The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

A.J. Finberg, ‘Art and Artists. The Camden Town Group and Others’

Star, 10 December 1912.

The Camden Town Group and Others.
 “What is wanted is an aim,” once said the great painter of “Love and Death” and “Hope.” Watts’s words kept ringing in my ears as I walked round the pleasant little gallery of Messrs. Carfax and Co., where the Camden Town group of artists are now holding their third annual exhibition. The exhibition is better than the previous ones. Several of the more incompetent members do not exhibit this year, and at least one notable accession to the group has been made by the enrolment of Mr. Walter Bayes. What on earth he is doing or proposes to do in such a gallery is no doubt only his affair, but at least he has serious and definite aims as a painter. The aims of the others are certainly less definite. Some of them are clearly attracted by the doctrines of Post-Impressionism, that heaven-sent gospel to the harassed art-students of the twentieth century, which, as they proudly boast, enables men of little or no talent to produce pictures with very little trouble. I can find little to recommend them in the landscapes of Mr. J. B. Manson, Mr. Stephen [sic] Gore, and Mr. C. Ginner. They are hurried and rather clumsy studies from Nature, but it is difficult to discover why they have been done, except that Cezanne [sic] and Van Gogh have been praised for doing similar things.
 No doubt it is the business of an artist or art-student to pint, as it is the business of an opposition to oppose, but painting is not exactly like politics. A politician apparently does not need any special qualification or training for his business. A painter wants both. And the works of these three young men do not suggest that their authors have any special call to paint pictures or anything to express which can properly be expressed in such a medium. Mr. Wyndham Lewis’s large canvas entitled “Danse” (25) calls for little remark. It is a piece of “cubism,” and cubism has nothing whatever to do with pictorial art. The proper place to exhibit cubist canvases would be the “Zoo” or Madame Tussaud’s.
 Mr. Walter Sickert’s aim seems to be to paint pictures which shall be as disagreeable as possible. A year or so ago he shocked a good many people by his studies of the nude female figure. His only important picture in this year’s exhibition represents a hideous middle-aged woman in a state of nature seated on the bed in a wretched attic. Seated on the bed beside her is an ordinary street-corner loafer fully dressed. His attitude suggests that he is suffering from some kind of internal discomfort. But there is no evident relationship between the two figures. They seem unaware of each other’s existence, and they appear to belong to two different realms of thought. They are probably two studies which happen by some freak of the artist’s mind to have been painted on the same canvas. The colour of the picture is a discord in dirty mud – the colour Mr. Sickert has made peculiarly his own. Mr. Sickert calls his picture “Summer in Naples” (34). This is probably his fun. It might just as well be called “Winter in Camden Town.”
 Mr. Lucien Pissarro and Mr. Walter Bayes are artists of a different kind. Mr. Pissarro is a perfectly serious and sincere painter of the old Impressionistic school. His “Stamford Brook Green (Snow)” (11) is as fresh and convincing as a Claude Monet. But it has the usual defects of Impressionism. All the efforts of the artist have been concentrated on the problems of the atmosphere. There is no composition or design. Everything is put down just as it happened to come in nature. Mr. Bayes’s aspirations run in a different direction. He evidently wants to produce a well-constructed design, full of rhythm and organic harmony, but his conscience won’t allow him to use those shadows which formed the scaffolding of the rich and noble designs by the older men which he admires. It is rather like trying to make bricks without straw. Yet though Mr. Bayes will only allow himself to paint in flat tones without any darker structural underpinning, it is obvious that he thinks very much and very seriously about the black and white design of his pictures. It is, indeed, astounding that he should be able to do so much as he does with the limited means at his disposal. “Shade” (36) and “Le Petit Casino” (35) have both a certain largeness and monumental character of design in spite of their general flatness of tint. The larger “Port” (37) is even more noble and stately in its effect. It reminds one vaguely of some of Poussin’s dignified and reticent compositions. It looks, however, more like a set composition that either of the two other pictures. The sprawling figure of the man in the foreground hardly harmonises with the stately tree and ship or with the charming figures of the women on the right.
 As will be seen from these remarks, the interest of the work of the Camden Town Group rests not with any of the younger painters who belong to it, but with the works of three artists whose reputations were well established before the little society came into existence. To see what the younger men – the men of the future – are doing one must visit the small exhibition of paintings and drawings which is now being held at the Chenil Galleries, in King’s-road, Chelsea. The two most prominent exhibitors here are Mr. J. S. Currie and Mr. Mark Gertler. Both men are forming their styles on a close study of the early Florentine work. They do not merely imitate this work, but they endeavour to apply its principles to subjects drawn from the life of to-day. The result is certainly astonishing, but it is also interesting and far from displeasing. Mr. Currie’s “Lost Child” represents a group of coster men and women surrounding a poorly-clad little wanderer. The background, which is painted with Florentine care and precision, represents the buildings in some Chelsea slum. The attitudes and grouping of the figures seem almost to have been borrowed direct from one of Giotto’s frescoes at Assisi. “The Joyous Visit” (6) – a less clearly defined subject of modern life – is treated in the same grave and naïve way. It is very curious to see costermongers in bowler hats and factory girls in shawls treated with all the gravity and earnestness the Florentine painters lavished on their saints and biblical personages. These experiments may lead to something in the future. On the other hand, Mr. Mark Gertler seems on surer ground when he confines similar methods to portraiture. I can praise without qualification his two portrait studies, “Carrington” (2) and “The Violinist” (9). The precision of modelling and the bright, fresh colour of both these works are admirable. In the next room a number of Mr. Gertler’s chalk studies and drawings show unusual sympathy and delicacy. If Mr. Gertler’s future work fulfils the promise of these paintings and drawings he will go far.

How to cite

A.J. Finberg, ‘Art and Artists. The Camden Town Group and Others’, in Star, 10 December 1912, in Helena Bonett, Ysanne Holt, Jennifer Mundy (eds.), The Camden Town Group in Context, Tate Research Publication, May 2012,, accessed 28 May 2024.