The man looking out of the 1896 self-portrait engages the viewer with a knowing left eye. The right, averted eye, a mere impression on Walter Sickert’s turned head, is enigmatic. No matter how intently you look the painter will never give everything away. Sickert draws you into his world but leaves you to make of it what you will. 

Across the gallery wall Walter Sickert (1860 – 1942), the actor, painter and eccentric who transitioned British art from impressionism to modernism, looks up moodily in a pen and ink drawing, hastily but expertly executed. He affects a well-known pose of Henry Irving, the colossus of England’s 19th-century stage he hero-worshipped. 

The viewer is a voyeur. This drawing, from 1882, on loan from the Islington Local History Centre, is a very private document. A glance captured in the mirror. Not really for public consumption at all. 

This spellbinding retrospective of Sickert’s work at Tate Britain, running until 18 September, is as complete a compendium of the artists’ work as it is possible to gather in one place. It is accompanied by a series of excellent introductory lectures. When Tate Britain gets its act together, the gallery is second to none. 

The show is supported by a range of accompanying publications, including Walter Sickert (no mucking about with the title) edited by artist Emma Chambers. My artist friend and companion for the day kindly gave me a copy and I have been buried in its 200-odd pages ever since. Each of the chapters is written by a different specialist author.

A student at London’s Slade, admirer of Degas and “apprentice” of London-based American artist James McNeill Whistler, Sickert’s obvious ability with his brush allowed him to gain access, almost at will, to the cutting-edge monde of late 19th-century art.

And yet, from the outset he had the self-confidence to shun fashionable milieux, striking out instead to the unfashionable shore of Camden. There he found inspiration in the frank portraiture of nudes in shabby domestic settings, the rough and tumble of the music hall, early cinema, and street scenes.

Abroad, he favoured Dieppe and Venice. In Venice he embarked on a series of paintings of St Mark’s Cathedral in different lights, following Claude Monet’s Haystack series, capturing the ever-changing character of buildings. If only the observer takes the time to stand and look. 

Let’s deal with the Gothic horror of the Camden Town Murder series. And the ghastly 2002 book by Patricia Cornwell, Jack the Ripper – Case Closed in which she “conclusively” identifies Sickert as the serial perpetrator of the Whitechapel murders in the late 1880s. Unfortunately, it is through this slander that Sickert has become well known in this century.

Too bad for Cornwell that Sickert happened to be in Dieppe at the time. Eurostar was not then running daily returns from Whitechapel to the French coast. It’s a shame the falsehood is given oomph by the Tate titling one of the exhibition’s galleries The Camden Town Murders; probably pulls in the crowds.

The Camden Town Nude portrait series is nothing more nor less than a group of studies of ordinary women, perhaps sex workers, depicted in run-down bedroom settings, in anti-academic poses. This is the real world of Camden, not the artificial world of a Slade studio.

Often, the artist’s hand intrudes. There is no attempt at private voyeurism. The brush strokes are almost pointillist. My favourite is Mornington Crescent Nude 1906. It is full of questions. Is this bleak room with its iron bedstead really the home of the sleeping girl with the expensive necklace and casually discarded fashionable dress? What do we see through the slit of the window? How will she react when she wakens in perhaps unfamiliar surroundings?

A lot goes on in Sickert’s portraits. Jumping on to his later period, the influence of Whistler begins to tell. Sickert began to base portraits on published photographs. The figures are full — as in the life-size portrait of King Edward VIII, taken from a photograph in 1936. Whereas Whistler mostly flattered his subjects, Sickert captures His Majesty’s equivocal character perfectly.

While he strides purposefully in one direction, Edward, in full military fig including a busby, glances in another, into the crowd. Perhaps at Mrs Simpson? Sickert captures the torture of a king nervy, uncomfortable in his own skin, perfectly. 

In my judgement, Sickert’s music hall paintings are his most evocative. Look no further than Little Dot Hetherington at the Bedford Music Hall 1888 in the gallery focusing on the Music Hall series. 

The young child, in a pure white dress, is spotlit. The beam comes from a gallery light. Her arm is extended to the circle. She sings, The Boy I Love is up in the Gallery. Theatre-goers look shifty.

In a typical Sickert trompe l’oeil, they seem not to be looking directly at the singer. We, in fact, are the deceived. We are observing the singer reflected in a mirror in the wings. Unsettling. Nothing is ever quite as simple as it seems. This is a device the painter deploys frequently.

Sickert, perhaps because of his familiarity with the stage, always seems to see behind the greasepaint. Brighton Pierrots, painted mid-First World War in 1915, features the unhappiest Comedia del Arte bunch I have ever seen. Slack shoulders, tilted straw hats, Pierrette facing backstage, a desultory leg raised in dance and, most significantly, the twilight reveals a row of empty deck chairs. The audience is missing — at the front across the channel, fighting for King and country. Occasionally, the guns can be heard in Brighton.

A master of reinvention, Sickert not only changed his first name to Richard towards the end of his life, but he also changed his style of both genre painting and portraiture dramatically. Miss Earhart’s Arrival (1932) based on a photo of the aviatrix in The Daily Sketch, focuses on the scramble of journalists in a downpour. A wing of the plane seems almost incidental, as does Amelia Earhart, an almost insignificant figure exiting, ignored, left of frame. Sickert is screaming, “IT’S ABOUT THE NEWS. NOT HER!” 

Then there is a late focus on Hollywood, probably a logical follow-on to music hall. Jack and Jill from the 1937 Edw. G Robinson film Bullets or Ballots (no, not a prequel to the Truss/Sunak swamp fest) captures the mood of a new age. Sickert, the chameleon, changing character right to the end.

Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud are the most obvious 20th-century followers of Sickert, taking the modernism kickstarted by the actor painter to a new level. American artist, Edward Hopper, was obviously a Sickert fan too. His evocative Nighthawks which hangs in New York’s Metropolitan Museum is an obvious homage to the dimly lit Maple Street, painted by Sickert in 1916.

I like to think that Hopper spotted Maple Street at the Met, paused, and developed it as his iconic tribute to lonely New York bar flies. 

I doubt there will be another Sickert retrospective on such a scale in this generation. Tate Britain has scoured the planet to bring this comprehensive exhibition to its galleries. Seen together, no doubt can remain Sickert’s art thoroughly deserves the accolade of Britain’s pioneering work of the 20th century.

“Walter Sickert” is on at the Tate Britain until the 18 September 2022.