Martin Gayford

How Algernon Newton made great art out of empty streets and dingy canals

Newton is not yet installed in the pantheon of notable British painters but he should be

‘The Surrey Canal, Camberwell’, 1935, by Algernon Newton. Credit: © Tate

Quite late in life Walter Sickert paid his first visit to Peckham Rye. He was excited, apparently, because he had often heard about it but never actually been there. Evidently Sickert had a sense of London as an unknown city, full of potential. And he was far from being the only artist fascinated by the hidden recesses of this vast urban labyrinth. Algernon Newton, another case in point, was equally fascinated by unfashionable byways of the metropolis.

For Sickert it was music halls and dingy bedrooms in Camden that seemed full of visual possibilities; for Newton it was terraced streets and urban water courses, their banks empty of people. Not for nothing was he dubbed ‘the Regent Canaletto’. A series of his paintings from the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s follows the course of the Regent’s Canal as it passes through Maida Vale and Paddington.

Superficially at least, Newton (1880–1968) seems a prime example of an artist out of step with his time. Although an almost exact contemporary of Picasso, he appeared oblivious to modernism. Edward Hopper, another close contemporary whose work Newton’s somewhat resembles, managed to study in cubist Paris without noticing the ferment that was going on around him. Newton could doubtless have done the same.

For Newton the terraced streets and urban water courses of the metropolis were full of fascination

On the other hand, he must have been just about the only artist of the 20th century to have been strongly influenced by 18th-century Venetian view-painting. After the first world war, when surrealism was stirring in Paris, Newton spent hours in the National Gallery studying Canaletto’s works.

Nonetheless, there is such a thing as a zeitgeist, and it is hard to escape. Although neither Hopper nor Newton could be described as surrealists, there is a dreamlike quality to the work of both.

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