Venice is the most theatrical city in the world. It looks like a stage set. For several weeks of the year during Carnevale everyone appears to be in costume. And, at other times, an air of drama pervades even the most mundane exchanges of Venetian life. It is no surprise that Walter Sickert, who had made his youthful reputation as painter-in-ordinary of the London Music Hall, should have been excited by the place. He visited the city to paint several times, from 1895 to 1903. It proved a rich seam. With characteristic hyperbole, he described it as his ‘gold mine’.

At Dulwich Picture Gallery, ‘Sickert in Venice’ brings together a selection of choice nuggets, works made in the city over the best part of a decade. It was a decisive decade in Sickert’s development and, it is not too much to say, in the development of British art. As so often in the tide of human history, the motive force of change was the weather.

By and large, the weather in Venice is clement. And Sickert’s earliest Venetian paintings were Impressionistic views of the great sights of the city: the façade of St Mark’s, La Salute, the Rialto Bridge. Long intrigued by the play of gaslight on dusty theatre mirrors, he eagerly took up the challenge of recording the effects of late-afternoon sunshine reflected in the waters of the lagoon.

The Rialto Bridge 1901

The paintings proved popular, at least in comparison to his other works. He had several successful exhibitions in Paris. In England, he showed his new Venetian pictures at the Fine Art Society, the gallery on Bond Street that he praised as ‘the best shop in London’. (The gallery is still on Bond Street and still showing Sickert’s work: an exhibition of his etchings ‘Walter Sickert as Printmaker’ opens today and runs until March 27.)

And then the rains came. The Italian winter of 1903 was exceptionally wet. Torrential down-
pours disrupted Sickert’s plans for sketching in the piazza. He acquired a pair of cork-soled boots to keep his feet dry, but even these proved to be inadequate as water levels rose. Unable to work outside, Sickert began sketching the denizens of his favourite trattoria, the Giorgione. And, soon, he was inviting these models back to his little studio-room.

The local prostitutes proved the most rewarding subjects. He posed them nude or clothed, perched on his bed or on the sofa. He became fascinated by the sense of drama suggested by their juxtapositions. It was a theme that opened up a whole new world to him, one that he continued to explore throughout his long subs-equent career. It reinvigorated his painting, and in time his example reinvigorated the whole figurative tradition of British painting. And it began in the rain in Venice.

‘Sickert in Venice’ is at Dul-wich Picture Gallery, Gallery Road, London SE21 until May 31 (020–8693 5254; www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk)