The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

Walter Richard Sickert, ‘The Thickest Painters in London’

The New Age, 18 June 1914, p.155.

The Thickest Painters in London.
The attitude towards criticism of the painter, the painter pure from any taint of the pen, is a comedy of unending entertainment. I was pure myself once, in the last century, and the reign before last. I can remember, even now, when we thought that opinions in print on our paintings had the most enormous importance. We may have laughed at George Moore’s French. I heard a lady say about Steinlen the other day that he was “awfully Parisian,” though born a Swiss. We knew that George Moore, though “awfully Parisian,” printed “Marchand de vins” with an s. We read in one of his articles his regret that the expression “l’addition” had ousted “la note.” “I shall probably be the last man,” he sighed, “who will ask ‘pour la note.’ ” He was not only the last but the first! We used to giggle at his technical gaffes. Whistler, he announced, had painted the shadows in Miss Alexander’s skirt by lifting the white paint off with a dry brush, and exposing the black ground of the canvas. He talked of people using Naples yellow years after it had been banned from every living palette. He announced in the “Speaker” that one of the best authenticated canvases of Constable’s, of Salisbury Cathedral, which was exhibited at the Old Masters, was not genuine. I had the pleasure of introducing him to Sir Frederick Burton before the same picture – unfortunately after his article in the “Speaker” was in print! But none of these things prevented the news flying round the Hogarth Club that Moore liked, or didn’t like, one of our pictures. Steer and I would tramp gravely from Addison Road to the Dudley Gallery to see what George Moore had said in the album of Press-cuttings. And I believe we were genuinely elated or depressed according. The painter-pure retains, unaffected by the deaths of kings, and the passing of empires, his profound belief in the impregnable rock of Romeike. I have seen Whistler spend mornings of precious daylight showing Nocturne after Nocturne to the football correspondent of a Fulham local paper. He would tolerate anything from people who he thought were going to write “nicely” about him, even their company, and, if they were artists, astounding as it may sound, their work.
I have never been able to get out of any painter-pure exactly what he would like art-criticism to be. My nearest approach to discovery was from the lips of Whistler himself. I wished to introduce M’Coll [sic] to him, and thinking to prepare the way and to tinder, as they say in France, the spirit of the Master, I said, “You know, the author of that article in the ‘Saturday,’ ‘Hail Master!’” “Humph,” said Whistler, “that’s all very well – ‘Hail Master!’ But he writes about other people, other people, Walter!” Of course, with Whistler, there was a twinkle. And now Mr. Gilman, with or without a twinkle, scolds me because I have written about Mr. Lamb! What has Mr. Lamb done that he should not be written about? “The only harm I know concerning him” is that he doesn’t paint thick enough to please Mr. Gilman and Mr. Ginner, and that he elects to paint elaborate and thought-out compositions of figures. Is the “neo-realist” doctrine that this is wrong? May Mr. Lamb not be allowed to sin in company with Mantegna or Veronese or Tintoretto, or have Mr. Gilman and Mr. Ginner repealed Mantegna, Veronese and Tintoretto? We have seen that two can play at that game. Signor Marinetti and Mr. Nevinson have this week repealed not only Mantegna, Veronese and Tintoretto, but Mr. Ginner and Mr. Gilman as well! I am waiting for next week’s Sunday papers to find Signor Marinetti and Mr. Nevinson themselves repealed in turn, and we shall then all be “as you was,” as our drill-sergeant used to say. When we have all been comfortably killed we shall be able to go on painting in peace. And then the Arcadia foreseen by the music-hall song will be established:–
“We’ll do just the same as we did before!
Stop out late at night!
But never come home tight,” etc., etc.
Of course if The New Age were a magazine which illustrated its critical articles with reproductions of the painters’ pictures, a certain reserve would be imposed. The Editor might give me a hint that nothing was to be said about impasto as Mr. Gilman and Mr. Ginner were sensitive on the point. But
“Even Freddy Archer’ll
Sometimes put you in the cart, yer
    Never know!”
Only recently the Art-world has been convulsed by a regrettable incident in a matter of this kind. A distinguished collector of my acquaintance, naturally desiring to be properly classed, is said to have accepted with pleasure the proposition of the editor of an art magazine to permit his collection to be photographed, and an article to be written about it. In such cases it is generally understood that proofs of the article are to be submitted to the collector, so that any expressions not purely laudatory may be struck out. As those familiar with the pitiless engines of publicity know, these proofs, by a lamentable and deeply deplored oversight, do not always reach the collector before the magazine is on the bookstalls. Now, on the supposition that, in defiance of the etiquette of tame-criticism, any expression not entirely laudatory slips in, we have a pretty quarrel, which will repeat itself as long as writers consent to do the letterpress round illustrations furnished by artists, or worse, by collectors. The artists will maintain that it was the collector’s duty to see that the reproductions of their pictures were garlanded with nothing but praise. The collector will probably maintain that the artists should not have sold him pictures about which it was possible for the most severe critic to write anything but ecstatic praise. The editor will, unless the collector takes out an injunction, have filled several pages of his magazine franco with quite nice illustrations, which is his business, and the artists will reflect with bitterness that not even in the sanctuary of a private house are their works safe from these infernal critics, who, damn ’em, will persist in going on criticising, just as the artists will persist in going on painting.
However, Mr. Gilman and Mr. Ginner having stepped briskly, and uninvited, on to the operating table, I must, after the usual question as to whether they wear any false teeth, put on my white jacket and proceed. They talk a good deal about Cézanne. I admire what is good in Cézanne perhaps as much as they do. But I think I have looked at him more carefully. What is the classic phrase in France about Cézanne’s execution? “Des minces couches superposées.” Will they look at the Gores in the New English Art Club, and say whether that skilful, delicate, draughtsmanlike, reticent use of thick paint, that eloquent variety of touch, is not an ideal technique? Considerable painters are often blind to more than one truth at a time. I am inclined to think that, just at present, Mr. Ginner and Mr. Gilman attach a somewhat doctrinaire importance to the virtue of impasto in itself.
Walter Sickert.
© Estate of Walter R. Sickert

How to cite

Walter Richard Sickert, ‘The Thickest Painters in London’, in The New Age, 18 June 1914, p.155, in Helena Bonett, Ysanne Holt, Jennifer Mundy (eds.), The Camden Town Group in Context, Tate Research Publication, May 2012,, accessed 21 April 2024.