Looking out to sea, in a fetching hat trimmed in scarlet, a romantic figure scans the horizon. She wears a long black jacket, fortified by a battalion of buttons and a voluminous yellow skirt plumped out by crinolines. One of her companions is reading quietly, a high-necked study in white and black braid. With ribbons flowing and the British flag blowing and a yellow sail tilting to the side, we know that the sea breeze is active on this sunny nineteenth-century day. It's an enchanting scene, one that was attractive to many a nineteenth-century artist and illustrator, from Homer, Monet and Boudin to The London Illustrated News. And to look at it, one would not suspect that there might be something amiss.

The curiosity is in the date of this painting -- 1937. The artist, Walter Richard Sickert, would have had to search forever to have spotted ladies adorned like this. But in Sickert's case he didn't have to look very far. Out of the pages of Victorian line engravings came a host of such images, which Sickert then enlivened and adapted to his own determined purpose.

And what was his purpose? On the face of it, it's not entirely clear, and often the subject of widespread criticism. According to the critical opinion, this well-established artist took a regrettable turn during the latter part of his career. Having earned his reputation as a British Impressionist, he drew praise for his personal evocations of very English scenes and admiration for his wit, workmanship and original observation. But now, as he was growing older, he was using what appeared to be an easy, fatigue-saving method of secondhand sources for his own work. Snapshots, press shots and even those nineteenth-century engravings usurped the place of his own fresh vision. Or so it has seemed to his critics.

But how much can critics actually know about the reasoning behind an artist's work? Can the critic possibly share the original vision, the innovation, the revelation? This is a debatable subject which is as sensitively relevant to the artist as it is to the critic. But I believe the answer lies somewhere in the realm of maturity and respect: that is, honouring the integrity of the artist's efforts rather than voicing the easy criticism; allowing time to mature and nurture our responses. A style may or may not work; but to dismiss an artist of Sickert's calibre, as did the authoritative critic Clive Bell when he described some of Sickert's later works as ''ridiculously feeble,'' did more of a disservice to the role of art critic than it did to Sickert.

When he turned to the early engravings, what was he trying to do? He called them ''Echoes,'' but were they simply that, visual echoes of his earlier experiences? It would not be too improbable when one considers that, as a child, he profoundly admired the Victorian illustrators, one of whom was his own father , Oswald Adalbert Sickert. But was there more to it? Was he attempting, like the novelist John Fowles some thirty years later, to depict the past with the hindsight of the present? Was this sharp observer and one-time actor being ironic, fanciful, nostalgic or sociological? One certain answer is found in his own words when he wrote about a picture he painted, after the illustration of the Victorian artist Sir John Gilbert: ''I little thought I should be the humble instrument of drawing public attention to the interest of a rigorous and populacier composition by that great artist. The drawing illustrated a story in The London Journal. . . . The design would have remained buried for ever if I had not felt inspired to translate it into a painting.''

A tender, supportive regard for the past illustrators is certainly part of his purpose. But there's another side to the ''Echoes'' which may not be apparent in black and white, but is nevertheless vital to the artistic thinking of the twentieth century.

Like the flat, distinct shapes in a jigsaw puzzle, this picture is also composed of flat shapes of colour which dovetail together like a shimmering, light-drenched mosaic. But the colours also have an effect upon each other, pulling, pushing and creating a kind of tension on the surface of the canvas. And that's the modern subtlety he was after: the colours, the brushstrokes and even the texture and grid of the canvas take on a life and purpose in their own right, yet work together to create and honour the picture itself. In a sense, by using the work of another artist from another century, he depersonalized the painting; as he detached his feelings from the picture's content, he was freer to turn it into an almost technical exercise. Indeed, it's such a contemporary approach that it's almost a foretaste of Objective Abstraction, except for the essential fact that Sickert stayed firmly within the bounds of the figurative.

But whether the ''Echoes'' fall flat in their intention or whether they attain new heights of approval for Sickert is not really the point. Art is so often a matter of fashion or great revelation. Twenty years after Pop Art and the return of the figurative in art, Sickert's ''Echoes'' have now been brought back like some find from the past.

But what is of prime importance is the fact that Sickert himself was a fine, intelligent, bold artist, vigorously trained by both Whistler and Degas. The question is, would it really have been possible for such an artist, after a lifetime of great art, to have simplistically taken the easy way out by resorting to ready-made source material? Such an assumption seems a complete contrast to the very essence of the man.

Having originally secured our admiration by the quality of his vision, it seems to me that we at least owe him the respect of trust. The critics, on the other hand, owe him a great deal more.

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