The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

Author unknown, ‘The Camden Wonders’

Morning Post, 3 June 1911.

One of the most beautiful of unspoiled country towns still retaining its pristine beauty was the background, as everyone knows, of perhaps the most sensational mystery in the Seventeenth Century. “The Campden Wonder” is a household word recently rearticulated through the dramatic genius of Mr. John Masefield. The London district of Camden Town, too, is grimly associated with murders waiting the touch of a Masefield to transmute them to literature. Meanwhile the equally graceful art of painting has been flourishing unsuspected (shall we say undetected?) in a neighbourhood hitherto haunted by everything except the Muses. The London County Council, indeed, has established a Camden School of Art, of which Mr. Francis Black, R.B.A., is the principal. But this has nothing to do with the “Camden Town Group” now holding an exhibition at the Carfax Gallery, 24, Bury-street, St. James’s. Mr. Spencer Gore is the president of the new society. There is no reason to suppose his name is a pseudonym, for only recently we had the pleasure of describing some of his work in a Chelsea Gallery – work that belied his name. The Camden Wonders have certain relations with Chelsea, both artistic and sentimental. No less an artist than Mr. Walter Sickert supplies a tradition. Mr. Augustus John, dissatisfied with the semi-academic calm of the New English Art Club, supplies paysages en bombe air. Mr. Walter Bayes is a distinguished art critic, whose painting is more deliberately decorative, and some will think more charming, than that of the other members. M. Lucien Pissaro [sic] acts as a Marconigraph between Camden Town and French battlefields of art, both by his name and the character of his pictures. If only Mr. Rothenstein could have been induced to connect up Hampstead with the new movement we might have another “declaration of London.” But where is Mr. Roger Fry? If there is no Little Boy Blue to blow the horn the sheep will get into the Academy and be asked to frescoe (if sheep can frescoe) the Corn Exchange before we know where we are.
There are two temptations which beset the public in relation to painting or art of any kind. One is the admiration of something merely because it is eccentric, the other is derision of anything because it is new. Sooner or later we all find ourselves in the difficulty experienced by St. Paul at Athens before the altar of the unknown God, among a capricious and volatile community. A better opportunity for exercising the discretion of the Apostle could hardly be found than in this very remarkable exhibition. Mr. R. P. Bevan’s pictures, “The Cab Horse” (No. 29) and “The Yard Gate” (No. 31), are not only the most arresting (you can hardly avoid Scotland Yard metaphor) in design and colour, but appear the most typical in the gallery. They will undoubtedly repel you at first unless you have gone through the Paris Autumn Salon cure. Then after, say ten minutes, examination of the other pictures you will understand why these particular works are hung where they are. You will realise that the painter has something to say, and that his horses have brought news from Ghent – “pleasant or unpleasant” is beside the question. And these pictures are typical, because what we have said of them is true of almost all the others with one possible exception. Reluctantly we must exclude Mr. Wyndham Lewis’s “Architects” (7 and 8). As an imaginary portrait of the man who designed most of the modern buildings in London, it may be welcomed as a caricature nearer the truth than perhaps the satirist intended. But was that the aim of the draughtsman? Blake recorded a vision of the “Man who Built the Pyramids,” but he contrived to make us believe that he saw it. Mr. Lewis, who enjoys a high reputation among his friends as poet and draughtsman, introduces a note of insincerity that is well enough in criticism but regrettable in serious art, and entirely foreign to the present exhibition.
Of course a good deal of this art recalls Huxley’s famous mot about the Spiritualists. When confronted with incontrovertible evidence (as it was called) he replied “The phenomena do not interest me.” After we have acknowledged the truth, scientific rather than artistic, of the works of Messrs. Drummond, Ratcliffe, and Gilman there will be some difficulty for the uninitiated to resist the comment, “Is it worth while?” Mr. Henry Lamb and Mr. M.G. Lightfoot are in a very different category. The former has not only a vision that excites our curiosity, but a method of which novelty and freshness are not the only attributes. We want to know what he is going to see in the future, how he is going to see it, what he is going to tell us. The particular school to which he attaches himself is not of much importance to us, though possibly to the school. Here is a personality in art. His three delightful little pictures make us want to see others. Then Mr. Lightfoot’s powerful drawings suggest that, unlike his fellow “wonders,” he is going to compromise with the past. His two oil pictures are carried further in the old-fashioned sense than anything in the gallery. He is obviously not going to remain satisfied with the light, rather precarious, painting of the Camden Town Group. He is a William Orpen in the making.
It might be argued, however, that all these artists have separate entities. The work of Mr. Walter Bayes should remind them that the artistic needs of modern life are not confined to a canvas in a gilt frame, and that it is just possible that with the too-absorbing concern in furnishing a taste for pictures, modern pictures at all events, might disappear. Mr. Spencer Gore and Mr. J.B. Manson, however, are in no danger of ignoring present tendencies of any kind, and if they can “paint up” to the criticism of Mr. Walter Bayes their niches are secured. Let them cultivate his admirable tact in decoration, which has a practical sense of beauty none too common among advanced artists. We will postpone discussion of Mr. Walter Sickert’s “Camden Town Murder Series” (Nos. 10 and 12) for a further notice dealing with the exhibition of his works at the Stafford Gallery, in Duke-street, which shares with the Carfax Gallery the honour of showing the stirring art with which we must try to live. Both are within a stone’s throw of Christie’s.

How to cite

Author unknown, ‘The Camden Wonders’, in Morning Post, 3 June 1911, in Helena Bonett, Ysanne Holt, Jennifer Mundy (eds.), The Camden Town Group in Context, Tate Research Publication, May 2012,, accessed 28 May 2024.