The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

James Bolivar Manson, ‘London Impressionists’

The Outlook, 14 December, 1912, pp.794–5.

IF there were more organised groups of painters working on definite lines such as the Camden Town group, much of the chaotic condition of modern art in England would be obviated. The value of an organised body of workers in any department of human activity is easily apparent. Yet in art any attempt at definite arrangement of the work of artists with similar aims is a rare one. The band of French Impressionists could never have had its immense influence on the moulding of modern artistic thought were it not for the fact that it existed as a complete phalanx, holding itself aloof from academic and alien circles which would have easily absorbed it, and in which its members would have appeared as isolated and individual factors overwhelmed by the vaster body of academic and officially restricted art. Most modern exhibitions present an incoherent mixture of pictures with no intrinsic relationship of either purpose or idea. In such a medley the educative influence of an individual work of art is destroyed by works of opposite intention, which in their turn are rendered ineffective by other pictures.
 The result on the mind of the observer is one of incomprehensible chaos, out of which stand such pictures as are large enough or violent or eccentric enough to claim particular attention. Hence arises the custom of painting up to an exhibition level with the object of self-assertion – a practice fatal to art, as it is the negation of sincerity. Such a body as the New English Art Club, numbering among its members some of the most intelligent artists of the day, makes no attempt whatever to group pictures according to the intentions of the painters; the works are mixed up anyhow, and even the pictures of any one artist are scattered about the gallery, rendered ineffective, and add to the general confusion.
 The Camden Town group represents the logical development of Impressionism in this country, which is the true traditional movement of art as it has progressed through Claude, Corot, Manet, Pissarro to the present day. Moreover within itself the works of its individual members, representing various subtle modifications of the Impressionistic point of view, are kept together, so that the general effect is lucid, consistent, and sure. To the original aim of expressing sincere personal convictions strictly in terms of naturalistic colour is added an intenser interest in and feeling for life and Nature for their own sake. Camille Pissarro was the first of the original group of French Impressionists to express a more intimate feeling for Nature that was possible to one (such as Manet) whose aim was confined to the representation of natural phenomena through the medium of colour on a scientific basis. His son, Lucien Pissarro, may be regarded as the leader of the movement in England. He is the connecting link between it and the famous French group which revolutionised the art of more than one continent, not in a day but gradually throughout a long period. For many years Mr. Pissarro has lived and laboured in London. Probably unknown even to the majority of that public which takes an interest in art, he is honoured as a leader by the small band of modern artists who are producing the work of which posterity will take account.
 The rarest spirits in the art world at any period have met, almost invariably, with little recognition during their lifetime. And if this be experienced in an artistic country like France, it is far commoner in England, where an artist must be a picturesque figure – a bit of a mountebank, like Whistler – must receive fabulous prices, or must have a genius for self-advertisement before he can hope to be attractive to the public mind, which means financial success, and be then regarded (save the mark!) as a great artist. But these faculties are seldom concomitant with artistic ability. The reverse is usually true; and so it happens that the work – fine, sincere, and sane – of one of the simplest and profoundest artists of the day has met with little general recognition. In his native France it is otherwise, and Lucien Pissarro is a unique instance of a prophet who has more [end of p.794] honour in his own country than elsewhere. It is always easy to be wise after the event. I remember overhearing an impassioned young man declare, at an exhibition of the Barbizon Masters, that had he been alive at the time he would have bought Corot’s pictures. But there are Corots in our day, only we have not the wit to discover them or the courage to support them when discovered. The whirligig of Time however brings in revenge, and the idol of the marketplace to-day is the outcast of to-morrow.
 Great art is always modest. It is the sincere utterance of deep feeling, and by its very essence is concerned not at all with public opinion or the favour of the masses. It exists to achieve its purpose, and only with such rare achievement is content. Any aspect of life, even the most humble, contains the elements of art; the abstract qualities of their expression, colour, tone, and line may be found as finely in a simple quiet lane as in the most grandiose landscape bathed in sunset light. Only – and therein lies the gist of the matter – it requires the sensibility of a poet to realise it and the skill of an artist, that is, technical training directed by feeling, to re-create it in a concrete form. Nature in her quiet moods is most appealing to Mr. Pissarro. With the simplest ingredients he creates a work of art moving in its delicate beauty and in its eloquent expression in an enhanced form of such qualities as appeal to us, consciously or unconsciously, in Nature. His picture, “Stamford Brook Green (Snow),” at the Carfax Gallery is a case in point. What it actually represents is a suburban green with a row of trees and ordinary suburban houses in the distance, the whole covered with snow – a subject which the ordinary painter would pass by without comment.
 In Mr. Pissarro’s hands it becomes a lyrical poem. To him it is a subtle and haunting harmony of radiant colour simplified by delicacy of atmosphere. More than that, its physical properties are the expression of life. They do not serve merely for the creation of a sensuous beauty. To him, truth to a particular aspect of Nature is important as expressing character – and character, as Rodin says, “is the essential truth of natural objects.” He is never tempted, as are many painters following the Impressionist movement, to manipulate for its own sake an abstract quality, such as colour, which should be simply expressive of something deeper. His profound understanding of relative values of colour helps not only to give his work its distinction but to express his feeling for Nature with great intimit√©. He is so much a master of his technique that in his work the means are entirely subordinated to the end; the complete expression of his conception is marred by no hint of the machinery employed in its attainment. His painting of “Tomatoes” is a fine, subtle expression of colour. In it the tones of colour are exquisitely analysed and attuned and inter-related for the purpose of the creation of a finer harmony.
 “Good wine needs no bush,” and the characteristic vintage which Mr. Walter Sickert so unfailingly harvests stands in no need of praise. Its bouquet is rare, peculiar, individual. Mr. Sickert himself has long been a personality in the art world. He has a certain air of witty bravado which is the more taking for being so unusual. He is known to be a great artist, and so those who do not understand his pictures are constrained to regard them with respectful awe and feel for once that they themselves are at fault – which indeed is very good for them. Mr. Sickert is the pill in the jam of modern art. His work is an impressionism of values, but values of tone not of colour. His great charm lies in his witty representation of character and in his gay insouciance, which latter quality is irrepressible, showing itself at inconvenient moments, as when he endeavours to work himself up to a proper pitch of melancholy for the painting of a murder series. He is highly skilled. His pictures continually reveal touches of genius as desirable as inimitable.
 No other painter could have indicated with such vitality and ease the liveliness of the girl’s head in “Past and Present” and her bright, impertinent eye, or her plaited hair, which is more completely realised by his three or four spots of colour than it could be by any other painter’s painstaking study. If his colour is subdued (unangelic people call it dingy), it is remarkably fine in the truth of its relationships, tone with tone. And although his handling of pigment is sometimes perversely coarse, his touch can be as delicately light as one may wish. No other painter has the same power of rendering human character, indigenous wit, and the dramatic possibilities of human relationships.
j. b. m.

How to cite

James Bolivar Manson, ‘London Impressionists’, in The Outlook, 14 December, 1912, pp.794–5, in Helena Bonett, Ysanne Holt, Jennifer Mundy (eds.), The Camden Town Group in Context, Tate Research Publication, May 2012,, accessed 20 May 2024.