Cigars, gin, and boredom: The strange world of Walter Sickert

Cigars, gin, and boredom: The strange world of Walter Sickert

Art Curator Mark Stocker looks at the remarkable life and personality of artist Walter Sickert, and focuses on one of his famous etchings Ennui (1915).

One of my roles at Te Papa is to update and improve our database records on artworks. I particularly enjoy writing artist and artwork summaries for Collections Online.

My current project involves updating records for a collection of prints donated by the advertising magnate, connoisseur, and philanthropist, Sir John Ilott (1884–1973).

Although he isn’t quite Rembrandt or Goya, one of the more famous names in the Ilott Collection is that of English artist Walter Richard Sickert (1860–1942).

Photograph portrait of Walter Sickert
Walter Sickert, by George Charles Beresford, 1911. National Portrait Gallery (NO 3846). CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Walter Richard Sickert (1860–1942)

Sickert art or sick art?

Cosmopolitan and eccentric, Sickert favoured depicting ordinary people and indeed, positively grotty and squalid urban scenes as his subjects.

This got him into trouble with prissy and proper conservatives, who believed art should be beautiful. Sickert once retorted: ‘There’s a real beauty in the bedsit or the barmaid. Can’t you see it?’ Sickert never missed a beat and his work often shows a sense of humour – which is all too rare in art.

Oil painting of a lady in a hat
Walter Sickert, The blue hat, 1914. Purchased 1951 with Harold Beauchamp Collection funds. Te Papa (1951-0012-1)

An early modernist – and murderer?

Stylistically, Sickert is considered a prominent figure in the transition from Impressionism (Edgar Degas was a friend of his) to Modernism. His remarkable late portraits of celebrities predate those of Andy Warhol by a good 30 years.

Walter Sickert, Winston Churchill, 1927. National Portrait Gallery, London, (NPG 4438) CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

More recently, the famous crime novelist, Patricia Cornwell, has tried to prove that Sickert was the notorious serial murderer Jack the Ripper. However, most experts, whether in the fields of late 19th century art or crime, remain unconvinced of this.

A great printmaker

Sickert nevertheless enjoyed letting it drip on the canvas and rip on the copper plate.

Though painting inevitably monopolises people’s attentions, printmaking was an extremely important aspect of his output.

He learned the craft of etching from his mentor, the world-famous James McNeill Whistler, and over his lifetime produced at least 226 prints.

Living it up and paying for it

Sickert enjoyed living it up (‘Why walk when you can take a taxi?’ ‘Waiter! Another champagne!’) But he didn’t always enjoy the cashflow to do so, and in 1914 his straitened financial circumstances led to him brokering a deal with the Carfax Gallery, London.

In exchange for a retainer of £200 per annum, the Carfax became Sickert’s sole dealer and, in addition, he was commissioned to produce a series of sixteen etchings published exclusively by the gallery.

As a shortcut, Sickert based the large majority of the sixteen on his paintings.

Etching of a column
Walter Sickert, The Lion of St. Mark, Venice, 1915. Gift of Sir John Ilott, 1958. Te Papa (1958-0003-21)
Etching of a lady 'Quai Henri'
Walter Sickert, Quai Henri IV, 1915. Purchased 1963. Te Papa (1963-0002-1)
Ennui c.1914 Walter Richard Sickert 1860-1942 Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1924
Walter Sickert, Ennuiabout 1914. Tate. Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1924. CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)

Te Papa currently owns three of the Carfax prints, The Lion of St Mark, Venice (1951-0003-21), Quai Henri IV (1963-0002-1) and, a star Sickert item, Ennui.

Given the immediate success of the painting Ennui when first exhibited in 1914, it’s hardly surprising that he decided to include an etched version of it in this series.

However, he continued to revise the design and the print was later published by the Leicester Galleries.

Ennui: A major print

Sickert produced three separate-sized etched versions of Ennui: large, medium, and small.

Te Papa’s impression is a historically early and hence very important version of the first state of the large plate and is inscribed ‘before considerable rework’.

Etching of a couple lounging in a room, not looking at each other
Walter Sickert, Ennui, about 1915. Gift of Sir John Ilott, 1961. Te Papa (1961-0006-25)

It has a subtle, light delicacy, hard to convey here but something that you don’t quite see in later states.

The vast minimalist emptiness of the bottom right-hand corner is all the more poignant when we consider it carefully.

Hubby and Marie

The theme comes from Sickert’s imagination, but looks like a highly convincing ‘still’ from a much later Harold Pinter play or indeed Mike Leigh film.

The protagonists are an alienated, ageing, lower middle-class couple based on studies of two of Sickert’s studio models who weren’t actually married in real life.

Estrangement and boredom

The husband, whom Sickert called Hubby Hayes, leans back in his chair and draws on his cigar. Meanwhile, his wife Marie leans against a chest of drawers.

They deliberately look away from each other, clearly estranged and bored – hence the title Ennui, the French for boredom. They have probably endured many years of enforced proximity.

Cigars and gin

For Hubby Hayes, the cigar and large gin provide some consolation, but poor Marie has no such comforts and one senses that she has tried harder but in vain to keep their relationship alive.

The setting is Sickert’s own studio in Camden Town, London, which he has artfully rearranged, really rather like a stage set, to create a convincingly tawdry tableau.

Some words from Virginia Woolf

The original painting of Ennui in Tate Britain, greatly moved the famous author Virginia Woolf, who thought Sickert was depicting a publican and his wife.

Hubby ‘with his glass on the table before him and a cigar gone cold at his lips’ is ‘looking out of his shrewd little pig’s eyes at the intolerable wastes of desolation in front of him’.

Woolf continues:
‘A fat woman lounges, her arm on a cheap yellow chest of drawers, behind him. It is all over with them, one feels. The accumulated weariness of innumerable days has discharged its burden on them…. The grimness of that situation lies in the fact there is no crisis; dull minutes are mounting, old matches are accumulating and dirty glasses and dead cigars, still on they must go, up they must get’.

Wow, I just wish I could write art criticism like that!


  1. I just assumed that she was leaning on the bench listening to the radio and that he was doing the same from the seated position. I took that yellow item behind her as a radio. Did Sickert specifically rule this out with his description of the scene?

    1. No Hilary, this would be about 15 years too early – radio technology didn’t exist at the time! The yellowish object is probably some kind of ornamental box for trinkets.

  2. Since you mention Degas, Mark, it’s worth thinking of his famous painting “L’absinthe” when considering Sickert’s “Ennui”, don’t you agree?

  3. Love your blogs Mark!

    1. Thank you, Jennifer!

  4. As a Kiwi living in Adelaide I thought I’d check out the Sickert collection at the Art Gallery of SA. They also have an etching of ‘Venice, the Lion of St Mark’, and several etchings of rather bored-looking women. Of particular interest though was ‘The Raising of St Lazarus’, painted in 1929 and described as ‘oil on wallpaper, detached then laid on canvas’. Does that suggest he was still having trouble making ends meet despite the gallery retainer? I wonder whether he rearranged the furniture to hide the missing wallpaper.

    1. Thank you for your observation and keen interest, Sue. No, Sickert wasn’t hard up in 1929 but was at the height of his fame. Why then paint the work on wallpaper? Well, our friends at the Art Gallery of NSW have the answer:

      ‘In 1929 Walter Sickert was given a life-size lay figure, alleged to have once belonged to William Hogarth, and the sight of it being delivered to his studio inspired him to paint three works based on the event which he reinterpreted as the raising of Lazarus. Eager to record the scene before it faded in his mind, Sickert painted the first of the three works directly onto the wallpaper of his studio wall; this hastily painted version is now in the collection of the Art Gallery of South Australia. In fact, Sickert was so inspired by the event he had it re-enacted and professionally photographed with himself posed as Christ, and Cecily Hey as Lazarus’ sister.’
      So the answer is he used the wallpaper because it was handy. This is how artists tick. Interestingly, the third and final version of this work is in the NGV, so Australian art galleries have done remarkably well in getting all three late – and impressive – Sickerts!

  5. Thank you Olwen, I promise to write more blogs, but I really got stuck into the Ilott collection in recent months…

  6. Thank you, very interesting!

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