- The Bedford Music Hall
There were scores of music halls in metropolitan London in the 1890s, but it is the Bedford music hall in Camden Town that still matters most to posterity, for the single fact that painter Walter Sickert took for his subject [End Page 44]
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performers and audiences at the hall over a twenty-year span beginning in the late 1880s. When Sickert first took the music hall as his subject, the Bedford was not an especially distinguished auditorium; by the time he painted The New Bedford Theatre (c. 1914–15), the building had been renovated into a luxurious “palace” of variety. I have chosen 1899, the year the New Bedford reopened for business, as my rubric, but I will treat both theatres, the Old and New Bedfords as two markedly different “built environments.” Sickert’s paintings of the Bedford will allow me to address the significance of the differences between the two spaces. Sickert started chronicling the Bedford at a time when music hall fare—ballet, comic singers, and novelty [End Page 45] acts—began to attract a more affluent and educated audience than the working class patrons who had long been the entertainment’s core constituency. The painter’s Bedford paintings retain their significance for the valuable glimpse they offer us into a by-now familiar process of modernity and post modernity: the capture and commercialization of working-class pastimes, however suggestive or risqué, by the middle classes. I argue that throughout this process, Sickert remained coolly detached from the class struggle over popular entertainment, even as he registered the transformation of the music hall in his paintings.
As Sickert’s biographer Matthew Sturgis relates, the painter was forced to develop what amounted to a new approach to painting in order to accommodate his new theme. It was a challenge to use a paint box in a darkened space, and it was also difficult to retain enough details of a scene in memory to render it later. As Sturgis notes, Sickert’s solution was to combine the practice of constant music-hall going with continuous note taking and sketching: “He returned night after night to the same seat in the same music hall to study his scene: to memorize and set down a single significant move or gesture, to note the divisions of light and shade, the subtle grades of tone, and the rich vestiges of colour” (149). This was not just about method; it was also about constructing a specific identity as a painter: “The one thing in all my experience that I cling to,” Sickert declared,” is my coolness and leisurely exhilarated contemplation” (qtd. in Sturgis 150).
For nearly a decade, the performers and audiences at the Bedford in Camden formed the subject matter of most of Sickert’s paintings and the object of what he characterized as his unique mixture of excited interest and detached contemplation. It is difficult to generalize about the diverse repertoire of images of the Bedford that Sickert created during this period. The paintings he worked on at the turn of the decades largely focused on solo performers—chiefly, the female stars of the music-hall stage. The Gallery of the Old Bedford (c. 1895) seems to suggest a shift in interest, from performer to a select part of the broader music-hall audience, the young men in the Bedford’s cheap seats, featured in the painting.1 As with cheap seats in most theatres, the Bedford’s were in the gallery and were typically filled by young men of slender means. These young men were notorious for being vocal about their feelings, for good or ill, regarding a performer. Sickert’s intense study of the figures in the gallery seems, at least, to suggest the painter’s strong identification as a bohemian outsider with other dodgy but vital characters. The young men in plain black garb and caps are presented as a collective sharing a distinct aim, a single focus on the stage...