The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

Walter Richard Sickert Interior of St Mark's, Venice 1895-6

This ambitious work depicts much of the complex, vaulted interior of St Mark’s Basilica in Venice, with the archway and mosaics of the Chapel of St Isidore visible on the left. Observed halfway down the right side of the nave, looking towards the iconostasis and apse receding in the distance, Sickert’s low-angled view may have been painted in situ, as the lack of composition lines and loose, fluid brushstrokes suggest. The picture’s restricted palette emphasises the low lighting conditions, with carefully controlled highlights indicating the gilded accents, mosaics and lamps above.
Walter Richard Sickert 1860–1942
Interior of St Mark’s, Venice
1895–6
Oil paint on canvas
698 x 492 mm
Inscribed by the artist ‘Sickert’ bottom left
Purchased from Howard Bliss (Knapping Fund) 1941
N05314

Entry

During his visit to Venice in 1895–6, Walter Sickert wrote to his friend Philip Wilson Steer that ‘on cold days I do interiors in St Mark’s ... St Mark’s is engrossing’.1 His aim, he said, was to emulate Steer’s own technique:
To see the thing all at once. To work open and loose, freely, with a full brush and full colour. And to understand that when, with that full colour, the drawing has been got, the picture is done.2
These comments suggest that Sickert made a number of pictures of the interior of St Mark’s, but only one other painting in oils is known, Church Interior with a Figure in a Niche 1895–6 (private collection),3 an oil study of part of the apse. A pencil drawing exists of a third composition, Interior of San Marco, Venice 1895–6 (private collection),4 which shows the basilica filled by its congregation, viewed from a balcony.
The loose painting and free handling of Interior of St Mark’s, Venice suggest that Sickert might well have painted it in situ. Unlike the small studies of the exterior of St Mark’s that he made (see Tate N05914), this is a relatively large canvas that would require an easel to support it. There are no suggestions of composition lines under the paint surface, or squaring up, and so the implication is that Sickert painted the interior from sight, a considerable achievement. Sickert’s position is halfway down the right side of the nave, looking towards the iconostasis and apse, but also allowing a dual perspective on the left up to the mosaics of the Chapel of St Isidore. It is a complicated and ambitious perspective that manages to include much of the interior all at the same time, and gives a sense of the complex vaulting of St Mark’s. The viewpoint is relatively low, suggesting Sickert was seated. Although painted in subdued, restricted colours, Sickert conveys the glitter of mosaics and gilding, and lamps above, with carefully controlled highlights. He was preoccupied with conveying in touches of paint the effects of both natural and artificial light. The art historian Wendy Baron has drawn comparison with the pictures of the Old Bedford music-hall balcony Sickert made before leaving for Venice.5 While Interior of St Mark’s, Venice is more expansive in its composition, the viewpoint looking up, the handling of paint, rich colouring and extravagant architecture all hold strong resonance with the Old Bedford pictures.
Joseph Mallord William Turner 'Venice: The Interior of San Marco: the Atrium Looking North' circa 1840
Fig.1
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Venice: The Interior of San Marco: the Atrium Looking North circa 1840
Tate D32241
Joseph Mallord William Turner 'Venice: The Interior of San Marco, Looking into the North Transept' circa 1840
Fig.2
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Venice: The Interior of San Marco, Looking into the North Transept circa 1840
Tate D32226

Another arresting similarity is to the series of studies J.M.W. Turner made in St Mark’s in the mid-nineteenth century (see, for instance, figs.1 and 2).6 Executed in gouache on brown paper, these works have a strong resemblance to Sickert’s oil, as they too are painted in loose, fluid brushstrokes, and have the same sort of low-key palette accented with highlights. Turner’s works on paper were displayed at the National Gallery in a series of selections made by John Ruskin in the closing decades of the nineteenth century.
Interior of St Mark’s, Venice was acquired in 1937 through one of Sickert’s dealers, The French Gallery, by Howard Bliss (1894–1977). An accomplished musician, he was the younger brother of the composer Arthur Bliss. He was an avid collector who built an important collection of modern British pictures. In particular, he was a passionate advocate and collector of the painter Ivon Hitchens, and arranged a number of exhibitions of his work throughout the country. After 1945 Bliss began to collect the work of unknown younger artists, often students, painting in an advanced style,7 and he purchased pictures by Patrick Heron, Peter Lanyon, William Scott and John Craxton. In 1950 he held an exhibition at the Leicester Galleries, London, so he might sell off works to make space for new ones.8 ‘I would rather be a collector,’ Bliss confessed in the catalogue introduction, ‘than the owner of a collection.’9 He wrote here that the collection ‘was begun seven years ago’, in 1943, but Sickert’s Interior of St Mark’s, Venice was acquired some years before and was therefore perhaps one of the earliest pictures he purchased.

Robert Upstone
May 2009

Notes

1
Walter Sickert, letter to Philip Wilson Steer; quoted in Robert Emmons, The Life and Opinions of Walter Richard Sickert, London 1992, p.107.
2
Walter Sickert, letter to Philip Wilson Steer; quoted ibid., pp.107–8.
3
Reproduced in Wendy Baron, Sickert: Paintings and Drawings, New Haven and London 2006, no.100.1 and British and Irish Traditionalist and Modernist Paintings, Watercolours, Drawings and Sculpture, Christie’s, London, 10 June 1988 (358).
4
Baron 2006, no.100.2; reproduced in Modern British and Irish Paintings etc., Sotheby’s, London, 8 March 1995 (70).
5
See Wendy Baron in Sickert: Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy, London 1992 (22).
6
Turner in Venice, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2004, pls.120 and 121. See Robert Upstone, Sickert in Venice, exhibition catalogue, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London 2009, p.16.
7
John Marshall, ‘Obituary: Mr Howard Bliss’, Times, 2 July 1977, p.14.
8
From Gainsborough to Hitchens: A Selection of Paintings and Drawings from the Howard Bliss Collection, exhibition catalogue, Leicester Galleries, London 1950.
9
Ibid., p.6.

How to cite

Robert Upstone, ‘Interior of St Mark’s, Venice 1895–6 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-interior-of-st-marks-venice-r1138998, accessed 24 June 2019.