Modern Painters : The Camden Town Group

London, Tate Britain, from 13 February to 5 May 2008

Walter Sickert (1860-1942) has just had a retrospective devoted to his “Camden Town Murder” series (see our review), but other members of the “Camden Town Group” which he founded in 1911 have not benefited from the same attention in the recent past – in fact the Press Release tells us that this is the first exhibition to focus on the Group for twenty years. Although it counted up to sixteen members, only the five more prominent ones are represented with a large number of works : Robert Bevan (1865-1925), Harold Gilman (1876-1919), Charles Ginner (1878-1952), Spencer Gore (1878-1914) and Walter Sickert. Walter Bayes (1869-1956), Malcolm Drummond (1880-1945), Lucien Pissarro (Camille’s eldest son, 1863-1944) and William Ratcliffe (1870-1955) only have a few works on show (sometimes only one, in fact), but of the highest interest.

During its short lifetime (1911-1913) the Group, which took its name from its main meeting place in Sickert’s lodgings in the Camden Town district of London, mounted three exhibitions in the West End. In the excellent introductory chapter which he wrote for the Catalogue [1], Robert Upstone, the curator of the exhibition, explains how “the Group were consciously identified as modern but they occupied a comfortable – and perhaps quintessentially British – middle ground between tradition and the truly avant-garde”. This, I would say, exactly reflects the impression which the amateur will derive from what is unquestionably a very rewarding visit for anyone interested in the “quintessentially British” approach to art. Appropriately enough, it starts with individual portraits and group scenes [2]. Outside its intrinsic artistic merits, Drummond’s 19 Fitzroy Street (c. 1912-1914 ; Newcastle upon Tyne, Layn Art Gallery) immediately catches the eye for its documentary value, showing Ginner and Gore in the bohemian bric-à-brac of finished canvasses and rough sketches which conventional wisdom always associates with young artists’ studios. Gore himself offers us a magnificent high-angle composition, Gauguins and Connoisseurs at the Stafford Gallery (1911 ; Private Collection) which, besides featuring some of his associates, gives us a fascinating glimpse of the reception of Post-Impressionist Continental artists in London – in this case Gauguin, three of whose perfectly recognisable paintings are hung on the background wall.

1. Charles Ginner (1878-1952)
Picadilly Circus, 1912
Oil on canvas - 81.3 x 66 cm
London, Tate Gallery
Photo : Tate Gallery

The room also has two remarkable landscapes by Ginner : Evening, Dieppe (1911 ; Private Collection) and Victoria Embankment Gardens (1912). The former is also a high-angle composition, the viewpoint being located in the suburban heights of Neuville-lès-Dieppe. From there, we see what remained a familiar scene until the 1990s : the quay with the pack-boat from Newhaven in the middle, with the brightly-lit arcades of the bistrots just behind and the barely-perceptible outline of the castle perched on the cliff at the far end – the whole in shades of blue and yellow. The technique used – “impasto” (paint worked as a thick paste with a knife) – gives a marvellous effect from the right distance, recalling some forms of tapestry or embroidery. Obviously, Ginner was a virtuoso of this technique, because in Victoria Embankment Gardens he was able to use it to obtain a totally different effect in combination with an adaptation of some of the Impressionists’ Cloisonnisme – in this instance recalling modern stained glass. The composition is meant to mildly puzzle the viewer, and it does. The central mass of shrubs provides the immediate focus of attention, but then the eye begins to perceive important “details”. Some are drowned in the mass like the statue of William Tyndale, the Protestant martyr burnt at the stake as a heretic in 1536 (he had translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into English). Ginner’s choice of a non-conformist rebel, a victim of his “modern” convictions, cannot be a coincidence, though curiously the caption does not mention his martyrdom. And protruding behind the bushes, the viewer then recognizes the familiar shape of the Clock Tower of the Houses of Parliament (“Big Ben”) : the smartly-dressed lady sitting on a bench in the foreground can enjoy her rest, she need not fear Tyndale’s fate, protected as she is by the hard-won liberties now guaranteed by the British Constitution and symbolised by Big Ben’s watchful eye. The skies above Parliament, notably, are strongly reminiscent of Van Gogh’s style ; but the obvious painting “in Van Gogh’s manner” in the room is Gilman’s Canal Bridge, Flekkefjord (c. 1913), an avowed “re-make” of Le pont Langlois (Arles, 1888) – and a humble homage to the painter whom the caption calls “Gilman’s greatest artistic hero”.

In the next room, whose theme is “Modernity/Metropolis”, the obvious star attraction is again a Ginner impasto oil, Piccadilly Circus (1912) (ill. 1). At the far end of the hall, excerpts from contemporary newreels are shown on a continuous basis, with street scenes not unlike Piccadilly Circus. The big difference, however, is that the newreels show the mixture of horse-drawn omnibuses and motor-buses which was characteristic of that transition period. On Ginner’s picture, by contrast, there are no horse-drawn vehicles. The distinction between past and present is suggested by the “eternal” flower seller who remains impassive before that rumbustious intrusion of modernity, only interested in her wares. The whirlwind of motor traffic round the famous island and its statue of Eros is cleverly rendered not only by the vehicles occupying most of the space, but more subtly by the direction of the “furrows” created by the impasto technique : it is almost as if the taxi-cab was running on circular rails that took it round and round the island, in an inescapable maelstrom of technology gone mad. The driver is invisible, which adds to the impression of machinery gone out of control. We do indeed have a strong sense of “modernity” here, and with our historical perspective almost one hundred years later we know that the madness got worse, not better, with the passage of time – notably in Piccadilly Circus. In contrast two of his works hung in the same room, Leicester Square (1912) and The Sunlit Square, Victoria Station (1913 ; Southport, Artkinson Art Gallery) show these two normally busy areas “at rest”. The motor-buses are quietly waiting for their passengers to board them in the yard of the station. And yet, thanks to the architectural research done for the captioning, we learn that this is in fact another depiction of “modernity” : “almost all the buildings shown were less than fifty years old and many much more recent”, including the station itself and what is now the Thistle Victoria Hotel, rebuilt in 1908.

1. Charles Ginner (1878-1952)
The Café Royal, 1911
Oil on canvas - 63.5 x 48.3 cm
London, Tate Gallery
© The Estate of Charles Ginner

For Leicester Square, Ginner chose an angle which largely excluded all possible traffic, with the fountains in the fore- and middle ground masking the street level view. Once again, the captioning is of capital importance : the dimension of “modernity” resides in the presence in the background of The Empire, a variety theatre which “in 1896 hosted the Lumière Brothers’ first UK commercial screening of a projected film”. The new invention is the subject of Drummond’s In the Cinema (1913 ; Kinkston upon Hull, Ferens Art Gallery), a very successful attempt at rendering the darkness which reigns by necessity in these rooms. He manages to convey the extreme concentration of the audience, totally engrossed in what is being shown on the screen, and which we cannot see – we can only see the faint beam of light emerging from the projectionist’s cabin. The effect is of course predictable – and deliberate : we may only wonder what can be so fascinating in the pictures which are being projected. Other, more classic, forms of spectacle, entertainment and leisure activities provided the inspiration for many members of the Group. Like Gilman’s paying tribute to Van Gogh, Ginner set out to offer his own version of Seurat’s Le cirque (1891) with The Circus (1912 ; Leeds, Art Gallery), revisiting the subject with his favourite heavy impasto technique where Seurat’s touch was all lightness. Why not ? Also in the great tradition of Montmartre painters, Ginner painted his own anglicised version, The Café Royal (1911) (ill. 2).

3. Robert Bevan (1865-1925)
The Cabyard, Night, 1910
Oil on canvas - 63,5 x 70 cm
Brighton and Hove, Pavillon and Museum

In total contrast with the rich glittering decoration of that expensive West End establishment, we have the seedy wallpaper and cheaply varnished wainscoting of Gilman’s An Eating House (c. 1913-1914 ; Sheffield, Galleries and Museum Trust), probably in Camden Town. The caption tells us that it derives from Van Gogh’s Intérieur d’un restaurant (Arles, 1887-1888), but the derivation must be very remote, as is made clear when one looks at both pictures : the only point in common is the three tables. It also argues that the work verges on abstraction – but this appears to be a very mild form considering what was going on in this direction on the Continent at the same time [3]. More to the point is the dimension of political denunciation – Gilman, we learn, was “a convinced Socialist” – and there is no denying that a general atmosphere of social oppression exudes from the picture, which deliberately minimises the human presence in the scene. In a similar vein, we have the two 1910 paintings in the Impressionist manner by Bevan, The Cab Horse and The Cabyard, Night (ill. 3) : it was clear by then that the “cabbies” shown doing various tasks associated with horse-drawn carriages were doomed to unemployment in the short term.
It is impossible to do justice to all the other pictures in this room (and in the exhibition), each of them somehow having its own idiosyncratic points of interest. But one little gem stands out : Brompton Oratory (c. 1912 ; London, Hayward Gallery) by Drummond. The subject itself is totally different from the places of entertainment shown by his associates : a Roman Catholic congregation at Mass. The most informative caption tells us that Drummond studied under Sickert, and that his vertically-composed scene was probably inspired by Sickert’s vertical compositions, like The New Bedford [music hall] (c.1914-1915). Interestingly, the walls and columns of the church are not made of bare stone : the very colourful, over-ornate “décor” is associated in our minds with what we see as the Victorians’ taste for gaudy pinks and heavily-gilded frescoes. In practice, therefore, though this would be anathema to the good Roman Catholic which he was, there is little to distinguish Drummond’s church scene from the music hall scenes of his mentor and friends.

4. Walter Sickert (1860-1942)
Ennui, 1914
Oil on canvas - 152.4 x 112.4 cm
London, Tate Gallery

Now, Sickert figures again prominently in the “Portrait/Figure/Type” hangings of the following room, which features what the Catalogue describes as “Sickert’s most celebrated painting”, Ennui (1914, ill. 4), making the point that it is the antithesis of “Victorian narrative painting” : “there is no implied moral agenda or narrative sequence”. The male sitter is Hubby, a former school fellow “who had fallen into petty crime and alcoholism”, the main character in Off to the Pub (1911), whose title is self-explanatory. The room in fact does not have a single cheerful, smiling protagonist (the vast majority being women, incidentally) : whether it is Drummond’s Girl with Palmettes (c. 1914), Gore’s The Flowered Hat/Someone Who Waits (c. 1907), North London Girl (1911-1912) and The Artist’s Wife (1913) or Gilman’s Girl with a Teacup (c. 1914-1915) and Mrs Mounter at the Breakfast Table (exh. 1917) (ill. 5), all express the constant angst of human existence in one way or another. This existential burden is of course sometimes compounded by financial and practical problems, and perhaps the most effective rendering of this combination is in Gore’s The Gas Cooker (1913) where “the artist’s wife” is seen this time cooking something in a pan with the washing hanging just behind in this kitchen which must have seen better times. A good idea on the part of the organisers was to provide “period” furniture instead of the long stools which are usually offered for rest : the tired visitors can sit on reproductions (in teak, unfortunately – the 1902 originals were in oak) of the famous Lutyens Bench.

5. Harold Gilman (1876-1919)
Mrs Mounter at the Breakfast Table, exhibited 1917
Huile sur toile - 61 x 40.6 cm
London, Tate Gallery

6. Walter Sickert (1860-1942)
La Hollandaise, c. 1906
Oil on canvas - 50.8 x 40.6
London, Tate Gallery

The theme of the next room, simply called “Sex”, might have been expected to convey at least some sense of enjoyment – but such is not the case : apart from Woman Washing her Hair (Sickert, 1906), where only the cheap decoration in that low-class Paris hotel room is drab and depressing, the model being sexually attractive, all is deformed bodies (La Hollandaise, c. 1906) [4] (ill. 6), repulsive female flesh (Jack Ashore. Sickert, c. 1912-1913), vulgar bejewelled women (Nude. Gore, 1910), unwelcome exhibition of pubic hair (Nuit d’été. Sickert, c. 1906), mons Veneris protruding exaggeratedly (Mornington Crescent Nude. Sickert, 1907), chamber pots (Interior with Nude Washing. Gore, 1907), and iron bedsteads suggesting cheap, commercial sex (Nude on a Bed. Gilman, c. 1911-1912). All these dismal scenes of course culminate in Sickert’s Camden Town Murder series, exhibited in the next room, entitled “Sensation : The Camden Town Murder” [5]. The uglified female bodies are in evidence again – this time with the addition of a male protagonist standing by the bed or sitting on it. Nobody can of course dispute the effectiveness of the artistic treatment and Sickert’s technical mastery, but most non-professional viewers will probably find the subject so nauseating that they will instinctively blind themselves to whatever aesthetic attraction the pictures may have. We will not repeat here what we said in our review of the Courtauld Gallery retrospective. If the exhibition stopped here, most visitors would leave it in a state of profound depression, as must have been the case for those who went to see Walter Sickert : The Camden Town Nudes. Fortunately, there are two more rooms with far less unhealthy material. The first, on “Modernity/Man-Made Environment” and “Anti-Modern”, dwells on the ambiguous impact of the Industrial Revolution, with its urban sprawl and uglification of city landscapes. In practice both Ginner (in Leeds Canal, 1914 ; Leeds, Art Gallery) and Gore (in Nearing Euston Station, 1911) in fact beautify the scars left by modernisation. The excellent caption written by Nicola Moorby for the latter very convincingly explains how “the grime of Camden Town [on both sides of the railway line to Euston] becomes enchanting and a visual metaphor for modern life”. Gore’s works on Letchworth, one of the early “garden cities”, contrast the unspoilt rural landscapes of trees and fields (The Cinder Path, 1912 ; The Beanfield, Letchworth, 1912) with scenes which show the intrusion of modernity in the form of a railway track and station platforms (Letchworth Station, 1912 ; York, National Railway Museum) or housing estates (Letchworth, The Road, 1912 ; Letchworth Art Gallery). But he shows this transformation in a way which in fact makes it, if not welcome, at least acceptable. Likewise, Ratcliffe presents an overview (from the vantage point of a tower) of another “garden city” also in a very favourable light (Hampstead Garden Suburb from Willifield Way, c. 1914). Commendably, the curators have arranged for pamphlets and diagrams by Ebenezer Howard and other enthusiastic “garden city” planners to be displayed in showcases in the same room, so as to provide the visitor with essential contextual material.

Yet – and this provides the “Anti-Modern” element – some members of this predominantly urban Group showed their traditional attraction to the countryside. The hedges of enclosed fields almost provide a ready-made form of Cloisonnisme, put to good use by Lucien Pissarro in High View, Fishpond (1915). But this technique – or at least the adaptation made of it by Ginner – is seen at its best in Neuville Lane (1911) [6], almost the archetypal definition of a “leafy suburb” (which Neuville-lès-Dieppe is certainly not today, if it ever was outside Ginner’s artistic licence). The equivalent English scenery is to be found in Bevan’s Dunn Cottage (1915) – with the difference that there is a human presence on the canvas.
But then, all this was painted “before the lamps went out”, to take up the title of Geoffrey Marcus’s famous monograph on Britain on the eve of the First World War. For various reasons explained in the Catalogue, apart from Ginner, who served with the Canadians as an Official War Artist, no other member of the Group went to the front. Hence the title of the last section, “Home Front”. None of the images are exactly cheering, but unlike Sickert’s depiction of iron bedsteads with prostitutes, there is an evident human warmth emanating from these sometimes bleak scenes. In Wounded (1915) he shows another iron bedstead – this time however with a complete reversal of the narrative, since the figure in the bed is a wounded soldier and the figure near him is a female nurse ; and the seedy prostitute’s room is now a hospital ward. No communication was taking place between his Camden Town prostitutes and their clients (a fortiori with their murderer) : now, even if the soldier turns his back to the nurse, we sense that Sickert wanted to suggest her caring attitude by her bending position over the wounded man. Those who do not like Sickert will naturally argue that this is the typical approach of “male chauvinist pigs”, who can only see the two extremes in women, the cynical prostitutes and the tender nurses. A year earlier, he had offered Tipperary, an unexpected piece of unabashed patriotism. The very attractive diagonal composition with a girl playing the piano could be anything : the give-away is in the title, which every member of the public would have immediately associated with the war fever which seized the country in August 1914. The following summer, he visited friends in Brighton and painted a scene of “entertainment” in a totally different mood. Brighton Pierrots (1915) shows a small audience of holiday-makers watching one of the traditional amusements of the sea front – but the treatment, especially that of light and shade, strikes a note of general gloom rather than merriment. By then of course disillusion had set in after the initial expectations of a quick victory. Taken together, Tipperary and Brighton Pierrots offer a vivid reflection on the rapid evolution of the attitude to war on the Home Front.
The women “left behind” are the object of Gilman’s attention in Tea in the Bedsitter (1916) and Interior with Mrs Mounter (1916-1917). Mrs Mounter was his landlady, and Tea in the Bedsitter includes his future wife. The absence of men in these “interiors” is made all the more obvious by the empty chair in the foreground of Tea in the Bedsitter, which must have evoked sad memories in the war widows whose numbers were mounting every day. Ginner, for his part, concentrated on another aspect of “women and war” : their growing presence in the factories. The Blouse Factory (1917) shows women in traditional “female” industries – in fact the previous room had The Dressmaking Factory (c. 1914). But there is no ambiguity in Study for “No.14 Filling Station, Hereford” (c. 1918), as the filling in question is the filling of gun shells, done by a bevy of women. Men are also conspicuous by their absence in Bayes’s huge (five and a half meters wide) The Underworld : Taking Cover in a Tube Station during a London Air Raid (1918). The only clearly visible male presence is that of a blind beggar in the forefront, and the message is clear : all able-bodied men had by then long been mobilised.

Naturally, showing pictures painted in 1918 extends the periodisation beyond the boundaries of the Camden Town Group’s existence, but it can be supposed that the curator decided to show that it was not only the Group that dissolved, but also what remained of the Edwardian world, in 1914. Before the war, the Camden Town Group had seldom shown cheerful people or morale-boosting scenes – it must therefore not have been difficult for its former members to adapt to the gloom of the war years. Indeed, unlike many of their counterparts on the Continent, who launched or embraced “truly avant-garde” movements arguably as a result of the sheer madness of the war, it seems that they took the shock of the insane slaughter in their stride. Whatever sting their painting may have possessed in the early 1910s – in the Catalogue Wendy Baron significantly speaks of “a milieu where iconoclasm was not demanded as a proof of modernity” – it had obviously lost it, unable to convey the sense of the absurd which the better Continental artists were busy expressing during the war. A sad ending to a predominantly sad story ? Readers of The Art Tribune are of course warmly encouraged to go and form an opinion for themselves.

Robert Upstone (ed.), Modern Painters : The Camden Town Group, Tate, £24.99. ISBN : 1854377817

Antoine Capet, mardi 11 mars 2008


[1] Usefully complemented by James Beechey’s essay, “Dealing joyously with gross material facts” Tate Etc vol.12 (Spring 2008). On line on Tate site.

[2] See the exhibition site.

[3] The first weeks of this exhibition coincide with the last weeks of Breaking the Rules : The Printed Face of the European Avant Garde 1900-1937 at the British Library (from 9 November 2007 to 30 March 2008), where “real” abstraction is everywhere to be seen. See our review.

[4] See our review of Walter Sickert : The Camden Town Nudes for the likely origin of the name.

[5] See the exhibition site.

[6] Both visible on the exhibition site.

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