The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

[?Walter Bayes], ‘The Camden Town Group’

Athenæum, [?24 June 1911].

This society, whose first exhibition is at the Carfax Gallery, has been launched upon the town as representing the extreme of revolutionary modernity. Its members have thrown over all convention, we are told, and acknowledge no artistic rule, every man being a law unto himself. We are loath to do anything to deprive them of the passport to public favour that goes with the title of “art-anarchists,” but as a matter of fact it is not the novelty of the art displayed that constitutes its merit. It is indeed, for the most part, new to the public only to this extent – that hitherto such work, when seen at the New English Art Club, has been shown in a rather shame-faced fashion, as though the hanging committee were somewhat doubtful of the sufficiency of its merits; so that it has been easy for the critic to ignore it, if he was at all puzzled or uncertain on that point. We have ourselves perhaps been guilty of some such procrastination in regard to the curiously reserved and objective landscapes of M. Lucien Pissarro, one of the principal members of the Group. M. Pissarro has a very personal preference in the way of subject – presumably genuine, as it would seem to be a singularly unremunerative perversity. The normal landscape painter seeks in nature some subject which enables him to express symbolically the natural human desire for continuity of idea. He loves effects in which detail is fused in a simple ensemble, or co-ordinated in broadly contrasted categories – preferences which, when weakened by the habit of thoughtless production, may degenerate into a mechanical repetition of certain stock contrasts – of warm and cold colour, of obvious light and shadow, of horizontal and upright forms, and so forth – to which the painter’s observations from nature are forcibly constrained to assimilate, though the binding principle which in reality is to be discerned in her themes may be of a different and more subtle nature. It is perhaps in disgust at such blunted perceptions that M. Pissarro, though in the planning of his subject he shows a considerable sense of patterning, not only approaches the question of colour with stern determination to read into his theme no unifying principle which is not of Nature’s contriving, but also selects by preference effects of light which almost defy attempts to see in them any principle of harmony at all. He loves a harsh, matter-of-fact illumination where one thing separates from another with pitiless crudity, and the prospect offers nothing but a gaunt statement of certain concrete facts in themselves, often singularly fortuitous and without general significance.
Perhaps no kind of place presents to the imaginative observer a face more baffling than a suburb like Acton, and under certain aspects it has enabled M. Pissarro on several occasions to do something like justice to its desolating vacuity (No. 15 is a typical example of such success). There are moments when Acton transfigured becomes a type of the perennial beauty of the earth. M. Pissarro waves aside such obvious romanticism, and conscientiously and historically gives us Acton in quintessential perfection.
It might seem that in the painting of the unsocial aspect of a London suburb there was a fine suitability in the use of harshly subdivided colours, each insistent, yet degraded; but it is difficult to admire without uneasiness a painter who, whatever be his theme, inclines to the same “flat” note. Modern art rightly tolerates an occasional discord for purposes of expression, but we confess we are unable, after much study of the odd use of colour by M. Pissarro, to decide whether it implies ironic comment on the superficial pettiness of modern life or inability to imagine anything more generous and more ample. Pessimism in art is always apt to drape itself in an appearance of subtlety, and in M. Pissarro’s dispirited canvases there is a certain refreshing acridity, preferable perhaps to the sugary and cloying sweetness of colour adopted by Mr. Bevan in conjunction with a feeling for characteristic drawing healthy enough. The essential sugariness of the latter artist’s colour is not effectually disguised by the violence of its intervals, and it seems strange when associated with his frank common sense in the handling of form, as if a well-worded, crisp verse were set to a sickly sentimental tune.
If M. Pissarro’s use of colour is an apotheosis of the blindly fortuitous, Mr. Ginner (36–39) seems the victim of successive waves of vague and unrelated emotion, and is thus, perhaps, as typically a modern of the moderns as Van Gogh himself in his most flaccid moments. Again, the work seems to be quite sincere, Mr. Ginner apparently having enjoyed in No. 36 the complete relaxation of any effort at order or control, such as was the basis of classic art. If art be the expression of personality, this is art of a sort – in our own view, bad art. No. 39, The Sunlit Wall, despite much meaningless violence, shows more ambition to set down an imaginative view of things in coherent fashion, and we would urge Mr. Ginner to present this side of his personality rather than that resulting from the cultivation of miscellaneous emotion.
The other exhibitors (except for one or two included in the show in a spirit of personal camaraderie rather than from community of intention) are artists of the Impressionist School, several of whom have an admirable sense of colour, and one of them, Mr. Spencer Gore (whose work we have recently discussed), a power of dainty design. Mr. Harold Gilman (52–55) shows as a rule less readiness than Mr. Gore to concede the little inventions of touch which give the pictures of the latter a finish of pattern so decorative in effect. On the other hand, Mr. Gilman’s Head of an Old Woman (55) is a robust, serious portrait, of greater power than any other figure-painting in the room, excepting perhaps Mr. Sickert’s (12) Camden Town Murder, No. 2. Even this impresses us more by its fine sense of illumination than by the sheer sincerity of characterization which makes Mr. Gilman’s work so promising. Ranking for the present as of the same school as Mr. Gilman, Mr. Gore, and Mr. Drummond (the last a similar painter of rather more obviously vivid colour, 44–47), Mr. Sickert does not succeed in making us forget an earlier manner, an example of which now at the Carfax Gallery (The Old Oxford Music-Hall, uncatalogued) confirms us in the impression that that earlier manner, with its broadly planned masses and liquid facture, was intrinsically a superior method of painting for the purposes of Mr. Sickert’s talent. A vision which seizes so boldly on an arabesque has need of paint of some complexity of structure to give it mystery; some of the immediateness of the observation, moreover, is lost by sacrificing for a technique of spots the swift continuity of stroke united with the variety of touch got by working in relatively thin paint.
Of the minority who stand definitely apart from this school of Impressionists, Mr. Gilman’s and Mr. Gore’s by birthright, Mr. Sickert’s by – perhaps hasty – adoption, Mr. Lightfoot shows the most important work (17–20), which is all of it full of promise. Mr. Lamb is better represented at the Studio show at Fitzroy Street, which is open till the end of this month. Here he has a replica of the ‘Mort d’une Paysanne,’ at the Suffolk Street Galleries, in some respects even better than that astonishing work.
© Estate of Walter Bayes

How to cite

[?Walter Bayes], ‘The Camden Town Group’, in Athenæum, [?24 June 1911], in Helena Bonett, Ysanne Holt, Jennifer Mundy (eds.), The Camden Town Group in Context, Tate Research Publication, May 2012,, accessed 23 April 2024.