Blanche’s portrait of Walter Sickert and his mother provides an intimate glimpse of domestic life in Dieppe around 1908. Mrs Sickert is allegedly paying a morning call on her solicitous son at Neuville and the breakfast crockery is laid out on the table. He, wearing a jacket and high collar, appears ready to go out, but he leans forward to catch what she is saying. Yet all is not what it seems, for the fireplace is apparently drawn from Blanche’s dining room in Dieppe – as are the samovar, teapot and blue-and-white china (Roberts, 2012, p. 90). The objects on the mantelpiece – an earthenware vase, black clock and a pair of Victorian Staffordshire King Charles Spaniels or ‘Comfort’ dogs - have apparently come from the house in chemin des Pucelles that Sickert rented on the other side of the town. It appears that when she sat for the photograph on which the composition was based, Mrs Sickert was actually in her son’s humble kitchen with its painted brick fireplace. Fireplaces, and specifically mantelpieces, were of great significance to Sickert as shrines that expressed individuality. This is clearly seen in Blanche’s study (fig. 1. J-E. Blanche, Mrs Eleanor Sickert, 1908, Manchester City Art Galleries), a free transcription of the source photograph. The painter was making liberal use of photographs at this time, as his current portraits of Nijinsky and Jean Cocteau make clear, but their translation into his characteristic shorthand in a full sketch of the ensemble, was of equal importance. The sketch for Le peintre Sickert et sa mère, Petit-déjeuner à Neuville, (37 x 46 cm.) was shown at the Blanche memorial exhibition at the Musée de l’Orangerie in 1943, no. 49. Blanche’s early portrait of Sickert of 1898 is in the National Portrait Gallery, London.
As a token of longstanding friendship, the double portrait was of great significance to Blanche. In his memoir he confessed to being ‘…very attached to old Mrs Sickert’ (J-É. Blanche, Portraits of a Lifetime, 1937, p. 70). She was, according to Sickert’s biographer, Richard Emmons, ‘… beautiful, strong, energetic, full of gaiety and life: musical by instinct, singing much both to herself, her husband and a large family did not lessen her zest for life or spoil her even temper’ (R. Emmons, The Life and Opinions of Walter Richard Sickert, 1941, p. 16). The daughter of Richard Sheepshanks, the astronomer, and an Irish dancer who abandoned her to go to Australia, Eleanor Louisa Moravia Sickert (1830-1922) inherited some of her mother’s theatrical genes which she passed on to her son. She was brought up in Dieppe in a boarding school run by an English teacher, Mrs Maria Slee, with whom Eleanor kept in touch during summer annual visits after 1868. There are even suggestions that on occasion, Walter and his sister Helena attended the school. When Mrs Slee died circa 1876, the establishment was run by her daughter and it went quickly into decline. At the same time the Blanches, with their only son, Jacques-Emile, were regularly spending their holidays in Dieppe, until in 1879, Dr Blanche built his own chalet in the town at Bas Fort Blanc. Decorated with murals by Renoir, this, in the summers of the following decade became the centre of artistic life in the town.
The friendship between Walter Sickert and Jacques-Emile Blanche blossomed when the former abandoned his theatrical ambitions and moved rapidly from the Slade to Whistler’s studio (Mathew Sturgis in Walter Sickert, A Life, 2005, pp. 107-8, dates their meeting to Blanche’s trip to London in 1882. In Sixty Miles from England, The English at Dieppe, 1814-1914 Simona Pakenham however, implies that Blanche and Sickert could have met as children during extended summer holidays in Dieppe). Blanche, at that time was a pupil of Henri Gervex through whom there was direct access to many of the most important painters of the day. After 1882 the two young painters met regularly in Dieppe and on one occasion in 1885 both were incorporated into one of Degas’ most striking pastels (fig. 2, Edgar Degas, Six Friends at Dieppe (Rendez-vous des Amis), 1885, pastel, Rhode Island School of Design).
Contact was maintained throughout the next two decades even when Dieppe was deserted. In 1902 for instance, Blanche wrote from Dieppe to André Gide, ‘… ma seule resource ici, mais elle n’est pas mediocre, c’est mon ami Sickert …’ At that point, after the breakup of his marriage, Sickert had escaped to Dieppe and was boarding with a dubious fisherwoman, Augustine Villain, ‘avec une ribambelle d’enfants de toutes les provenances’, nevertheless Blanche concludes, ‘Je crois que c’est l’homme le plus absolument distingué que j’ai connu’ (G-P. Collet, Jacques-Emile Blanche, Le peintre-écrivain, 2006, Paris, p. 90). In these years Sickert was more often seen dressed as a dishevelled French fisherman rather than in the suit and tie he sports in the present work. By 1903 however he had acquired his own house, and within a couple of years was attracting visitors – young painters such as Spencer Gore, Harold Gillman and Hubert Wellington – from England (Sturgis, 2005, pp. 311, 367-8).
Recognizing that Sickert was at this point enjoying a reputation among artists who would go on to form the Camden Town group, Blanche pays tribute – and he does so in a characteristic way. While his early portrait of Sickert would chime with the then currently fashionable ideas about society portraiture, this new double portrait with its bonneted matron amid the clutter of crockery and bric-a-brac, implied a narrative of the type that the British painter favoured. Sickert would, for instance, in works such as Ennui (Tate), place a table between the viewer and his male and female subjects. However Blanche’s interior with its characteristic calligraphy has more in common with Edouard Vuillard’s intimisme than Sickert’s, and the latter may well have sought to represent the class difference between them by painting Blanche in his velvet-trimmed overcoat and top hat not long after the present picture was completed (fig. 3, Sickert, Jacques-Emile Blanche, c.1910, Tate). A final compliment was Blanche’s late portrait of 1935, also drawing upon a photograph, and placing Sickert in front of a mantelpiece once more (fig. 4, J-E. Blanche, Walter Richard Sickert, 1935, Manchester City Art Galleries).
This lifelong camaraderie centres around the present canvas. Not only does it link the two artists, and their respective houses, it conveys the ambiance of the era and the town in which they lived. In his charming portrait of Dieppe published in 1927, Blanche again pays public tribute to his English confrère,
'Le Dieppe pictural s’incarnait pour nous en Walter Sickert. Son esprit redoubtable, la séducution de sa personne nous avaient tous magnétisés, ma mère et notre entourage. Pendent trente ans, nous serait une énigme sa fascinante et fugace individualité aux imprévisibles travestissements …'
We are grateful Jane Roberts for her help preparing this catalogue entry. This painting will be included in her forthcoming catalogue raisonné for the artist (no. 219).