Modern Painters: The Camden Town Group, Tate Britain 13 February -– 5 May 2008
<1> Last Spring’s major retrospective at Tate Britain, Modern Painters: The Camden Town Group, offered us glimpses of London in the 1910s as disparate as the artists who collected for a short-time under the banner of that name. As a successor to the Tate’s 2005, Degas, Sickert and Toulouse Lautrec: London and Paris 1870-1910, the show traced the effects of European modernism on painting in Britain, an influence which coalesced in treatments of the metropolis, be they urban or suburban, social or domestic, comfortable or squalid.
<2> A pivotal conductor of ideas from the continent, Walter Richard Sickert’s motivation in setting up the group was primarily economical rather than ideological. Hostile reaction to Roger Fry’s 1910-11 exhibition, Manet and the Post-Impressionists, had resulted in a conservative backlash. Not just press, but art establishment responses, voiced in terms of “primitive, immoral and bad,” meant that opportunities for progressive artists to show (and sell) their work were considerably proscribed. Almost one hundred years later, the art media has proven just as scathing in its condemnation of the Camden Town painters, with the exception of Sickert, for their failure to live up to modernist aspiration.
<3> Between 1911 and 1913 the Camden Town Group, provocatively named by Sickert for the déclassé district in which he worked and lived, mounted three exhibitions. Tate curator Robert Upstone explains how they ‘were consciously identified as modern but they occupied a comfortable –- and perhaps quintessentially British –- middle ground between tradition and the truly avant-garde’. While the Group counted sixteen elected members, there were four present at Sickert’s founding dinner at Gatti’s in Regent Street, Robert Bevan, Harold Gilman, Charles Ginner, and Spencer Gore. Along with Sickert himself, these painters formed the core of the Tate showing. What fascinates about their work, long since eclipsed by the more ‘authentic’ modernisms of Wyndham Lewis, Edward Wadsworth, Christopher Nevinson and others, is its focus on what Richard Shone describes as ‘the small beer of London life’ and its similarity to the vision of those novelists of the period equally sidelined by literary modernism.
<4> Here, in Spencer Gore’s Rule Britannia (1910), in Charles Ginner’s The Café Royal (1911) and Robert Bevan’s The Cabyard, Night (1910), are the chorus girls and cab horses of Compton Mackenzie’s Carnival (1912). The shabby North London purlieus of Arnold Bennett’s Riceyman Steps set in 1919, and the cheap boarding houses and cafes described in Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (1915), can be seen in Gore’s Mornington Crescent (1911), William Ratcliffe’s Clarence Gardens (1912) and Harold Gilman’s An Eating House (1913-14). Sickert, the star of the show, finds his literary counterpart in Conrad of course, the sordid tedium of the Verlocs’ domesticity in The Secret Agent (1907) is palpable in Sunday Afternoon (1912-13) or Ennui (1914). Perhaps an even better match for their works would be the celebrated father of French naturalism, Zola, who actually sojourned in temporary and forced political exile in London from October 1898 to June 1899.
<5> One of the strength’s of the Tate’s presentation of these works lay in its treatment of the paintings as social history, grouping them as images which capture the period scene, though this tended sometimes to de-emphasise their artistic qualities. In the room themed Modernity/Metropolis, Ginner’s motor-jammed Piccadilly Circus (1912) and Robert Bevan’s much more traditional looking Horse Sale at the Barbican (1912) were hung alongside contemporary newsreel footage showing the mix of horse-drawn omnibuses and motor-vehicles characteristic of this transitional moment. Other painting depicted scenes familiar from photographs showing early twentieth century industrialisation, Charles Ginner’s The Dressmaking Factory, c1917 and River Aire, Leeds, 1914 (where the river is scarcely visible) were characteristic of the depiction of one side of modernity: that of the rise of repetitive work organised along Fordist ideas of industrial production and the way factories had literally taken over the traditional pastoral view of the countryside for artists. Sickert’s Camden Town Murder series was exhibited together with cuttings from the lurid tabloid reports of “part-time prostitute” Emily Dimmock’s killing which prompted the pictures. Suffragette pamphlets, advertisements for the Underground, and brochures for the new Garden Cities at Welwyn and Letchworth were used to illustrate the social and technological dynamism of the period. Most inspired was the lifesize rendition of Spencer Gore’s Sketch for a Mural Decoration for `The Cave of the Golden Calf’(1912), giving an impression of the interior of Frida Strindberg’s legendary ‘futurist’ nightclub in Heddon Street.
<6> Other rooms were more aesthetically orientated and suggested how the Camden Town group had attempted to develop conventions of aesthetic representation, such as portraiture and self-portraiture and showed such works as Robert Bevan’s Self Portrait, c1914, and Walter Richard Sickert’s Harold Gilman, c1912. Adjoining rooms showed more socially orientated portraiture, such as Harold Gilman’s Mrs Mounter at the Breakfast Table, 1917, that reminded us of the movement’s relationship to naturalist tendencies thoughout the arts, where meaningful reality was perceived to lay less in the grand drawing room than it did in the kitchen or servant’s quarters. A room titled ‘Sex’ in fact dealt with the way the Camden Town group had attempted to develop the nude as a subject and again showed the characteristically modern sensibility we associate with the naturalist movement, a more candid attitude to the consideration of sexual activity, (for example many of Sickert’s nudes are located on beds) and recalling the way impressionists such as Degas and Renoir in France had sought to resituate the nude. This was shown by paintings such as, Sickert’s Woman Washing her Hair, 1906, La Hollandaise, c1906, and Gore’s, Nude, 1910. While the exhibition implicitly argued that the Camden Town groups were painters of modernity as defined by their interest in the urban, it was noteworthy that one room showed much more traditional landscape paintings of unspoilt pastoral landscapes undertaken by members of the group, such as Charles Ginner’s, Neuville Lane, 1911 and Gore’s, Richmond Park, 1913-14. This is to say that even those aspects of culture at the time which emphasised the gritty, largely urban experience of modernity were still prone to a more traditional, romantic valuation of the distinctly English countryside that recalled generations of previous British artists.
<7> By the time the First World War broke out in August 1914, the Camden Town Group had been dissolved for nine months. For one reason and another only Ginner, who served with the Canadians as an Official War Artist, saw action. The artists’ wartime paintings have a Home Front emphasis. In 1908, H.G. Wells’s novel The War in the Air, had prophesied the aerial bombardment of cities. Walter Bayes’s canvas, The Underworld: Taking Cover in a Tube Station during a London Air Raid (1918), colossal in size and impact, gives a mythic treatment to a scenario more familiar to most from World War Two. In fact during the heaviest Zeppelin raids of 1917-18, an estimated 4.25 million Londoners bedded down in the Tubes. Many of the paintings in this section of the exhibition that depicted the home front during World War I are rather more indirect and as the exhibition suggests are marked by a certain melancholy and elegiac retreat into a happier time that appears deliberately at odds with the reports of the war in the trenches received at home: examples would include such works as Sickert’s unsettling Brighton Pierrots, 1915, or Bevan’s recalling of Constable in the The Hay Harvest, 1916.
<8> The Camden Town painters have been criticized for a timidity of approach in technique, for imitating the Post-Impressionist brushstroke and palette when they might have been experimenting with the abstractions of Vorticism. But rather than make claims for their importance to the avant garde, what this exhibition set out to show was their engagement with “the subject of modern life” and the privileged aspect it gives us on this most compelling moment in London’s history.
 Robert Upstone, ‘Painters of Modern Life: the Camden Town Group’ in Robert Upstone ed., Modern Painters: The Camden Town Group (London: Tate Publishing, 2008), p16.
 Ibid., p9.
 Robert Shone, ‘Text and image: Camden Town painting and contemporary fiction’ in Upstone, ed., Modern Painters: the Camden Town Group, p44.
 Charles Ginner, The Café Royal (1911) available online at http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/modernpainters/rooms/room3.shtm, date accessed 16th January 2008.
 Walter Richard Sickert, Ennui, 1914, available online at http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/modernpainters/rooms/room4.shtm, date accessed 16th January 2008.
 Robert Bevan, Horse Sale at the Barbican, 1912, available online at http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/modernpainters/rooms/room3.shtm, date accessed 16th January 2008.
 Henry Ford’s transformation of the car industry from an older craft system of production to that of mass production gives us the term ‘Fordism’, as a general principle of economic and industrial change in the early twentieth century parallel to Modernism in the arts. Fordism was based upon a belief in functional specialization, intense division of labor and consequent economies of scale and scope that gave rise to increasingly large corporations servicing a modern consumer market.
 Charles Ginner, The Dressmaking Factory, c1917 and River Aire, Leeds, 1914, available online at http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/modernpainters/rooms/room7.shtm, date accessed 16th January 2008.
 Walter Richard Sickert, The Camden Town Murder, c1907-9, L’affaire de Camden Town, and What Shall we do about the Rent?, 1908, available online at http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/modernpainters/rooms/room6.shtm, date accessed 16th January 2008.
 Robert Bevan, Self Portrait, c1914, Walter Richard Sickert Harold Gilman, c1912, available online at http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/modernpainters/rooms/default.shtm, accessed 16th January 2008.
 Harold Gilman’s Mrs Mounter at the Breakfast Table, 1917, available online at http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/modernpainters/rooms/room4.shtm, accessed 16th January 2008.
 Walter Richard Sickert, Woman Washing her Hair, 1906, Walter Richard Sickert, La Hollandaise, c1906, and Spencer Gore, Nude, 1910, available online at http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/modernpainters/rooms/room5.shtm, accessed 16th January 2008.
 Charles Ginner, Neuville Lane, 1911 and Spencer Gore, Richmond Park, 1913-14, available online at http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/modernpainters/rooms/room8.shtm, accessed 16th January 2008.
 Walter Richard Sickert, Brighton Pierrots, 1915, or Robert Bevan, The Hay Harvest, 1916, available online at http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/modernpainters/rooms/room9.shtm, accessed 16th January 2008.
To Cite This Article:
Anne Witchard, ‘Review: Modern Painters: The Camden Town Group, Tate Britain 13 February -– 5 May 2008’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 8 Number 1 (March 2010). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/march2010/witchard.html. Accessed on [date of access].