Spencer Gore

Dancing in the Street

c.1904

Medium
Graphite, ink and watercolour on paper
Dimensions
Support: 251 x 355 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented by Albert Rutherston 1941
Reference
N05307

Catalogue entry

Entry

The back of this drawing is inscribed in red ink, probably by Albert Rutherston: ‘Drawing by F. Spencer Gore | Given to Albert Rutherston 1904 | The figure in hat on the right is meant to be Albert R.’ But Rutherston’s famously diminutive stature seems to make this identification somewhat unlikely, as the man in the hat is evidently taller than the figures on the left of the composition. On the back of the drawing is another inscription in pencil, ‘Gore (a Rutherston)’, probably made by Spencer Gore himself. The drawing was never used to form the basis of an oil painting, as many of Gore’s later drawings did, but is instead complete and independent in itself. The title was not Gore’s own. On 14 October 1941, Rutherston wrote to the director of the Tate Gallery, his nephew John Rothenstein, ‘Give the Gore drawing any title you choose, “Street Scene”, “Street Dancers?”’1
The vigour of the pen and ink lines and the way in which the figures are freely sketched suggest that Gore might have started this drawing on the spot. The man on the left is playing a barrel organ, and the dancers may either be part of his busking act or, more likely perhaps, women who have spontaneously started to dance. Gore was of course an enthusiastic sketcher of dance in the theatre, but this street scene is perhaps the earliest evidence of his growing interest in outdoor urban observation. This is a scene of working class entertainment, adding a frisson of naturalist surveillance to Gore’s act of drawing. The dancing women’s raised skirts revealing their legs would, even in 1904, still have transgressed boundaries of middle class probity. Such spontaneity, vitality and lack of concern for social convention were attributes of a long-standing stereotypical view of working class life and culture. In the popular imagination, London cockneys were portrayed as cheerful, indefatigable and nearly always game for singing or dancing.
William Orpen 'Improvisation on a Barrel Organ' 1904
Fig.1
William Orpen
Improvisation on a Barrel Organ 1904
Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool
Photo © National Museums Liverpool
British pictures using working class city street life as their backdrop or setting can be traced back at least as far as the satires of William Hogarth (1697–1764), while narrative driven or anecdotal scenes were a staple of Victorian painters such as William Powell Frith (1819–1909) and George Elgar Hicks (1824–1914). Gore’s belief in the potential of direct observation was perhaps most strongly derived from Edgar Degas, but it was his theatre pictures which were the most obvious result of this influence. In terms of painting the city itself, Gore usually chose scenes immediately around where he lived, such as Mornington Crescent (Tate N05099), and tended to show what they looked like rather than inhabit them with the colourful anecdote of Dancing in the Street. Indeed, the exoticism and liveliness of the subject is virtually unique among his non-theatre pictures. In part, at least, he may perhaps have been drawn to the theme by seeing William Orpen’s Improvisation on a Barrel Organ 1904 (fig.1), shown at the exhibition of the New English Art Club in the summer of 1904. Gore and Orpen were on relatively friendly terms, being exact contemporaries at the Slade, and who had many friends in common, most notably Rutherston.

Robert Upstone
May 2009

Notes

1
Albert Rutherston, letter to John Rothenstein, 14 October 1941, Tate Archive TGA 8726/4/11.
2
See Albert Rutherston, ‘From Orpen and Gore to the Camden Town Group’, Burlington Magazine, vol.83, no.485, August 1943, pp.201–5.
3
See Matthew Sturgis, Walter Sickert: A Life, London 2005, pp.336–7.
4
Spencer Gore, letter to John Doman Turner, 22 November 1910, private collection, no.29.
5
Spencer Gore, letter to John Doman Turner, 8 June 1908, private collection, no.1.
6
Spencer Gore, letter to John Doman Turner, 26 June 1908, private collection, no.2.
7
Spencer Gore, letter to John Doman Turner, 8 September 1908, private collection, no.5.

Read full Catalogue entry