Oil paint on canvas
765 x 638 mm
Inscribed by the artist ‘W. Sickert.’ in black paint bottom right
Purchased (William Rutherford Bequest and Grant in Aid) 1976
Technique and condition
How to citeStephen Hackney, 'Technique and Condition', July 2004, in Robert Upstone, ‘Minnie Cunningham 1892 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
Cunningham was successful, and shared the bill with such stars as Ada Reeve, Marie Lloyd and Katie Lawrence, all of whose acts were also painted by Sickert (see, for example, fig.2).4 She adopted the stage persona and dress of a teenage girl and sang what Marie Lloyd described as ‘romping schoolgirl songs’.5 Like other such serio-comic performers, such songs were laced with sexually provocative double-entendres that circumvented the obscenity laws. Cunningham wrote many of her own songs, with such titles as The Art of Love, It’s Not the Hen that Cackles the Most that Lays the Largest Egg,6 Did You Ever See a Feather in a Tom Cat’s Tail? and Bridget and Mike, An Irish Serenade.7 When Sickert exhibited his picture of Minnie Cunningham for the first time at the New English Art Club in 1892, his title specified that she was singing I’m an Old Hand at Love, Though I’m Young in Years.
A primrose dancing for delight
A rhythmic flower whose petals pirouette
So, in the smoke-polluted place,
Where bird or flower might never be,
With glimmering feet, with flower-like face,
She dances at the Tivoli.10
This evidence confirms with certainty that the date of Tate’s picture is 1892.13 Traditionally, Minnie Cunningham has been dated in Tate catalogues and elsewhere to c.1889.14 It also suggests that the picture is almost certainly a record of Cunningham’s association with the Tivoli on the Strand (figs.3–4), rather than the Old Bedford in Camden Town, which has been a feature of its title in the Tate collection since its acquisition in 1976.
Evidently Sickert greatly admired Cunningham and she inspired him to write what is perhaps his only poem:
My serio-comic sweetheart, shall I see
That many countries sever you and me?
Or worse, the legend underneath your name
‘In Melbourne pantomime the leading dame’?
And, bowing to an agent’s stern decree,
A twelve month miss the fairy filigree
Of whirling lace, the primrose that became
Your sentimental rhymed proprieties,
The quaint recurring couplet’s silly scream,
The click and shuffle of the dusty stage
Of dancing feet, the limelight’s magic gleam?
Are you at Deacon’s, Gatti’s? Ah, kind page!
The Peckham Palace of Varieties!19
Related works and inspiration
There are three recorded drawings of Minnie Cunningham. A head and shoulders work in pencil depicting her in profile is similar in intention to Tate’s painting, and presumably made around the same time, perhaps in preparation for the work (c.1892, private collection).22 A crayon and pencil drawing on squared paper, which Sickert inscribed ‘It’s not the hen that cackles the most | That lays the largest egg’, the title of one of Cunningham’s most famous songs (fig.7),23 is evidently related to the painting with arms aloft. Lastly, there is a small drawing of Cunningham’s face, again in profile (c.1892, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool).24 The consistent profile format of all these drawings demonstrates that from the beginning Sickert envisaged this approach. Sketches of Cunningham were exhibited in Paintings and Drawings by Walter Sickert in May 1912 at the Carfax Gallery (67) and Studies and Etchings by Walter Sickert in March 1913 at the same venue (18d), but it is not known if they relate to any of the surviving material.
Ultimately, Sickert’s devotion to painting music hall subjects in the 1880s and 1890s was inspired by his friend Edgar Degas. In Paris, Degas and Edouard Manet’s pictures of café concerts had been greeted with some interest, and even respected Salon painters such as Jean Béraud took them up as fitting subjects of urban life.25 But in Britain Sickert faced intense critical hostility when he showed Gatti’s Hungerford Palace of Varieties: Second Turn of Miss Katie Lawrence 1887–8 (believed destroyed, possibly similar to fig.2)26 at the New English Art Club in April 1888. It represented ‘the lowest degradation of which the art of painting is capable’, according to the Builder, while the Artist believed it symptomatic of ‘the aggressive squalor that pervades to a greater or lesser extent the whole of modern existence.’27 Even other members of the New English Art Club were shocked, and the artist Stanhope Forbes angrily scorned the picture as ‘tawdry, vulgar and the sentiment of the lowest music hall’.28
Exhibition and reception
How to cite
Robert Upstone, ‘Minnie Cunningham 1892 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