Gilt wood frame
Celebrations was painted in Dieppe, Sickert’s second home. His long and intimate association with the fashionable French port began in his childhood and continued until 1922. From 1885 until 1898 he spent nearly every summer there; from autumn 1898 until 1905 Dieppe was his permanent home; from 1906 until 1914 he resumed his habit of spending the summer painting the landscape and streetscape in and around Dieppe; and from 1919 until 1922 he lived in nearby Envermeu and rented studios in Dieppe. The French painter Jacques-Émile Blanche, who had a summer home in Dieppe, called Sickert the Canaletto of Dieppe: ‘No other artist has so perfecty felt and expressed the character of the town’. He had his favourite subjects, painted repeatedly in different lights, such as the Gothic facade of St Jacques and its south door seen along the rue Pecquet, the statue of Admiral Duquesne in the Place Nationale, and the arcaded buildings along the quayside. But from time to time, especially in Dieppe during the summers of 1911 until the outbreak of war in August 1914, he found new subjects which suited his urgent search for the ideal technique. He wanted to find a way of keeping the surface of his paintings clean, lucid and fresh without impoverishing their weight and quality. He painted in the studio from closely observed, squared-up drawings; his palette became lighter and more lively; he increased the size of his canvases. In Dieppe he selected sunlit scenes such as the Rue Aguado facing the seafront, flags fluttering along the façade of the Hôtel Royal. Indeed flags, with their colour, their movement and lightness became a favoured motif for Sickert at this time. In Camden Town he had painted and drawn buildings adorned with flags to celebrate the Coronation of George V in June 1911. But what can the flags which flutter outside the Hôtel de Ville in Dieppe be celebrating? The presence of a Union Jack alongside the French tricoleur suggests the occasion was not 14 July, the national holiday in France which commemorates the start of the Revolution with the storming of the Bastille prison in 1789.
The painting’s title, and the date 1911 traditionally ascribed to it, have no contemporary validity. Both were probably inventions by Rex Nan Kivell, the first known owner of the painting. Nan Kivell, a discriminating collector and managing director of the Redfern Gallery which dealt in Sickert’s work from the 1930s onwards, sold it in 1944 to a private collector. It did not surface again until spring 2011. The picture, now at last seen at first-hand, itself suggests a date later than 1911. The palette, in particular the oppositon of lilac and pale yellow, accented by vivid touches of emerald green, vermilion and royal blue; the fresh and clean paint surface; and the sharp definition, all point to a date of 1913 or 1914. This suggestion is confirmed by the intrusion into the top centre of the painting of an unattached sprig of chestnut leaves. The explanation must be that Sickert painted Celebrations on a canvas originally intended for a subject he studied repeatedly in 1913, the corner of the apse of St Remy, the second church of Dieppe, which includes the same chestnut leaves prominently silhouetted against the sky. The chestnut sprig does not feature in the squared-up pen and ink, pencil and wash preparatory study for Celebrations. Why Sickert left the sprig in place when painting a different subject, can only be guessed at. Perhaps he liked the way it echoes the irregular shapes of the fluttering flags and balances the green of the railings and doorway of the Hôtel de Ville. Without further evidence, it is impossible to decide whether Sickert painted Celebrations in 1913 or 1914. The motif, however, suggests August 1914 when Sickert painted the streets and architecture of Dieppe rather than the landscape around his village house at Envermeu. Might the show of flags mark the moment, on 4 August 1914, when Britain joined Russia and France in declaring war on Germany?