Modern Painters: the Camden Town Group
Tate Britain, until 5 May

The Millbank branch of the Tate empire is currently blessed with two major loan exhibitions of painting, and if you find the Peter Doig retrospective a bit too thin for your taste, the thick dry crusty surfaces of the Camden Town Group’s pictures may be just the thing. A distinctly short-lived school of painting, it was effective for just a couple of years, from its founding by Sickert in 1911 to its dissolution at the end of 1913. Its influence perhaps extended a little beyond those strict limits, and it has become popular as a descriptive term or category for a particular kind of painting. It actually consisted of a rather arbitrary group of 17 painters who banded together out of a mutual admiration for Post-Impressionism. Its chief characteristics were the representation of daily life (mostly urban) through the formal organisation of often vibrating colours applied in broken touches.

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Of the 17 Camden Town members, eight are not included in this exhibition, a large percentage of rejects, embracing such luminaries as Augustus John, J.D. Innes, Henry Lamb, Wyndham Lewis and Duncan Grant. Another is James Bolivar Manson, painter and director of the Tate (1930–38), excluded because of ‘too little individual character’, as Wendy Baron has it. So, the select Group showing here may be seen as the core members of Camden Town, the very heart of the endeavour, whose work offers a certain stylistic cohesion. They were revolutionaries of a mild sort, eschewing confrontation but keen to show their new vision of modern life. It was the hostility of the ultra-traditionalist New English Art Club which drove the Camden Towners together; later the continuing need for an independent exhibiting body re-emerged as the London Group.

The exhibition is in the Linbury Galleries and comprises more than 100 paintings divided by themes. Unfortunately, the lack of flexibility of this suite of galleries means that not only is the show a large one (I don’t think you can really do justice to it in one visit) but it is also laid out in a manner not entirely sympathetic. First impressions are jumbled, with too many potentially dull paintings. I would have preferred a smaller, more intense display, which might have made a more powerful argument. That said, there is much to enjoy. In the first room, Harold Gilman’s bright ‘Canal Bridge, Flekkerfjord’ recalls his hero Van Gogh’s painting of a drawbridge in Arles, while Charles Ginner’s ‘Embankment Gardens’, a famous image again indebted to Van Gogh but laid out like a cloisonné design, is rather less delightful. Here, too, is a group of artists’ portraits and self-portraits, a real Rogues’ Gallery. It’s quite a relief to turn the corner for a moving-picture break: a short selection of film clips of London in the period 1907–13. Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus are a charming confusion of horses, cars, trolleybuses, bicycles and people walking casually between the slow-moving vehicles.

Ginner’s ‘Leicester Square’ (1912) hangs nearby, with its pleated and braided thick paint, its remarkable density of expression. Robert Bevan’s ‘Belsize Park’ is an altogether cooler affair (and a later painting, from 1917), lucid and less assertive in its paint matter. But the revelation for many, I suspect, and even for those who are familiar with the Camden Town Group, will be Malcolm Drummond (1880–1945). His work is not often shown (only two solo exhibitions in 45 years), so when it does appear it has a freshness of impact lost to better-known artists. His masterpiece ‘St James’s Park’ (1912), loaned by Southampton City Art Gallery (a very fine provincial collection), is an English version of Seurat’s ‘Grand Jatte’, done out in luscious pinks and greens. It gives the lie to anyone who accuses Camden Town painting of being dreary, all brown and grey.

In fact, vibrant colours such as mauves, pinks and greens are part of the signature style, though its driving force, Walter Sickert, personally preferred a more muted Old Master-ish palette, often with a Venetian richness to it. The visible dabs which characterise so much Camden Town painting do not disguise the thrilling colours and bold forms. Look, for instance, at Spencer Gore’s ‘Mornington Crescent’ (1911) or his later sumptuous paintings of Letchworth. Neither Gore nor Bevan use the fat paint of Ginner, whose ‘Piccadilly Circus’ is a marvel of dragged and impasted oil, churned like a muddy lane but ringing with colour. Bevan’s horses are his great strength, as in ‘Horse Sale at the Barbican’, quite a contrast to Gilman’s ‘An Eating House’ or Sickert’s music halls.

The exhibition is full of old favourites, classics of the movement, such as Gilman’s pictures of Mrs Mounter, the housekeeper at his lodgings, and Sickert’s ‘Ennui’. The room devoted to Portrait/Figure/Type is, however, the least sympathetic to the ethos of the Group, so move swiftly into the next section, entitled Sex, with its red-painted walls. Gore’s nudes are interesting, but this theme quickly debouches into Sickert and the Camden Town Murder. Aren’t we all tired of this topic by now? I’d be tempted to leave it out, especially as the Courtauld’s exhaustive examination of it has only just ended at Somerset House. The exhibition really takes wing in the next section, Modernity/Man-Made Environment, with a whole wall of fabulous Gores, from ‘Brighton Pier’ to the Letchworth series. This moves into a lovely group of landscapes, rather unhelpfully labelled Anti-Modern, as if you can’t be modern if you paint landscape — a ridiculous notion. The Bevans are particularly good here. Among other things of note, look out for William Ratcliffe’s Hampstead painting and Walter Bayes’s vast Elephant & Castle Underground panorama, considerably predating Henry Moore’s Tube shelterers.

A handsome catalogue (£24.99 in paperback) has been produced to accompany the exhibition. I have not yet had time to read it thoroughly, but from skimming and dipping I gained the impression of a slightly grudging undercurrent. It’s almost as if the distinguished authors were apologising for spending so much time and energy in writing about artists who were neither particularly radical nor particularly modern. There seems to be something of a contradiction here: on one side, the exhibition makes an argument for the modernity of the work (viz. the show’s title), on the other it denies it. This is the wrong approach. Surely the great strength of Camden Town painting is its modesty, half-conservative, half-innovative, but also tough and solid, frequently delectable in colour and texture, and therefore lovable. There should be no need to apologise for such sterling values. Modernism is rarely lovable, which makes it more suited to the museum than the drawing-room. Camden Town paintings have brought light and warmth to many a domestic interior and I trust will continue to do so.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated