Andrew Lambirth

Velvet revolutionaries

Modern Painters: the Camden Town Group<br /> <em>Tate Britain, until 5 May</em>

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.

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.

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