The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

Ethel Sands Tea with Sickert c.1911-12

The table in the sitting room of Ethel Sands’s residence at 42 Lowndes Street in Kensington is set for afternoon tea for three. Walter Sickert, enclosed by chintz-covered furnishings, poses confidently in the background with cigar in hand. Seen from a high angle in the foreground, Nan Hudson, wearing a large hat, sits in the crook of the sofa with the viewer looking down onto the large buttons of her yellow skirt. The composition reveals the dynamic of Sickert’s relationship with Sands and Hudson; the two women admired the elder painter without allowing him to dominate their personal artistic vision.
Ethel Sands 1873–1962
Tea with Sickert
c.1911–12
Oil paint on canvas
635 x 507 mm
Inscribed by the artist ‘Ethel Sands’ in blue paint bottom left
Bequeathed by Colonel Christopher Sands 2000, accessioned 2001
T07808

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.
The art historian Wendy Baron has commented that Sickert was ‘almost pathologically incapable of withholding his advice and criticism from any painter in whom he spotted potential’,3 and much of his correspondence to Sands and Hudson, now in Tate Archive, is punctuated with instructions on how to alter their technique and improve their work according to Sickert’s own methods and beliefs. Hudson and Sands both greatly admired Sickert and his painting and undoubtedly benefited from their absorption into the Fitzroy Street circle. They were, however, both extremely independent and single-minded and, unlike some of Sickert’s pupils, never lost their own stylistic identities. Their friendship with Sickert relied upon their good-humoured acceptance of his criticisms and implied superiority, and they played out the role of disciples to the master, while not allowing the force of Sickert’s arguments to swamp their own individualities. Sickert wrote to Hudson in 1913, ‘The duplicity of the sex! You shut your dear button hole of a mouth, & Ethel opens hers with a becoming smile & looks at me straight in the face with eyes of melting tenderness, & all the while you are both nursing the bleakest of sentiment on account of the injury to your spurned canvases!’4
Tea with Sickert is a reflection of the unique nature of the relationship between Sickert, Hudson and Sands. Sickert’s relaxed, somewhat affected pose, cross-legged with one hand on his hip and the other holding a cigarette or cigar, is one of complete ease, familiarity and self-confidence. He is totally comfortable in his surroundings and he is the unquestioned focus of the artist’s and the viewer’s gaze. His positioning in the top right-hand corner of the painting at the back of the interior and the sketchy, insubstantial painted treatment of his figure means, however, that he does not dominate the scene completely. Equal aesthetic treatment is given to the entire surface of the painting so that the figure of Sickert is only one element of the pictorial whole. When the painting was first exhibited in 1912 it was simply titled A Tea-Table. Sickert’s place within Sands’s own domestic environment is carefully managed by her as the artist. He is defined in relation to the carefully spaced, feminine furniture, and the larger figure of Hudson is placed diagonally opposite him so that he is assimilated into the scene and appears to be part of her world, rather than she aspiring to be part of his. The painting is simultaneously a record of a cherished and pleasurable friendship and a statement of independence from Sickert’s overwhelming personality. The art historian Alicia Foster has argued that the title was changed to Tea with Sickert in order to capitalise on Sickert’s name and make the painting more marketable for sale.5
Despite Sickert’s admiration for Hudson and Sands, his invitation to them to join the Fitzroy Street Group was not extended to membership of the rather more formalised and professional Camden Town Group. According to Charles Ginner, both Sickert and Gilman agreed that women should be excluded from joining, largely to avoid the inclusion of wives and ‘lady friends’ who might lower the artistic standards of the group.6 Sickert made no apologies to the women for their non-inclusion, writing to Hudson, ‘As a matter of fact, as you probably know, the Camden Town Group is a male club, & women are not eligible. There are lots of two sex clubs, & several one sex clubs, & this is one of them.’7 Unfortunately, there is no record of Hudson’s and Sands’s thoughts about the ban on women but they were not deterred from involvement with the London artistic avant-garde. In June 1912 they held a joint exhibition of their work at the commercial platform of the Camden Town Group, the Carfax Gallery. Among the paintings exhibited by Sands was Tea with Sickert, which the Westminster Gazette called ‘a daring picture’ but ‘a somewhat overwhelming indulgence in pure orange vermilion’.8 Roger Fry dismissed the whole show as ‘frankly feminine’.9
Edouard Vuillard 'Girl in an Interior' circa 1910
Fig.1
Edouard Vuillard
Girl in an Interior circa 1910
Tate N04436
The painting, with its use of strong colour, loose brushwork and painterly surface demonstrates the artist’s engagement with recent modernist developments, particularly in French art. The high viewpoint looking down upon the angled tea table and the concern with decorative surface pattern has been described by Wendy Baron as ‘Gauguinesque’,10 although it is perhaps more instructive to consider the similarity of the painting’s style and subject matter with that of Edouard Vuillard (1868–1940). Vuillard, whom Sands knew personally from her time in France, and his contemporary Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947), both painted small-scale subjects known as ‘intimiste’ works, depicting everyday life in domestic interiors. Many of Vuillard’s paintings are intimate portrayals of his family or friends at home, often engaged in daily tasks and activities such as dining, for example The Vuillard Family at Lunch c.1896 (private collection)11 and Girl in an Interior c.1910 (Tate N04436, fig.1) which also features a tea tray laden with fine china. Sands’s high viewpoint in Tea with Sickert may have been adopted from Vuillard, who liked to experiment with unusual perspective. She also shared his interest in depicting the surfaces, textures and patterns of the domestic middle-class interior using rich, vivid colours and broken patches of paint. Although she does not follow Vuillard’s practice in his early paintings of making his figures almost disappear into a decorative pattern, the overall strong colour of Sands’s painting does have the effect of slightly concealing the two figures.
Although not included in either of Roger Fry’s post-impressionist exhibitions, Vuillard’s work was relatively well known in London during this period through his regular contact with British collectors, artists and exhibiting organisations and was rated highly among the London avant-grade.12 The art historian Belinda Thomson has highlighted the close affinity between the art of Vuillard and Sickert, who praised Vuillard in his 1910 exhibition review of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers for the delicate and powerful effect of his ‘scrawled splashes of distemper’.13 Sickert seems to have admired the effects Vuillard achieved in his paintings, almost in spite of himself. The French artist’s notational technique and interest in decorative pattern and colour was completely antithetical to Sickert’s own methods and aesthetic beliefs, yet he admitted that despite being ‘shocked at the violence of the means ... an added stroke would be tautology and a detraction’.14 In his instruction of Sands, Sickert continually tried to get her to abandon her own methods of directly painting in front of the subject, in favour of working from sketches. Although she experimented with this practice, she never really took to it and despite featuring the man himself, Tea with Sickert reveals more of Sands’s artistic debt to Vuillard than to Sickert.

Nicola Moorby
August 2003

Notes

1
Walter Sickert, letter to Nan Hudson, 1913, Tate Archive TGA 9125/5, no.71.
2
Walter Sickert, letter to Nan Hudson, [1907], Tate Archive TGA 9125/5, no.34.
3
Wendy Baron, Miss Ethel Sands and her Circle, London 1977, p.63.
4
Walter Sickert, letter to Nan Hudson, Tate Archive TGA 9125/5, no.7.
5
Alicia Foster, Tate Women Artists, London 2004, p.161.
6
Charles Ginner, ‘The Camden Town Group’, Studio, vol.130, no.632, November 1945, p.130.
7
Walter Sickert, letter to Nan Hudson, June 1911, Tate Archive TGA 9125/5, no.77.
8
Quoted in Baron 1977, p.93.
9
Roger Fry, Nation, 1912, quoted in Foster 2004, p.161.
10
Baron 1977, p.95.
11
Reproduced in Elizabeth Wynne Easton, The Intimate Interiors of Edouard Vuillard, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston 1989 (41).
12
Belinda Thomson, Edouard Vuillard, Oxford 1988, p.76.
13
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.
14
Ibid.

How to cite

Nicola Moorby, ‘Tea with Sickert c.1911–12 by Ethel Sands’, catalogue entry, August 2003, in Helena Bonett, Ysanne Holt, Jennifer Mundy (eds.), The Camden Town Group in Context, Tate Research Publication, May 2012, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/camden-town-group/ethel-sands-tea-with-sickert-r1139308, accessed 21 April 2019.