Small Is Beautiful: To Walter Sickert, the British Art Scene Was Dominated by Snobbery, Money and Fashion. He Would Not Have Liked the Turner Prize, Writes Matthew Sturgis

By Sturgis, Matthew | New Statesman (1996), January 24, 2005 | Go to article overview

Small Is Beautiful: To Walter Sickert, the British Art Scene Was Dominated by Snobbery, Money and Fashion. He Would Not Have Liked the Turner Prize, Writes Matthew Sturgis


Sturgis, Matthew, New Statesman (1996)


Walter Sickert married three times. His first wife, Ellen, was the daughter of Richard Cobden, scourge of the corn laws and founder of the Manchester school of economic liberalism. In later years, when living and painting in Camden Town, close to the Cobden memorial outside Mornington Crescent Station, Sickert would casually tell friends: "Meet me under the statue of my first father-in-law." Sickert never actually knew Cobden--who died in 1865, when Sickert was still a toddler--but he always valued his connection with the radical champion of free trade, and not just as a name to drop.

It must be admitted that Sickert's political views, though sometimes strongly expressed, were not very firmly held. He happily subscribed to--and, indeed, wrote for--both the Manchester Guardian and the high-Tory Morning Post. He admired Lenin and approved of Hitler, at least as a draughtsman. Some have been encouraged to consider him a socialist on the grounds that he deprecated the drawing room as a subject for art and--in such works as the celebrated Ennui or the Camden Town Murder series--depicted the dramas of vulgar London life with an unexampled candour and directness. But there was never any suggestion that Sickert wished to change the lot of his shabby, downtrodden subjects. He liked them as they were.

In art politics, however, Sickert remained a firm adherent to the Cobdenite tradition. He was an apostle of free trade. His views have an interesting resonance today, if only because they are so out of tune with current thinking, or at least current practice. He distrusted, for example, all state support for contemporary art. On a political level, he deplored a system that taxed the charwoman and the labourer to provide cultural amenities and rewards for the better-off. And on an artistic level, he deplored the works that such a system produced.

The prejudice developed early. As a child growing up in Munich (where his father had a job as an illustrator on a popular comic weekly), Sickert was horrified by the colossal statue of "Bavaria"--represented as a 60ft-high bronze female holding a wreath above her head--which dominated the Theresienwiese. Commissioned by Ludwig I, it was (Sickert claimed in later years) the thing that first convinced him of the folly of state sponsorship of the arts.

However, it was not just ill-conceived public sculpture that affronted him. In his own professional life in England, Sickert consistently championed what he called "small paintings for small patrons" against the claims of large-scale works intended only for exhibition in public galleries. He urged his fellow artists to paint small, to sell cheaply and to sell in quantity, either whole-sale to dealers or direct to modest collectors.

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Sickert adopted both ploys at different moments. Sometimes he sold his canvases to gallery owners, unseen, in roped-up bundles. At other times he acted as his own dealer--even though he found the business of wrapping up sold pictures with brown paper and string particularly troublesome. Always he espoused the doctrine of "small profits and quick returns" as the best way for a painter to build up a solid and dependable following. It was, he liked to point out, the course that had laid the foundations for the success of the impressionists in France. And as Sickert aimed to adopt and adapt the techniques, vision and subject matter of the impressionists--most particularly Degas--for a British public, so he thought it a good idea to adopt their commercial practices as well.

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Sickert would not have been a fan of the Turner Prize. …

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Small Is Beautiful: To Walter Sickert, the British Art Scene Was Dominated by Snobbery, Money and Fashion. He Would Not Have Liked the Turner Prize, Writes Matthew Sturgis
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