The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

Walter Richard Sickert, ‘Drawing from the Cast’

The New Age, 23 April 1914, pp.781–2.

Drawing from the Cast.
By Walter Sickert.
The same dull spirit that makes it possible for people to speak of “duty calls” has made of study from the cast, instead of the enchanted garden that it might be, a perfunctory and stupid purgatory. Snobbishness and competitive arrivisme are fostered by treating work from the cast as an anteroom to the real entrée en jouissance, which promotion only to “the life” is supposed, by the big babies that students are, to confer.
The philosophy of pictorial art has seldom been investigated in writing by practitioners. Speculation from outside may be amusing, or not, as an exercise in dialectics, but it can have no more utility, and therefore no more permanent interest than the essays of a pure littérateur on navigation. The best it can be is readable, and, when you have read it, you have eaten a meringue, and no more.
I propose only to speak of our European art, which is the only art of which I have any understanding, and it is hardly necessary to say that this limitation of mine implies neither a tacit expression of opinion on the vast field of Eastern art, on which I am not competent to speak, nor any impertinent comparison of the importance of the two fields. It implies merely a strict limitation of myself to the department in which I have any claim to suggest reflections, or to express an opinion. “Chacun son métier, et les vaches seront bien gardées,” or as we say in English, “Every man to his job, and the cook to the fore-sheet.”
Our art, as it has been handed down to us, is an art of light and shade. With a realistic understanding of the brevity of each individual life, and of the tiny sum of capacity of every, the most powerful and gifted individual, I can be no constitution-monger, nor do I stand for anything but the rigour of the game as it has been handed down to us. And it is just because the past achievements in art have always been to me very living and present realities, and the old masters neither remote mysteries nor occult bores, that I know that the future, with its infinite possibilities of variation, can only continue to rise gradually on the solid foundation of the past.
Our art deals with the expression of the light of the sun, direct or indirect, concentrated or diffused, on material objects. And since the first torch of flame was originally stolen by Prometheus from the sun, our pictures of scenes by artificial light may justly be classified as only an extension of the effects that have their origin in the light of the sun.
We all know, and it is useful to recall, the experiment that is quoted in most elementary treatises on drawing. And you may take it from me, exhibitor at the New English Art Club, member of the Salon d’Automne that I am, that nearly all the unpretentious text-books on art that you can buy from a shilling upwards, in most countries, are all right. (I have a shrewd suspicion that I have never written, and shall never write a sentence that will be more serviceable to students than this last.) The hackneyed (give me the hackneyed!) experiment is the following. It is known that you may so illuminate a sphere of white plaster which is suspended in front of a sheet of white paper that, all shadow being eliminated, the form of the sphere becomes invisible. Therefore, as soon as light and shade is banished, there is no longer matter for our plastic or pictorial art.
Now the practice of art, no more than lawn-tennis or chess, is not a natural thing. It is a highly artificial game, with conditions that have been evolved by the players of the past in the same manner as has the form and exact make of a cricket bat. Its limitations are peremptory and permit of no excursions.
The casts in a school should be illuminated either by a single window of restricted size, or by the flame of a single light. I leave the working-out of this necessity to the architects and teachers concerned. I need not remind them that the artistic progress of the students is the proper aim of an art school, and that neither the production of an imposing electioneering façade, nor accommodation for the largest possible number of capitation-paying students are the primary aims of education. To forget this is to lose for the sake of living the reason for life.
Propter vivendum vitai perdere caussas.
For study by daylight, students should not work on the same drawings on sunny and on grey days. The effect of light and shade, on a grey day, is simplified, and is valuable for that reason. The light on a sunny day, which rifles the form with greater intimacy, is complex, and valuable for that reason. Where the sun falls on the casts, and a room with a south light is the best of all, students should work on a series of drawings for about twenty-five minutes at a time, and take the same drawings up in the same succession on the next sunny day. When the weather gives alternations of sunshine and grey weather, students should pass from their sunshine studies of the casts, backwards and forwards to their grey-day studies, as the sky changes.
One consequence which follows from these directions is consoling to the student of limited means whose main object is to learn to draw, since it follows from the above that any old room with one window is better than the finest and most expensive atelier. So that in art, as in most things, it is the poor who have the best of the bargain.
Having disposed of the question of illumination, it may be well to repeat that drawings or paintings from objects should be made on the scale that those objects would cover, were the student’s sheet of paper a sheet of glass, and were it held at the distance from the eyes of the student at which his drawing board or canvas are placed.
One point it is very important to insist upon. Drawing on the scale of vision is only necessary in work done direct from nature. I shall have things to say later about scale, when we come to consider the making of pictures and decorations, which will prove that I have no preference for a small scale in itself. I shall then urge my belief that the real art quality of drawing is frequently strangled by treating subjects that are too comprehensive on too small a scale. But in drawing from nature the image on the eye and the image on the paper or the canvas should be as nearly as possible on the same scale.
Let us imagine for a moment two frames set up between us and the cast or the model, these two frames equidistant from our eyes. Let us suppose that in the one frame is fixed a board with a sheet of paper, and in the other a sheet of glass. Now let us imagine our two wrists handcuffed with a rigid steel bar so that they could only move in unison, after the manner of the two legs of the instrument called a pantograph. In the one hand we hold a diamond and in the other a small pencil. As we now proceed to trace with the diamond the outline of the model on the sheet of glass with one hand, with the other, by a series of parallel and identical movements, we trace with the pencil the same outline on paper. The comparison between these two drawings would in this way be direct and not proportional. The more or less clumsy mechanism of this illustration shows what should be the operation we accomplish by brain and eye when we draw from nature.
Consider for a moment the immense and useless work thrown on the eye and the mind when, as in the scale of most art-school drawings, at each turn of the head, a proportion sum has to be improvised, and to what purpose? If a cartoon of any size is required from the studies, they can always be squared up. The authority of the museums is entirely against the large scale drawing done from nature. I believe that hundreds of students have been permanently broken and deviated from the normal path of natural drawing by the Procrustes bed of the manufacturer’s sheet of so-called Ingres paper.
Leighton reminded me some thirty years ago that in order to see a six-foot man properly you must be [end of p.781] eighteen feet away from him. Hold up a rule at that distance and see how much the model subtends. A matter of nine or ten inches. Why are we, then, to fill a piece of Ingres paper, and make him thirty inches high, that is three times the scale of our vision? What have the oculists to say to this practice? Is it more likely that Rembrandt and Charles Keene and Leighton are right or, with all respect be it said, the advisers of the late Prince Consort and the late Sir Henry Cole.
This fatal error must be swept away. There is, in fact, no reason to fear that it will not be swept away. Government nowadays is supposed to go by the consent of the governed, and the students that I have formed during the last decade are, some of them, already teachers. They are already insisting on the scale of vision, and the uniform scale of the drawing-board is as good as dead.
© Estate of Walter R. Sickert

How to cite

Walter Richard Sickert, ‘Drawing from the Cast’, in The New Age, 23 April 1914, pp.781–2, in Helena Bonett, Ysanne Holt, Jennifer Mundy (eds.), The Camden Town Group in Context, Tate Research Publication, May 2012,, accessed 16 April 2024.