The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

Walter Richard Sickert, ‘Wriggle and Chiffon’

The New Age, 9 June 1910, pp.129–30.

Wriggle and Chiffon.
By Walter Sickert.
Mr. Francis Howard is certainly a wonderful impresario. He manages to put in the field exhibition after exhibition of the greatest piquancy and variety. This time it must have amused him to demonstrate that Boldini is the nonpareil parent of the wriggle and chiffon school of portraiture. It is a pity that Helleu is not represented by a set of his brilliant dry points. It would then be seen that the Franco-Italian master has three sturdy sons, Sargent, Blanche and Helleu, and that none of them quite succeed in the bravura of the décolleté like their master. None of them has lifted the fashionable flic-flac to the nth with the same ring-master’s flourish of the lash as has the wizard of Ferrara and the Boulevard Berthier. His virtuosity and vitality are astounding. An artist can only interpret what inspires him, and his sitters do not bore Boldini. Mr. Francis Howard has gone one better than the new English Art Club in self-abnegation. These have lain down to be flattened out by Mr. Sargent’s landscape sketches. Mr. Howard has invited Mr. Sargent himself to be snuffed out by the sun of which he is one of the major moons. Holocaust for holocaust, Mr. Howard is the wittier critic. Mr. Sargent at the Grafton appears positively domestic and tame.
I always wonder who are the humourists who write the little paragraphs in our catalogues explaining, excusing, insinuating. Listen to this on Ricard:–
 Though of a retiring and sensitive disposition, he was unmoved by the pseudo-evolution of the early Victorian era, and founded his art on the traditions of the great masters.
Will readers of The New Age, cognisant of other branches of human knowledge, tell me whether in those branches any one writes such nonsense as this? Is it only in our poor art that these are our experts?
How far we have travelled in our ideals of portraiture! Look at Ricard’s portrait of Mrs. Stephenson and her son. What dignified and saintly maternity! How redolent of the sweet savour of English life as it seemed in our childhood! How this Frenchman sees, loves and interprets the Englishness of the group. Alas! Now we are all cosmopolitanised.
In Spain Zuloaga retains the Spanish dignity. His women stand gravely before us. Elles ont de la tenue. The presentation they make of their bodies is so discreet, so correct and so reticent that the soul is given a chance of looking forth at us. Mystery and romance are allowed to spring again from wells of freshness. Something of the same dignity there is in the little portrait by Steer called “Pansies.” There is an unconsciousness, an unaffectedness that the loveliest things often have. I suspect this canvas is so interesting because it looks as if it had arrived unplanned and unheralded, without any very set purpose of becoming an important work. It has the charm that makes an unexpected breakfast with a friend more delightful often than a set dinner by invitation.
The International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers does not make an invariable rule of securing the consent of the artist for the exhibition of his work. I remember how angry Degas was when Whistler exhibited works by him against his wishes in the Society’s first exhibition. I wonder if Mr. Howard has secured his consent this time. I wonder if Mr. Sargent elected to be represented by the two charcoal heads he has in this exhibition. This system adds a new terror to production. I think, till lately, there used to be a sort of understanding that a body of artists never exhibited a work without the author’s leave. The neglect of this courtesy may perhaps have a salutary effect. Artists will think twice before selling a pot-boiler whose temperature is too high; we shall also think twice before making trivial and innocent gifts of sketches of the birthday-book order.
But what a Manet is that lent by George Moore! Here at last, gentle reader, I come to close quarters. We do not always get a flower of modernity to illustrate our point. But here is one. In this canvas you can see how and why the moderns are the heirs of their fathers, and why we are their betters. There is hardly any paint. No scaffolding. No groans. No cutting of himself with a knife. But on to the canvas the artist has spilled a living being, with nothing, with a breath. When I think of my stuffy friends in this country with their eternal dreary mobcap, boring, eighteenth-century brown-gravy pictures, my friends with their eyes tight shut, and their craven fingers on the pulse of Christie’s!
Then we have a shadow of a shade of a Whistler. How far these few years have taken us from the love of our youth! How these pictures required the defence of the brilliant and sympathetic personality that had produced them! What poor æsthetics they seem to-day! A certain vivid and superficial appreciativeness of Greece and Japan and Velasquez; a plant without roots, and bearing no fruit. And all the respectable old critical gentlemen are now writing the very sentences I used to write about Whistler twenty-five years ago, when I was twenty-five. They used then to say I was a young fool for my pains. I forbear to retaliate.
Then there is a poor Courbet of Whistler’s model. Courbet’s strength was in the colours he mixed with his knife on the palette. The difficult drawing in this subject baffled and defeated him, and by the time he had accepted his defeat, the Courbet colour was gone. Courbet had not, I am afraid, the sense of the hieratic importance of a lady combing her hair that enabled Rossetti to impress us with some of his passion in such subjects. “Rossetti,” Whistler said once (I have said it before, but it is worth repenting), “Rossetti was not a painter. Rossetti was a ladies’ maid.” I note under this item in the catalogue the following broad hint:–
“He is unrepresented in the National or Tate Galleries.”
We may, I imagine, await developments. Experts will be moved to write. Drums will be beaten. Being a poor example, I should say the betting is the nation will have to have it.
How bewildering your imaginative painter is to us poor realists. Mr. Ricketts’s Cleopatra Lussuriosa fills me with wonder and respect. If we venture to exhibit a painting of a plump and wholesome woman in her bath say, or pulling on a stocking, we are told we are lewd fellows, and no class. Exhibitors who paint boys bathing have to give nine-tenths of their attention to an ingenious game of thimble-rig with a ridiculous and necessary organ I need not name. It must be covered by somebody else’s elbow, or a flying gull, or a flying towel, or what not. But Cleopatra covers a multitude of sins. And in an age of African luxury Mr. Ricketts makes her luxurious on a box-ottoman without a back. [end of p.129] A mere realist would have made Cleopatra a fine woman. However, I am not a critic of imaginative painting, and it is no use my talking about things I do not understand. With all this, Mr. Ricketts is a pontiff, whose lightest word is law. I believe he has already damned Impressionism up Notting Hill and down Notting Dale, and will have none of it. But we have never damned him.
Since Tom, Dick, and Harry have turned art-tipsters in London of late, I, too, intend to give an occasional final. I would respectfully urge that Mr. Rothenstein has at the Marchant Gallery work some of which is of National Gallery quality, notably the picture of three Jews praying. That his set of transfer-lithographs from famous men are of the highest importance historically and technically. I would beg collectors who care for art in this country to see if Mr. Fowler’s picture in the Royal Academy is not worthy of the most serious consideration. I would suggest that Mr. Walter Bayes has at the New English Art Club a great picture on a small scale, rather tucked away, I am sorry to add, sorry for the critical credit of the Hanging Committee of the New English Art Club. Might not a little attention be spared to these three men during their lifetime for once in a way?
© Estate of Walter R. Sickert

How to cite

Walter Richard Sickert, ‘Wriggle and Chiffon’, in The New Age, 9 June 1910, pp.129–30, in Helena Bonett, Ysanne Holt, Jennifer Mundy (eds.), The Camden Town Group in Context, Tate Research Publication, May 2012,, accessed 16 April 2024.