The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

Walter Richard Sickert, ‘A Stone Ginger’

The New Age, 19 March 1914, pp.631–2.

A Stone Ginger.
By Walter Sickert.
Not only are words not the painter’s medium, but the very nature of his medium, and of the kind of life, and the kind of preoccupation that his medium imposes on him, renders him, of all men, the least apt at expression in words. Cumulative and silent observation, what the Germans call ablauschen, a manner of breathless listening, as it were, with the eyes, a listening extending over a long series of years, make of him, in so far as he is a painter, rather a silent than a resonant being. The game he pursues must not be startled, must even, as much as possible, be kept unaware of his presence. Insomuch as he is a painter he tends to be the opposite of “the observed of all observers.” He has rather to be the “observer of all the observed.” “Don’t speak,” is what he generally says or wishes to say. “Do not disturb the spell.” A stillness like the sleeping of a top may describe, as near as words can describe it, the operations of a painter’s activity. “Do not ruffle me. Do not ruffle me disagreeably. Still less ruffle me agreeably. Ignore me. Suppose me not present.”
Scheuch nicht den holden Traum.
The painter is consumed with envy of the racecourse thief and the welsher. If he could organise it he would carry with him the “minder,” who keeps watch for him. He would carry with him, if he could, all exes paid, his band of “wraughters” or “rorters” (there are two opinions about the spelling of this word), whose duty it is to jostle the “mug,” if the “mug” is only a “mug.” (If the “mug” should be a “tradesman” as well, the course of procedure is different, and somewhat outside the scope of this article.) He would carry with him the “jollier,” whose duty it is to keep the “mug” amused, and rouse him to acts of folly. All these he would carry with him so that he, the “worker,” or the “tool,” might have his mind and his hands freed for the masterstroke. Luxury would be carried to its highest point if the “fence” could be not too far away, to advance him a professional proportion of the value of his haul. The “fence” is the dealer or receiver.
If it is an outdoor landscape that he is studying, the ray of sunlight that pierces the clerestory of the forest is on that bough, his bough, at that point in time only. Those beech leaves are a cold shower of new silver pieces, new francs, new shillings, perhaps for the last time this summer. He is as anxious as the harvester. The weather may change to-morrow. A fortnight hence the inclination of the sun at this same hour will be different. That bough on which all depends, that bough, the protagonist in his ineffable little drama, will never be quite the same again. Miracles of concentration, made possible by an inherited aptitude, sedulously cultivated for years, must be done in twenty-five minutes. Words were a disturbance and an impertinence, and would trouble the waters in the divine stream in which he angles, at one and the same moment for glancing fishes, and for the loaves that shall enable him to continue his life-long sport, and to buy worms, many worms, and flies, and more, much more tackle than he needs or will ever use, his chief debauch, an irritation and a scandal to his executors.
If he lives in a northern climate and has no hankering for physical martyrdom, he, with the rest of his countrymen, will work indoors. The house, where man is born, and married, and dies, becomes his theatre, and the sun shines as well, if sometimes more indirectly, on the indoor as on the outdoor man. It may be that the windows, framing and limiting the light, act on the indoor landscape as the frame of the sonnet-form acts on a stream of poetic light, not always with detriment. We all know that picture of Moritz von Schwind, of the little German girl in plaits who throws open the casement of her bedroom to greet the sounds and scents of morning. The everlasting matutinal is enshrined in it once for all and for ever. No educated person can think of morning without thinking of that picture by Schwind, and Schwind wasn’t labelled an anything-ist, but just a painter. His work required no treatise, and no abstrusely reasoned justifications. I once had the folly, in speaking to Monsieur Degas, to use the expression “a genius” of a painter of our acquaintance. “Ce n’est pas un génie,” he said, “c’est un peintre.”
Or take the afternoon. The torpors of digestion are over. Tea has clarified the brain, and set tongues wagging again. The afternoon light flows in through the open folding doors, from the small back-room in the classic uniform English first floor, into the bigger front room. The beautiful common venetian blinds are down in the front room. The sympathetic personality of the man who is standing talking, saying almost anything, some of those nothings that we willingly listen to, just because they are not important, and so do not stir, but amuse us, has become transfigured by the light. The light has carved him like a gem. He happens to have an air of good-breeding, and wears a well-cut suit, as different from what the French call a suit “de chez de bon faiseur,” as possible. For the moment his mood, his pose and the lighting conspire to make of his image the quintessential embodiment of life. He is not so much Tom Smith as he is Everyman in No-man’s-land. He is the painter’s America, his new-found land. These things being things of the spirit, phantom sensations built of dust and sunbeams, of personal sympathy and a light play of mood, can we approach to an analysis of the instrument with which they shall be concentrated by the painter into a permanent record?
If he be only a painter, and not a draughtsman, he will be able to give you something, something beautiful, something with a certain charm of execution and colour, [end of p.631] something to which will even cling a faint scent of the magic moment, but it will be a faint sensation only, to which he will give a degree of permanence. The work will be wanting in bite, in bulk, in depth, in resonance, and in uniqueness. But if the painter is doubled with the draughtsman, we get the supreme work. The model may be quelconque, but the work is, oh, so particular, so the reverse of quelconque. By a strange rule it would seem that the greater the painter the more indifferent may the model be. Does not a lover of genius search high and low for the plainest mistress he can find?
What is it, Hulme and Bergson, and all incomprehensible bedevilments and obfuscations and convolutions and Rogerisms apart, that happens in the few minutes when the painter and his muse have “the time of” – Mr. Epstein’s pigeons?
What I have written up to now have been some reasons why the painter is by nature and occupation inapt for words. It is difficult and – who knows? – impious to lift the veil of creation. There is a modern tendency to be incessantly fumbling with the fig-leaf. The word “pudor” our art-nuts would like to see erased from the dictionary. Shall I tell you why it is impious to lift the veil, and why the word “pudor” will never be erased? Because the result would be as dull – as will be the rest of this article, which should only be read by painters and art-students.
The man, then, whom I have left standing with a cheroot in one hand, looking out towards the light with his head slightly raised, half in pleasure at the sunshine, and half in a certain inspiration he gets from the memory of a quite trivial incident he is recalling, with an emphasis that makes it important to him, has got to be drawn. He has got to be drawn. It is a few minutes to five, and the Ides of March. He has got to he drawn, not only before the sun sets behind the houses of Stanhope Street and puts a cold extinguisher of lead on the whole scene, but long before that. He has got to be drawn before the fizziness in his momentary mood has become still and flat. If the painter is tactful, and behaves to the man as if the man were a sparrow, if the painter can throw his crumb of appreciation and his monosyllabic assent gently enough not to frighten the model, and yet sharply enough to keep him alert, I give them twenty to twenty-five minutes. The magic of that mood can be prolonged in the air, hung up, by an experienced magician for, say twenty-five minutes (I have seen a wave that Whistler was painting hang, dog’s-eared for him, for an incredible duration of seconds, while the foam curled and creamed under his brush for Mr. Freear of Detroit.)
And now I will tell you in the tail of an article what it takes me three years’ incessant nagging to knock into the heads of students, provided always that they are under eighteen years of age. I will tell you what drawing is, without what the French call ambages, without Hulmisms or Rogerisms, ambages ambo.
All lines in nature, if you come to reflect on it, are located somewhere in radiants within the 360 degrees of four right angles. All straight lines absolutely, and all curves can be considered as tangents to such lines. In other words, there is no line in nature which does not go in the direction of one of the little ticks that mark the minutes on the face of a watch. Given the limits of exactness needed for æsthetic purposes, if you could put on paper by sight the place, that is to say the minute of every line you see, you could draw. Proportion, anatomy, botany, mineralogy, eschatology, skiography, perspective and everything else will follow, if the sense of direction of line is highly cultivated. This truth is so important that we had better have an adjournment to allow you to consider it. Here you have the bedrock of pictorial art, and I am afraid it will be a great disappointment to the super-goose of feeling, and would make a bad head-line on the newspaper bills. It is not what I once heard my old friend the sub-editor of the “New York Herald” describe as “A daisy story,” but it is what the sporting touts call “a stone ginger.”
© Estate of Walter R. Sickert

How to cite

Walter Richard Sickert, ‘A Stone Ginger’, in The New Age, 19 March 1914, pp.631–2, in Helena Bonett, Ysanne Holt, Jennifer Mundy (eds.), The Camden Town Group in Context, Tate Research Publication, May 2012,, accessed 21 May 2024.