Bohemia by sea: curator Katy Norris tells us about Walter Sickert's time in Dieppe

By Mark Sheerin | 16 September 2015

The London painter's extensive and influential time in Normandy is explored in a major new show at Pallant House in Chichester. We speak to curator Katy Norris

Oil painting which shows promonaders before a gran hotel in twilight
Walter Sickert, L’Hôtel Royal, Dieppe (1894)© Museums Sheffield
There was a time when a Bohemian evening in a London pub could extend to a binge of several days in Dieppe, France. Certainly there is a story about decadent illustrator Aubrey Beardsley setting off, sans luggage, and not returning for days.

The Normandy town boasted visitors from Paris as well as London and became the scene for one of art’s most intriguing rivalries, when Whistler and Degas vied for the attention of upcoming British painter Walter Sickert.

Sickert’s time in Dieppe is the subject of a major show at Pallant House. The surprise element here is not just that the chronicler of Camden Town crossed the Channel, but that he spent years of his life on the other side. As curator Katy Norris says of the show, “it goes right from the age of 25, through to in his 60s. You almost get a kind of survey of his life as well which sees him go all the way to the 1920s”.

Oil painting of a facade of a gothic church
Walter Sickert, La Rue Pecquet (1900)© Birmingham Museums Trust on behalf of Birmingham City Council. Image courtesy Birmingham Museums Trust
The 25-year0old Sickert was an apprentice of Whistler. But in Dieppe he fell under the influence of Degas. After a comment of the French painter, says Norris, “they’re characterised as the butterfly [Whistler] and the ox [Degas]. And yes, I think there was a bit of rivalry between them.” It seems unlikely that Sickert could have moved on from the butterfly without the distance his home from home offered.

It was Degas who felt himself to be the better role model for a young painter and, given the place he holds in art history, we might today agree. Sickert “learned draftsmanship from Degas and watched minutely what he was doing”. The older painter, in turn, “really thrived off that idea of a young artist still interested in what he had to offer”.

But Sickert never abandoned the expressive lessons he learned in Whistler’s studio. “He loved the viscosity of the paint and using rich paint, which was not like Impressionism," says Norris. "So he never really sat totally with the impressionists; he hung onto his beginnings all the time as well, you know, the early training under Whistler."

Oil painting of a rural landscape with a stone obelisk foreground
Walter Sickert, The Obelisk (1914)© Peyton Skipwith. Image Courtesy Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal
The two senior painters, however, were not the only factors which came to affect Sickert’s work in France. “Across the exhibition you see this twilight,” says Norris. “This setting sun - and I think there is this really beautiful light across Normandy that other artists were before Sickert were attracted to.” During the 19th century these included JWM Turner and Norwich school painter John Sell Cotman.

And if you want to see Sickert cast against type, look no further than his paintings from around the time of the Great War onwards. Painted just 10 miles inland at Envermeu, these are, as Norris points out, “a revelation”. “He’s really not known as somebody who painted outdoors, or who painted beautiful rolling rural landscapes. It’s a complete opposite to the dingy urban Camden town”.

Clearly the French lifestyle gave our painters a certain licence. Sickert took this so far as to enter into a serious relationship with a Dieppoise fisherwoman. “That's totally in character,” Norris claims.

“He lived with her for a few years and looked after her children and actually was writing letters back home. It was definitely a real relationship and a genuine respect that he had for this woman and her life”.

Oil painting of the facade of a gothic church in Dieppe
Walter Sickert, The Façade of St Jacques, Dieppe (1902)© Private collection. Image courtesy The Fine Art Society
The curator also reveals that in the time he spent in Venice, Sickert also displayed a weakness for the fisherwomen of the Adriatic. “There’s definitely this side of him being a sort of rogue and having this leisure time, but he was also very, very serious as an artist.” Letters testify to the strict routines that tied Sickert to his studio most days.

But it’s doubtful that the Dieppe phenomenon could take off in the wired age we now find ourselves in. “I think generally the world is so connected in lots of different ways now,” says Norris. “People, as much as artists, are losing touch with what’s right in front of them”. It is hard to see Whistler or even Degas exerting quite as much pull over a young artist’s career had they been just Facebook friends.

Along with its great paintings, Sickert in Dieppe offers a chance to relive a time when innocence and geography converged to build an art hub in an unlikely corner of Europe. “They were all of a sudden placed in this different place,” says Norris. “This foreign unfamiliar place where they could kind of let loose, and this was really conducive to creativity.”

  • Sickert in Dieppe is at Pallant House, Chichester until October 4 2015. Open 10am-5pm (8pm Thursday, 11am-5pm Sunday, closed Monday). Admission £4.50-£9.

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