In 1908, in a letter to a friend, Sickert described the ‘trompe l’œuil hat all the coster girls wear here with a crown fitting the head inside and expanded outside to immense proportions’. He was fascinated by these distinctive wide-brimmed straw hats, dubbed ‘American sailors’, and fascinated by the life stories of those who wore them. Two ‘divine’ coster girl models sat for him, almost always separately. The paintings in which one or other feature include L’Americaine (Tate Gallery, London) and The New Home (W. Baron, Sickert Paintings and Drawings, New Haven and London, 2006, pp. 368-70, no. 350.)
In 1911, Sickert returned to the theme of coster women in Camden Town bed-sitters. He had spent the intervening period painting some of his most controversial interiors, many given the ‘Camden Town Murder’ title, in which he had juxtaposed a nude female figure and a clothed man within dilapidated north London bedrooms. Sickert thought of these two-figure paintings as modern ‘conversation pieces’ in which he exploited the psychological as well as the compositional potential. Their narrative remained ambiguous, but they implied a context both sordid and brutish. In 1911, while still gripped by the conversation piece theme, he sought a different tone. This time he chose to draw and paint his coster models together. The narratives remained ambiguous but their mood is quiet and domestic. The models dressed in their coats with moth-eaten fur collars, are squashed into a shallow space, restricted on all four sides, tightly overlapping each other. In Two Women (Harris Museum, Preston) one woman sits on a bed, the other stands, while they engage in grave and intimate conversation; in a recently discovered (and radiantly coloured) variant called The Flower Girl; Two Women (sold in these rooms, 26 November 2015, lot 127) one woman sits on the bed staring out of the picture while the other cheekily bends over to peek behind her, in a pose which for all the world anticipates a modern ‘selfie’. The present, newly discovered, painting relates closely to Mother and Daughter (W. Baron, Sickert Paintings and Drawings, New Haven and London, 2006, pp. 380-1, no. 368), exhibited with the Camden Town Group in December 1911. It shows the two models sitting facing away from each other on opposite sides of a bed, each wrapped up in her own thoughts. Sickert’s cavalier attitude to titles is illustrated by the fact that when he published a drawing of this composition in The New Age in July 1911 its title was given as Lou, Lou, I love You’. The newly discovered painting is considerably larger than the painting exhibited with the Camden Town Group. It is also slightly differently proportioned. We do not know why Sickert left it unfinished, with only the essential composition and tonal pattern established in his unmistakeable brusque shorthand. Nor do we know where it has been for the past 105 years. However, it is a welcome addition to Sickert’s oeuvre, giving us an insight into his method of working.
We are very grateful to Dr Wendy Baron for preparing this catalogue entry.