The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

James Bolivar Manson, ‘The Camden Town Group’

The Outlook, 9 December 1911, pp.823–4.

EVIDENCES of the vitality of certain movements in “New English” art which are incomprehensible to the Slade-bound minds who direct that palladium of art known as the New English Art Club are plainly to be seen in the second exhibition of the Camden Town Group. Certain members of the group having tired of applying for Wilson-Steerage passages to fame in Suffolk Street are revelling in the comforts of the saloon in the more hospitable atmosphere of the Carfax Gallery in Bury Street, St. James’s. It is not to be supposed that the public will like all the pictures in the Carfax Gallery. There has never been very great support on the part of the public to good work which dared to follow other lines than those laid down by the mediocrities of Burlington House. But this is art which, whether you like it or not, has come to stay. It is really new only to England. Its aims and methods have long been accepted on the Continent and in America. But in England progress is slow, for independent art is “up against” that concentrated block of bourgeois sentimentality known as the Royal Academy. But even in England the facts that “Roses have thorns” and “He cometh not” fail to impress when they have been repeated sufficiently often. [end of p.823] And people are now even glad to turn from such banality to something that is sane and natural and has some fundamental relation to life.
 The Camden Town group finds its subjects on every hand, in everyday life. The shallow mind which has to consult its cheap edition of Tennyson for the subject of its next picture for the Royal Academy has no counterpart here. The following quotation from Carlyle’s essay on Burns is peculiarly applicable to the group: “The poet, we imagine, can never have far to seek for a subject: the elements of his art are in him and around him on every hand; for him the ideal world is not remote from the actual, but under it and within it: nay, he is a poet precisely because he can discern it there.” Some of the members of the group have already made distinguished names for themselves, whilst others are steadily in the making.
 Mr. Walter Sickert is gifted with perennial youth. He has done two remarkable things: he has made the British pubic realise that if they fail to understand his pictures it is entirely their own fault; and after producing consistently good work for a long number of years, he is now painting finer pictures at a period of life when the average Royal Academic idol of the public is turning out his pet convention, which has the comfortable characteristic of demanding no thought in its production. Here Mr. Sickert shows four very interesting examples of his art. I should describe his work rather as a kind of essay on the beauty and subtlety of tone and its effects than as painting in the ordinary sense. It does not appear that he has the love of pigment for its own sake which characterises the painter. The chief qualities of his work are the drawing (which is full of character), the wit and humour of his characterisation and composition, and, above all, his susceptibility to the beauty of tone and its uses. He has a great fondness for genuine, unsophisticated native character, which he finds in those classes where spontaneity is so often humorous, and where there is no necessity for the hiding of real feeling under a perpetually smiling and empty face. In his picture, “Mother and Daughter,” he expresses his sense of character most delightfully and with true realism. I do not know what facilities there are for obtaining “Walter Sickerts,” but the present seems an excellent opportunity for collectors, as his pictures at the Carfax are specially fine examples. The combination of the Sickert personality with such unusual gifts is a very rare one and not likely to occur twice. And what is so unique becomes increasingly valuable.
 Mr. Spencer Gore illustrates Carlyle’s fine description of a poet. He finds inspiration in what is usually called the commonplace. This is partly due to his acute and rare sensibility to colour effects; and fine colour may be perceived, by those who have the power, in any aspect of Nature. A particular scene in Nature may appear alive to one person and dead to another. It is a question of gifts of perception. Colour, like other qualities, has a special significance, which is usually obscured by fortuitous conditions: it requires insight to perceive it and knowledge to analyse it. Mr. Gore possesses these gifts to a high degree. He analyses the colour of Nature and reconstructs it, selecting what is specially significant; he thus represents Nature in a greatly enhanced form. His sense of design or pattern is very complete. It is not obvious, like design which depends entirely on line and form, but is very subtle, and for that reason curiously elusive and pleasing. To live with his work is to continue to find new beauties and meanings in it. In his theatre pictures he might be regarded as the Degas of colour; but he does not confine himself to effects of the theatre, but works, pari passu, from the natural and the artificial. Degas said to a landscape painter at the Cirque Fernando, “A vous il faut la vie naturelle, à moi la vie factice.” Mr. Gore uses both with equal distinction.
 I admire Mr. Gilman’s robust, frank, courageous way of looking at life. He has an extraordinary power of seeing a thing as a whole, with a quite remarkable appreciation of all sorts of values. He has a profound knowledge of values of tone, colour, light, and interest, and consequently his pictures are finely lucid and have a rare quality of unity. Everything keeps its place, and there is no confliction of intentions. His brilliant expression is entirely through the medium of separation of tones. His pictures are virile pieces of life, not collections of objects, as in pictures painted after the Royal Academic recipe, where every detail is equally important, or rather unimportant.
 Mr. Ginner has an almost barbaric love of strong colour. To him the juxtaposition of two colours is sufficient motive for a picture. He has also a feeling for strong effects of light and atmosphere, probably on account of the striking arrangements of colour they evince, as in “The Sunlit Quay,” where the blue of the shadows comes in contrast with the yellow of the quay. Occasionally his colour tends to run riot, as in “The Café,” but probably working in a café has that effect. All his work is strong and original.
 One either very much likes or strongly dislikes Mr. R. P. Bevan’s pictures, but that is because he is one of the most original of modern artists. His most remarkable quality is his gift of rendering strong form solely by subtle division of tones of colour. In that respect his work is a valuable testimony to the capabilities of impressionism. He has a fine, spirited sense of design. As regards colour, taken as a whole he rather scorns the merely fortuitous. He does not use, as Mr. Gore does, his analysis of the colour of a particular scene, but to some extent he uses his empirical knowledge of the effects of colour-tones in his self-imposed obligation to produce a fairer and more harmonious arrangement than is often presented by definite aspects of Nature.
 Mr. Wyndham Lewis’ pictures will only appear extraordinary to those who have never lived in Paris, for such work has been produced in the gay metropolis for the last twenty years. Mr. Lewis is very clever, but he makes, to my mind, a fundamental mistake. Either his compositions must be conventional designs, in which case any licence is legitimate that results in a good design, or if (as appears to be his intention) they are meant to represent life in some way, they must be built up on a fundamental basis of Nature. Human beings appear to figure in all his pictures, but the drawing does not follow the structure of Nature (it is not a case, as with Mr. John, of selecting only significant facts of life), but is untrue and distorted, and therefore bad. If the pictures are meant for conventional designs, then the introduction of the semi-natural element is a false note, and they become second-rate and are not pictures but designs whose raison d’être would lie in their use in some branch of applied art – as designs for a fin-de-siècle carpet, for example. Mr. Lewis, dancing a sort of artistic carmagnole, may make things lively, but I doubt if it will do good to anybody.
 It is from Mr. Lucien Pissarro’s work that I derive most satisfaction. An appreciation of his work rather involves a discussion of personality. Mr. Pissarro’s personality is an objective one – as is the case, I think, with all great artists. Subjective personality expresses itself in quite obvious peculiarities and unusual ways of regarding things. Objective personality in art which is really the highest form of the subjective concerns itself with the observation, the expression, the exposition of the meaning of fundamental (and so universal) elements of Nature. It is not at all concerned in the cultivation of a precious personal way of looking at life. Mr. Pissarro gives one the fine, boundless qualities of Nature, – atmosphere, light, and colour. His work expresses the vital essence of reality with the most consummate art. Naturally, then, his work is quiet and unobtrusive, but everlastingly satisfying. It is so much a part of life and so painted without any tricks, that it appears intimately like Nature itself, and to the ordinary mind the natural is less impressive than the artificial. I would rather possess his picture, “The Turban,” than any other picture I know.
 Much more might be written did space permit. For the same reason I am reluctantly compelled to leave to another occasion the fine work of Messrs. Drummond, Walter Bayes, Duncan Grant, Innes, Lamb, Ratcliffe, and Doman Turner; but it will be found much more profitable to see it than to read about it.
j. b. m.

How to cite

James Bolivar Manson, ‘The Camden Town Group’, in The Outlook, 9 December 1911, pp.823–4, in Helena Bonett, Ysanne Holt, Jennifer Mundy (eds.), The Camden Town Group in Context, Tate Research Publication, May 2012,, accessed 20 June 2019.