London’s biggest retrospective of the works of Walter Sickert in nearly 30 years opens at the Tate Britain and offers a dark journey into the mind of an influential, but an undeniably troubled artist.

Walter Sickert (1860-1942) took a radically modern approach to painting in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, transforming how everyday life was captured on canvas, but his work was also to lead to later allegations of links with Jack the Ripper.

The exhibition opens with an almost conventional ink on paper self-portrait, of the sort his engraver father would recognise, and the earliest documented work. He swiftly ditches this in favour of his much darker painting style though, reaching levels of abstraction that without the white explanatory cards you might struggle to work out what you’re looking at.

He also some pretensions to religious scenes, painting himself as the protagonist in a number of paintings. A harbinger of later alleged and much darker delusions? Likewise his landscape of Hove, with an older man – thought to be a self-portrait – inferring advances to a much younger lady.

Another room looks at his fascination with the music hall, and the many times he painted their interiors, capturing a lost world for us today, but also at times distorting it. It’s at times hard to understand what is being shown, with distorted faces of the crowds blurring into a mass mob, and actresses almost indistinct background decoration — yet elsewhere, his eye for details is exemplary.

It just goes to show what a wide variety of work the man was capable of, almost as if he was two artists working in one body.

Walter Sickert Gallery of the Old Bedford1894-5. Purchased by the Walker Art Gallery in 1947

His painting though of a Brighton seafront stage with vaudeville performers in front of a half-empty audience is painful in its bleakness, with the undertone that made during WW1, many of the empty seats belonged to men at war in France.

His use of photographs as a base for his later paintings was at times criticised, but he was also applauded for adding an artist’s eye to the end results. A large painting of Amelia Earhart’s triumphant return to London after he solo flight across the Atlantic could not be accurately captured by anything other than the camera, and then turned into art.

A painting of the shopfront of a laundry is paired with his original sketches, used to show his technique of placing grids over the initial sketch or photograph to then guide his painting.

A fictional pairing of Ira Aldridge as Othello and Valerie Tudor as Desdemona is timely, as Aldridge was the first African-American actor to achieve fame in a foreign country, and on the closing night of plays he was in, he would give a talk to the Victorian audiences about the evils of slavery.

The landscapes and architectural paintings aside, and his own self-portraits, the vast majority of his paintings are of women. This wasn’t entirely unusual, but his huge body of work of naked female form was unusual for the time, and particularly the domestic poses he put the model in.

Moving on to the most troubling part of the exhibition — the Camden Town Murder — a series of paintings based on a real murder, and as an artist, Sickert seemed to take an almost unhealthy interest in the topic, painting several paintings of the room where the murder took place.

And this is the unspoken aspect of the artist on display — he seemed to be a much darker character than was fully understood at the time, although some of that may be revisionist history.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that researchers, who coincidentally had books to sell, started to link Sickert with Jack the Ripper. There’s a suggestion that some of his letters match the Ripper’s handwriting, although that’s unsurprisingly, highly contested. There are also his private drawings, often showing men in positions of violence over women, some of which can be inferred from his published paintings, but in a much-subdued manner. He even painted a room and called it Jack the Ripper’s bedroom. Whether he was the ripper, knew the ripper, or even fantasised about the ripper, he is an artist who leaves a dark secret in his wake.

The exhibition of his work doesn’t really dispel that, with his often dark paintings and distorted faces, this is a man who revelled in the darkness.

Fortunately, the last room in the exhibition takes you out of dark rooms and dark paintings into a bright white room with some of his later much brighter works. A tonic from all the gloom before.

This major exhibition features over 150 of his works from over 70 public and private collections and opens tomorrow at Tate Britain, running until late September.

Adults: £18 | Concessions £17 | Children (12-18): £5 | Children (0-12): Free | Members: Free

You are advised to book tickets in advance from here, although some tickets will be available at the door.

Exhibition Rating

★★★★★

Tate Britain
Millbank, London
SW1P 4RG

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