was still very relevant to the present. A fortnight later Sickert sourced a photograph of his ‘adored’ Peggy Ashcroft, the formidable British actress, from the pages of The Radio Times. It shows Ashcroft on holiday, standing on the Accademia Bridge in Venice, a month before her wedding to the theatre director Theodore Kominsarjevsky.

Sickert’s sharp eye perceived that this casual ‘holiday snap’ had strong affinities with the compositions of Venetian Renaissance art. The actress, captured in profile and leaning against a ledge, is reminiscent of Bellini and the background alludes to Carpaccio. Yet the colours and technique Sickert then deployed in his painting Variation on Peggy 1934–5 are uncompromisingly modern. The vibrant but limited palette seems to refer to colours used in the four-colour printing process as seen in an advertisement on the back of the same edition of The Radio Times (16 November 1934). Sickert commented, in April 1933, that colour reproduction was ‘perpetually improving’. Variation on Peggy is an example of his deliberately unnerving juxtaposition between past and present.

The painter pioneered the use of photographs by artists, and had been campaigning since the 1890s that this secret practice should be exposed. He daringly advertised his own use of photographs in his art criticism and in inscriptions on the canvas itself. However, he was adamant that they were only a preliminary aid, the starting point in the creative process to which the artist must impose his own stamp of originality. He compared this process with acting: ‘We have to do with the subject something similar to what is done by an actor with a role in the theatre.’

Walter Sickert in his garden at Bathampton, Somerset, c1938-42
Walter Sickert in his garden at Bathampton, Somerset, c1938-42

Sickert had been an actor, and in 1880 had trod the boards at Sadler’s Wells. During the 1930s he became involved with the theatre again, donating the proceeds of the sale of his The Raising of Lazarus c.1929–32 to the struggling venue. He also befriended several leading contemporary actors and actresses, John Gielgud (whose father he had known), Gwen Ffrangçon- Davies (the subject of his magisterial Miss Gwen Ffrangçon-Davies as Isabella of France 1932) and Ashcroft. His plea to art students found resonance with issues affecting contemporary theatre, which was actively trying to modernise the presentation of classic plays, particularly Shakespeare. While theatre companies sought to achieve this through changing Shakespeare’s language, Sickert focused on presenting paintings of the theatre, often of Shakespearean subjects, which had been obviously sourced from photographs, either from newspapers or taken for the artist by press photographers who would attend matinees with him.

This desire to combine aspects of the past and present, photography and colour seems very relevant to contemporary art practice. For example, Clare Woods has used Sickert’s Juliet and Her Nurse 1935–6, as well as the shocking contemporary press photograph of Davinia Turrell holding a burns mask to her face after she was caught in the 7/7 London bombings, as sources for her painting Silent Suzan 2014. Woods’s powerful work is just the sort of juxtaposition that Sickert was encouraging artists to explore.

Clare Woods, Silent Suzan, 2014
Clare Woods, Silent Suzan 2014, oil on aluminium, 70 x 70 cm

Sickert and Photography, curated by Emma Chambers, Curator of Modern British Art, is at Tate Britain from 4 July. Clare Woods and Des Hughes: The Sleepers is at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, until 5 June.

Rebecca Daniels is the art historical researcher on Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné and a trustee of the Sidney Nolan Trust. She completed a doctorate on Walter Sickert at the University of Oxford.