The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

Frank Rutter, ‘Round the Galleries’

Sunday Times, 18 June 1911, p.16.

ROUND THE GALLERIES.
The Camden Town Group.
All whose delight it is to discern a little before the crowd the fine artist of the future will be fascinated by the rich promise no less than by the actual performance shown in the first exhibition of the above-named group at the Carfax Gallery (24, Bury-street, St. James’s). Three or four of the exhibitors are men whose reputations are already made, three or four have reputations rapidly in the making, but the remaining members are practically unknown and owe their representation here to the impression their hitherto unrecognised talent has made on their recognised comrades. Here is one point of interest in the exhibition, artists of repute busying themselves not in pushing their own wares so much as in bringing before the public work they consider interesting by other men. In reading the history of the great masters we are often touched by the solicitude of the successful for their less fortunate brethren – we know, for example, to go back no great distance what Troyon and Manet respectively did for Millet and Claude Monet; but how rarely in our own experience do we find artists who to some extent have “got on” talking about anything but themselves and their own work? Under these circumstances, I do not think I err in stating that a peculiar and uncommon characteristic of the little band of artists at the Carfax Gallery is a sense of public-spiritedness which impels them to search out and become helping comrades to artists with whose work and ideas they are in sympathy. As I may claim to know rather more of the growth of this group than the majority of my critical confrères, I trust my readers will forgive me if for the moment I approach this exhibition in an historical spirit.
John, Sickert and Pissarro.
The three best known members of the “Camden Town Group,” Augustus John, Lucien Pissarro, and Walter Sickert have been linked together in close comradeship for many years past. All three are or were members of the New English Art Club and have long been recognised as leaders of the advanced wing of that society. Five or six years ago (or possibly longer) on the initiative of Mr. Walter Sickert a common studio was taken at 19, Fitzroy-street, where a weekly “at home” was held on Saturday afternoons and works by the trio and their friends were on view to visitors. In this the first co-operative effort on the part of artists to submit their work to the public without the intervention of dealers or selecting juries, Messrs. John, Pissarro and Sickert were joined by Spencer F. Gore, Henry Lamb, Harold Gilman and other younger men, most, if not all of whom were former students at the Slade School. When in 1908 a more extended co-operative movement led to the founding of the Allied Artists’ Association, the members of this Fitzroy-street circle joined it practically in a body and commenced their hunt for new recruits to their circle at the first London Salon of the Association held in the Royal Albert Hall during the July of that year. There they discovered Robert P. Bevan, whose work had never been publicly exhibited in London before, while if they did know Walter Byles [sic], chiefly by his watercolours, it was his series of decorative panels in that exhibition which stirred in them a desire for rapprochement, and eventually led to his inclusion in the Camden Town group. At succeeding salons of the Allied Artists’ Association Charles Ginner and Malcolm Drummond were discovered, and so the group has gradually grown not by any fortuitous coming together of individuals, but by deliberate search for the congenial and a careful application of the process of selection.
The Vanguard.
After this brief historical survey of the antecedents of the group, it is time to attend to its actual exhibition at 24, Bury-street, off Jermyn-street. The collection may be taken as representative of the most advanced painting to be found in these isles, that is to say as the work of men who have considerable knowledge and understanding of the very latest art movements on the Continent, movements which to the majority of painters in this country are either utterly unknown or an incredible legend. When we remember the tremendous stir made last autumn by the exhibition at the Grafton Galleries of examples of the last but one (or two) art movement in Paris, people who saw the so-called “Post-Impressionists” may expect to find eccentricity running riot at the Carfax Gallery. Yet, compared to exhibitions of advanced painting which may commonly be seen in Paris or Munich, the first impression one receives of the work of the Camden Town group is of its sanity, its irreproachable sobriety, almost, would I say, of its typically British conservatism. A few visitors may be shocked at the elongated noses in the squarely-drawn heads by Mr. Wyndham Lewis (7, 8), but with the exception of these two pen drawings I cannot recall any exhibit which could justly be described even as “queer.” Some people, I know, try to find something perverse and wilful in everything Mr. Walter Sickert does, and, doubtless, these will find scope for their inventiveness in the titles of two of his larger works (10, 12), officially catalogued as Nos. 1 and 2 in “The Camden Town Murder Series,” but really it requires more imagination than I have at my command to find “eccentricity” in these two nocturnal nudes. The unclothed figure on the bed and the clothed figure of the man seated at the side afford a contrast which has interested painters for centuries, though Mr. Sickert has given a novel note to a favourite theme by viewing it in dim twilight through a quivering veil of atmosphere which gives just the sense of mystery and even of impending tragedy to justify the titles. In his mastery of half-lights I am tempted to call Mr. Sickert a Maeterlinck of painting, for his art, too, with its subtle harmonies in the bass chords of colour and its fastidiousness of vibrating execution, is essentially an art of suggestion.
Modern Classicists.
If Mr. Sickert and others adopt the vibratory technique of the French impressionists, this is not the rule throughout the whole of the group. No painting could be smoother than that of Mr. M. G. Lightfoot, whose precisely-drawn portrait of a boy standing (18) is really academic in the best sense of the word. If there is a suggestion of Whistler here in the colour, the drawing at least recalls nothing more modern and revolutionary than Holbein. Mr. Henry Lamb again is classic in his smooth paint and firm drawing, just as Gauguin – whom he so discriminately admires – was also essentially classic. The person who finds anything eccentric in Mr. Lamb’s “Boy’s Head” (22), so admirable in its strength and simplicity, must be sadly ignorant of the main stream of European painting. Yet another member with distinct classical tendencies is Mr. Walter Bayes, who admits them frankly in the title of his “Classical Landscape” (34), and shows them no less clearly in his decorative “Panel for Piano Front” (33) and his carefully-balanced “Design for part of a stage scene for the Haymarket Theatre.” In passing it is very pleasant to note that artists with the real decorative gifts of Mr. Bayes and Mr. Cayley Robinson are at last receiving some attention from theatrical managers. To return to the Carfax Gallery, we may possibly find a future recruit to classicism in Mr. J. Doman Turner, whose watercolours show a tendency to ascetic composition though his drawing “In the Grand Circle” (42) reveals a touch of Sickertian romanticism; while, finally, we have the two brilliant studies of Welsh landscapes (1, 2), by Mr. Augustus John, assuredly a modern classic.

How to cite

Frank Rutter, ‘Round the Galleries’, in Sunday Times, 18 June 1911, p.16, in Helena Bonett, Ysanne Holt, Jennifer Mundy (eds.), The Camden Town Group in Context, Tate Research Publication, May 2012, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/camden-town-group/frank-rutter-round-the-galleries-r1104320, accessed 20 January 2019.