The Little Tea Party is one of the last in a series of two figure interiors that had dominated Walter Sickert’s output from around 1910–15. Unlike the majority of his works from this period, the picture showcases the drama and tension of a real, rather than an imagined relationship, representing a portrait of the unusual association between the artist, Nina Hamnett (1890–1956), and her husband, Roald Kristian (born 1893).
Hamnett is now best remembered as the ‘Queen’ of bohemian London. During the 1930s and 1940s she was a well-known character in the pubs and bars of Fitzrovia, regaling fellow bohemians with stories and anecdotes in exchange for a drink. In 1932 she published reminiscences and anecdotes about her unusual life in an autobiography, Laughing Torso. The book caused a sensation and led to an action for libel being brought against her by Aleister Crowley, whom Hamnett claimed practised black magic. During the early twentieth century, however, Hamnett was a promising young artist, exhibiting her work with the Allied Artists’ Association, the New English Art Club and the London Group. Between 1917 and 1920 she taught classes at the Westminster School of Art on the recommendation of Sickert and Augustus John. Her talent, sociable nature and striking appearance made her a popular figure in avant-garde artistic society and brought her to the attention of some of the most significant artists of the day. Although her own work is now largely forgotten, she remains immortalised as the model for works by Roger Fry and Sickert. The title of her autobiography derived from a marble sculpture of her, Torso 1914, by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (1891–1915).
Hamnett’s friendship with Sickert dated from 1911 when she regularly frequented the Saturday afternoon ‘At Homes’ in Fitzroy Street, a habit which persisted until after the First World War. Sickert enjoyed her company, although his wife Christine found her boisterous spirits at parties rather wearing.1
Sickert’s letters to Hamnett are written in an avuncular tone and contain warnings against squandering her energy on parties instead of painting. He did, however, hold a high opinion of her work, writing in the Cambridge Magazine
Nina Hamnett has shown at every stage of her rapid and somewhat turbulent development as a draughtsman and painter the possession of unmistakable power. An imperious instinct in the choice of her influences, a generous and frank surrender to such influences, and an almost indecent gluttony for work have placed her in a position that is, for an artist of her age, sufficiently brilliant, and to a critic of drawing and painting a tempting problem in hopes and fears.2
He described Hamnett as someone largely untouched by ‘doctrinaire ratiocinations’,3
and, unfortunately for Sickert, that meant she was also impervious to his own teachings. The elder artist, as was his wont, bombarded Hamnett with advice and information about painting which she largely ignored. She specialised in line drawings and portraits executed from life and did not favour Sickert’s prescribed method of working from squared-up drawings. Furthermore, Hamnett did not share Sickert’s motivation and drive, and she easily became distracted by the pleasures of society. In 1918 Sickert persuaded her to spend the summer working with him in Bath but she found the solitude of the quiet city isolating and depressing. She wrote to her other mentor and lover, Roger Fry, that Sickert ‘spends at least two hours daily at teatime in holding forth. I always say “yes” and go home and do the opposite.’4
Nevertheless, Hamnett greatly benefited from her association with Sickert and his circle although she perhaps preferred him as an entertaining host and raconteur than as a teacher and mentor. Her Portrait of Walter Sickert
1919 (private collection),5
depicts him as middle-aged but rakishly handsome, suavely dressed in a suit and bow-tie with his bowler hat at a jaunty angle, the ‘Louis Waller of the art schools’ as he was apparently known (Waller was a film star of the day).6
Hamnett also posed for Sickert on occasions, both clothed and nude, and her appearance is recorded in a drawing from around 1916.7
Her appearance, described by Sickert’s friend Marjorie Lilly as ‘an attractive little laughing face with an impertinent nose and a coltish yet graceful figure’,8
is less naturalistically but more evocatively depicted in The Little Tea Party: Nina Hamnett and Roald Kristian
, a double-portrait of Hamnett with her husband.
The relationship captured by Sickert in The Little Tea Party was not a happy one. Hamnett remained legally married to the artist Edgar de Bergen for around forty years, while in actual fact their relationship only lasted about three years. The couple met in Paris in 1914 amid an exciting, artistic society that thrived in Montparnasse before the war and included members of the European avant-garde such as Constantin Brancusi, Amedeo Modigliani and Pablo Picasso. From the outset their relationship was characterised by a strange ambiguity and tension. In her autobiography, Hamnett later wrote:
The young man appeared to be a complete mystery. I was by this time desperately in love with him. Whether he liked me or not I have never been able to discover ... One afternoon Edgar said ‘How much does it cost to get married in England?’ and I said, ‘I think about seven-and-sixpence,’ and he said, ‘Let us get married!’ I said that I didn’t mind if I did ... After three weeks we got married [12 October 1914]. My Father paid the wedding licence. Everyone was very gloomy, including myself.9
The couple moved to Camden Town and continued to socialise with artists and European exiles in London. De Bergen, who claimed to be Norwegian, changed his name to Roald Kristian in order to sound less German. Both did some work for Fry’s Omega Workshops and de Bergen published a series of woodcuts in the Egoist
. However, their mutual interest in art was not a sufficient basis with which to overcome their basic incompatibility, and their relationship gradually deteriorated. Hamnett complained of becoming ‘more and more bored with Edgar who was daily becoming more soulful, and spoke in parables which I had long since given up attempting to understand’.10
He reacted badly when she became pregnant and was uncaring when their baby was born two months premature and died. She, in turn, was merely relieved when, in 1917, her husband was imprisoned for three months’ hard labour for failing to register as a foreigner.11
On his release from prison de Bergen was deported back to France to fight with the Belgian army and Hamnett never saw him again.
Sickert’s painting captures much of the emotional strain of this unusual relationship. Husband and wife sit together in the corner of the room beside a table laid for tea. Hamnett recorded the sitting in her autobiography:
Walter, now Richard, Sickert lived in Fitzroy Street also, in fact he had a number of mysterious rooms for miles around as far as Camden Town. Edgar and I sat for him together, on an iron bedstead, with a tea-pot and a white basin on a table in front of us. We looked the picture of gloom.12
Walter Richard Sickert 1860–1942
Oil paint on canvas
support: 1524 x 1124 mm; frame: 1741 x 1340 x 110 mm
Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1924
Walter Richard Sickert
De Bergen, who sits slumped on the sofa with his legs crossed smoking a cigar, stares disconsolately in front of him, and could almost act as an understudy for the ‘Hubby’ role in Ennui
c.1914 (Tate N03846
, fig.1). Hamnett sits perched on the edge of her seat, leaning forward as though in the middle of saying something to the artist. She is fashionably dressed in a long coat with a full fur collar and a small hat covering her short hair. The couple are nominally turned in towards each other and de Bergen’s knee just overlaps the same pictorial space as Hamnett’s arm, but each displays negative body language towards the other and seems hardly to notice their spouse’s presence. There is a discrepancy between the perceived gaiety of the ‘tea party’ and the evident unease of the protagonists, seated in a gloomy, cheerless interior. Like the couple in Ennui
, de Bergen and Hamnett are pictured as trapped together in a dysfunctional relationship which is draining their lives of colour and interest. Sickert has left the faces of his sitters blurred and incomplete, yet nevertheless has produced an insightful and telling portrait of the couple.
Unlike the female model in Ennui, Hamnett’s stance is less passive and more confrontational. She maintains her equality with de Bergen by also smoking, holding the cigarette or cigar in her left hand while her right arm rests in a gesture of independence and slight belligerence on her hip. Her pose indicates her charismatic personality and unconventional lifestyle and she is the more domineering presence in the picture. Furthermore, the fact that she is wearing her outdoor coat and hat creates the impression that she has been induced to stay but may choose to leave at any moment.
Walter Richard Sickert 1860–1942
Study for 'The Little Tea Party' 1915–16
Chalk on paper
support: 228 x 357 mm
Walter Richard Sickert
Study for 'The Little Tea Party' 1915–16
De Bergen, by contrast, seems to retreat from his wife by leaning back into the sofa. His appearance is more clearly recorded in a couple of preparatory drawings for the painting (see Tate N05619
, fig.2) where he can be seen as a tall man with a spare frame and a thin face with high cheekbones. Sickert was not as well acquainted with de Bergen as he was with Hamnett, but he appeared to enjoy his company, describing him as ‘an acute and informed intelligence’.13
In the painting, however, he appears withdrawn, distant and nervously on edge. It is interesting that when The Little Tea Party
was first exhibited at the Carfax Gallery in 1916 it bore the title Nina Hamnett and Roald Kristian
, reflecting the fact that the sitters were both well-known figures within the artistic community. Ten years later, when Hamnett was still a recognised name in bohemian London but her husband had long since departed and been forgotten, the painting was exhibited with the title Nina Hamnett and Anr.
The location of the painting is Sickert’s studio at 8 Fitzroy Street, rooms which formerly belonged to James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Hamnett also used the studio on occasions to paint portraits when Sickert was out of town. Hamnett’s recollection in her 1932 autobiography that she and de Bergen posed for the picture on an ‘iron bedstead’ is at odds with the visual evidence of the painting and related preparatory drawings which clearly show the couple seated on a chaise-longue. This suggests that Hamnett conflated The Little Tea Party
in her mind with Sickert’s more famous Camden Town Murder series in which the iron bedstead prominently featured. The painting shares the same predominance of dark shadows and black outlines, but the application of paint is less broken and looks towards Sickert’s later technique. An alternative possibility is that the composition of the painting is the result of a combination of preparatory sketches drawn on different occasions. In a study for The Little Tea Party
(Huddersfield Art Gallery),14
Hamnett’s figure has been added on top of the drawing of de Bergen on the sofa (see Tate N05619
). She was perhaps copied from another drawing in which she posed on a bed. The painting is unusual in that it depicts the tensions of a real relationship rather than one suggested by Sickert’s dramatic posing of Hubby, Marie and his other favourite models. Also, the presence of the male figure in this scene is diminished by the force of character of his female counterpart and is therefore devoid of the latent masculine menace of the Camden Town Murder pictures. The unhappy discomfort of the pair is mirrored by the shabby, grim nature of their surroundings, although in common with Sickert’s other interiors, it is a set-up staged within a studio. The chaise-longue, for example, features in other works, such as the drawing Woman Lying on a Couch
c.1911 (University of Reading).15
The Little Tea Party
was bought from the Carfax Gallery in 1916 by Sylvia Gosse (see Tate N04364
), probably as a gesture of financial support for the artist. A later owner, Howard Bliss, the brother of the composer Sir Arthur Bliss, was a modest but important collector of largely contemporary art. He started collecting in the 1940s and in addition to Sickert, owned work by Louis le Brocquy, John Piper, John Craxton and Terry Frost. He was a friend and significant patron of the painter, Ivon Hitchens, amassing the most important collection of work by that artist.