‘This is the earliest known depiction of cinema in the world,’ comments specialist Rachel Hidderley, discussing Walter Richard Sickert’s historic 1906 painting The Gallery at the Old Mogul — a highlight of Christie’s Modern British & Irish Art Evening sale on 20 June.
‘We’re looking at the interior of the Old Mogul music hall, where a crowd is watching what is probably a Western,’ explains Hidderley, picking out the shadowy forms of Sickert’s cinema audience — some sitting on the backs of their seats, craning to get the best view of the screen.
‘Sickert’s skill is to speak to the imagination of the viewer. He wants you to wonder what is going to happen next, or what you’re missing out on if you’re not part of the audience,’ she continues. The style had become a signature of Sickert’s works, with earlier depictions of theatre placing the viewer at the back of a heaving crowd.
‘He was an artist who had his finger on the pulse,’ Hidderly concludes. ‘Sickert was interested in popular culture, and devoted his art to recording it.’ Capturing the electric atmosphere of early cinema showings, the painting successfully predicted how culturally significant film would become. It is, Hidderly summarises, a privileged insight into ‘a moment in time.’