The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

Spencer Gore North London Girl c.1911-12

The sitter of Gore’s picture helped serve tea at the Saturday afternoon ‘At Homes’ held at 19 Fitzroy Street, where artists and collectors gathered to display and discuss painting. The woman lived in nearby Cumberland Market, and is shown here in hat and overcoat as if she has just arrived or is about to depart the cosy surroundings. Gore pays as much attention to the luminosity of her complexion – drawn out with greens, blues and pinks – as to the billowing folds of the curtain and the floral wallpaper behind her.
Spencer Gore 1878–1914
North London Girl
c.1911–12
Oil paint on canvas
760 x 610 mm
Inscribed by Harold Gilman ‘painted by SPF Gore in 1909, signed (74)’ in ink and ‘1908/09’ in pencil on paper label on back; studio stamp ‘S.F. GORE’ bottom right.
Bequeathed by J.W. Freshfield 1955
T00027

Entry

Sitter

The name of the sitter is not known, but in a letter to the Tate Gallery of October 1960, Gore’s widow Mollie recalled that ‘she was such a nice woman, married, with several children. She kept the rooms clean at 19 Fitzroy Street dispensed tea on Saturday afternoons, looking v. handsome in a black velvet dress.’1 The writer John Woodeson stated that:
Mrs S. Gore informed me that the picture was painted in Mornington Crescent in the second floor front sitting room.2 The woman was employed to clean the studio at 19 Fitzroy Street and later the Gore’s home at Houghton Place, and occasionally babysat for Mrs. Gore. She was married with six children, and lived not far away in Cumberland Market.3
Gore’s Woman Standing in a Window c.1908 (Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Fredericton, Canada) appears to be another portrait of the same person. The sitter in his Nude 1910 (fig.1), which once belonged to Gilman, seems to have an even closer similarity to the sitter in North London Girl.
Spencer Gore 'Nude' 1910
Fig.1
Spencer Gore
Nude 1910
Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery
Photo © Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery

19 Fitzroy Street

It had been Sickert’s idea in spring 1907 to rent first-floor rooms at 19 Fitzroy Street where works by a loose association of artists with whom he felt in sympathy might be displayed and sold. The founder members were Sickert, Gore, Gilman, Walter Russell, William Rothenstein and Albert Rutherston, who were joined shortly afterwards by Lucien Pissarro, Ethel Sands and Nan Hudson, and in 1908 by Robert Bevan. It was from this nucleus that later the Camden Town Group would partly be drawn. The Fitzroy Street painters held regular gatherings on Saturday afternoons, where works on show would be discussed and potential patrons invited to purchase. It was partly an attempt to break free from a reliance on dealers, who were not always sympathetic to their work, and therefore gain a degree of independence. Sickert explained in a letter to Hudson that in setting up the Fitzroy Street salon it was his intention to:
Accustom people weekly to see work in a different notation from the current English one. Make it clear that we all have work for sale at prices that people of moderate means could afford. (That a picture costs less than a supper at the Savoy.) Make known the work of painters who are already producing ripe work, but who are still elbowed or kept out by timidity etc ... And of course no one will feel we are jumping at the throats to buy. That comes of its own accord. People pay attention to things seen constantly and judiciously explained a little.4
But Sickert also explained that he set up this exhibiting circle ‘for 2 reasons’:
Because it is more interesting to people to see the work of 7 or 9 people than one and because I want to keep up an incessant proselytizing agency to accustom people to mine and other painters’ work of a modern character. Every week we could put something different on the easels ... All the painters interested could keep work there and would have keys and could show anything by appointment to anyone at any time ... I want to create a Salon d’automne milieu in London.5
The art collector Sir Louis Fergusson gave a vivid recollection in 1930 of the ‘At Homes’ at 19 Fitzroy Street:
There was an appetising smell of tea and pigment as you ascended to a glorious afternoon of pictures and of talk. Easels and chairs faced the fireplace with a serried stack of canvases against the wall. Six works or more of an individual painter were extricated in turn, each Fitzroyalist displaying his quota or having it displayed for him by the untiring Gore ... Mr. Sickert put every caller at his ease. ‘It is so nice,’ he said, for example, to an appreciative but diffident visitor ‘to come across a person with the same religion as oneself – a good Impressionist!’ Sickert was the host-in-chief ... Next might come the turn of Gore himself. He had the look of a dreamer, and the whimsical charm of his manner seemed to suggest that his art was making him supremely happy.6
Patrons who attended the Fitzroy Street afternoons included Sir Hugh Lane, Cyril Butler, Hugh Hammersley, Judge William Evans, Walter Taylor, Mrs Charles Hunter, Mrs Donaldson Hudson and Mrs Salaman, well-off individuals who were established collectors. Discussing the types of people he wished to attract, in 1907 Sickert had written to Hudson:
I want (and this we can all understand and never say) to get together a milieu rich or poor, refined or even to some extent vulgar, which is interested in painting and in the things of the intelligence, and which has not ... an aggressively anti-moral attitude. To put it on the lowest grounds, it interferes with business.7

Women in interiors

Walter Richard Sickert 'The New Home' 1908
Fig.2
Walter Richard Sickert
The New Home 1908
Private collection, Ivor Braka Ltd
© Estate of Walter R. Sickert / DACS
Photo © Ivor Braka Ltd, London
Through his career, Gore made a number of works depicting female sitters in interiors. He would undoubtedly have been aware of pictures similar to North London Girl that Sickert had made, showing women in a domestic setting wearing hats, such as Mrs Barrett 1906 (private collection),8 L’Américaine 1908 (Tate N05090), The New Home 1908 (fig.2) and Two Women c.1911 (fig.3). Sickert’s models were all working-class women; Mrs Barrett was said to be Sickert’s charwoman,9 and the sitters for the other two pictures were ‘two divine coster girls’, whom Sickert relished for ‘the sumptuous poverty of their dress’.10 Gore’s selection of a woman of a similar class might have imitated Sickert’s preference for working women as models, although Gore was also painting interiors which featured his wife by the time he made the Tate painting. He had approached a related subject as early as 1907 with The Flowered Hat or Someone Who Waits (fig.4). This contre-jour head and shoulders study of a woman in front of a window is made in a thoroughly Sickertian idiom, albeit more brightly coloured and, as Sickert favoured, adopting an ambiguous title to add tension, as well as showing a figure walking along the street outside that a label on the stretcher identifies as the older artist himself.11
Walter Richard Sickert 'Two Women' c.1911
Fig.3
Walter Richard Sickert
Two Women c.1911
Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston
© Estate of Walter R. Sickert / DACS
Photo © Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston
Spencer Gore 'The Flowered Hat or Someone Who Waits' c.1907
Fig.4
Spencer Gore
The Flowered Hat or Someone Who Waits c.1907
Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery
Photo © Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery

In North London Girl, Gore treats the sitter with sensitivity and seeks to evoke something of her character. Gore believed strongly in the role of the artist as observer, and felt it wrong to impose too much personality on a portrait. He wrote to his pupil John Doman Turner:
That the artist comments on life as he sees it by means of some material, and he may digest his observations in any way, that is he may be a decorative painter or a sculptor or a naturalistic painter. He may have much or little to say. But they must be first hand observation of life and nature: he cant feed either on his own entrails or anyone elses. Taste is only a fashion or an attempt to form a fashion. The artist must be outside it, a looker on, a recorder of it, but not an apostle or a propogandist. If painting a portrait for instance, its not the business of the painter to dress his sitter to show his taste in dress, but to have them in the clothes naturally characteristic of them.12
Harold Gilman 'Stanislawa de Karlowska (Mrs Robert Bevan)' c.1913
Fig.5
Harold Gilman
Stanislawa de Karlowska (Mrs Robert Bevan) c.1913
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund
Evidently, he was as interested in paying equal attention to the rich textures, patterns and colours of his sitter’s clothes and surroundings as to their face. This was a practice that Gilman, in particular, became interested in slightly later, and he often liked to juxtapose his figures in a domestic interior by showing them against a background or beside a strip of brightly coloured, patterned wallpaper, as in his portraits of Sylvia Gosse 1913 (Southampton City Art Gallery),13 Stanislawa de Karlowska c.1913 (fig.5) and Ruth Doggett c.1915 (private collection).14 Sickert had used a prominent background of patterned wallpaper in The New Home in 1908, but ultimately it was a device all three artists derived from continental painting, notably from Edouard Vuillard.
When Sickert showed The New Home at the New English Art Club in the summer of 1908, the critic for the Pall Mall Gazette commented that, ‘Here is a woman ill at ease, apparently her hat not yet removed’.15 It was socially acceptable for Edwardian women to keep their hats on indoors, and might have been normal at more formal social gatherings. But at home it would have been unusual. Consequently, the fact that the models are wearing hats lends a certain tension to the scene, as if they have just come inside, or are about to leave. The sitter in North London Girl also seems to be wearing her outdoor coat, which accentuates the feeling of discomfort and lack of relaxation, in opposition to the domestic setting in which she is seated. The lack of an object on which her gaze might be focused suggests that she is staring into space, lost in thought, looking inwards rather than outwards. Similarly, it allows the spectator to scrutinise her without the gaze being met or challenged, a great contrast to the direct, confident stare of Mollie Gore in The Artist’s Wife 1913 (Tate T03561), and one which perhaps reflects the artist’s conscious or unconscious attitude towards the sitter’s status as a servant.

Ownership and date

The first owner of the painting was J.W. Freshfield who purchased a number of Camden Town pictures between the two world wars. In addition to North London Girl he also bequeathed to the Tate Gallery Gore’s The Fig Tree 1912 (Tate T00028), and to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, Gore’s Morning: The Green Dress c.1908–9,16 122 prints by Sickert, and Sickert’s Lady in Red: Mrs Swinton c.1906.17
Although Harold Gilman dated the work 1908–9 on a label on the back of the canvas after Gore’s death in 1914, the style of the work makes it more likely c.1911–12.

Robert Upstone
May 2009

Notes

1
Mollie Gore, letter to the Tate Gallery, October 1960, Tate Catalogue file.
2
6 Mornington Crescent, where Gore lodged with the local vicar before marrying.
3
Spencer Gore 1878–1914, exhibition catalogue, The Minories, Colchester 1970 (39).
4
Walter Sickert, letter to Nan Hudson, 1907, Tate Archive TGA 9125/5; quoted in Wendy Baron, Perfect Moderns: A History of the Camden Town Group, Aldershot and Vermont 2000, p.26.
5
Walter Sickert, letter to Nan Hudson, 1907, Tate Archive TGA 9125/5; quoted in Baron 2000, p.24.
6
Louis Fergusson, ‘Souvenir of Camden Town: A Commemorative Exhibition’, Studio, vol.90, February 1930, pp.111–12.
7
Walter Sickert, letter to Nan Hudson, 1907, Tate Archive TGA 9125/5; quoted in Baron 2000, p.26.
8
Reproduced in Sickert: Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy, London 1992 (52), and Wendy Baron, Sickert: Paintings and Drawings, New Haven and London 2006, no.267.
9
Wendy Baron, Sickert, London 1973, no.218.
10
Walter Sickert, letter to Ethel Sands and Nan Hudson, Tate Archive TGA 9125/5; quoted in Royal Academy 1992 (67).
11
Baron 2000, no.28.
12
Spencer Gore, letter to John Doman Turner, undated, private collection, no.14.
13
Reproduced in Modern Painters: The Camden Town Group, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2008 (48).
14
Reproduced Harold Gilman 1876–1919, exhibition catalogue, Arts Council, London 1981 (63).
15
Pall Mall Gazette, 3 June 1908; quoted in Royal Academy 1992 (67).
16
Reproduced in Baron 2000, no.30.
17
Reproduced in Royal Academy 1992 (53).

How to cite

Robert Upstone, ‘North London Girl c.1911–12 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-north-london-girl-r1139299, accessed 20 March 2019.