The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

Walter Richard Sickert George Moore 1890-1

George Moore, the Irish painter turned novelist and critic, first met Walter Sickert in Dieppe. The two men shared sympathies with French impressionism as well as the literature of Zola and Balzac. First exhibited at the New English Art Club in 1891, Sickert’s impressionist treatment of Moore’s colourful character was commended as well as being derided as a ‘boiled ghost’.
Walter Richard Sickert 1860–1942
George Moore
1890–1
Oil paint on canvas
603 x 502 mm
Inscribed by the artist ‘Sickert’ bottom left and ‘George Moore’ on stretcher on back
Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1917
N03181

Entry

Background

George Augustus Moore (1852–1933) was born at Moore Hall, Lough Carra, County Mayo, Ireland. His father, George Henry Moore (1810–1870), was a gentleman horse breeder and Member of Parliament. While the family were living in London, George Moore decided he wanted an artistic career and so enrolled as an art student in 1868, a move bitterly opposed by his parents who wanted him to join the army. The early death of Moore’s father in 1870 allowed him freedom to follow his desire, as well as the income from the family estate in Ireland.
Edouard Manet 'George Moore' 1873–9
Fig.1
Edouard Manet
George Moore 1873–9
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. H.O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs H.O. Havemeyer, 1929
Photo by Malcolm Varon © 2011. The Metropolitan Museum of Art / ArtResource / Scala, Florence
Moore went to Paris in 1873 and enrolled first at the École des Beaux-Arts, and then at various private schools and ateliers. Realising his artistic abilities were slight, he instead turned to a literary career, and drew particular inspiration from the Nouvelle Athènes, a café frequented by artists and writers. There he met Émile Zola, who encouraged him to become a writer. During these years in Paris, Moore became friends with Edgar Degas and Edouard Manet, the latter making a portrait of him (fig.1), and he was also on intimate terms with the symbolist writers Stéphane Mallarmé, Joris-Karl Huysmans and Paul Verlaine.1
Moore returned to London in 1880, producing a series of novels, including the famous Esther Waters (1894), while also turning his attention to writing on art.2 As art critic of the Speaker he championed Manet and Degas, and modern French art as a whole. When he moved to the Saturday Review, Moore nominated Walter Sickert to replace him. In 1891 Moore published Impressions and Opinions, which included colourful essays on Zola, Verlaine, Honoré de Balzac, Arthur Rimbaud and Jules Laforgue, while his 1893 Modern Painting established him as the chief apologist for new developments in art. In this period his and Sickert’s views on art almost exactly coincided.
Sickert and Moore first met in Dieppe, an occasion Moore recalled with Proustian intensity even decades later:
I had come over from London to spend a week with Jacques Blanche ... and was talking in the dining room with him and his mother about the tapestry they were lucky to come upon in an old shop. How precise and vague memory is! I can see the colour, every shade of the green, but nothing of the design; and the table, too, already laid, the napery, glass and silver catching the light, is part of my impression of Sickert coming in at the moment of sunset, his paint-box slung over his shoulders, his mouth full of words and laughter, his body at exquisite poise, and himself as unconscious of himself as a bird on a branch. No, I don’t think anybody was ever as young as Sickert was that day at Dieppe. A few months afterwards in London he shaved his moustache, a frizzle of gold – God only knows why!3

Exhibition

That Sickert should paint a portrait of a friend who shared his artistic beliefs is not surprising. But it must be that he also intended to raise and commemorate the status of Moore as a critic and supporter of new British art, and by implication his own status as an artist. It is difficult not to see such a work as reinforcing a tribal sense of belonging to a defined avant-garde group in the British art world. That Sickert’s George Moore was first shown at the 1891 exhibition of the New English Art Club – in which Sickert was a leading member of a hard-line impressionist faction which Moore had defended in print – would seem to confirm the portrait as part of Sickert’s campaign. It may have been seen as a provocation by more conservative critics, and also elements of the New English Art Club itself. Stanhope Forbes, for instance, had been a founder of the NEAC, but bitterly tried to resist the more authentically impressionist direction in which Sickert and Steer tried to take the group. He effectively withdrew from the debate when he became an Associate Royal Academician in 1892. The potential of Moore’s portrait to irritate conservative elements is borne out by Robert Emmons’s recollection that at the annual Royal Academy banquet, presumably during the speeches, it was derided as an ‘intoxicated mummy’,4 reputedly by Henry Butcher.5
Further evidence that Sickert was using such pictures to elevate the status of the new art protagonists is that in 1890, the year before he exhibited George Moore, he and Steer each painted a portrait of one another and showed them at the New English Art Club spring exhibition (Sickert’s portrait of Steer is now in the National Portrait Gallery,6 while Steer’s painting of Sickert is now lost).7 Indeed, the Umpire complained:
The members of this club paint each other, make presents to each other, pervade the rooms talking of each other, and lend each other’s pictures. Still, among a good many specimens of the ‘smudgy’ and ‘blobby’ school who hurl a pot of paint at a square of canvas and call it ‘an impressionist sketch’ ... among such amiable vagaries hang some dozen examples of astonishingly good work.8
Around the time he exhibited George Moore, Sickert was heavily engaged in the discipline of making portrait studies. In 1890 he was commissioned to make a series of drawings from life of familiar society figures for full-page reproduction in the short-lived weekly journal the Whirlwind. He submitted an illustration each week, and the diverse figures that he represented included Jacques-Emile Blanche, Charles Bradlaugh, Henry Labouchere, Lord Lytton and Sir Charles Rivers Wilson.9 In 1893 the Pall Mall Budget reprinted three drawings from the Whirlwind series, and also others probably drawn in 1890 that included Lord Curzon, Hippolyte Taine and Professor Dewar.
In the 1890s celebrity was big business. Britain was a society dominated by mass production and the beginnings of a collective mass culture, one effect of which was the celebration of individuality and fame. People hungrily consumed images of their heroes in newspapers and journals, searching for the physiognomy of genius. The refinement of printing technology in the 1890s allowed artists’ drawings to be reproduced through photographic processes. Images of the great and the good were commissioned from artists, often with the belief that greater revelation of character would come through their perceptive translation than through a photograph. Series such as William Rothenstein’s English Portraits or William Nicholson’s Twelve Portraits, both published in 1897, were eagerly consumed and sold in large numbers.

Reception

Sickert’s head and shoulders drawing in pen and ink of George Moore appeared in the Pall Mall Budget on 23 February 1893, and a three-quarter-length drawing was reproduced in the Cambridge Observer, edited by his brother Oswald, on 28 February 1893. As the art historian Wendy Baron has suggested, it seems possible that both these drawings were done in 1890, at the same time Sickert was working on his oil portrait, although neither is a study for it.10 In his review of Sickert’s essay ‘Realism in Painting’, Moore wrote of his experience of being painted by Sickert, and related it to the argument of Sickert’s article:
The great meaning – the essential meaning – of Mr Sickert’s essay may be summarised in this way: – Observe nature, study nature; but do not copy nature. And for many years Mr Sickert has practised what he preaches. He had made thousands of drawings in the fields and streets, in the theatres and music-halls; he has perfected his memory by constant application, and his pictures are painted from studies. I only sat twice for the astonishing and now celebrated portrait, and when, owing to a press of work, I was compelled to abandon the sittings, the portrait was chaos. But Mr Sickert had got from me all he wanted, and so was free to pursue the artistic ideal he was striving for ... Mr Sickert must not forget that the artist need not copy the model, even though the model is always before him while he is painting.11
The portrait of Moore attracted considerable and extensive attention in the press, some favourable and some heavily critical. The Yorkshire Post described it as ‘an astonishing portrait ... which it is impossible to believe is seriously intended’,12 while the Liverpool Mercury noted, ‘Mr Walter Sickert has painted Mr George Moore in somewhat eccentric style’. 13 Other reviewers responded to what they believed was the impressionist technique Sickert employed, and thought it looked better viewed from further away:
Perhaps the most contentious picture ... is Mr Walter Sickert’s portrait of Mr George Moore, who by one paper was likened to a ‘boiled ghost’. It is true that the near effect of ‘GM’s’ features is ghastly, as they are reproduced by a few bold dashes of Mr Sickert’s brush, but the distant effect is undeniably life-like. The philistine spectator must be educated in impressionism before he can thoroughly appreciate it.14
The Times judged this technique less praiseworthy:
A notable but unpleasing picture ... It is excessively dexterous and careless; but, if it fairly illustrates the Impressionist method of portraiture, one can only say that a portrait should not appear to be the work of a ‘lightening artist’, but should record, as all great portraits do, more than a passing mood or a transient expression.15
The Echo took up this point, but defended Sickert’s ability to capture Moore’s character:
It is a head and bust portrait snatched by what are known as impressionistic means. Seen from across the room, it certainly conveys with startling veracity the impression of the exaggerated blonde; but this is not all. The artist has unquestionably had a sudden glimpse of the inner character of his sitter, which he has revealed with more fidelity than compassion.16
Several newspapers suspected Sickert had painted something that deliberately bordered on parody. The Pall Mall Gazette wrote of it as ‘a portrait as might be said by some to approach a caricature of the sitter’s genial features; but there is no denying the vividness of the impression conveyed’,17 while the Birmingham Post thought Moore ‘must feel but slightly flattered by the portrait ... which occupies a central position in the gallery’.18 The critic of the Herald poked fun at both Sickert’s abilities as a portraitist and Moore’s advocacy of French naturalist literature:
The spirit and waggery of the new English artists has not entirely departed, for is there not left to us a perfectly humorous portrait of Mr George Moore, whose sightless orbs notwithstanding, seems to have been brought face to face with all the horrors and remorse of ‘Thérese Racquin’, and appears to be suffering from violent jim-jams?19
The idea that the picture was some sort of caricature was pursued in a number of notices. The Echo critic wrote how they
nearly expired over the portrait of a novelist man ... Some said it looked like a boiled ghost, but he might have added the word ‘soiled’ as well. It is a tremendous joke, and it was delicious to see people come up in front of it, glance at it, examine their catalogues, and then gradually alter their expression from a puzzled, revolted wonder to subdued mirth. People brought others to see, and small explosions of laughter were heard in the vicinity; but, of course, we were all afraid to laugh openly, lest the artist should be close to us. He must have been suffering from a nightmare when he painted that awful head.20
Perhaps because of its notoriety or celebrity, Sickert is said to have placed a price on the portrait of a hundred guineas when it was exhibited in 1891.21 While critical reactions were distinctly mixed, most commentated upon the work’s ability to express a distinct character. D.S. MacColl in the Spectator wrote most favourably:
It is a work that gives three several satisfactions. From a due distance it attracts first by its design and colour, and then arrests by its extraordinary expressiveness. Whether or not it is like its original, it is a notable piece of character-painting, and suggests how powerful a weapon lies in the hand of the painter if he chooses, in paint, to criticize the critic. But there is a third pleasure ... the handling, – how the drawing is built up, the deliberate skill and subtlety of the touches.22
Moore was certainly a man of singular and characterful appearance, to which his obituary in the Times drew attention:
In person he was of middle height, with fresh complexion, sloping shoulders, long, sensitive hands which he employed continually in limp gestures, hair once yellow and afterwards white, and a moustache that partly hid the arrogant, sensual mouth; but nothing hid the changes of his eye, which was now soft and gentle, and anon – at a challenging thought – sharp as a hawk’s. He was never a great reader or a tolerant one. It pleased him to insist on unexpected preferences.23
Moore’s own reactions to his portrait were not voiced publicly until 20 February 1892, when in the Speaker he pronounced himself satisfied. But the lapse in time before mentioning it in print adds credence to the story that he was privately very annoyed by the picture. According to James Laver, when he first saw the picture he exploded, ‘You have made me look like a booby!’ Sickert is reputed to have responded, ‘But you are a booby’.24
The beginnings of the waning of Sickert’s admiration for Moore might be seen in the caricature he published of him in Vanity Fair in 1897, which he titled Esther Waters, the same as the eponymous servant heroine of Moore’s most famous novel, who endured unmarried pregnancy and hardship.25 Robert Emmons wrote that ‘To Sickert, Moore was always a subject of gay derision. His pronouncements on painting were reassured as delicious titbits of the sublimely ridiculous.’26 After Moore published Conversations in Ebury Street in 1924, which contained a chapter about the painter, ‘Sickert never forgave him’ and considered the text ‘only just short of actionable’.27

Ownership

Robert Emmons said Sickert wrote to Steer requesting George Moore for his December 1900 solo exhibition held at Durand-Ruel’s gallery in Paris, where he was with Moore: ‘Send me George Moore’s portrait for my exhibition,’ Sickert wrote, ‘I will take care of it and send it back promptly. Send it quickly.’28 Although it is not listed as being included in the show, it at least indicates that by 1900 Steer was already in possession of the picture, and it might be supposed he obtained it from Sickert some time following the 1892 New English Art Club exhibition. Emmons added that ‘Sickert had a particular admiration and affection for Steer ... It was a great pleasure to him when Steer later gave his portrait of George Moore to the Tate, thus linking their names together forever.’29
The impetus behind the gift – which was through the Contemporary Art Society, formed in 1910 – appears to have been the critic D.S. MacColl, who recalled the portrait being on Sickert’s easel when he first visited him in 1891. ‘I prevented him from spoiling it,’ MacColl recalled, ‘and had that personal reason, as well as its merit, for wishing to secure it for the Tate Gallery.’30 MacColl reprinted a letter from Sickert to Steer about the gift through the Contemporary Art Society:
My dear Steer
Do you think
Firstly that when MacColl suggested your giving my head of the George Moore that he meant he would accept it? Or do you think it was merely a polite boutade without any consequence?
Secondly, if he would, would you do this handsome thing and present it? It would be agreeable and useful to me and the more agreeable part would be the public association for ever of your name as a donor and a picture of mine. A sort of crystallisative reminder of the to me agreeable fact that our names have from the beginning been very much linked together.
If the answer to my second question is affirmative sound him next time you see him as from yourself – not as from me. If he were disinclined, I may be supposed to have no cognizance of the scheme. ‘Sly’ ‘devilish sly’ is for Bagstock.31
MacColl incorrectly dates this letter to 1917. But Steer was reported to have already presented the picture to the Contemporary Art Society in the 1912 edition of This Year’s Art,32 suggesting that he donated it sometime between that date and the Society’s formation in 1910. In a letter to his friends Nan Hudson and Ethel Sands, that may date from December 1910, Sickert himself wrote:
By the mercy of providence the new McColl society33 (which I have done nothing but abuse) have heaped coals of fire on my head & bought George Moores’ portrait. I do not yet know for how much. In any case that will allow me to give Miss Knox her money.34
This last comment is intriguing as it not only suggests Sickert expected to gain payment by some means, but appears to raise the possibility that although the picture was in Steer’s possession it still belonged to Sickert in some way, so that he could expect payment.
In 1973 Sotheby’s sold a picture by Sickert they titled Portrait of a Man with a Moustache, called George Moore c.1896–8 (private collection),35 but which may perhaps depict the painter Theodore Roussel.

Robert Upstone
May 2009

Notes

1
See Matthew Sturgis, Aubrey Beardsley: A Biography, London 1998, p.80.
2
Details of Moore’s life from Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford 2004.
3
George Moore, Conversations in Ebury Street, London 1969, p.124.
4
See Robert Emmons, The Life and Opinions of Walter Richard Sickert, London 1992, p.101.
5
R.S. Becker, The Letters of George Moore 1863–1901, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Reading 1980, pp.313–5.
6
Reproduced in Wendy Baron, Sickert: Paintings and Drawings, New Haven and London 2006, no.56.
7
Reproduced in Bruce Laughton, Philip Wilson Steer, Oxford 1971, pl.82.
8
Umpire, 6 December 1891.
9
See Baron 2006, no.57.
10
See Wendy Baron, Sickert, London 1973, no.52.
11
George Moore, ‘A Book about Bastien-Lepage’, Speaker, 20 February 1892, p.442.
12
Yorkshire Post, 27 November 1891.
13
Liverpool Mercury, 21 November 1891.
14
National Press, 22 November 1891.
15
‘New English Art Club’, Times, 30 November 1891.
16
Echo, 1 December 1891.
17
‘In the Picture Galleries: The New English Art Club by a Neo-Anglican’, Pall Mall Gazette, 28 November 1891.
18
Birmingham Post, 27 November 1891.
19
Herald, 29 November 1891; the writer is alluding to Émile Zola’s novel Thérèse Raquin (1867), in which the murderer, Laurent, is an artist all of whose paintings in some way resemble his victim.
20
Truth, 3 December 1891.
21
Lillian Browse, Sickert, London 1960, p.22.
22
Spectator, 5 December 1891; see Baron 1973, no.55.
23
‘Obituary: Mr George Moore: A Master of English Narrative’, Times, 23 January 1933, p.14.
24
James Laver, Museum Piece, London 1963, p.93; quoted in Matthew Sturgis, Walter Sickert: A Life, London 2005, p.189.
25
See Baron 1973, no.55.
26
Emmons 1992, p.97.
27
Ibid.
28
Quoted ibid., p.89.
29
Ibid., p.96. Steer actually presented the painting c.1911 to the Contemporary Art Society, which gave it to the Tate Gallery in 1917.
30
D.S. MacColl, Life, Work and Setting of Philip Wilson Steer, London 1945, p.3.
31
Quoted ibid.
32
This Year’s Art, London 1912, p.150.
33
The Contemporary Art Society.
34
Walter Sickert, letter to Nan Hudson and Ethel Sands, undated, Tate Archive TGA 9125/5.
35
Reproduced in Sotheby’s, London, 18 July 1973 (24) and Baron 2006, no.66, as Man with a Drooping Moustache.

How to cite

Robert Upstone, ‘George Moore 1890–1 by Walter Richard Sickert’, catalogue entry, May 2009, 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/walter-richard-sickert-george-moore-r1136820, accessed 18 November 2018.