The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

C.H. Collins Baker, ‘The Muralists and Realists’

The Saturday Review, 23 December 1911.

By C. H. Collins Baker.
BUT why not Mr. John? Admitting that he did not compete but protesting that the decoration is the thing that matters, not the competition, why is he not summarily commissioned? Stepping out of Chelsea Town Hall, from the exhibition of designs for the mural decorations, into the Chenil Gallery next door, one meets this question violently. So much that one wanted and altogether missed among the successful and rejected competitors is there, in the Chenil rooms, all ripe and ready. Without waiting for the demonstration you see that every one of Mr. John’s small pieces would enlarge to any size and superbly decorate any wall. They were conceived in terms of mural decoration, which I need hardly say are not the terms of easel pictures or Royal Exchange adornments. At least one would think it went without saying if the visit to the Town Hall had not been made. There presumably we see the collective brilliance of our best young men (saving, of course, the remarkable cliques “at home” in the Carfax Gallery and Borough Polytechnic). But with the fewest exceptions, among whom Mrs. Sargent Florence is conspicuous, none realises that paintings for wall spaces must bear a special character and convention. Just as a water-colour is not an oil, an etching is not a steel-engraving, nor chamber music grand opera, so mural painting radically differs from exhibition pictures.
 These competitors, I think, had a vague idea that their decorations should look simpler and more spaced than ordinary easel efforts. And in their small designs something of this idea came out. But when Mr. Salisbury, one of the successes, committed himself to an enlargement he completely gave his claims away. Fundamentally and irremediably his present conception of wall decoration is identical with that of the Royal Exchange pictures. His enlarged fragment has all the polish and finish and modelling that are bad enough in his pictures and impossible in mural work. With this ominous exposure of his ultimate ideal before them, it is curious that the judges found Mr. Salisbury’s designs promising. Mr. Sims, on the other hand, seems to have submitted no enlargement, and it is difficult to see his tricky, if not “fudged”, sketch expanded into the solidity and architectural seriousness indispensable for its purpose. Why, then, was he “awarded” without a gauge of his ability to develop an amusing but flimsy design into a decoration? Next his exhibit hang Mr. Budd’s, which are certainly much better though rejected. Their colour is a little thin, but their feeling is right and their potentialities, as wall decoration, at least hopeful. Mr. Budd indeed is one of the exceptions who keep mural painting distinct from any other. Mr. Rupert Lee goes with him, and I can see no reason why his gay, rather Persian-looking design should not improve into the real thing. Of the successful competitors Mrs. Sargent Florence makes most promise. Her sketch is obviously a wall decorator’s; she knows the ropes and understands the exigencies. Her composition, doubtless, will expand towards a fuller unity, while losing none of its simplicity and fine colour; and the enlarged fragment, if rather weak in feeling, clearly illustrates that no irrelevant modelling or realistic finish will nullify her effect. Mr. Woolway, too, justifies the judges, as far as the work submitted goes. His sense of flat surface decoration and his feeling for significant rich shapes are promising. No enlargement, however, is exhibited to show how the occasional vaguenesses and interesting evasions in the little sketch will turn out when they have to take life seriously. To test such matters every competitor should have been bound to carry out in large at least a head and torso. For, as I have said in reference to Mr. Salisbury, and might add apropos of Mr. E. Kennington or Mr. Clark, the result is most revealing.
 Presumably Cubistes and Borough Polytechnicians were warned off this Town Hall competition; none at least disturbs its unity. The strongest impression left is that, with the few exceptions I have given, to whom should be added Mr. George Day (for whose unfortunate cast of colour Royal Academy School training I suspect is responsible), our painters have not yet realised the essential individuality required for wall decoration. And, after all, why should they? For painters nowadays are so notoriously incurious as to the methods of yore, and in the main so indifferent to their heritage, that they are isolated from the tradition of wall painting. The most important question for them to-day is: will the movement towards mural decoration spread? Quite recently a sort of society has seriously taken up one aspect of this question – the availability of the walls in London County Council schools as training spaces for a school of fresco. In other directions, too, the move is being made, and so far the artists have nothing to blame the public and the patrons for. The L.C.C. is favourable to the employment of their walls; the Chelsea municipality is giving a fine lead, and the Borough Polytechnic’s enterprise is famous.
 We may then hope that the future of this movement lies comfortably in our artists’ hands. Will they be strong enough to hold it? It seems to me that at this crisis an experiment such as that made by the decorators of the Borough Polytechnic is risky. We shall not have to wait many years before such artificiality, such insecure theorising has dropped into the zone of regrettable incidents. For what is this business of primitivism but a repetition of old history and failures? At the time of Winckelmann and the Neo-Classicists all “advanced” artists tried to get the atmosphere of the antique, so that Diderot was screwed up to squeeze out one of his solitary drops of wisdom. “Our painters”, he prophesied, “will never rival the old masters because, instead of seeking nature’s beauty, they are all copying a copy.” Messrs. Roger Fry, Grant, Etchell [sic] and Company are in a similar boat. They are all working from concepts instead of impressions, from their ingenious intellects instead of spontaneous emotion. They do not attempt to interpret Nature as they see her, but to paint and draw as they conceive a savage might. It is all tremendously ingenious, but I do not think it is even amusing, though that seems the right thing to say about it. An authentic savage could be depended on to draw with a certain spontaneous naïveté of observation, a quite incommunicably earnest observation. These advanced, scholarly and sophisticated artists of the twentieth century, however, obviously find it very difficult to guess how a savage would draw a cheek, or thorax, or one’s calf. I don’t believe they really know, since the savage tradition does not exist in continuity, and genuine examples are rare. But even if Mr. Duncan Grant had specialised in Vedda paintings he could not recapture their spontaneity and vitality. Because the race and age he works in are comparatively developed and thus incapable of sharing a lower type’s point of view, and because what was a Vedda’s utmost in the way of representation has been degraded to a reasoned mannerism in Mr. Grant.
 An important question to be answered is: do these far-fetched theories and extravagant sacrifices result in compensating achievements? I do not think that any splendid colour or pattern would compensate for degraded types of form and sterility of life; a meanness and brutality would taint even the richest decorative surface. But these Polytechnic designs are poor in colour and unpleasantly painted. Nor as rhythmic and significant shapes are they important. Theory based on guesswork intrudes at every point. Mr. Grant’s Divers (not his swimmers) have a grandeur somewhere at the back, but theoretical primitivism interferes with our seeing it. Similarly the designs and spacing of all these paintings are crippled by wilful concepts, made precious and inanimate by academic canons. For the poor quality of the pigment in all of them, even in Mr. Rothenstein’s and Mr. Grant’s, I can only suggest inexperience. These are not experiments on plaster, but ordinary canvas. The handling is petty and spotty and fudged, the brushwork hopelessly inconsistent with the decorative scale, and not even as accomplished as a Red Indian’s probably would be. This poor quality seems too genuine to be part of the pose, nor is it easy to suspect that the thin, acid and unrhythmic colour of the whole scheme is entirely due to deliberate primitivism.
 The crucial test of Art is its relation to its age; whether it be backward, normal or enhancing. We could not insult this “advanced” group of painters by saying their decorations are normal or old-fashioned. On the other hand, they are certainly not enhancing, for they reveal no higher secrets of life. Thus they are in an anomalous position, deliberately retrograde, and comparable with the Neo-Classicists. Another test for them is their relation to ordinary good posters. If we drew a line to represent the level of good poster work, Mr. John’s decoration at the New English, or his wonderful “Brick Wall”, “The Woman in the Sun Garden”, or “Three Little Boys”, in the Chenil, would obviously stand far above this line, judged merely as poster work. Mrs. Sargent Florence’s design and one or two others in the Town Hall would be above it too. But the Borough decorations, on the ground of carrying decoration, would fall below it, in the company of Mr. Sims’ or Mr. Salisbury’s exhibits.
 The Carfax Gallery is entertaining the Realists and Mr. W. Lewis. The latter, I suspect, is an embarrassment to his confrères, much as an M.P. who, elected as a Tariff Reformer, suddenly bursts out as the other thing. The genuine “Realists” – Mr. Gore and Mr. Gilman for example – are nothing like as real as Mr. Sickert. In the case of each an insufficient knowledge of tone is the obstruction. Mr. Gilman makes the mistake, not unnatural at his stage, of attaching more importance to colour as a sort of scientific fact than to larger things. Thus he ignores relative values and misses the very realism he aims at. For instance, the red on a woman’s cheek or wrist, or the blue gleam on her hair, are focussed on, with no calculation of their redness or blueness in comparison with the wall-paper or the bedclothes. To precisely the same lack is due the insignificance of his conceptions. They are maps of light and colour, not people full of complex humanity. Degas or Mr. Sickert, both “out for” realism, do not confound mere facts with life and spirit. Unconsciously they see much further into life. Mr. Spencer Gore misses complexity, which I suppose is his aim, in a slightly different way. He seems to attach a symbolic importance to violet; violet-shadows is his formula. Busied over this theory he ignores relations and planes, so that houses across the street seem to come in front of your garden wall, and the scenery on the stage is as near as the lady in the next box. But this can be remedied by experience. Mr. Bayes, for instance, whose early work, much as Mr. Sickert’s, was occupied with sensitive observation unembarrassed by formulæ, has assimilated much knowledge, and when impelled to be ingeniously simple he still incorporates that knowledge in his simplifications. His “Bridge”, an extremely effective poster on the surface, contains the distilled perception of subtlety that places it well above the poster line. This picture would not be readily exhausted if one lived with it, because it does not confuse phenomena with significance. Mr. Bevan, like Mr. Gilman, at present looks on colour and pattern and light as ends, whereas they are clearly but enhancing accessories. His design is good, and his colour agreeable, but his perception of cabs and ostlers quite superficial. Mr. Innes sedulously follows Mr. John, but, like all imitators, seldom sees beneath the surface into the significance. In distant times, in public galleries Mr. Innes will be catalogued just under Mr. John, “John, Nachfolger des Augustus John”, or simply “Schule des ...”, and the learned will distinguish him as the “Amico”, and early Lambs as the “Alunno di Augusto”. I like to think of this and the worries of those distant experts.

How to cite

C.H. Collins Baker, ‘The Muralists and Realists’, in The Saturday Review, 23 December 1911, in Helena Bonett, Ysanne Holt, Jennifer Mundy (eds.), The Camden Town Group in Context, Tate Research Publication, May 2012,, accessed 27 June 2019.