The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

Spencer Gore Dancing in the Street c.1904

Gore’s watercolour, executed in a limited palette of monochrome browns, establishes its spatiality by using light lines in the distance and stronger or darker strokes in the foreground. Vigorous pen lines suggest he may have begun drawing on location, depicting the lively dancing of two working class women to the music of a barrel organ.
Spencer Gore 1878–1914
Dancing in the Street
c.1904
Graphite, ink and watercolour on paper
251 x 355 mm
Inscribed by ?Albert Rutherston ‘Drawing by F. Spencer Gore | Given to Albert Rutherston 1904 | The figure in hat on the right is meant to be Albert R.’ in red ink on back; stamped ‘AR’ monogram in red ink bottom left, the collection stamp of Albert Rutherston.
Presented by Albert Rutherston 1941
N05307

Entry

The back of this drawing is inscribed in red ink, probably by Albert Rutherston: ‘Drawing by F. Spencer Gore | Given to Albert Rutherston 1904 | The figure in hat on the right is meant to be Albert R.’ But Rutherston’s famously diminutive stature seems to make this identification somewhat unlikely, as the man in the hat is evidently taller than the figures on the left of the composition. On the back of the drawing is another inscription in pencil, ‘Gore (a Rutherston)’, probably made by Spencer Gore himself. The drawing was never used to form the basis of an oil painting, as many of Gore’s later drawings did, but is instead complete and independent in itself. The title was not Gore’s own. On 14 October 1941, Rutherston wrote to the director of the Tate Gallery, his nephew John Rothenstein, ‘Give the Gore drawing any title you choose, “Street Scene”, “Street Dancers?”’1
The vigour of the pen and ink lines and the way in which the figures are freely sketched suggest that Gore might have started this drawing on the spot. The man on the left is playing a barrel organ, and the dancers may either be part of his busking act or, more likely perhaps, women who have spontaneously started to dance. Gore was of course an enthusiastic sketcher of dance in the theatre, but this street scene is perhaps the earliest evidence of his growing interest in outdoor urban observation. This is a scene of working class entertainment, adding a frisson of naturalist surveillance to Gore’s act of drawing. The dancing women’s raised skirts revealing their legs would, even in 1904, still have transgressed boundaries of middle class probity. Such spontaneity, vitality and lack of concern for social convention were attributes of a long-standing stereotypical view of working class life and culture. In the popular imagination, London cockneys were portrayed as cheerful, indefatigable and nearly always game for singing or dancing.
William Orpen 'Improvisation on a Barrel Organ' 1904
Fig.1
William Orpen
Improvisation on a Barrel Organ 1904
Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool
Photo © National Museums Liverpool
British pictures using working class city street life as their backdrop or setting can be traced back at least as far as the satires of William Hogarth (1697–1764), while narrative driven or anecdotal scenes were a staple of Victorian painters such as William Powell Frith (1819–1909) and George Elgar Hicks (1824–1914). Gore’s belief in the potential of direct observation was perhaps most strongly derived from Edgar Degas, but it was his theatre pictures which were the most obvious result of this influence. In terms of painting the city itself, Gore usually chose scenes immediately around where he lived, such as Mornington Crescent (Tate N05099), and tended to show what they looked like rather than inhabit them with the colourful anecdote of Dancing in the Street. Indeed, the exoticism and liveliness of the subject is virtually unique among his non-theatre pictures. In part, at least, he may perhaps have been drawn to the theme by seeing William Orpen’s Improvisation on a Barrel Organ 1904 (fig.1), shown at the exhibition of the New English Art Club in the summer of 1904. Gore and Orpen were on relatively friendly terms, being exact contemporaries at the Slade, and who had many friends in common, most notably Rutherston.
This drawing dates from around 1904, the year Rutherston and Gore made a painting expedition to Cany in France. Rutherston had first met Walter Sickert in 1900 with Max Beerbohm and Reggie Turner while he was on his way to Cany to meet up with his brother William Rothenstein, Augustus John and Orpen. On this 1904 trip, Rutherston suggested that he and Gore visit Dieppe so that his friend would have the opportunity to meet Sickert.2 It became part of the self-mythology of Sickert’s life that this encounter precipitated his return to the London art scene.3 Gore spoke enthusiastically of a new generation of young painters. Impressed by Gore, Sickert seems to have judged it an opportune moment to rejoin the fray of the London avant-garde, and saw an opportunity to become the focus of a group of younger artists.
Albeit at a later date than the drawings in the Tate collection, Gore’s attitude towards draughtsmanship was made clear in his correspondence with his pupil John Doman Turner from 1908 to 1913. Doman Turner was deaf, and Gore undertook to teach him drawing by correspondence, a sequence that totals forty-two letters. He stressed to Doman Turner that ‘A drawing is an explanation of an observation’, and advised cultivating a certain detachment from the subject itself while working: ‘I have always had too great an admiration for Victoria Monks to be able to make a decent drawing of her. One is liable to be too particular. You must forget that she interests you at all while you draw her.’4 In his first letter, dated 8 June 1908, Gore advised Doman Turner to ‘draw anything that interests you’;5 in the second, on 26 June, he described his recommended way of drawing:
It is much better to start in the middle of a bit of paper and let your drawing grow out to each side as far as it wants to ... A drawing should grow like a plant grows, gradually, round one point. Don’t think about making patterns but of drawing objects in such a way that a sculptor could model from them; to represent the length depth and breadth of an object or a series of objects as if you were passing your hand over them and had understood them by touch and not only by sight.
Contour and light and shade have no value of themselves, it does not matter whether the lines are clumsy and the shadow ragged so long they both help to explain the size and shape of some form in relation to the other forms which go to make up the object or objects that you are drawing.6
On 8 September Gore wrote ‘Nearly everything I have told you comes through Walter Sickert from Degas, Sickert is one of the few persons who knows Degas really well’.7

Robert Upstone
May 2009

Notes

1
Albert Rutherston, letter to John Rothenstein, 14 October 1941, Tate Archive TGA 8726/4/11.
2
See Albert Rutherston, ‘From Orpen and Gore to the Camden Town Group’, Burlington Magazine, vol.83, no.485, August 1943, pp.201–5.
3
See Matthew Sturgis, Walter Sickert: A Life, London 2005, pp.336–7.
4
Spencer Gore, letter to John Doman Turner, 22 November 1910, private collection, no.29.
5
Spencer Gore, letter to John Doman Turner, 8 June 1908, private collection, no.1.
6
Spencer Gore, letter to John Doman Turner, 26 June 1908, private collection, no.2.
7
Spencer Gore, letter to John Doman Turner, 8 September 1908, private collection, no.5.

How to cite

Robert Upstone, ‘Dancing in the Street c.1904 by Spencer Gore’, catalogue entry, May 2009, 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/spencer-gore-dancing-in-the-street-r1136453, accessed 23 March 2019.