Sickert began his working career as an actor, spending about two years, at times under the pseudonymn 'Mr Nemo', on tour with well-known repertory companies. Although on the stage he never progressed beyond bit parts, in life he remained an actor until he died. He was an eccentric whose quirks helped to create the enduring Sickert legend. He relished inventing dramas on canvas, with so much success that the literal-minded have read his figure groups as depictions of real-life situations rather than products of a lively and empathetic imagination. Above all, he never lost his desire to paint performers behind the footlights, whether in rowdy music halls or in the classical theatre, the opera or the cinema.
Sickert was one of the first artists to paint the cinema. In the early days of film, there were no purpose-built cinemas. Screens were often installed in buildings such as music halls which already had rows of seats. In 1906, one of Sickert's views of the audience looking towards the stage at the Middlesex Music Hall shows a giant cinema screen in the background, a subject acknowledged in the title, Cinematograph, under which it was exhibited at the New English Art Club in 1912.
The idea that film screenings could be enhanced by live performances survived beyond the 1940s. Silent films were accompanied with music provided sometimes by a lone pianist, sometimes by an orchestra. Long after sound films were the norm, an organist clad in magenta or turquoise sequins, would emerge on an electric hoist from the depths of the orchestra pit to entertain cinema audiences waiting for a film to begin. Which leads us to the Plaza Tiller Girls.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, John Tiller, a successful Lancashire businessman, with his wife Jennie, founded the Tiller School in Manchester with the idea of drilling a stage chorus-line to perform with the discipline of a corps de ballet. The Tiller schools quickly gained a high reputation, opening in London and abroad. In 1912, the 'Palace Girls' who performed at the first Royal Command Variety Performance had been trained by Tiller. Richard Shone has described how in the 1920s troupes became affiliated to different cinemas where they would perform in the intervals between film showings. Each troupe wore distinctive colours. The troupe studied by Sickert were attached to the Plaza Cinema near Piccadilly Circus. While Sickert's two paintings, two preparatory drawings and an etching of the Plaza Tiller Girls in the late 1920s were derived from publicity photographs, he probably also saw the troupe in action at the cinema himself. It is likely that he was attracted in particular by the icy turquoise blue of the Plaza Tiller troupe's domino-check costumes - a colour close to that he used in the tonal underpaintings of many of his stage subjects throughout the 1920s. At the end of the 1930s, Sickert returned to the subject to paint his largest version, High Steppers (Edinburgh, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art), this time working from a still of the troupe doing their team-dancing routine within an actual film, Up with the Lark, rather than as an introductory 'turn' on stage.
The two paintings of the Plaza Tiller Girls created in 1928 share a subject, but are otherwise distinct. The version on offer here is handled more spontaneously. The brushmarks are so brisk and brave as to border on the reckless. The dancers face slightly towards the left. The siting of their act is made explicit by the diagonal slice of the orchestra pit in the foreground, with the dark silhouetted head of a member of the orchestra framed by two shapes which probably represent the curled tops of either cellos or double basses. This repoussoir compositional device relates back directly to Sickert's earliest music hall scenes of the 1880s and to the theatre and cabaret subjects of his mentor, Degas. A fully worked pen and ink drawing is directly related to this painting; its inscription, 'La retraite', suggests that the moment depicted is when the troupe turns at the end of their act to leave the stage.
The compositional construction of the other version is more formal and tidy. The dancers, now facing towards the right, fill the picture space. Although the colour is even more daring and bright, the handling is not quite so brusque. This is the view etched and drawn by Sickert in Cheerio. While it is not possible to establish which of the two paintings came first, I would suggest that the sketchier painting on offer here is the more likely to have been Sickert's primary, delighted response to a this new, lively and essentially modern subject.