Ethel Sands

Tea with Sickert


Ethel Sands 1873–1962
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 610 × 510 × 20 mm
frame: 735 × 635 × 65 mm
Bequeathed by Colonel Christopher Sands 2000, accessioned 2001


Ethel Sands was born in America, but grew up in Britain. She was wealthy, and owned houses in Chelsea, at Newington near Oxford and at Auppegard in Normandy, where Tea with Walter Richard Sickert was painted. The painter Walter Sickert (1860-1942) was a friend, whom she had met first in 1906 when he expressed admiration for a picture she had sent to the Salon d'Automne in Paris and who had pursued her acquaintance. The following year Sickert invited her to join his newly-created Fitzroy Street Group which sought to promote a form of Impressionist naturalism in Britain. In the years 1906 to 1914 Sands was an important literary and artistic patron, and her house was one of the social centres of modern art in London.

Sands's own painting was of a mild Anglo-French type comparable with that of her friend Jacques-Emile Blanche (1861-1942), although the late Impressionist control of colour and the intimiste subject of Tea with Walter Richard Sickert is comparable too with the pictures of Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940). The portrait of Sickert is interesting as it illustrates him during the Camden Town period and also serves as a record of the character of his relationship with Sands and her partner, the painter Nan Hudson (1869-1957). Sickert lounges in his armchair smoking at the far side of the scene; never averse to proffering his opinions, he once wrote to Ethel Sands that he was returning to live in London 'to complete all your educations'. The woman in the foreground is likely to be Nan Hudson. The tea is set for three and, as they wait for the kettle, with the teapot lid open, Sands has left her place to paint the event, or so it seems.

Further reading:
Wendy Baron, Miss Ethel Sands and her Circle, London, 1977, pp.93, 95-6

Robert Upstone
February 2002

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Display caption

Sands was a great friend of the painter Walter Sickert, despite the fact that he was inclined to exclude women from the development of modern art. This painting suggests that Sands was not fooled by her colleague's self-importance. Sickert’s demeanour - and the view-point taken by the artist - encourage the viewer to appraise the scene with the same shrewd humour as the artist herself.

Gallery label, February 2010

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Catalogue entry


The friendship between Walter Richard Sickert and the American painters Ethel Sands and Nan Hudson lasted for over twenty years and led to the two women’s inclusion in the Fitzroy Street Group and subsequently the London Group. Sickert had first met the two in 1906 at a restaurant in Paris, later recalling to Hudson that ‘it was refreshing to find someone spiritually & intellectually on the slightly higher level for which I have always had a sneaking snobbish & perhaps pedantic hankering ... Ethel was silent but I concluded she was probably amazing & took her on trust into my immediate affections as well.’1 He renewed his acquaintance with Hudson the following year after greatly admiring one of her paintings exhibited at the Salon d’Automne in Paris, and he shortly afterwards invited both Hudson and Sands to join his Saturday ‘At Homes’ in Fitzroy Street. The trio developed a genuine and long-lasting friendship which proved to be of benefit to all parties.
This friendship is recorded in Sands’s picture, Tea with Sickert, painted in about 1911–12, during the active period of the Camden Town Group. The painting shows a comfortable sitting room furnished with two chintz-covered armchairs and a sofa, arranged around a low table set for afternoon tea. The interior is almost certainly 42 Lowndes Street in Kensington, Sands’s London address between 1906 and 1913. Sickert is the suited man sitting cross-legged in one of the armchairs and smoking, and the woman seated on the sofa with her back to the viewer and her face obscured is probably Hudson. The style of dress fits in with her preference for tailored clothes and large flamboyant hats. The central armchair is empty, implying the absence of the artist.
The institution of afternoon tea is a peculiarly British tradition combining refreshment with an emphasis on refined formal ritual and social interaction. It is commonly regarded as a feminine preserve and a woman would be expected to preside over the pouring of tea and the serving of food. The Saturday afternoon ‘At Homes’ of the Fitzroy Street Group, where members exhibited and viewed works, were arranged around the precept of afternoon tea. Sickert coupled his invitation to Sands and Hudson to participate in the proceedings with an expectation that they would undertake to serve the tea. He wrote to Hudson, not entirely tongue-in-cheek, ‘Of course you understand that henceforth you are hostess in Fitzroy Street & I hope you will “behave as such”’.2 The tea table in Sands’s painting is laid with fine bone china cups and saucers and plates for three people. A silverware kettle containing hot water rests upon a stand next to a teapot with the lid open, waiting for the tea to be made. Also on the tray are a china sugar bowl and a milk jug, a silver tea caddy and what is probably a tea strainer or a bowl containing slices of lemon. A partially cut iced fruitcake stands to one side to accompany the tea.

Nicola Moorby
August 2003


Walter Sickert, letter to Nan Hudson, 1913, Tate Archive TGA 9125/5, no.71.
Walter Sickert, letter to Nan Hudson, [1907], Tate Archive TGA 9125/5, no.34.
Wendy Baron, Miss Ethel Sands and her Circle, London 1977, p.63.
Walter Sickert, letter to Nan Hudson, Tate Archive TGA 9125/5, no.7.
Alicia Foster, Tate Women Artists, London 2004, p.161.
Charles Ginner, ‘The Camden Town Group’, Studio, vol.130, no.632, November 1945, p.130.
Walter Sickert, letter to Nan Hudson, June 1911, Tate Archive TGA 9125/5, no.77.
Quoted in Baron 1977, p.93.
Roger Fry, Nation, 1912, quoted in Foster 2004, p.161.
Baron 1977, p.95.
Reproduced in Elizabeth Wynne Easton, The Intimate Interiors of Edouard Vuillard, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston 1989 (41).
Belinda Thomson, Edouard Vuillard, Oxford 1988, p.76.
Walter Sickert, ‘New Wine’, New Age, 21 April 1910, p.592, in Anna Gruetzner Robins (ed.), Walter Sickert: The Complete Writings on Art, Oxford 2000, p.218.

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