Sunday, February 5, 2012

Sickert in Bath and Bathampton

This weekend we decided to explore the links between Bath and one of my favourite painters, Walter Sickert.

Sickert lived until 1942, but is indelibly associated with images of late-Victorian London. (He's probably most widely known today, alas, as perhaps the most stupid of all suggested Jack the Ripper suspects, a demonstrably false suggestion, started in the 1970's by a fantasist called Joseph Gormley who claimed to be Sickert's son and the great-grandson of Queen Victoria, and repeated more recently by the absurd novelist Patricia Cornwell).

I especially love his paintings of the popular entertainments of his day, which are given an additional dash of socio-historic interest by the fact that his work spans the transition between Edwardian and Jazz Age popular culture: he painted some endlessly atmospheric scenes of London's Victorian music halls in rich, gloomy, glowing colours, but one of my favourites of all his paintings is one strangely (presumably randomly) titled Jack and Jill, which is in fact based on a newspaper photograph Of Edward G. Robinson and Joan Blondell in Bullets or Ballots.
Lit from below, Robinson looks like a squat, malevolent Punch, his protruding cigar seemingly made of the same material as his face. It's just wonderful.

But despite his close association with London, Sickert loved Bath.
He first came for the first of several prolonged visits in 1917, and wrote to the painter and patron Ethel Sands:
"Bath is it. There never was such a place for rest and comfort and leisurely work. Such country, and such town. And the mellifluous amiability of the west-country gaffers and maidens, all speaking the dialect which became the American we know and love."

During these initial working visits to the city, Sickert roomed at The Lodge, a small but impressively stylish house, tucked away on Entry Hill, a not inconsiderable uphill walk from the city itself.

He worked at studios located at number 10 Bladud Buildings, in the heart of town (and just opposite the street where we live!)

Four years before he died, however, he decided to move to the area permanently.
With his third wife Thérèse he settled on the lovely village of Bathampton, just outside the city. The first flurries of snow were just beginning to settle as we set off on Saturday morning to pay him a call.

They bought a spacious, rambling property, St George's Hill House - difficult to photograph, unfortunately, because it's at the end of a long and tree-shrouded driveway. This is the best we could do:

Sickert settled happily into his new surroundings, and enjoyed being a local celebrity. He would invite villagers and children in for tea and to talk about paintings, and agreed to judge a local fancy dress competition, and paint a portrait of the winner.
He also joined the local art society - as an ordinary member, turning down the offer of a vice-presidency - and lectured once a week to the students at the city's art college. (His keen eye for the beauty of the everyday had not deserted him: on observing the tenants of a dowdy nearby apartment block drying their washing on the iron balconies, he said to the students: "Look how these people with their few poor things are writing poetry for us.")

Here's Walter, with his superb beard, and his wife Thérèse in the garden of Hill House:

And here, some time before the beard had reached the above stage of enviable perfection, he is lecturing at Bath's Victoria Art Gallery:

Oddly, despite the profusion of plaques all over Bath celebrating its many famous residents and visitors, neither The Lodge, the studios at Bladud Buildings nor Hill House bear any visible indication of their connection with the great man.

Sickert died in Bathampton in 1942, and is buried in the local churchyard:

The reason that such a notable resident received so dowdy a headstone is that he died during World War II, and so was given a wartime utility gravestone.
This one, in fact, is a 1980s replica: the original had fallen to pieces.

Two other local celebrities also rest here: Arthur Phillip, first Governor of Australia and founder of the settlement that is now Sydney...

... and William Harbutt, the inventor of plasticine!

Apropos of nothing much, here's a stone pig we saw under a Bathampton tree:

And here's Snowy, Bath's famous Art Deco listed polar bear, who we passed on the way to Sickert's lodgings on Entry Hill:

Lastly, here are a few of Sickert's paintings of scenes in and around Bath, matched up with their real locations as they were this weekend. Damn those cars!