Modern but not modernist in style, Camden Town painting was at its height in the years following the death of Queen Victoria and before the dramatic changes in British society and culture that occurred during and after the First World War. In this essay, first published in the Tate Britain catalogue Modern Painters: The Camden Town Group (2008), Robert Upstone examines the artistic and historical context of the Camden Town Group.
Founded in 1911, the Camden Group had only a brief life, but heralded a new spirit in British painting. Marking a particular moment in art’s move towards the modern, it was soon overtaken by the abstraction of Wyndham Lewis and vorticism, and the authentic modernism of David Bomberg, Jacob Epstein, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and others. There were just three Camden Town exhibitions, all held at the basement space of the Carfax Gallery in Bury Street, St James’s, in June and December 1911 and December 1912. Each of the sixteen painter members was permitted to show four works, which were hung together. With their pulsating colour harmonies and urban subject matter, the Group were consciously identified as modern but they occupied a comfortable – and perhaps quintessentially British – middle ground between tradition and the truly avant-garde. At the time of the Group’s founding, British art was fairly isolated from the radical developments of cubist abstraction that had taken place in Paris. Little advanced continental art was visible in London until the explosive impact of Roger Fry’s exhibition Manet and the Post-Impressionists in 1910–11. But the Camden Town Group’s choice of everyday subjects from London life, their bold, anti-naturalistic colouring and – in the case of some members – an interest in progressively simplifying forms, presented a type of painting that however briefly was new and different in the London of 1911. By breaking the rules of Edwardian propriety and selecting subjects from working-class life or the city itself, they retain a sympathetic position, capturing an experience of London that still has resonance.
What then are the unifying factors that distinguish Camden Town painting? If anything it is a shared interest in common urban subjects, the streets and people of London, everyday scenes, sometimes mundane, sometimes extraordinary. They depict chars and coster girls; nudes in shabby north London bedrooms, the dust caught in shafts of sunlight; suburban street scenes; the cab trade; the popular entertainment of the music hall, and the audience in the cheap seats and gallery who came to see it; a working men’s eating house; a notorious murder; the lassitude of isolated figures in an Edwardian park. There is also a distinctive Camden Town style. These subjects are all painted in dry, thick, crusty paint, applied in broken touches, either in brilliant, vibrating colour combinations of mauves, pinks and greens, as is the case with Spencer Gore, Charles Ginner, Harold Gilman and Robert Bevan, or in the darker, richer, Old-Master tones favoured by Walter Sickert. As a phenomenon Camden Town painting predates the formation of the Group itself: it goes back to 1906 when Sickert was painting La Hollandaise (fig.1) in a grimy bedroom, and to Gore’s emulation of him in 1907, and it continues beyond the period of its cohesive group identity through the years of the First World War, when Gilman painted his iconic studies of his landlady Mrs Mounter in his rooms in Maple Street off Tottenham Court Road (fig.2). But in its collective egalitarian belief in the pathos of ordinary city life, its ancestry lay with Sickert’s paintings of the music hall in the 1880s and 1890s, and his declaration, in the preface to the only exhibition of the ‘London Impressionists’ in December 1889, of his strong belief that the mission of the Impressionist artist was to study and reproduce the beauty of nature in all forms, and that in his view Impressionism:
does not admit the narrow interpretation of the word ‘Nature’ which would stop short outside the four-mile radius. It is, on the contrary, strong in the belief that for those who live in the most wonderful and complex city in the world, the most fruitful course of study lies in a persistent effort to render the magic and the poetry which they daily see around them.1
Walter Richard Sickert 1860–1942
La Hollandaise c.1906
Oil paint on canvas
support: 511 x 406 mm; frame: 722 x 630 x 104 mm
Walter Richard Sickert
La Hollandaise c.1906
Harold Gilman 1876–1919
Mrs Mounter at the Breakfast Table exhibited 1917
Oil paint on canvas
support: 610 x 406 mm; frame: 808 x 605 x 93 mm
Mrs Mounter at the Breakfast Table exhibited 1917
Nor was this itself a particularly new idea. Going back as far as 1863, in his essay ‘The Painter of Modern Life’, Baudelaire had called for contemporary existence to form the subject of a vibrant new art that suited the modernity of the times, and in particular the new metropolitan experience. And as early as 1848, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had declared their own aim to be painters of modern life subjects. But what was different for the Camden Town Group was the position that London now occupied in the shared consciousness of the British public, and they were not alone in responding to it. The experience of the city, glimpses into ordinary peoples’ lives and the proximity of different classes featured as the background for a new breed of naturalist literature,2
written by among others Arnold Bennett, H.G. Wells, Joseph Conrad and Somerset Maugham, the last of whom purchased one of Gore’s Mornington Crescent paintings at the Group’s first show.3
E.M. Forster’s stories frequently revolve around the disjunction between people with different principles or backgrounds. In Howards End
(1910) London is the environment in which intellectual, upper middle and working class characters collide, with tragic consequences; Forster’s entreaty is ‘only connect’. The growth and dominance of the city was a leitmotif for Edwardian Britain. By 1910 only about a fifth of the population lived in the countryside.4
In London, motor cars and buses became a normal sight and by 1910 horse cabs in the metropolis were outnumbered by motors.5
Traffic jams and crowded pavements, a modern Underground system, electric lighting, telephones, film shows, aeroplanes at Hendon – all these things gave a distinctly modern flavour to the experience of London, albeit one that mixed glimpses of grandeur and technological advancement with grime, the decaying city of the past and dysfunctional social relations. This very distinct urban flavour lent a particular character to the subject matter of the Camden Town Group.
This was also a time of some economic and social instability, and one that seems therefore to have nurtured new cultural developments. The gap between Queen Victoria’s death in 1901 and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 is an awkward period to define, but it is one that sits as part of much longer narratives of economic progress and decline, of cultural change and fissure. While the period is generally described as Edwardian, Edward VII died in 1910. In our occasionally simplified mental impressions it rests isolated, a hiatus between the stereotyped strict repression of Victorian society and the unfettered horror of the Great War. It is perhaps a world we think we know best through Merchant Ivory film adaptations of Forster’s novels. We have resting in our minds images propagated by such films of stability, of endless golden summers, of tea on middle class lawns and sumptuous fashions, of a calm, upright, well-ordered society, immortalised in paint by John Singer Sargent, William Orpen and John Lavery. Yet this was the era in which the word ‘crisis’ was first coined. It was a period that began with the bitter conflict of one war, against the Boer settlers of South Africa, and ended with the greater international calamity of another’s outbreak. In between, British society was often anything but calm.
By 1913 British industrial production was the highest it had ever been, but Britain had lost its position of economic global dominance. In 1860 it had produced a greater proportion by an enormous degree of the world’s coal, pig iron, steel and cotton. But by 1911–13 Britain had been overtaken in all four of these areas by the United States, by a similarly large margin. In steel production alone, the United States generated four times more than Britain. And following America, Germany was mostly in second place for world heavy industrial production, except in cotton, due to British imperial possessions.6
British agriculture was in a similarly vulnerable position. Cheap American grain imports constantly drove down prices and already narrow profit margins, and lowered the value of land and the income of those who owned it. Similar negative effects were created by imports of cheap tinned and preserved foods from the Empire. In manufacturing, Britain had surrendered its position as the workshop of the world. It had been overtaken, again by America, and much of British investment was not at home but abroad. Britain was becoming ‘a parasitic rather than a competitive economy, living off the remains of world monopoly, the underdeveloped world, her past accumulations of wealth and the advance of her rivals.’7
The British economy shrank from industrial competition, and instead focussed on the magnificent profits that were possible from being the hub of international finance and trade with its rivals.
Wages stagnated, and prices went up somewhat. Life expectancy was higher than it had ever been, due to improving social conditions, and nutritional and medical advances. Infant mortality figures declined while the population as a whole soared. The 1906 general election brought a certain polarisation of social expectation; it was a landslide win for the Liberals, but Labour won its first sizeable portion of seats. Liberal social reform policies were set against worsening relations with the House of Lords, and the blocking of legislation. Amid rising prices, Labour relation troubles flared, and strikes became a source of concern to cadres of the right who wanted a return to deference and stability. Votes for women became an increasingly bitter struggle. Founded in 1903, the Women’s Social and Political Union led by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst marshalled half a million at a rally in Hyde Park in 1908. Growing progressively militant, the movement followed a strategy of direct action – a bomb was planted in Westminster Abbey and there was a letter bomb campaign; country houses of government figures were burnt, including that of David Lloyd George, Chancellor of the Exchequer; churches and railway carriages were torched, phone lines cut, government office windows broken, and members refused to pay their taxes. Those sent to prison went on hunger strike and were force fed; Emily Davison threw herself under the King’s horse at Ascot in 1913 and was killed; and in March 1914 Mary Richardson slashed Velasquez’s Rokeby Venus with a meat cleaver in the National Gallery.
Amid the domestic discord of strikes, suffragetism and renewed calls for an independent Ireland, a wave of nationalistic fervour swept Britain, a reaction to rising tensions in Anglo-German relations. Britain was angered by German support of the Boers during the South African War (1899–1902) and by Kaiser Wilhelm’s pursuit of colonies in Africa and elsewhere to rival the British Empire. For some decades in the nineteenth century Britain was the principal European manufacturer of consumer goods, but by the beginning of the new century Germany had become a significant rival. The Kaiser’s decision to double the size of the German navy led to a naval arms race with Britain, whose position of maritime supremacy was threatened for the first time since the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Britain’s answer was to develop the Dreadnought battleship, the largest and most heavily armed warship the world had ever known, the first of which appeared in 1906. Such craft were viewed as the principal deterrent to imminent German invasion, fear of which was rife. It formed the subject of best-selling novels such as The Riddle of the Sands
(1903) by Erskine Childers, and The Invasion of England
(1905) by William le Queux, which was as popular in Germany as Britain and had different endings in each country. Anxieties reached frenzied levels in 1909, when rumours, newspaper stories and Parliamentary questions together whipped up worries about invasion and espionage. Spurious sightings of zeppelins were reported, and on 12 May 1909 the MP for Grimsby, Sir George Doughty, claimed that two ships full of German soldiers had sailed unchallenged in and out of the River Humber.8
In the Commons on 19 May 1909 the MP for Frome asked the Secretary for War, who dismissed it as nonsense, if he could confirm the rumour that 66,000 German soldiers were resident in southern England awaiting orders, and that a cache of rifles was hidden for them in London.9
Such stories were, however, given considerable popular credence, fed by a perception that Britain was losing the naval arms race with Germany.