Film adding to display of Sickert’s music hall paintings

Theatre programme for the Bedford Palace of Varieties 1912

Theatre programme for the Bedford Palace of Varieties 1912 - Credit: Archant

Trailer is providing a snapshot of the hard world of performers from a century ago

One of the leading figures in post-impressionist art in the early 20th century, Walter Sickert, found recent notoriety after allegations that he was responsible for the Jack the Ripper murders. A leading light in the Camden Town Group, his paintings of the music halls he frequented certainly reveal a darker side to his personality but, as Kate Bailey realised, they also highlight the significant social role halls like provided, particularly for women.

“I started looking at Sickert’s images of the old Bedford Music Hall in Camden High Street,” says Bailey, manager of the new V&A exhibition Sickert and The Three Graces. “He’d sit there night after night, painting it like a maniac. We wanted to find out why he did this, to tell a story and give an emotional weight to the objects we already had.”

The result was that archived objects like programmes and tickets of the Bedford became part of a fictitious play – that of retirement home resident Grace, who used to star in the sort of cabaret provided at the Bedford, which was torn down after closing in 1959. Enlisting the help of two famous theatre workers, playwright Tanika Gupta and director Katie Mitchell, Bailey found she was taking the exhibition in a direction never previously explored at the museum.

“This is the first time we’ve commissioned writing as a part of an exhibition. We have a trailer of the play on display, but hopefully it can extend to a full production outside of the museum. A lot of people might come expecting a jolly picture of the music hall but it wasn’t easy, it was very tough on the performers.”

The 20-minute film, captured from multiple angles on multiple screens surrounded by Sickert’s artwork, provides the centrepoint of the exhibition. The nature of museums is such that some may walk through without experiencing the trailer, but to do so would be to miss a beautifully sad snapshot of the excitement and troubles pre-emancipated women faced when performing at the music halls.

Furthermore, it would lessen the impact of the next area, an unsettlingly accurate recreation of Grace’s bedroom, complete with memorabilia celebrating entertainment once enjoyed by high-class literati as much as working class peasantry.

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However, the sordid underbelly of a world surrounded by crime and prostitution is omnipresent, particularly with the haunting The Boy I Love playing in the background – a song which proved a muse for many of Sickert’s subtly squalid paintings.

“The interesting part of Sickert’s work is what caught his eye,” says Bailey. “Look at a lot of these paintings and he’s watching people in mirrors, almost voyeuristically. There’s something seedy about him and maybe that’s what attracted him to this world. As a theatre department, we’re not all about making beautiful things and hopefully that will show.”

n Sickert and the Three Graces is open now and runs until January 5, 2014.