The New Drama of the early 1900s had echoes in the paintings of Walter Sickert, who as a young man worked briefly as an actor. William Rough explores points of comparison between contemporary plays and the painter’s sometimes highly staged compositions.
‘A painter is guided and pushed by his surroundings very much as an actor is.’
Walter Sickert, ‘The New English and After’, New Age
, 2 June 1910.1
It is perhaps no great surprise to discover that Walter Sickert's paintings frequently depict topics and themes associated with contemporary theatre. Sickert worked as an actor during the late 1870s and early 1880s, during which he had a brief spell at Henry Irving's Lyceum and toured with George Rignold's and William and Madge Kendal's companies. Indeed, his interest in the theatre as a source and subject matter for his paintings has long been acknowledged, yet its influence during his Camden Town period has remained surprisingly overlooked. If, however, we consider Sickert’s works from the period of his return to London in 1905 to the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, a number of thematic and compositional similarities emerge that reveal a curious relationship with the developing New Drama and contemporary drama in general.
Sickert’s early career as an actor helped him foster a number of significant friendships and acquaintances with theatrical figures, including the playwright Arthur Wing Pinero and the actor Johnston Forbes-Robertson. In addition, his Paris links introduced him to the naturalist theatre of André Antoine’s Théâtre-Libre and Aurélien Lugné-Poë’s symbolist Théâtre de l’OEuvre (his friends Jacques-Émile Blanche and George Moore were regular attenders). Indeed, the Parisian theatre also provided a vital influence for the direction and staging of Harley Granville Barker and John Eugene Vedrenne’s management at London’s Royal Court Theatre between 1904 and 1907. The Court provided English audiences with their first experiences of avant-garde European works (by Maurice Maeterlinck, Henrik Ibsen and Gerhart Hauptmann) as well as a platform for British dramatists of the New Drama school, such as George Bernard Shaw, St John Hankin, John Galsworthy and Elizabeth Robins. The ideals of Antoine’s theatre, and subsequently Barker and Vedrenne’s, were perfectly summarised by the playwright Jean Jullien:
I believe that, as art is not simply nature, so theatre should not be simply life
... This is the only way to stage serious theatre ... in place of the curtain there must be a fourth wall, transparent for the audience, opaque for the actor ... A play is a slice of life artistically set on the stage ... a synthetic version of life achieved through art.2
Like the Théâtre-Libre, productions at the Court were characterised by their attention to psychological honesty as well as naturalistic set-design. Regarding the 1905 production of Barker’s The Voysey Inheritance
, for example, the Era
noted that it was ‘a pure joy to listen to dialogue so inevitably true to the commonplaces of everyday middle-class life’.3
Blanche, again, was a frequent visitor:
Many an evening my wife and I used to walk along Sloane Street from our hotel to the Court theatre in our ordinary clothes ... certain to meet people we knew, habitual lecture-goers, artists, theosophists.4
New Drama theatre was therefore a rich source of interest for Sickert’s contemporaries and was undoubtedly ripe for interpretation through a painter’s brush.