The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

Walter Richard Sickert, ‘The Study of Drawing’

The New Age, 16 June 1910, pp.156–7.

The Study of Drawing.
By Walter Sickert.
When Degas told Ingres that he intended to be a painter, the master, after saying, C’est grave: c’est très grave,” added “Faites des lignes. Faites beaucoup de lignes.” And for half a century the living master has made lines, many lines, to what effect we all gratefully know. While the snobs of the brush labour to render the most expensive women and the richest fabrics cheap, the master-draughtsman shows us the wealth of beauty and consolation there is in perceiving and following out the form of anything.
“Anything!” This is the subject matter of modern art. There is the quarry, inexhaustible for ever, from which the draughtsmen and painters of the future will draw the endless line of masterpieces still to come.
The heaviest incubus that lies on the painter’s chest has been shifted a little, and in time may be quite rolled off. This incubus is the whip-hand of the portrait employer. Detached, unfettered study of form is impossible to a painter competing with the touched-up photograph. As men are an unthinking race, and a race of routine, whole generations of painters grow up vaguely executing portraits of dressed-up models, in the manner of commissioned portraits. They have been told that only by portraits can a painter live. So they allow the precious years to go by, summer and winter to gild houses and men, ships and wagons, morning and afternoon, with different golden and silver lights, while they reproduce Tilly Pullen, dressed up almost like a lady, on a life-sized canvas. They turn her to the left. They turn her to the right. They put behind her a curtain or a mirror or a black hole. But it is always Tilly Pullen, too large for her interest and for the spaces in a house. This tragic waste of time how many of us have quite escaped? We are all sheep, sheep of talent some of us, but we trot, with our noses down, after the bell-wether into the first best gap in the first best hedge. I wonder how many hundreds of my painter readers are at this moment saying to themselves, “Yes, on reflection, I have wasted many precious years on laying, again and again, the chalk egg called Tilly Pullen, and never a burgess has been tempted to lay a real hatchable commission for a portrait beside it.”
But now let us strip Tilly Pullen of her lendings and tell her to put her own things on again. Let her leave the studio and climb the first dirty little staircase in the first shabby little house. Tilly Pullen becomes interesting at once. She is in surroundings that mean something. She becomes stuff for a picture. Follow her into her kitchen, or, better still, for the artist has the divine privilege of omnipresence, into her bedroom; and now Tilly Pullen is become the stuff of which the Parthenon was made, or Dürer, or any Rembrandt. She is become a Degas or a Renoir, and stuff for the draughtsman.
And now we come to the question, “What is drawing?” Strange that such a question should have to be asked. But some of us have forgotten. Drawing is the extraction from nature, by eye and hand, of the limiting lines of an object. Some wiseacres in the seventies or eighties – I remember the heresy quite well, Bastien Lepage, perhaps, is the best-known name steeped in it – discovered that objects had no lines in nature. Some day, perhaps, an up-to-date poet will discover that the words we use to denote things are not to be found in the things themselves. Certainly T, R, double E is not written on the tall green vegetables on wooden stalks we call “trees.” But in an English sonnet we shall continue to be under the obligation of calling them trees. And so, from the incised designs on bones scratched by primeval man, to the drawings of Charles Keene, has line been the language of design.
Now line supposes an unbroken thought, a sentence said in a breadth [sic]. Line supposes that the hand is not taken off the paper. In drawing a whole figure from nature we should be three times its length from it, to oversee it properly. (Leighton told me that – a more than sufficient authority.) If we draw normally, we must draw on the scale on which we should trace, if our sheet of paper were a sheet of glass held up, and if, instead of a pencil, we traced with a diamond on this interposed pane. You will find that a five-foot figure then comes about seven inches high on your glass, or its substitute, your paper. On this scale the comparison is direct and not proportional. On this scale, and, largely, in accordance with this law, are drawn all the studies from nature by the masters of all periods. Of course, I am not speaking of cartoons. The studies I speak of could be squared up and enlarged to cartoons on any scale required for decoration in fresco, or on great canvases. Now, if Rubens and Longhi and Watteau and Fragonard and Ingres and Millet and Puvis and Keene, and all the company of the blessed drew on that scale, they probably knew what they were about, and their practice was probably based on the ascertainable optical fact to which Leighton drew my attention in Osnaburgh Street many summers ago.
But some betterer of the good, or some betterers of the good, in the beginnings of the atelier system, started students all drawing figures on a uniform scale dictated by what? Neither by nature and optics, nor instinct. Dictated by the arbitrary size of a paper manufacturer. “You must fill your sheet of Ingres paper,” said the original arch-usher of accursed memory. The word “Ingres” should have pulled him up as it passed his temerarious lips. But to your original arch-usher, as to his successor, words have no association and not much meaning.
I fancy, but I have not made a special study of the archæology of error, that the arch-usher, the exhibition, and the exhibition picture were born about the same time, and acted and reacted on each other. Competitive painting, on exhibition scale, meant students anxious to be pushed, and professors anxious to push them into medalled and hors concours positions [end of p.156] in as short a time as possible. It meant, in short, what cramming means in other studies. It meant short cuts and royal roads. It knew what it wanted, and went the right way to work to get it.
Drawing, then, ceased to be drawing and became a sort of charcoal painting. This was undoubtedly the best practice for the purpose aimed at. The purpose was the production of large and showy work with rapidity and a certain accuracy of placing. The abler of the students trained in this way became efficient exhibition-picture painters, but they never learnt to draw at all. There have been since then generations of effective exhibition painters who have left no drawings at all, who have, wisely enough for what they aimed at, wasted no time in producing drawings.
We have the good fortune to live in a period of wholesome reaction against this evil. On the question of scale as explained above, I am glad to say I find myself in agreement with the practice of so experienced and able a teacher as Mr. Tonks, of the Slade School, University College. He can point, in his students, already to such results as have been achieved by Augustus John, by Orpen, by Albert Rothenstein and Henry Lamb as line draughtsmen, for it is that side of art with which I have now been dealing. This is a weighty roll of achievement for a record of teaching extending over (is it?) fifteen years or so.
© Estate of Walter R. Sickert

How to cite

Walter Richard Sickert, ‘The Study of Drawing’, in The New Age, 16 June 1910, pp.156–7, in Helena Bonett, Ysanne Holt, Jennifer Mundy (eds.), The Camden Town Group in Context, Tate Research Publication, May 2012,, accessed 21 May 2024.