The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

Walter Richard Sickert, ‘The Spirit of the Hive’

The New Age, 26 May 1910, pp.84–5.

The Spirit of the Hive.
By Walter Sickert.
We know that when a surgeon of genius is playing in his fateful theatre the miraculous part on which depend perhaps two lives, and their infinite consequences in the geometrical progression of never-ending futurity, he is subject to, and to some extent dependent on, inspiration. But in these minutes of inspiration he can only attain one of the highest crests of the innumerable waves that rise from the level of the mass of water that constitutes the sea of past achievement in his art. The highest crest is limited by the utmost salience possible from the universal level of the waters. The great surgeon’s highest effort is strictly based on the level to which the surgical canons, known practically to every three years’ student, have been lifted at the date of the operation.
What is true of one branch of human achievement, in the incessant war with the malice and inertia of nature, is true of all other branches. The draughtsman has not yet been found to formulate the canons of art; but they exist for all that, and from time to time one facet or the other has been comprehended and expressed in words. A jobbing painter has naturally not the time to study much of what has been written on his craft. I have formed the impression so far as my very limited opportunities for such study have gone, that nothing of any value has been written on our art by writers not themselves craftsmen. I am convinced that it is impossible to approach art-criticism except from the core, from the material and its nature, outwards to its resulting message and to a consideration of the aims and effects moral, social, political, æsthetic or sentimental, of the work.
It is very much the habit of writers on art, not being plastic artists, to draw attention to the discrepancies and contradictions between the utterances of painters. I do not believe that on examination they would be found any more real and deep-seated than those among the professors of arts and sciences more definitely formulated.
When I am writing on these subjects I believe my only claim to utility is that I know myself to be quite incapable, by want of training as a student and a writer, of authoritative synthesis. I therefore limit myself to a rôle that may be defined as the craftsman as witness. I endeavour to confine my testimony, as a witness should, to such aspects of the panorama of art history as have come under my own observation. These experiences, technical and intellectual experiences, have naturally pushed me to certain conclusions. But it is never absent from my mind that other reasoners may deduce, from the same experiences, quite different conclusions. What puzzles me, and inspires me with grave doubts of their competence, is the cocksureness of writers who cannot even draw as well as I do, which isn’t saying much.
It is not astonishing that the public should be first bewildered and then disgusted by the dogmatic and hysterical tone of most journalistic art criticism. A difficult and complicated subject, about which the wisest and most experienced of us admits to himself that he is never sure, is made ridiculous when it is treated on the abject and degraded level of party politics. I think that the craftsman-writer can bring out very usefully what immense unanimity there is among what the Germans call sach-verständige.
I read through yesterday an unpretentious little book on Burne-Jones, by Mr. Malcolm Bell. Here is a book by a pupil of Poynter’s, on a master who may be supposed to be as far as possible in thought or sentiment from anything that I have ever been taught to do, or attempted. As a witness is obliged at the beginning of his testimony to define his style and qualities, lucidity compels me here to do an unusual thing, that is to define myself as an artist. I am a pupil of Whistler, that is to say, at one remove, of Courbet, and at two removes of Corot. About six or seven years ago, under the influence of Pissarro in France, himself a pupil of Corot, aided in England by Lucien Pissarro and by Gore (the latter a pupil of Steer, who in turn learned much from Monet), I have tried to recast my painting entirely and to observe colour in the shadows.
To return to Burne-Jones, I have found myself at different periods of my life, dating from a visit to his studio in 1877 or 1878, sometimes attracted and sometimes repelled by his paintings. His illustrations to the Bible seem to me beyond praise and to rank with the finest drawings in the world for strange and exquisite fancy and ideal execution. But that is not what I was going to say. The useful thing to record is that a craftsman, the product of the forces named above, as I am, finds himself in entire agreement with the whole of Mr. Bell’s book. I do not say with Mr. Bell’s individual preferences among Burne-Jones’s pictures, or with exact shades of praise or comparison to which he is impelled. But that is not important. What I mean is that I find myself in agreement with the entire thread of Mr. Bell’s reasoning, and with the method of his defence. (I also except one paragraph in which I think he misunderstands and underrates what he calls Impressionism or Realism, or both – I forget.)
I have dwelt at some length on this agreement, firstly, because it would be impossible to find a clearer or more typical example of common ground in what critics have taught the public to call different “camps,” and, secondly, that my readers may have it on record at first-hand.
I have lately been reading again some of Ruskin’s writings. Here, again, I am certain that for twenty years or so a whole generation have skipped at most superficial and journalistic conclusions. The bulk of Ruskin’s writing is not invalidated because of his attack on Whistler. A certain girlish petulance of style that distinguished Ruskin was not altogether a defect. It served to irritate and fix attention; where a more evenly judicial writer might have remained unread. The pretention of a great critic is not like the pretention of the ridiculous modern being called an expert. A great critic does not stand or fall by immunity from error. Ruskin, nourished on traditions totally opposed to those on which Whistler was based, failed to understand Whistler, and, as spoilt elderly ladies and gentlemen are liable to do, expressed his failure with violence and rudeness. I know a little girl, who, as is the frequent habit of her sex, always spoke first and thought afterwards. To this day it is remembered against her that she uttered as follows: “Let’s see. Rags made of paper, or paper made of rags? Oh! rags made of paper, of course!” So did the whole critical Press in England, at a given moment, reason thus: “Let’s see! Whistler a charlatan! No! Wrong tip! The Master! What about Ruskin, then? Whistler v. Ruskin. Ruskin’s the rotter, then. All right. Thanks.” Ce n’est pas plus difficile que ça.
Certain revisions and reservations will doubtless be made, as time goes on, but Ruskin’s art criticism remains of the highest relevance and importance. His illuminating analogies between structural and moral truths have been left untouched by the pedantry of the immoralists; his insistence on deliberation, on concentration, on singleness of aim in each several material, and at each separate stage, set out with torrential wealth of illustration and conviction, will never be bettered or supplanted. It must be remembered that he was a draughtsman in water colour, and that he constituted himself the prophet of a school of water-colour draughtsmen (scolding them for not keeping their saucers clean), and specially of the great English painter, whose painting sprang from line-and-wash drawing, and retained the characteristics of this origin, and of this manner of analysis.
Space fails me to-day for an amplified criticism of Ruskin, which I must reserve for another time. Meanwhile, I would beg the superficial persons, to whom the art columns of the newspapers are generally entrusted, to revise their attitude as follows: You are not to consider that every new and personal beauty in art abrogates past achievement like an Act of Parliament does preceding ones, or that it is hostile to the past. You [end of p.84] are to consider these beauties, these innovations, as enrichments, as variations, as additions to an existing family. How barbarous you would seem if you were unable to bestow your admiration and affection on a fascinating child in the nursery without at once finding yourselves compelled to rush downstairs and cut its mother’s throat, and stifle its grandmother! These ladies may still have their uses. You are much too officious and hasty.
© Estate of Walter R. Sickert

How to cite

Walter Richard Sickert, ‘The Spirit of the Hive’, in The New Age, 26 May 1910, pp.84–5, in Helena Bonett, Ysanne Holt, Jennifer Mundy (eds.), The Camden Town Group in Context, Tate Research Publication, May 2012,, accessed 21 May 2024.