The first couple of decades of the twentieth century were a turbulent time for painting in Britain. Although Impressionism had become an accepted modern style, as I described in my recent series of articles here, the work of even well-established French Impressionists and post-Impressionists was almost unknown, and absent from major British collections.
More progressive artists also remained dissatisfied with the Royal Academy, which refused to shake off tradition. The formation of the New English Art Club, which had initially attracted many of the avant garde painters, hadn’t provided them with the public exposure that they’d hoped for. In particular, Walter Sickert and his circle were looking for something more suitable.
When Sickert moved his studio to Camden Town in 1905, he started the transition of painting from Impressionism and Naturalism to Modernism.
By this time Sickert’s style had become very rough, as in his well-known sketch of The Antique Shop from about 1906. This probably shows a shop not far from his Camden Town studio, and reflects his overriding theme of everyday life in London.
For some years, Sickert had also been painting sketchy images of rather lugubrious nude women; in September 1907, not far from his studio, a prostitute was brutally murdered by one of her clients when she was asleep. This immediately hit the headlines, dubbed the Camden Town Murder, and drew comparison with the serial killings of Jack the Ripper in Whitechapel during 1888, although in this case there was but a single victim. Sickert became obsessed with the events prior to the murder, and painted several different compositions with very narrow tonal ranges and little colour, under titles such as What Shall We Do for the Rent?
That year, together with Spencer Gore, Walter Russell and a few others, Sickert formed the Fitzroy Street Group, a wider group than was to form the Camden Town Group four years later.
Two prominent art critics also became involved in this transition.
In 1908, Frank Rutter set up the Allied Artists Association, which held non-juried exhibitions modelled after the Salon des Indépendants in France. Its first exhibition was held that year at the Royal Albert Hall with more than 3,000 works, and a second in 1909 included paintings and woodcuts by Wassily Kandinsky, which were shown in public for the first time in Britain.
In November 1910, Roger Fry organised the exhibition Manet and the Post-Impressionists at the Grafton Galleries in London. Unlike the AAA, his purpose was to introduce the British public to the paintings of Gauguin, Matisse, Cézanne, Van Gogh and others. A second exhibition was held in 1912 and the following year Fry founded a design workshop in Fitzroy Square, including Duncan Grant and members of the Bloomsbury Group.
In 1911, not content with his Fitzroy Street Group, Sickert formed the Camden Town Group, consisting of exactly sixteen elected male painters; they decided to exclude women, although several became close associates. The group’s members were:
- Walter Bayes
- Robert Bevan, co-founder
- Malcolm Drummond
- Harold Gilman, co-founder
- Charles Ginner, co-founder
- Spencer Gore, co-founder and President
- James Dickson Innes
- Augustus John
- Henry Lamb
- Wyndham Lewis
- Maxwell Gordon Lightfoot, replaced by Duncan Grant
- James Bolivar Manson, Secretary
- Lucien Pissarro, son of Camille Pissarro
- William Ratcliffe
- Walter Sickert, co-founder
- John Doman Turner.
They met every Saturday afternoon in rooms on the first floor of Sickert’s studio at 19 Fitzroy Street, Camden Town, in north London, and held three annual exhibitions. After their first exhibition, Maxwell Gordon Lightfoot destroyed all the paintings in his possession and committed suicide, and Duncan Grant took his place in the group.
Although it has been argued that the group shared a common style, and certainly had common themes, the following examples may lead you to conclude otherwise.
Sickert’s view of Rowlandson House – Sunset (1910-11) shows the ill-kempt garden of the large house at 140 Hampstead Road in Camden Town which the artist rented in this period. He named the property after Thomas Rowlandson, a British caricaturist much admired by Sickert, and used it as the premises of his private art school. It’s one of his few exterior views from this time.
More typical of Sickert’s work is Off to the Pub (1911), which suggests the man about to leave for the pub has just concluded a row with his partner sat behind, who is wearing her hat as if she had been hoping to go out too. The male model is ‘Hubby’, Sickert’s assistant and a favourite between 1911-14, who then relapsed into alcoholism and was dismissed.
The most famous of Sickert’s paintings from this period is Ennui (c 1914), which was exhibited at the New English Art Club in the summer of 1914. It comes close to the sub-genre of the ‘problem picture’, which had been highly successful with the public but a few years earlier. This is the major version of several which the artist painted, and the best-finished.
Spencer Gore, who was 33 when the group formed, painted mundane domestic interiors such as The Gas Cooker (1913). Gore married in 1912, and this shows his wife Mollie in the tiny kitchen of their flat on the first floor of a house in Houghton Place, just behind Mornington Crescent Underground station, in the Camden Town area.
Gore’s view of Cambrian Road, Richmond (1913-14) shows another urban location, this time to the south of London, apparently in autumn.
Robert Bevan, who was 46 at the time, had been advised by Sickert to paint everyday life in London. His Horse Sale at the Barbican (1912) is a reminder that London, here in Aldersgate in the City, used to have auctions of bloodstock. Bevan’s style was influenced by Gauguin, whom he met when in Brittany in 1893.
William Ratcliffe, who was 41, painted this view of Clarence Gardens in 1912 with the brilliant chroma more characteristic of Impressionism. This was a square in the Camden Town area which has since vanished.
Harold Gilman, who was 35, painted Canal Bridge, Flekkefjord in Norway in about 1913, during one of his two visits to the country. Although the bridge is reminiscent of Van Gogh’s paintings in Provence, his style is very different.
Malcolm Drummond, who was 31, painted this detail of his family home in Boyne Hill Vicarage, Maidenhead in about 1910. This was a growing commuter town about twenty-five miles to the west of London. Although carefully projected and architecturally correct, his overriding concerns are colour and texture.
At the age of 24, James Dickson Innes was among the youngest of the group, and in about 1912 visited the Pyrenees mountains, where he painted Deep Twilight, Pyrenees (1912-13).
In 1913, the Camden Town Group merged with the Fitzroy Street Group and Vorticists to form the London Group, which continues to operate with artist leadership, and an annual open exhibition. The following year, the Great War started in Europe.
I hope that you’ll join me to explore the paintings of these artists during this unprecedented period of change from the art and styles of the nineteenth century, to the bubbling cauldron that became Modernism.
Robert Upstone (ed) (2008), Modern Painters: The Camden Town Group, Tate Publishing. ISBN 978 1 85437 781 4.