The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

Walter Richard Sickert Study for 'Ennui' 1913-14

This pen and ink drawing on fawn-coloured paper is one of approximately fourteen preparatory studies Sickert completed for the finished oil painting Ennui (Tate N03846). A full compositional sketch situating Marie and Hubby in relation to the room’s inanimate objects, it contains all the elements that appear in the final painting and presents a slightly wider view, to both left and right, of the narrow interior. Sickert later made small adjustments, most notably to the posture of each figure, in order to maximise the feeling of languor.
Walter Richard Sickert 1860–1942
Study for ‘Ennui’
Ink on paper
422 x 340 mm
Inscribed by the artist in ink ‘Sickert -’ bottom right and colour note ‘Y | B R’ next to matchbox
Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1960


Walter Richard Sickert 'Ennui' c.1914
Walter Richard Sickert
Ennui c.1914
Tate N03846
© Tate
Walter Sickert strongly believed in the process of painting from preparatory drawings and there are many drawn studies related to the evolution of the oil painting Ennui c.1914 (Tate N03846, fig.1). There are at least thirteen drawings relating to Tate’s version of the painting: five are in the collection of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, six belong to Leeds City Art Gallery and one is in a private collection.1 The last is this Study for ‘Ennui’, in Tate’s collection. There is, besides these, a fourteenth drawing in the collection of the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, which Ruth Bromberg has identified as a working drawing for the first etched version of the image.2 It is impossible to ascertain the correct chronological sequence of the preparatory studies, but they can be grouped into three categories in order to understand the various roles played by drawing in Sickert’s development of the painted image. Tate’s drawing is a compositional sketch in ink, and falls into the third category.
The first group focuses on the corporeal arrangement of the male and female figures so crucial to the expression of the painting’s theme of alienation and degeneration. The pose of the models is the same in each drawing. The man, Hubby, is seated and smoking a cigar with the woman, Marie, standing behind him leaning on her arms slumped against the chest of drawers. However, close analysis of the separate images reveals a progressive fine tuning of the poses through subtle alterations in the positioning of the figures. For example, in Study for ‘Ennui’ (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford),3 a pen and ink drawing over black chalk, Hubby’s position, revealed through his head and shoulders, is upright and his right hand obscures much of the lower part of his face. Behind him, Marie stands as a separate entity with her left arm well clear from the top of his head. Her face is seen in profile with her mouth partially open. This pose is repeated in the early oil sketch, Ennui c.1913 (Rockingham Castle, formerly Cobbledick and Culme Seymour).4 Over the course of several drawings Sickert gradually modified the motif to create a more expressive relationship. In Study for ‘Ennui’ (Leeds City Art Gallery),5 Hubby and Marie seem to have sunk into their poses so they appear more weighed down by lassitude. Hubby has been tilted fractionally back while Marie leans further in towards him and her arm now occupies the same pictorial space as the top of his head. This pose is closer to that represented in the second oil sketch, Ennui c.1913 (The Royal Collection).6
The second group of associated drawings are of details, providing closely observed depictions of the individual components of the design. Sickert made four detailed studies recording the appearance of the oval painting and the glass bell jar (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford);7 the decanter and wine glass on the mantelpiece and the light falling on the edge of the gilt picture frame (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford);8 the glass jar next to the cigar box with the head and arms of Marie and Hubby, and the corner of the picture frame again (Leeds City Art Gallery);9 and, finally, a single sheet containing studies of the decanter and wine glass, the pint glass and the horizontal painting of the woman with bare shoulders (Leeds City Art Gallery).10 These drawings delineate in fine detail the individual appearance of the items and their relationship to each other, for example the way the frame of the picture is visible through the top of the glass dome and the play of light on the cut surfaces of the decanter. The sheet of drawings in the collection of Leeds City Art Gallery showing the glass jar of stuffed birds has a diagram of shapes in the right-hand corner with colour notes. The shapes relate to the individual birds in the bell jar, and show how important drawn studies were to Sickert’s painting process.
Walter Richard Sickert 'Study for ‘Ennui’: Hubby and Marie' c.1913
Walter Richard Sickert
Study for ‘Ennui’: Hubby and Marie c.1913
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
© Estate of Walter R. Sickert / DACS
Photo © Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
The third group of drawings are compositional studies, marrying the figurative elements with the incidental inanimate objects. Sickert’s ability to transcribe autonomous drawings into a unified painted canvas was probably aided by the use of a ‘grille or grata [di tilo]’, an adjustable grid which could be used to transfer drawings proportionally.11 It could be placed over a painting in order to re-establish the forms of the drawn line. In a letter to his friend Ethel Sands, Sickert wrote that the grille made it possible to ‘readjust everytime everything to renewed information from 2 constant tests horizontal & perpendicular. So that if, for instance you had a rather well finished head X in relation to another not badly done & found it ought to be where Y is you should ruthlessly redraw it where Y is.’12 Interestingly, despite the existence of a detailed squared-up compositional drawing (fig.2)13 for Tate’s painting of Ennui, there are no corresponding drawn or painted grid lines apparent on the canvas. This suggests that Sickert used the adjustable grille to transfer the image from the drawing to canvas, transcribing the details with thin layers of paint instead of pencil or chalk.
Tate’s drawing is a full compositional pen and ink sketch showing all the pictorial elements of the design. The details closely resemble Tate’s painting except that the drawing reveals slightly more of the right and left side of the room while showing less of the table top in the foreground. This means that in the drawing the whole of the vertical painting on the wall is visible instead of just a partial view, and there are two wine glasses sitting on the mantelpiece instead of one. The matchbox on the table in the foreground faces the opposite direction to its final position in the painting and Sickert has inscribed the letters ‘Y’, ‘B’ and ‘R’ beside it, indicating colour notes ‘yellow’, ‘blue’ and ‘red’. The alignment of the figures is marginally different from their position in the painting and is closer to the preliminary oil painting Ennui c.1913 (Rockingham Castle, formerly in the collection of Cobbledick and Culme Seymour). The position of Hubby is almost identical in the oil study whereas in Tate’s painting he is turned slightly more towards his left and leaning further back in the chair. Similarly, the line of Marie’s back is more upright in the drawing and the early oil sketch. In Tate’s painting she is slumped further forward and the line of her skirt extends past Hubby’s left hand to the arm of the chair. It is therefore likely that Sickert completed Tate’s drawing at an early stage of the evolutionary process and it was one of the first times he mapped out the entire composition with all the components that appear in the final painting.
Gabriel White has made the connection between Sickert’s preference for drawing with pen and ink and his interest in etching and his early training under Whistler.14 As a painter, Sickert’s technique was based upon building up thin layers of colour applied in broken patches which usually had the effect of blurring form and destabilising contour. Conversely, as a draughtsman, Sickert conceived the image in terms of outline. Some of the marks made in Tate’s drawing predict the treatment of the subject as an etching, for example the repeated horizontal parallel lines depicting the side of the chest of drawers and the definition of the volume of the glass decanter with thin strokes and cross hatching.

Nicola Moorby
May 2004


See Nicola Moorby, ‘“A long chapter in the ugly tale of commonplace living”: The Evolution of Sickert’s Ennui’, in Walter Sickert: ‘drawing is the thing’, exhibition catalogue, Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester 2004, pp.11–14; Wendy Baron, Sickert: Paintings and Drawings, New Haven and London 2006, nos.418.5–18.
Ruth Bromberg, Walter Sickert Prints: A Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London 2000, pp.183–4; Baron 2006, no.418.7.
Ashmolean Museum, WA 1949.219. Reproduced in Whitworth Art Gallery 2004, (5.03, p.115); Baron 2006, no.418.17.
Baron 2006, no.418.1; reproduced in Whitworth Art Gallery 2004 (5.05, p.115).
Leeds City Art Gallery, 2.4/47. Baron 2006, no.418.9; reproduced in Whitworth Art Gallery 2004 (5.15, p.110).
Baron 2006, no.418.2; reproduced in Sickert: Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy, London 1992 (80).
Ashmolean Museum, WA 1949.220. Baron 2006, no.418.18; reproduced in Whitworth Art Gallery 2004 (5.07).
Ashmolean Museum, WA 1949.221. Baron 2006, no.418.16; reproduced in Whitworth Art Gallery 2004 (5.08).
Leeds City Art Gallery, 23.1/51 (iv). Baron 2006, no.418.14; reproduced in Whitworth Art Gallery 2004 (5.09).
Leeds City Art Gallery, 23.1/51 (v). Baron 2006, no.418.15; reproduced in Whitworth Art Gallery 2004 (5.10, p.117).
Walter Sickert, letter to Ethel Sands, undated [?1913], Tate Archive TGA 9125/5, no.101.
Ashmolean Museum, WA 1943.95. Baron 2006, no.418.4; Whitworth Art Gallery 2004 (5.06).
Gabriel White, ‘Sickert Drawings’, in Sickert, exhibition catalogue, Arts Council, London 1977, p.37.

How to cite

Nicola Moorby, ‘Study for ‘Ennui’ 1913–14 by Walter Richard Sickert’, catalogue entry, May 2004, in Helena Bonett, Ysanne Holt, Jennifer Mundy (eds.), The Camden Town Group in Context, Tate Research Publication, May 2012,, accessed 23 May 2024.