THE CAMDEN TOWN GROUP: British art of the early 20th century through the prism of one movement

Tom Birchenough

Magazine issue: 
#2 2008 (19)

The art of one of the more significant, if shortlived, British artistic movements of the early 20th century, the Camden Town Group, received a landmark retrospective at London’s Tate Britain museum, which closed in May. It proved the first major exhibition for the movement in the British capital for 20 years.

British art of the first two decades of the 20th century (as, comparably, Russian art of the same period) saw the creation of a number of new groups, or movements, the existence of which was often shortlived, often no more than two or three years; artists often overlapped in their creative careers, being associated with one or more such associations simultaneously. Some published dynamic manifestos, others simply assembled as exhibition groups.

One such movement was the Camden Town Group, named loosely after the area of North London where many of the artists involved, including the group’s major figure Walter Sickert, both lived and had their studios for many years (Sickert had at one time no fewer than four studios in the area). Although the group held only three exhibitions, at the Carfax Gallery in central London, in June and December 1911, and finally in December 1912, its heritage, immaculately recorded in the Tate Britain exhibition, proved both strong, and indicative of trends in British art both from the preceding decade, and in the decade which followed the movement’s formal dissolution.

Effectively, though it may be simplistic to pass such precise judgment, the group caught the hub of a period between the legacy of French Impressionism and especially Post-Impressionism, and the onset of modernism that would impact in British art about a decade after it appeared in France, and which coincided approximately with the beginning of World War I. Artists like Wyndham Lewis, who was associated, sometimes uneasily, with the Camden Town group, would continue within a year or two to create truly avant-garde movements such as Vorticism, while others would die young, or later significantly change their creative directions.

The movement’s spirit is well summed-up by Robert Upstone, curator of Modern British Art at the Tate, in a very detailed catalogue essay. “With their pulsating colour harmonies and urban subject matter, 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,” Upstone writes.

“At the time of the Group’s founding, British art was fairly isolated from the radical developments of Cubist abstraction that had taken place in Paris. Little advanced continental art was visible in London until the explosive impact of Roger Fry’s exhibition ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists’ in 1910-1911.

“But the Camden Town Group’s choice of everyday subjects from London life, their bold, anti-naturalistic colouring and — in the case of some members — an interest in progressively simplifying forms, presented a type of painting that however briefly was new and different in the London of 1911.”

The urban element of the artists’ work is distinctly pronounced, and far more “real” — on the level of everyday street images, and bleak enough interior scenes — than the great majority of work to have come out of France before them.

In theory, the group numbered 16 artists, each of whom would exhibit four works at the Group’s three shows. However, in practice such rules were flexible, and indeed the list of names of the Group changed over the two years of its existence and three exhibitions. For example, the eminent Augustus John contributed two works to the first show, but nothing to the following exhibitions. The future Bloomsbury group artist Duncan Grant contributed only one work to the second exhibition.

The Camden Town district that gave the movement its name was a far from prosperous one, classed largely as middle-class, professional, or lower middle-class. It received notoriety from a celebrated murder in 1907, which was widely covered in the contemporary press, and became the subject for a series of paintings by Sickert (exhibited together most recently at a show at London’s Courtauld Gallery at the beginning of 2008).

While we don’t see the more abject poverty of the city’s East End, the atmosphere of the time and location can be indicated by the title of one of Sickert’s pictures, “What Shall We Do for the Rent?” — part of a series collectively titled “The Camden Town Murder” — in which a female nude lies on a bed with a male figure standing or sitting over her. The implication, coupled with the association with the murder story and its victim Emily Dimmock, is that the bed-sitter subsistence life of the region’s inhabitants was often kept going by small-time, occasional prostitution.

And the era itself was an uncertain one, albeit relatively little studied to date. After the certainties of the Victorian age, the so-called Edwardian era — an approximate term only, given that it covers loosely the ten years of the reign of Edward VII and the first four years of his successor George V, ending with the start of war in 1914 — was a period of transition.

London still remained the capital of the most powerful and dynamic empire on earth, but Britain herself was losing its economic dominance to the United States. A resurgent Germany was also an economic challenger, both in industry and in imperial ambitions, and by 1912 the likelihood of a major European war was certainly in the air. All such wider social and cultural resonances were amply demonstrated in the Tate’s exhibition.

Such general context aside, the Group grew out of a restaurant meeting between Sickert, and fellow artists Harold Gilman, Spencer Gore, Robert Bevan and Charles Ginner in the spring of 1911. As they left, Sickert turned to his companions and exclaimed: “We have just made history”. Sickert (1860-1942) was the oldest artist among those who would comprise the future association, and the most established: after graduating from the Slade School of Art in the early 1880s, he worked with James McNeill Whistler as a pupil at the latter’s studio for some time, and already had almost 30 years of productive and acclaimed work behind him by the time of the Group’s formation. His associations with France, where he lived for some years, and with contemporary French art were also strong.

Sickert’s associations with the rest of the group’s initial founders had evolved more recently, particularly in reaction to the acknowledged conservatism of the Royal Academy, and disagreements with another exhibiting organization, the New English Art Club. The result was another informal body, the Fitzroy Street Group, whose members rented an apartment on Fitzroy Street in the city, and every Saturday would hold an open salon for both group members and potential clients. Another eminent name, Malcolm Drummond, who contributed to all three Group exhibitions, depicted the atmosphere of the Fitzroy Street Group shows in a painting titled "19 Fitzroy Street" dating from 1912-1914. Nor was the Camden Town Group exclusively British: as if stressing the Francophile influence of Sickert's earlier years, Lucien Pissarro, the son of the French impressionist master Camille Pissarro, who spent much time in London, contributed to all the three exhibitions of 1911-1912.

Sickert was the driving force behind the Fitzroy Street enterprise, and his thoughts and ideas defined many of its goals. Not least among them was to bypass the traditional gallery system and allow artists to sell directly, and at prices that would be lower than under other circumstances.

His letters, quoted extensively in the Tate Britain catalogue, speak for themselves. In one he writes: “I want to keep up an incessant proselytizing agency to accustom people to mine and other painters’ work of a modern character.

“Accustom people weekly to see work in a different notation from the current English one. Make it clear that we all have work for sale at prices that people of moderate means could afford. (That a picture costs less than a supper at the Savoy). Make known the work of painters who are producing ‘ripe’ work, but who are still elbowed out or kept out by timidity & c... And of course no one will feel that we are jumping at their throats to buy. That comes of its own accord. People pay attention to things seen constantly and judiciously explained a little.”

He continued later in another letter to the same correspondent, his friend Nan Hudson: “I want (& this we can all understand and never say) to get together a milieu of rich and poor, refined and even to some extent vulgar, which is interested in painting & in the things of the intelligence....”

Critical reaction to the first Camden Town Group shows was not unanimous, with remarks that there was little enough
stylistic unity among the member artists. Stylistically that looks true enough: Sickert’s own rich palette pays obvious tribute to the old masters, while that of others draws more on contemporary trends including elements of Fauvism and Futurism. Some were criticised for their unaccustomed heavy layering of paint on the canvas.

Nor, indeed, was there unanimity in subject matter over the years. Dominant subjects may have been London streetscapes and interiors, each telling their own emotional-cum-psychological story: witness Sickert’s famous “L’Ennui” (from later, 1914), or the great majority of his nudes, or the series by Harold Gilman, from different years, depicting his landlady. Many of the artists returned to their favourite models again and again, and the individuals concerned were most often not professional sitters, but rather associated with the everyday lives of the artists.

Other figures, however, like Spencer Gore, were painting landscapes of newly established city suburbs like Letchworth where they lived, as if to defy any clear definition of the group’s intentions. Wyndham Lewis, meanwhile, was painting city streets that have almost no resemblance to the loosely realistic style that was at the heart of the group’s credo, preferring angular and distinctly modernist lines.

Lewis (1882-1957), soon afterwards, would go onto lead the radical movement of Vorticism, which published two progressive anthologies of writing and art, titled “BLAST”. One of the key figures of British modernism, both as a painter, writer and art critic, he associated closely with leading writers of the 1920s, like TS. Eliot and Ezra Pound, who claimed that the group’s title Vorticism had been his suggestion, drawing as it did on a phrase of the Italian futurist Umberto Bocchioni; his novels like “Tarr” from 1918 prompted Pound to describe him as “the only English writer who can be compared to Dostoyevsky”. He survived until 1957, working productively on both canvas and the page, his final years blighted only by encroaching blindness.

After the Camden Town Group dissolved after the December 1912 exhibition, some of its artists reformed into a new allegiance, the London Group; Sickert, ever the chameleon, reacted in his own way, criticising its early exhibitions. The London Group was a more loosely aligned movement that gave space to the likes of Lewis’s Vorticism, and the more radical work of Jacob Epstein and David Bomberg. It was aimed, in the words of one contemporary, to “extend the means of free expression thus won to other artists who were experimenting with new methods, who were seeking or who had found means of expression . Cubism meets Impressionism, Futurism and Sickertism join hands and are not ashamed, the motto of the Group being that sincerity of conviction has a right of expression.” Sickert resigned in January 1914 before the group’s first exhibition, apparently in protest at the pornographic elements of Epstein’s work, according to Upstone (though he rejoined it two years later in 1916, the same year in which he became a member of the Royal Academy).

The experience of the war and family tragedies certainly affected Sickert, but in 1924 he achieved the senior status of associate of the Royal Academy — a position that two decades before would have been hardly imaginable. He turned back for inspiration — albeit with a somewhat ironic tone — to the work of Victorian masters, while portraiture continued; some of his self-portraits like “Lazarus Breaks His Fast” from 1927 are among the strongest work the artist ever created.

The return to British sources — for an artist born in Munich to what he described as pure Danish descent — was pronounced. “I confess also to a desire to do a little propaganda by sending the younger painters to rifle the English sources of inspiration,” he wrote at the time, arguing, perhaps ironically, for interest in and study of the academic art of the previous century. Not least because France, and especially Dieppe where he had spent much of his early career, was so battered by the war.

And the effect of the war on the artists of the Camden Town Group, even though it had been dissolved for more than a year before its outbreak, was pronounced, even if it remains understated in choice of content — and the fate of its members was varied. Spencer Gore died some months before its start, while Charles Ginner, conscripted in 1916, became an official war artist for the Canadian army (Sickert had created similar official war paintings a year earlier, too). Harold Gilman would die in 1919, falling victim to the Spanish flu epidemic that followed the end of the conflict. Sickert himself lived on until 1942, when his adopted country was once again at war with the country of his birth.

The impact of the conflict looks subliminal, moving from the initial patriotism of its beginning, with a conviction that it would be a short-lived war. Sickert’s 1914 picture “Tipperary”, alluding to the most popular song sung by British troops as they went into battle, seems to reflect that.

A year late, in Sickert’s “Brighton Pierrots” from 1915, we see a group of performers on an outdoor stage playing to a half-empty audience, with the implication that the ranks of conscription, and the terrible casualties incurred in the first year of the war, had emptied what had previously been one of the country’s most popular seaside resorts. To convey that sense of atmosphere, of the abrupt end of a decade, there is no better description of that Brighton picture than Upstone’s: “When the wind blew from that direction, the distant guns of France could be heard.”

Spencer GORE. Inez and Taki. 1910
Spencer GORE. Inez and Taki. 1910
Oil on canvas. 40.6×50.8 cm. Tate Gallery
Spencer GORE. Gauguin and Connoisseurs. 1911
Spencer GORE. Gauguin and Connoisseurs. 1911
Oil on canvas. 83.8×71.7 cm. Private collection
Walter SICKERT. Ennui. 1914
Walter SICKERT. Ennui. 1914
Oil on canvas. 152.4×112.4 cm. Tate Gallery
Charles GINNER. Piccadilly Circus. 1912 1912
Charles GINNER. Piccadilly Circus. 1912
Oil on canvas. 81.3×66 cm. Tate Gallery
Walter SICKERT. Queenʼs Road, Bayswater Station. c. 1916
Walter SICKERT. Queenʼs Road, Bayswater Station. c. 1916
Oil on canvas. 62.3×73 cm. The Samuel Courtauld Trust, Courtauld Gallery, London
Malcolm DRUMMOND. 19 Fitzroy Street. c. 1912 -1914
Malcolm DRUMMOND. 19 Fitzroy Street. c. 1912 -1914
Oil on canvas. 71×50.8 cm. Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne
Charles GINNER. The Dressmaking Factory. c. 1914
Charles GINNER. The Dressmaking Factory. c. 1914
Oil on canvas. 50×70.3 cm. Huddersfield Art Gallery
Walter SICKERT. Harold Gilman. c. 1912
Walter SICKERT. Harold Gilman. c. 1912
Oil on canvas. 83.8×71.7 cm. Tate Gallery
Spencer GORE. Rule Britannia. 1910
Spencer GORE. Rule Britannia. 1910
Oil on canvas. 76.2×63.5 cm. Tate Gallery
Spencer GORE. Nude. 1910
Spencer GORE. Nude. 1910
Oil on canvas. 51.5×61 cm. Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery
Harold GILMAN. Mrs. Mounter at the Breakfast Table Exhibited 1917
Harold GILMAN. Mrs. Mounter at the Breakfast Table Exhibited 1917
Oil on canvas. 61×40.5 cm. Tate Gallery
Spencer GORE. North London Girl. 1911–1912
Spencer GORE. North London Girl. 1911–1912
Oil on canvas. 76.2×61 cm. Tate Gallery
Walter SICKERT. Nuit DʼEte. c. 1906
Walter SICKERT. Nuit DʼEte. c. 1906
Oil on canvas. 45×38 cm. Private collection





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