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Introduction: London and the Camden Town Group

Steven Barfield


<1> This section of the Literary London journal presents materials arising from the symposium Metropolis and Modernity: Modern Painters, 12 April 2008, organized by the University of Westminster and Tate Britain and which accompanied the exhibition Modern Painters: The Camden Town Group, (Tate Britain 13 February — 5 May 2008). Alan Morrison of the University of Westminster’s London Studies Programme and Sylvia Lahav and Silaja Suntharalingam from Tate co-organised the event.

<2> The symposium was intended to explore the importance of the frequently overlooked painters of the Camden Town Group and their role in the remaking of aesthetic representations of London, how their own styles and the accompanying debates about these relate to the practices of European artistic modernism, and the connection of their work to the new urban themes that had become increasingly important as ways of viewing the city. The group itself included primarily painters: Walter Richard Sickert, Robert Bevan, Spencer Gore, Charles Ginner and Harold Gilman. Of these, perhaps only Sickert is still well known by the more general public, it his role in the group as a whole that remains both significant and controversial.

<3> Anne Witchard begins the section with a lengthy and evaluative review of the Tate exhibition, focusing in particular on what it meant for those working on Literary London in the specific period of the early twentieth-century. She follows the exhibition in terms of the way it was organised thematically, while suggesting useful links between the artists’ own agendas as a loose-knit group and that of their literary counterparts in the period. As Witchard adroitly remarks: ‘one of the strengths of the Tate’s presentation of these works lay in the treatment of the paintings as social history, grouping them as images which capture the period scene … an engagement with the subject of modern life and the privileged aspect it gives us on this most compelling moment in London’s history’. This is not to say that these art works do not function as aesthetic interventions within newly emerging conventions of the representations of the city as modernist topos and it is the various debates and differing attitudes towards how London should be best depicted whose significance and value is charted by the two subsequent essays in this section. 

<4> Art historian Bernard Vere examines the work of the painters in terms of their somewhat ambivalent relationship to the means by which the rapidly changing metropolis might best be represented in art, suggesting the dynamic and dialectical relationship between the modernity of the city and the debate over how it should be depicted. His aim is to restore the Camden Town Group from the marginalised position they have been given by subsequent art historians. Vere thus pursues how their artistic practices and subjects relate to debate in terms of: ‘a London that between 1911 and 1913 was pervaded by Post-Impressionism, Italian Futurism, Cubism and Expressionism and [by] … other competing factions within the English art scene’. In Vere’s richly historicised reading of the Camden Town Group’s internal tensions, the artists’ relationship to continental European work and their attitudes towards art and its ‘proper’ subject matter, he does much to make us understand how at the time British critics glimpsed something potentially radical and unnerving about the Camden Town Group’s work and ethos. Historically the Camden Town Group’s fate was to be eclipsed by Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism and the London vogue for Italian futurism (Marinetti’s famous remark that London was ‘the most Futurist city in Europe’ both generously appropriates and compliments Britain’s capital as emblem of twentieth-century modernity); yet as Vere points out, such a reading with a hindsight does not do justice to the important moment of London’s self-conscious modernity that is engaged with by the work of this group of painters.

<5> Alan Munton, of the Wyndham Lewis society, takes a different and complementary tack to the question of the Camden Town Group within their specific moment in London’s cultural history by revisiting and subsequently revising their relationship with Britain’s most notorious modernist artist and man of letters, Percy Wyndham Lewis, the progenitor of the ‘Great London Vortex’. Munton’s argument emphasises the radicality of some members of the group from the contemporary point of view of Lewis himself, suggesting that Lewis was less in opposition to the group than he was at odds with Sickert’s own dislike of avant-garde painting. Munton argues that we should not underestimate the importance of debates between Lewis and Sickert regarding the nature of whether art should be realist or not and what realism subsequently meant and the consequences of this for modernist painting. Such debates were frequently punctuated by Lewis’ dry humour, but they also show the real contestation of critical principles that was at stake: ‘Mr. Sickert’s description of my painting “Creation” [is] a deliberate misstatement and invention’. For Lewis, Sickert is frequently and simply wrong, as well as prone to journalistic hyperbole in his attacks on modernist art such as that of Lewis and Epstein. Munton goes on to analyse Lewis’ own depictions of London and other cityscapes within the contexts of his debates with Sickert, and these painting show how Lewis’ sense of the importance of abstraction within art gestures towards the evolution of the newly evolving architecture of the city, to how people interact with one another in the spaces and to the relationships between people and their city opened up by the new technologies. We are grateful to Alan Munton for arranging permission to reproduce pictures from the estate of Mrs G.A. Wyndham Lewis for this issue of the journal. 

<6> Finally, we asked a photographer, Joseph Waller, to revisit four of the paintings from the exhibition and to see how the original subjects of the painting may have changed. The resulting photographs say something about how London has and has not changed over the past century or so.


To Cite This Article:

Steven Barfield, ‘Introduction: London and the Camden Town Group’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 8 Number 1 (March 2010). Online at Accessed on [date of access].