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Walter Sickert

A new book explores Walter Sickert's innovative work as a printmaker

Nine years of painstaking research have revealed this technically adventurous side of the artist’s work

Walter Sickert’s reputation has been built and sustained around painting. His long and productive career spanned the influence of Whistler and Degas in the 1880s to the Euston Road School in the 1930s. Recent survey exhibitions on British art have rightly given central billing to his portrayal of urban life. Remarkably, however, this major artist has been largely ignored as a printmaker.

Inadvertently, this may have had something to do with the re-prints from existing plates offered to museums after Sickert’s death in 1942. The label of posthumous prints arguably undermined this standing as an artist-printmaker. Museums have also tended to look little further than the pupil-teacher relationship with Whistler.

Only a fraction of Sickert’s prints were ever published in his lifetime and when a catalogue was begun by the celebrated Harold Wright, it proved too difficult to unravel and was finally abandoned. Apart from one to accompany an exhibition in 1979 at the Yale Center for British Art, there has been no comprehensive catalogue. In this context, Ruth Bromberg’s nine years of research appears all the more impressive and painstaking.

In the established tradition of catalogues raisonnés, Dr Bromberg takes on the task of piecing the work, process and development together. Her chronological introduction is short on general biography, but her clear account focuses on the material subject in hand, the 226 prints and their numerous and sometimes unique states.

The text works in tandem with the lavish black and white illustrations. They effectively capture the progression and alteration of a subject, which, in at least one case includes sixteen states, as well as the crucial relationship with drawings and paintings. This is certainly a book for the collector, libraries, museums and anyone interested in Sickert, but is also an exhilarating narrative about creative practice.

Sickert’s relationship to printmaking looked beyond, and even subverted, the reproductive process. The origins of this may lie in his earliest influences. Dr Bromberg gives precedence to Degas, but even when the association with the formidable Whistler is still discernable in “The acting manager” of 1884, Sickert brings his own interests in the theatre and in the elaborately worked-up plate to the fore.

One of the discoveries here is the number of rarely exhibited single states that may not go beyond a few, or even unique, printing. At a time when there was little concept beyond the conventional edition, Sickert appears to have used the copper plate as a regular sketch pad. By 1901-1902, in three or four versions of “Venice: the horses of St Mark’s”, he is engaged in a simultaneous interplay between painting and print. Etching is now combined with aquatint, stipple and roulette, and even the remnants of traced lines. On a completely different track, the third version, accredited to “eccentric working methods”, is constructed around heavily bitten lines and the uncertainty irregular specks.

The seriousness that Sickert brought to his unorthodox methodology is compellingly seen in the series of two-figure subjects, begun in 1908 as the “Camden Town murder series”, and continued in 1914, with the domestic setting of “Ennui”, and the almost abstract rendering of “The handicap” of 1920. The psychology of these entrapped scenes of street and middle-class life touches some kind of raw nerve, particularly when seen as an accumulative sequence. Sickert goes far beyond voyeurism and it is his intentional ambiguity that the author chooses to emphasise.

The strength of the chronological approach is that it sets out the degree of commitment to printmaking, the highs as well as the lows. There are lengthy periods of absence followed by renewed interest, one of the most significant being the founding of the Rowlandson House School, which specialised in the teaching of etching.

The last decade was anything but a decline into repetition, instead of some of the most adventurous experiments with scale, simplification and increasing abstraction. The conventions of the “finished” are flouted, familiar theses are returned to, and the relationship between different media, including photography, is, if anything, more intense. One can only look forward to the future exhibition that will match the intricacies and re-inventions revealed by this publication.

Ruth Bromberg, Walter Sickert: prints—a catalogue raisonné (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2000), 320 pp, 500 b/w ills, £75 (hb) ISBN 0400081618

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Sickert the printmaker'