The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

Sir Claude Phillips, ‘The Camden Town Group’

The Daily Telegraph, 17 December 1912, p.14.

 This title will now be recognised as that of the small group of advanced painters whose home, for exhibition purposes, is at the Carfax Gallery. They may, or may not, constitute a “Cave,” a province of restricted dimensions, within and yet a little away from the New English Art Club. At any rate, the work of the Camden Town contingent comes not in contradiction, but in completion of that by which the larger body of Radicals is represented. The public is interested – if, indeed, it is interested – in results rather than in the inner politics of the painting world. This year the exhibition justifies itself, since of its kind it is a very good one. It constitutes, indeed, a sort of link between the extremism of the Grafton Galleries and the more sober modernity of Suffolk-street. That international extremism is here represented in amusing fashion by Mr. Wyndham Lewis, a cubist, or rather angularist, whose ingenious work will be familiar to all frequenters of the Grafton Galleries. His large design “Danse,” makes a decorative pattern agreeably irritating to the eye, and of a pale, yet potent harmony that shows the colourist. It is only when we strive to see the painting as the artist wants us to see it, i.e., as a synthetic suggestion of terpsichorean gyrations – that we risk becoming “mad” in every sense of the word. A better title for Mr. Lewis’s effort would, perhaps, be “A Tragedy in the Insect World.” We might, perhaps, allow ourselves to be persuaded that here is in progress one of those terribly dramatic scenes which M. Fabre, the prose-poet of the insect world, has so wonderfully described.
 Masterly – we use the word advisedly – are two portrait-studies of young girls of the rustic class, by Mr. H. Lamb, both of them entitled “Study of a Head.” Here there is nothing particularly attractive in the quality of the paint. Indeed, the execution has a certain not altogether pleasant “tightness.” But there are manifest, as central and vital qualities, a breadth and comprehensiveness of vision, a forceful directness of execution, that we find but very rarely in modern British art. Mr. Lamb has the indefinable quality of style. If he continues to advance, and proves himself able to rise superior to mere mannerism, to the mere desire to astonish and disconcert, he will have a place apart, and that an important one, in the British school of to-morrow.
 This peculiar quality of style, which sometimes comes to those who seek it not – much as Fortune, elusive of the pursuer, comes to him who lies quiescent in his bed – this rare gift distinguishes also the work of another modernist of quite different type, Mr. W. Bayes. He is, or rather should be, a painter of monumental decorations. By his breadth and simplicity of treatment, his felicitous spacing of landscape as a setting to the human figure, his sense of the requirements of the higher decoration, he adds a new interest to the ordinary plein-air study. What one misses still is the strongly personal note, that should enable its beholder to say this must be the work of this particular man and of no other. If the landscape with figures, “A Port,” by this artist, is almost academic in its nice balance and the obviousness of its rhythm, no such fault is to be found with two open-air pieces admirable of their kind, “Le Petit Casino,” and “Shade.” M. Lucien Pissarro is no Post-Impressionist, but a Neo-Impressionist, who even in his more audacious efforts preserves coherence and artistic dignity. Fine in design and of brilliant decorative effect is the still-life “Tomatoes.” The effect of snow delicately flushed with the rose of sunset is given with an exquisite truthfulness in this painter’s landscape, “Stamford Brook Green (Snow)”; and it is excellent, too, in the [?learned] simplicity of its structure as a landscape. The winter scenes of Claude Monet have no doubt shown the way; and yet this charming piece is quite M. Pissarro’s own. If we have a complaint to make it is that here, as in so much good impressionistic work, a too absolute objectivity reigns; the artist lurks, impassive and effaced, behind his subject, disdainful apparently of anything approaching poetic interpretation.
 Mr. Walter Sickert in the catalogue affixes to his exceedingly clever studies such odd, misleading titles that baldly to cite them would be to give no indication whatever of subject or aspect. “Past and Present” shows a mature wench and another younger – both equally objectionable. “Chicken” is a study of callow youth that promises soon to catch up “present” and “past”. The title “Summer in Naples” is really a deliberate affront to bello Napoli. This painting is the masterly, sordid unemotional study, on the came canvas, of a nude female model and a colourless male creature; the artist, no doubt, who has been making studies from the unlovely form which his partner exhibits with so absolute a liberality. This is unstimulating realism, which depresses all the more in that it lacks the saving element of tragedy in suspense. As to the bravura and withal the subtlety of the execution, as to the consummate ability of the artist, there can hardly be two opinions. What first-rate exercises, what admirable preparation for something which now probably will never come! Is Mr. Sickert cynical, is he flouting the conventional proprieties, or is he really content with these musty, flabby realities – these ugly motives upon which he plays skilful but still ugly variations? Is he wounded, and, therefore, desirous to wound, in order that he may awaken his neighbour? Or is he merely exploiting with sincere satisfaction a field in which he now has few, if any competitors?
 Mr. Spencer Gore’s well-considered work in the modern mode is as usual of an accomplished mediocrity. He makes the most of his motives, such as they are, composes with skill and something of the art to hide art, but fails altogether to move, let alone to charm. The cleverest of his exhibited landscape-studies is “Euston from the Nursery.” Mr. J. B. Manson’s “Still Life” is a brilliant if somewhat mechanical piece of neo-impressionism. Without the aid of the catalogue it would have been difficult to guess that to the same brush we owe the attractive landscape “Moonlight and Snow.” Out of two in themselves fairly prosaic scenes, “Clarence Gardens” and “Hotel Cecil from Hungerford Bridge,” Mr. W. Ratcliffe has without offending against the modesty of truth, extracted elements of beauty. In both cases compositions of decorative aspect and satisfying harmony, both linear and chromatic, have been obtained. The other members of the group who contribute on this occasion are Mr. J. Doman Turner, Mr. H. Gilman, Mr. C. Ginner, Mr. M. C. Drummond, and Mr. R. P. Bevan. Some will delight in, and others rebel against, the art which this small but significant exhibition brings forward. Even systematic detractors, however, will not pretend that it is dull.

How to cite

Sir Claude Phillips, ‘The Camden Town Group’, in The Daily Telegraph, 17 December 1912, p.14, in Helena Bonett, Ysanne Holt, Jennifer Mundy (eds.), The Camden Town Group in Context, Tate Research Publication, May 2012,, accessed 24 October 2016.