The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

Maxwell Gordon Lightfoot Study of a Girl c.1910

This monochrome study in graphite washed with brown watercolour depicts the intimate setting of a bedroom at night. A woman enshrouded in the folds of a nightgown, long hair flowing loosely, cradles her upturned face in seeming anguish. Rendered in a heavy chiaroscuro leaving some white areas of the paper entirely blank, Lightfoot’s emotionally intense figure composition has more in common with European symbolists such as Pierre Puvis de Chavannes than his Camden Town Group contemporaries. This is a test.
Maxwell Gordon Lightfoot 1886–1911
Study of a Girl
Graphite, ink and watercolour on paper
391 x 285 mm
Purchased (Duveen Drawings Fund) 1927



Maxwell Gordon Lightfoot was one of the founder members of the Camden Town Group, but only exhibited at the first exhibition in June 1911. He was a recent, very talented, graduate from the Slade School of Fine Art and, with James Dickson Innes, was the youngest artist to be asked to join the group, probably invited by Spencer Gore. Unlike most of the other members, Lightfoot was not a pupil or follower of either Walter Sickert or of post-impressionism and, as an almost complete unknown, may only have been using the Camden Town Group platform as an opportunity to get his work exhibited in public rather than sharing in their overall aesthetic outlook. His work was wholly unlike anything else in the exhibition, a fact which was picked up by many reviewers who, although largely admiring of his work, were puzzled by his inclusion. Two paintings in particular from the four he exhibited, an oil, Boy with a Hoop. Frank c.1911 (fig.1), and another oil, in tondo format, Mother and Child c.1911 (private collection),1 were singled out for praise, especially by those critics who were uneasy with the bright colours and experimental style of Gore, Harold Gilman, Charles Ginner and Robert Bevan, or the sordid, murky interiors of Sickert’s Camden Town Murder paintings. The World went so far as to write that Lightfoot’s paintings alone were the ‘only contributions that have serious claim to be regarded as works of art’,2 and the Daily Telegraph maintained that his work ‘was assuredly the most interesting that the exhibition has to show’.3 The Morning Post described Lightfoot’s drawings as ‘powerful’, and suggested that this ‘William Orpen in the making’ was ‘not going to remain satisfied with the light, rather precarious, painting of the Camden Town Group’.4
Maxwell Gordon Lightfoot 'Boy with a Hoop. Frank' c.1911
Maxwell Gordon Lightfoot
Boy with a Hoop. Frank c.1911
© Private collection
Courtesy of Wendy Baron
This prediction proved to be correct. Not only was Lightfoot’s work stylistically and thematically very different to that produced by the other members of the Camden Town Group, but he had little respect or admiration for his fellow artists and their output. In a revealing letter to his Slade contemporary, Rudolph Ihlee (1883–1968), Lightfoot wrote:
The Camden Town Group are holding their exhibition at Carfax. It’s about the worst show I (have) ever seen in my life ... I suppose you know they drew me in to be a member of the Group, without my consent by the way. I have four things there – but I swear on my oath I will never show with the crowd again. It is 19 Fitzroy Street to the core. My stuff looks as much out of place and absurd as I do when I go to the Saturday afternoons lying competition at Sickert’s. They have had no money from me – and I’ll take it a good care they never will.5
He railed against the work of other members of the group, calling Henry Lamb ‘paltry’ and Augustus John ‘wild’. Gore’s work he condemned for being ‘as pretty as any young lady would wish to see – drawing, none – colour pretty – but not by any means good. He approaches as many schemes of colour in one picture as Whistler did in the whole of his lifework.’6 It probably came as no surprise to the other members, therefore, when Lightfoot resigned from the Camden Town Group after their first exhibition had closed.
During his time at the Slade, Lightfoot excelled in drawing from the figure, and throughout his brief career he continued to be interested in compositions of figure studies.7 Unlike the majority of his Camden Town contemporaries, who presented people as characters from everyday life or as a part of their overall concern with post-impressionist investigations into light and colour, Lightfoot maintained a more self-consciously graphic and literary approach. His interests lay in a preoccupation with draughtsmanship, line and form and an emotional response to his subject.

Subject and style

Study of a Girl is executed in pencil, pen and ink and brown watercolour on paper and shows a girl in a long nightgown seated on the edge of a bed holding her hands full length against either side of her upturned face. She could simply be awaking and stretching, but the looming shadow cast onto the wall behind her, disappearing off the edge of the picture frame, imbues the image with a sense of claustrophobia and mental anguish. Dark shadows, created in the folds of the bed linen and the girl’s nightgown, are portrayed through heavy washes of colour juxtaposed with white spaces where the paper has been left blank, combined with delicate line drawing in pencil or pen and ink. The tonal modelling of the drapery, streaming loose hair of the model and emotionally charged subject are perhaps an echo of the paintings of the French symbolist artist, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824–1898), whose work Arthur Clifton, the owner of the Carfax Gallery, recalled Lightfoot greatly admired.8 The pre-First World War generation at the Slade, which included artists like Stanley Spencer, Augustus John and William Orpen, were very influenced by the expressive and emotionally intense figure compositions of Puvis de Chavannes and other European symbolists. Lightfoot’s drawing seems to relate to that same artistic context which the art historian David Fraser Jenkins has called ‘Slade School Symbolism’: figure drawings based on life study which through emotive pose, dramatic lighting and often sexually charged imagery are expressive of an inner emotional existence and fundamental themes such as birth and death.9
Maxwell Gordon Lightfoot 'Night Scene: Woman Feeding her Child' c.1910
Maxwell Gordon Lightfoot
Night Scene: Woman Feeding her Child c.1910
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Photo © Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
The work is similar in style and subject to a series of monochrome drawings in brown ink and watercolour wash which Lightfoot executed during 1910. Characterised by heavy chiaroscuro, dramatic shadows and distorted figures, the works are generally atmospheric and sinister in appearance. Three works in particular seem similar to Tate’s work: Man and Woman Fondling a Baby on a Bed 1910 (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool),10 Woman Kissing a Man at a Table in a Lamplit Room c.1910 (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool),11 and Night Scene: Woman Feeding her Child on Edge of Bed whilst Man Sleeps Behind Them c.1910 (fig.2).12 The drawings (their cumbersome titles are not the artist’s) reflect Lightfoot’s interest in deeply private scenes of domestic life and family love which he went on to explore further in his paintings and drawings of mothers and children of late 1910 and 1911. Study of a Girl is nearly identical in size to these three other drawings and has the same tonal approach and sepia colouring. Although portraying a single woman, without either lover or baby, Tate’s work is similarly intense and voyeuristic in nature and repeats the intimate setting of a bedroom at night. All four works appear to show the same female model, a young woman with long fair hair worn loose and parted in the middle, who in the bedroom scenes wears a long white robe. Unfortunately, due largely to his early death, little information was recorded about Lightfoot and his works, and beyond their evident visual affinities, it is not known whether these drawings are specifically linked. A former curator at the Walker Art Gallery, Gail Engert, has suggested that they may form a sequence of illustrations to an unidentified text, possibly a historical novel of the nineteenth century.13

Victor Hugo’s The Laughing Man

A separate set of illustrations with which Study of a Girl might be connected relate to a now lost drawing exhibited by Lightfoot at the 1910 Liverpool Autumn Exhibition, titled Dea (An Illustration to Victor Hugo’s ‘Laughing Man’). L’Homme qui rit or The Laughing Man was a melodramatic novel set in seventeenth-century England by the French author Victor Hugo (1802–1882). First published in 1869, it was translated into English in 1871 and remained a bestseller in England well into the twentieth century.14 It tells the story of Gwynplaine, an abandoned boy whose face has been deliberately deformed by a mysterious group called the ‘comprachicos’, so that he seems always to be laughing. He is brought up by an itinerant philosopher, Ursus, and his wolf companion, Homo, along with a blind girl named Dea whom Gwynplaine found as a baby, freezing in a snowstorm beside the body of her dead mother. Dea and Gwynplaine fall in love and travel around the country as mountebanks, earning a living as a freak show, ‘The Laughing Man’. One day, Gwynplaine is suddenly taken away by the authorities and it is revealed to him that he was sold and mutilated aged two on the orders of King James II and his true identity is heir to the title and lands of Lord Fermain Clancharlie. Turning his back on his wealth, peerage and intended duchess bride, Gwynplaine escapes and returns to Ursus, Homo and Dea who, believing he was dead, are embarking on a sea voyage. Gwynplaine finds the fragile Dea seriously ill as a result of his absence and they are joyfully reunited but, tragically, the shock of his return proves fatal to Dea and she dies in his arms. Gwynplaine is inconsolable, and, determined to follow her in death, ‘The Laughing Man’ kills himself by jumping overboard and drowning.
In the catalogue for the 1972 Walker Art Gallery exhibition, Gail Engert suggests that three other sepia works on paper, Woman with Staff Beckoning at Open Door to a Man Held Back by Woman and Old Man and Dog c.1910 (private collection),15 Woman Clasping Baby Lying Among Sand Dunes with Man in Far Distance c.1910 (Walker Art Gallery),16 and Man Taking Baby from Dead Woman in Dune Landscape c.1910 (private collection),17 might also be illustrations loosely based upon Hugo’s Laughing Man.18 The subject of the latter two images seems to be the point in the story where Gwynplaine finds and rescues the baby Dea, although Engert points out that there are discrepancies between the text and Lightfoot’s interpretation of it.19 For example, the scenes are set amidst sand dunes, not a snow-covered landscape, and the figure of Gwynplaine is older and not as horrifyingly ugly as suggested by Hugo. Tate’s Study of a Girl might be also derived from the story. The girl is possibly meant to be the figure of the beautiful, blind Dea at the point in the story where she believes her lover, Gwynplaine, to have disappeared forever. In the following passage Gwynplaine returns to find Dea, watched over by her anxious adopted father Ursus, lying feverish and dying while she laments the loss of her love:
She [Dea] had just raised herself up on the mattress. She had on a long white dress, carefully closed, and showing only the delicate form of her neck. The sleeves covered her arms, the folds her feet. The branch-like tracery of blue veins, hot and swollen with fever, were visible on her hands. She was shivering and rocking, rather than reeling, to and fro like a reed. The lantern threw up its glancing light on her beautiful face. Her loosened hair floated over her shoulders. No tears fell on her cheeks. In her eyes there was fire, and darkness. She was pale, with that paleness which is like the transparency of a divine life in an earthly face. Her fragile and exquisite form was, as it were, blended and interfused with the folds of her robe. She wavered like the flicker of a flame, while, at the same time, she was dwindling into a shadow.20
Several details from this passage appear to relate closely to the image, for example, Dea’s loose hair and long white dress which completely covers the body but yet clearly shows her female ‘exquisite form’ beneath the folds of the material. The text also contains a number of references to light and shadow which conforms with the evocative lighting, heavy chiaroscuro and ominous looming shadow cast behind the girl in Lightfoot’s picture. The mood of the image is one of unhappiness, foreboding and pain but the central figure is also oddly rapturous. The upturned face of the seated woman is highly reminiscent of the figure of Elizabeth Siddall in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix c.1864–70 (Tate N01279, fig.3), blending notions of ecstasy and death which are also present in Hugo’s text. One of the woman’s eyes is closed and the other is covered by her hand, which could be a pictorial device for demonstrating Dea’s blindness. The drawing is not an exact reflection of the text. In the story, this scene takes places on board a ship setting sail from a harbour, but Lightfoot has set the figure instead within a simple room. However, it has been suggested by Engert that Lightfoot’s illustrations are not faithful representations of the novel but invoke the spirit and sense of the tale. If Tate’s drawing is one of Lightfoot’s Hugo illustrations, then it cannot be connected with the three drawings first listed above, since their subjects are not matched in the novel.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti 'Beata Beatrix' c.1864-70
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Beata Beatrix c.1864–70
Tate N01279
In the light of the artist’s suicide, following his parents’ disapproval of his engagement to a model, it is tempting to attribute Lightfoot’s interest in Hugo’s tragic romantic melodrama and the production of his emotionally charged and slightly bizarre 1910 sepia illustrations to an inherently unhappy and morbid temperament. Yet very little biographical detail is now known about Lightfoot, and although the Oxford professor and art collector, Sir Michael Sadler, who knew the artist, believed him to have suffered from depression,21 it is also possible that his art bears no relation to his unhappy suicide, the motivation for which is not fully understood. Something of his character is revealed in his letter to Rudolph Ihlee quoted above, in which he also complains that ‘London is quite a trial to me just now everyone you meet is happy and smiling’.22 His mode of expression is exaggerated and blustering, personally insecure, aggressive and deliberately archaic. It matches in these things the correspondence between fellow Slade contemporaries John Fothergill and James Dickson Innes,23 which is irreverent, frequently crude and even hostile about other artists and women, and probably reflects the affected way these young artists spoke to each other. Lightfoot’s attitude in the four drawings bears some relation to this, creating an image of an intense and private love, close to tragedy, removed from modern life and with some pleasure taken in the portrayal of the female model as victim.


The first known owner of this drawing was the artist Albert Rutherston (1881–1953), younger brother of William Rothenstein (1872–1945) and close friend of Spencer Gore. He trained at the Slade and was an exhibitor at the New English Art Club. As a member of the Fitzroy Street Group he would almost certainly have known Lightfoot personally.

Nicola Moorby
May 2003


Reproduced in The Painters of Camden Town 1905–1920, exhibition catalogue, Christie’s, London 1988 (88).
World, 21 June 1911, p.12.
Daily Telegraph, 22 June 1911, p.8.
Morning Post, 3 June 1911, p.16.
Quoted in Rudolph Ihlee 1883–1968, exhibition catalogue, Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield 1978, p.12.
See Emma Chambers, ‘Slade Influences on the Camden Town Group, 1896–1910’, The Camden Town Group, Tate 2011,
Notes by Sir Michael Ernest Sadler on the death of M.G. Lightfoot, Tate Archive TGA 8221/5.
David Fraser Jenkins, ‘Slade School Symbolists’, in The Last Romantics: The Romantic Tradition in British Art, Burne-Jones to Stanley Spencer, exhibition catalogue, Barbican Art Gallery, London 1989, p.71.
Walker Art Gallery WAG 7570. Reproduced in Maxwell Gordon Lightfoot 1886–1911, exhibition catalogue, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool 1972 (22, pl.8).
Walker Art Gallery WAG 7569. Reproduced ibid. (23, pl.9).
Ibid., appendix no.38.
Walker Art Gallery 1972, p.15.
Victor Hugo, The Laughing Man: The Authorised English Translation, trans. by Anna Caroline Steele, London 1887.
Walker Art Gallery 1972, appendix no.39.
Ibid. (24).
Ibid., appendix no.41.
Ibid., pp.15–16.
Hugo 1887, p.188.
Notes by Sir Michael Ernest Sadler on the death of M.G. Lightfoot, Tate Archive TGA 8221/5.
Quoted in Graves Art Gallery 1978, p.12.
Tate Archive TGA 7121/1–8.

How to cite

Nicola Moorby, ‘Study of a Girl c.1910 by Maxwell Gordon Lightfoot’, catalogue entry, May 2003, in Helena Bonett, Ysanne Holt, Jennifer Mundy (eds.), The Camden Town Group in Context, Tate Research Publication, May 2012,, accessed 04 December 2020.