Saturday 12 September 2015

'The Canaletto of Dieppe'

At Dieppe

The grey-green stretch of sandy grass,
Indefinitely desolate;
A sea of lead, a sky of slate;
Already autumn in the air, alas!

One stark monotony of stone,
The long hotel, acutely white,
Against the after-sunset light
Withers grey-green, and takes the grass's tone.

Listless and endless it outlies,
And means, to you and me, no more
Than any pebble on the shore,
Or this indifferent moment as it dies.

That's Arthur Symons's melancholy poetic response to Sickert's painting L'Hotel Royal, Dieppe - a wonderful picture that's the poster girl for the Sickert in Dieppe exhibition at Chichester's Pallant House gallery. Having foolishly missed Ravilious at Dulwich (I was sure it was on until the end of September - it wasn't), I at least made it to Chichester yesterday to see the Sickert. And well worth the journey it was.
 It's a fine, painstakingly curated exhibition tracing Sickert's relationship with Dieppe over the years, focusing in particular on the period when he lived there and became, in his friend Jacques-Emile Blanche's phrase, 'the Canaletto of Dieppe'. Three rooms of well captioned paintings, etchings, sketches and photographs tell the story of Sickert's almost obsessive recording of the streets and churches, beach and harbour of Dieppe - from early studies clearly influenced by Whistler to later, freer and more 'impressionistic' works, bringing in bolder colour and freer brushwork. One room (of three) is devoted to paintings and studies of Dieppe's great Gothic church, St Jacques, which he painted from every angle and in every light (and a couple of pictures of St Remy).
 Many of these pictures have not been seen in public for years, or at all, and they have never been brought together for an exhibition on this scale. Among the standouts (for me anyway) were The Red Shop (October Sun) with its glorious splash of vermilion; the dramatic - and large - Le Grand Duquesne with its looming statue dark against the light; Le Cafe Suisse, painted at the outset of the Great War; and Une Dieppoise, a striking image of a woman drawing water by the harbourside at dawn. But there are many more terrific pictures in this exhibition, and anyone with an interest in Sickert, or Dieppe - or, ideally, both - should head for Pallant House before October 4th.
 And while you're there, look in on the one-room exhibition of pictures by Kenneth Rowntree, one of the Great Bardfield circle of artists (which most famously included Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious). This is his Tractor in Landscape, which was one of the most popular of the School Prints.

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