The life of artist Walter Sickert: Artistic errand boy who went on to give tips to Churchill

Walter Sickert. Picture: Lebrecht

Walter Sickert. Picture: Lebrecht - Credit: PVDE RA/Lebrecht

In the latest of our series exploring the lives and times of those commemorated with blue plaques, Adam Sonin traces the career of German painter and printmaker Walter Sickert.

Conspiracy theorists have incorrectly speculated that Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper. However, he did once have the honour of couriering letters to Degas and Manet, instructed a chancellor of the exchequer in painting and met a young future prime minister.

Often dressed in a black cloak, brimmed black hat and collarless shirt, with thick fair hair and piercing green eyes, the artist is honoured with a plaque at 6 Mornington Crescent in Camden Town. He lived and worked at this address between 1905 and 1908. A neighbour recalled that “the inside hall or passage was tiled, and a wide, stone staircase curved round … up to the first floor, where Sickert lived, his studio being in the front room, which was lofty, with an ornately plastered ceiling and deep mouldings in the cornice, and with the usual big marble fireplace”.

Walter Richard Sickert (1860-1942) was born in Munich, the eldest of six children. His father, Oswald Sickert, was a Danish painter and illustrator and his mother, Eleanor Louisa Moravia Henry, was the daughter of the English astronomer Richard Sheepshanks. The couple met near Hamburg and were married in Hendon. They settled in Munich, where Sickert’s father worked as an illustrator on the Fliegende Blätter, a weekly comic newspaper. Owing to political tensions between Germany and Denmark the couple moved back to England and lived in Bedford in 1868, moving to London in 1869.

In 1878, Sickert completed his education at King’s College School, London. His father had nurtured his son’s love of art but is thought to have discouraged him from pursuing painting as a career. Initially, Sickert wanted to join the staff of the British Museum Library but instead decided to pursue a career in acting. In 1879, using the pseudonym Mr Nemo, he played minor parts on stage in London and in provincial productions, and during his holidays he would often spend his time sketching.

Sickert’s flirtation with the stage may have been short lived, ending in 1881, but “he loved dressing up and relished his lifetime roles as playboy, dandy, impresario, guru and grand maître”.

The aspiring artist briefly enrolled on a general course at the Slade School of Fine Art in October 1881 but was disappointed with the training and left the following spring. It was at this time that he became a pupil (and assistant) of the American-born, French-trained artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903). Whistler’s training was gruelling and Sickert learnt to paint landscapes and portraits directly from nature. His visual memory was pushed to great limits and he became adept in etching. During this period, Sickert also acted as a courier running errands for “the Master”.

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One such errand, in April 1883, saw the apprentice deliver two letters of introduction, one to Degas and one to Manet as he acted as Whistler’s courier and took Portrait of the Artist’s Mother (1871) to Paris for an exhibition at The Salon. Sickert was not fortunate enough to meet Manet, as the great artist was extremely ill, and died soon afterwards, but Degas showed him his work at his studio. Several years later, Sickert and Degas became firm friends. Degas captured him as the focal figure in his pastel drawing Six Friends at Dieppe (1885).

Apparently Whistler, on occasion, would make use of Sickert’s own studio and one day on seeing a half-finished canvas on the easel began working on it himself. The older man is reputed to have completed the canvas, “carried it off, and sold it as a work of his own”.

Sickert eventually outgrew Whistler’s patronage and started to trade on his own account. His good friend Degas offered him guidance and advice, in particular helping him to paint away from nature and extend his range of subjects.

In 1885 Sickert married Ellen Melicent Cobden (1848-1914), daughter of Richard Cobden, the radical MP who had died in 1865. The couple spent their honeymoon in Dieppe and Sickert cemented his friendship with the painter Jacques-Emile Blanche.

In 1899, while again on holiday in Dieppe, Sickert met a 14-year-old girl. As it turned out she was the young future Mrs Winston Churchill. The artist was a friend of Clementine’s mother and often visited the house the family stayed in. The bohemian dandy fascinated the teenage girl, who was “deeply struck by him, and thought he was the most handsome and compelling man she had ever seen”.

The young girl was later invited to tea at the artist’s house but on arrival found him out. Clementine decided to wait in his bedroom, noting how dirty it was. Deciding to make herself useful, she gave the rooms a once over and threw out the remains of what appeared to be a fish supper. When Sickert finally arrived back at the house he asked what had happened to his fish skeleton, to which the girl replied that she has thrown it out. For a moment Sickert lost his temper as he had been planning to paint the plate but immediately forgave her.

That winter he engraved her portrait on to her hockey stick and two years later spent a day entertaining her in Paris. He introduced her to the great artist Camille Pissaro and showed her various sights. Over lunch, Clementine asked who the greatest living painter was, to which Sickert replied: “I am, of course.”

During another vacation in Dieppe with his friend, the artist Walter Taylor, Sickert went for a long swim. He left his friend close by the shore as he was not a confident swimmer. When Sickert turned to face inland, he noticed that his friend looked like he was in trouble. Sickert swam back as fast as he could but when he approached the shoreline he discovered, to his surprise, that his friend was now sunbathing. “Good God, man!” he cried, “I saw you sinking!” To which Taylor replied: “Yes. I did sink, but when I reached the bottom, I said to myself, ‘If I walk uphill I shall get to the shore.’ And so I walked uphill and here I am!” Astounded, Sickert could only look to the heavens and ask: “Why does anybody ever drown!”

In 1927, shortly after learning that Clementine Churchill, now wife of the chancellor of the exchequer, had been knocked down by a bus, Sickert decided to pay her a visit. Clementine introduced him to her husband, Winston, and the two men connected immediately. Churchill was a keen painter and gladly welcomed advice from the professional. Later the amateur painter wrote to his wife: “I am really thrilled by the field he is opening to me … I see my way to paint far better pictures than I ever thought possible before.”

Sickert advised Churchill to paint from photographs, a technique he himself developed, but the innovative Churchill took it a step further. Churchill bought himself a “beautiful camera” and a projector and began to trace directly onto canvas. Inadvertently, the great wartime leader managed to pioneer a process which was later used by Andy Warhol and David Hockney.

Just before Christmas 1934, Sickert, now living in a house called Hauteville at St Peters, Kent, was disturbed one evening by a group of young carol singers. After singing two carols,, the group waited with their collection box. One member recalled: “Neither pressing the bell nor using the knocker elicited any response.” The group, now anxious, continued to wait. “Eventually the curtain at the window was drawn aside and through the chink we saw a small, wizened, grey-bearded face.” The front door, still on its chain, was opened, and the man said: “Go away” and so the group did. The member who recalled this encounter, almost 40 years later, was Edward Heath.