At the heart of the Camden Town Group was Walter Sickert, the most influential British painter of the period. His career and work are complex: I have already looked at his central role in British Impressionism, and here look at the next phase in his art, in which he painted everyday London.
This starts with his growing dissatisfaction with the New English Art Club, which failed to provide him and other avant garde artists with the public exposure that they’d hoped for.
Before Sickert had taken up painting in 1881, he had tried pursuing a career as an actor, resulting in his lasting interest in performance arts and the music hall in particular. His early painting of Gatti’s Hungerford Palace of Varieties. Second Turn of Katie Lawrence from about 1888 shows the dimly lit interior of a music hall, as a young woman sings to an audience which appears unreceptive. Hungerford is a market town around sixty miles to the west of London, and appears to be an unlikely location for this music hall, which is more probably in the west of London.
Another young woman sings from the gloom in The Music Hall or (cryptically) The P.S. Wings in the O.P. Mirror from 1888–89.
Among more than five hundred music halls around Britain at the time, Sickert made the Bedford in Camden Town, London, his favourite. The first there, known as the Old Bedford, opened in 1861 and was destroyed by fire in 1898. Its successor was the New Bedford, which was larger and featured electric lighting. Among others who frequented the New Bedford was the novelist Virginia Woolf, and its performers included Charlie Chaplin. It finally closed in 1959.
Sickert sketched Vesta Victoria at the Old Bedford in about 1890.
He also became interested in traditional pantomime, seen in this gouache of Pierrot and Woman Embracing from about 1901. Pierrot, dressed in baggy white clothes with his distinctive white face and conical hat, is a central character in Italian and French commedia dell’arte. This is a preliminary sketch for a painting now in a private collection, Venetian Stage Scene.
Sickert moved his studio to Camden Town in 1905.
His well-known sketch of The Antique Shop from about 1906 probably shows a shop not far from that studio, and reflects his developing theme of everyday life in London.
Sickert also painted local figures who fitted into that theme. Girl at a Window, Little Rachel (1907) is one of six paintings he made of the 13-year-old daughter of his frame-maker. Outside are Mornington Crescent Gardens in Camden Town.
In September 1907, not far from Sickert’s 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, including this of The Camden Town Murder, originally titled What Shall We Do for the Rent? (1908).
In 1907, together with Spencer Gore, Walter Russell and a few others, Sickert formed the Fitzroy Street Group. In 1911, not content with that group, Sickert formed the Camden Town Group, consisting of exactly sixteen elected male painters; they decided to exclude women, although several became close associates. 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.
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 he 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.
Robert Upstone (ed) (2008), Modern Painters: The Camden Town Group, Tate Publishing. ISBN 978 1 85437 781 4.