The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

Walter Bayes The Ford c.1917-20

A woman holding a mint-coloured parasol leans over a railway bridge at Barmouth estuary in North Wales, as several cows cross through the channel at low tide and two children scramble up a grassy embankment. In the distance, a train and its smoke plume curve into view. Bayes’s flat colour and even treatment of figures and landscape lend a sense of everyday familiarity to this composition.
Walter Bayes 1869–1956
The Ford
c.1917–20
Oil paint on canvas
1030 x 1445 mm
Inscribed by the artist in purple/brown paint ‘WALTER BAYES’ bottom right
Purchased (Clarke Fund) 1928
N04388

Entry

Background

Although Walter Bayes has now fallen into relative obscurity, many reviewers of the three Camden Town Group exhibitions expressed positive views of his work. Some of the more conservative critics preferred his paintings to those of his now more famous colleagues. The general consensus was summed up by A.J. Finberg, who wrote during the third Carfax Gallery exhibition: ‘What on earth he [Bayes] is doing or proposes to do in such a gallery is no doubt only his affair, but at least he has serious and definite aims as a painter’.1 Many reviewers were unable to comprehend Bayes’s inclusion in a gallery of artists from whom he was so obviously different in style and outlook, but almost all praised his intellectually sound approach to composition, colour and design and the decorative appeal of his paintings. The Pall Mall Gazette declared that Bayes was ‘very decidedly among the freshest and brightest influences in current painting’,2 whilst the Morning Post called him ‘one of the most brilliant of our younger men ... No other painter exhibiting is more respectful of his technical accomplishment than Mr. Bayes.’3
Tate’s The Ford is the second of two versions of the subject by the artist. The first version was painted during the First World War and was exhibited by William Marchant at the Goupil Gallery in ‘that window looking on to Lower Regent St. which for so long was the best place in London for showing pictures’.4 Despite its advantageous display spot, however, it failed to attract a buyer and was subsequently taken to Arthur Clifton at the Carfax Gallery who suggested that it should be titled ‘The Ford’ and sent to the Royal Academy in 1917. In a letter to the Tate Gallery, Bayes wrote in 1953:
This was done but it was badly skied [hung high] and looked over decorated for its age. I took a dislike for it but not for its subject so did it again with a thorough basis of perspective. Your picture is the second version which I sent to the NEAC. It was very well hung but attracted no attention being quite out of fashion in style.5
Matters of perspective remained a preoccupation throughout Bayes’s life. In an article explaining the teaching policies of the Westminster School of Art, Bayes revealed that he regarded perspective as the indispensable basis of structure within painting. He wrote that all students were expected to acquire a thorough grasp of the theory of perspective, with which it was possible to represent ‘anything of which we know the dimensions and structural principles, instead of being limited to painting people we can get to pose for us or places we can draw from some secure point of vantage’.6 It is clear from Bayes’s letter that for the second painting, he made changes to the composition and structure based upon a theoretical application of the rules of perspective. This would have been done in the studio and not in front of the landscape itself. The whereabouts and appearance of the first version of The Ford are currently unknown.

Composition

Tate’s painting is a characteristic example of Bayes’s systematic approach to art, referred to in his obituary as ‘the science of picture making’.7 The painting shows a landscape with mountains in the distance and a railway bridge stretching across a tidal river, which is at low enough ebb for a group of cows to traverse from one side to another. A woman with a green parasol and a young boy wearing shorts are standing on the bridge leaning against the rail. Another boy helps a young girl scramble up the bank to join them and a fifth girl, wearing what looks like a sailor suit with cap and with a long plait hanging down her back, stands in the centre of the railway track and points down the line. Her gesture draws the viewer’s eye down around the curve of the track towards a train approaching in the distance. All of the figures are wearing informal summer holiday clothes.
Within his paintings, Bayes was careful to achieve a balance of colour and tone across the whole picture, integrating figures within the landscape so that no single element visually dominated to the detriment of the rest. This technique was praised by the critics as evidence of a modern appropriation of classical principles and was likened at times to the work of the seventeenth-century French neo-classical landscape and figure painter, Nicolas Poussin. Although the comparison to Poussin may seem surprising, there is in The Ford an elaborate perspectival construction, in which two separate lines, the river and the railway, start at the opposite ends of the foreground, cross over towards the centre and rear separately into the distance. This can be compared to the classic design of landscapes by Poussin such as Landscape with Travellers Resting c.1638–9 (National Gallery, London),8 in which the strong directional pull of the meandering road similarly leads the eye of the viewer back towards the distant lake and receding mountains in the background.
Bayes himself preferred the term ‘decorative’, instead of ‘classicist’, and wrote a book expounding his theories, The Art of Decorative Painting, published in 1927. Successful decorative art required artists to ‘bring to painting the intelligence and organisation they would give to practical affairs, or say, to the writing of prose’.9 He advised that subject matter, composition, colour and the material application of paint were all of secondary importance to visual and aesthetic harmony, and this could best be achieved through the application of theoretical knowledge. In The Ford, people and animals are afforded the same treatment as features of the landscape, and are depicted as elements of colour and form dictated by his understanding of a theory of representation, with little expression of character or personality. Similarly, any overt emotional commitment of a personal artistic vision is absent, sublimated to the formulaic nature of Bayes’s approach. The defining peculiarities of an individual artistic style are primarily evident in the technical characteristics of his work such as the thin, smooth application of paint and the choice of a bright acidic palette.
Walter Bayes 'Le Petit Casino (The Open Door)' 1912
Fig.1
Walter Bayes
Le Petit Casino (The Open Door) 1912
Johannesburg Art Gallery
© Estate of Walter Bayes
Photo © Johannesburg Art Gallery
Bayes opposed the idea that subjects should be painted from direct observation of life, and was mildly scornful of the thick application of paint favoured by some of his Camden Town Group colleagues such as Spencer Gore and Harold Gilman. With characteristic bite he recalled in 1930: ‘For perennial repainting from Nature their execution had the great advantage that you could poise another lump of stiff paint on a surface already so rough and corrugated that it would not show as a scar.’10 Despite Bayes’s assertion that working from ‘cumulative knowledge’ was preferable to slavishly drawing from life,11 many of his paintings feature his wife, Kitty, in landscapes painted whilst they were on summer holiday, for example The Open Door 1912 (fig.1), a work identified by the art historian Wendy Baron as that exhibited at the third Camden Town Group exhibition in December 1912 with the title Le Petit Casino.12 ‘Casino’ is a relatively obscure colloquial term for a little summer house, and the painting shows a woman sitting by an open door with a view of the coast. She is wearing a pinky orange headscarf, tied at the back of her neck, and is similar in appearance to the woman in The Ford standing on the bridge, holding a green parasol and wearing a blue headscarf. It is likely therefore that Bayes’s wife was also used as a model in The Ford, possibly also accompanied by their two sons, Alfred (Jim) and Alexander (Sandy) who in 1917 would have been aged ten and seven respectively.13

Location

Bayes wrote to the Tate Gallery in January 1954 that the subject of The Ford was ‘taken from the railway bridge at Arthog in Barmouth estuary’.14 The town of Barmouth lies on the mouth of the river Mawddach, on the west coast of North Wales, between a mountain range and the sea. The opening of a rail link during the 1860s from the English border to the western coast led to Barmouth’s development as a popular seaside resort. The bridge in Bayes’s painting is situated about three miles east of Barmouth and is known as the Gwynant Bridge. It lies between Penmaenpool and Arthog on the, now closed, railway line from Ruabon to Barmouth.15 In the painting the bridge is a wooden trestle viaduct stretching across the estuary, very similar in construction and appearance to the larger and more famous Barmouth Bridge which spans half a mile across the Mawddaach Estuary. The Gwynant Bridge still stands today although it was rebuilt in around 1942–3 with stone and steel supports. The railway track has since been converted into a nature trail. An early photograph confirms that the original timber structure of the bridge matches that depicted in Bayes’s painting, prior to it being strengthened with reinforcement trusses in c.1924.16 Bayes recorded that he completed ‘a very small colour study and some diagrams of timbered construction’ on the spot, suggesting that he was concerned to record the appearance of the bridge with accuracy.17
As early as 1911, the critic of the Illustrated London News correctly observed that the art of the Camden Town Group extended both physically and artistically beyond the geographical radius of that North London district and reflected ‘a modern tendency towards the choice of scenes from humble life’.18 Although Bayes’s work was quite distinct from that of the other members of the group, he did choose subjects from everyday life and his numerous landscapes reflect places familiar to him. The Ford is one of a number of views of Barmouth and the surrounding area which Bayes probably painted during summer holidays with his family, such as Horses in a Field at Barmouth (private collection).19 Three Welsh landscapes were displayed at a solo exhibition by Bayes at the Leicester Galleries in March 1918, Mountains at Evening, Arthog, Morning Sun on the Mountains at Arthog (both whereabouts unknown),20 and Late Sunlight, Barmouth Estuary 1913 (private collection).21
North Wales had become an alluring destination during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries for artists who were drawn to the area’s dramatic mountains in search of the picturesque. At this time, Barmouth was a fishing port and major shipbuilding centre and therefore an accessible base from which to explore the surrounding countryside. It was visited by some of the greatest landscape artists of the day, including J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851),22 Anthony Vandyke Copely Fielding (1787–1855)23 and John Sell Cotman (1782–1842). The latter toured the Barmouth area in July 1800 and exhibited two views of the estuary during his career, including Barmouth Estuary 1801 (Norwich Castle Museum).24 Cotman’s characteristic flat, patterned style was perhaps familiar to Bayes, who prioritises a similar interest in shape, form and compositional structure in his landscapes.
Barmouth was also one of the places featured as part of the itinerary of William Daniell (1769–1837) in A Voyage Round Great Britain, an ambitious topographical book published between 1814 and 1825, surveying the entire coastal circumference of the country in descriptive narrative and engraved aquatint plates. The town provoked an unflattering description as ‘the whimsical inversion of every rule of comfort and convenience’,25 but the adjacent estuary and mountains, as painted by Bayes in The Ford over one hundred years later, fared rather better:
The Maw, for a considerable distance from its mouth, is a fine broad river at high water; but when the tide retires, more than two-thirds of its bed are left dry ... From its north bank we had a finer view of Cader Idris than we had had from any other station ... The scenery higher up the Maw is very beautiful: the river is deep, clear and smooth, and the banks on each side are bold and rocky, and diversified by small bays and promontories, but wanting a more frequent and a richer covering of wood.26
Bayes’s interest in the landscape of North Wales may have been awakened by the work of two other Camden Town Group artists, Augustus John and James Dickson Innes, who painted there between 1910 and 1913. John and Innes were both fringe members of the group. John only exhibited at the first exhibition and Innes at the second, but both contributed Welsh landscapes painted together in the remote and mountainous region around Arenig and Bala during 1911. Inspired by the wild and romantic nature of the scenery they produced boldly coloured and freely handled oils painted on the spot, such as Arenig, Sunny Evening c.1911–12 by Innes (Tate N05367) and John’s Llyn Treweryn 1911–12 (Tate N04653). Bayes’s work was much less dramatic and more controlled than that of his younger colleagues and although he captured something of the idyllic, remote beauty of the Cambrian Mountains, the Wales which he represented was more domesticated and gentle than the wild and primitive country imagined by his younger colleagues. Rather than the romanticised objects of desire who wander amidst the lakes and mountains painted by John and Innes, the landscapes of Bayes are inhabited by modest holidaymakers and farm animals.
Although Bayes believed that The Ford appeared old-fashioned in style when it was displayed at the New English Art Club in 1920–1,27 the painting would almost certainly have not looked out of place at the Royal Academy, where the first version was exhibited. Pictorial tourism had remained an established artistic theme since the mid-eighteenth century and unchallenging scenes featuring views of provincial Britain by artists such as Sir John Alfred Arnesby Brown (1866–1955) frequently found their way onto the walls of the Academy.28 In some respects, however, The Ford appears to be very much a product of its time. The painting’s vivid, flat colours, simplified forms and rounded contours seem to echo, or even predict the characteristic look of contemporary commercial posters advertising the Underground and the railways in the early twentieth century. In a similar way to The Ford, railway posters such as Aberystwyth produced by A.E. Martin for the Great Western Railway in 1928,29 promoted Wales as a sunny, healthy holiday destination, perfect for relaxation and family fun. The strong compositional design of The Ford is also reminiscent of these posters, for example, See the West Country from the Train 1947 (National Railway Museum, York) by Eric Hesketh Hubbard (1892–1957),30 which repeats the formula of the high viewpoint and the sweeping curve of the railway track dissecting the image.
Bayes recorded that The Ford had at least one admirer in the person of Walter Sickert.31 Bayes regarded Sickert’s opinion very highly and on the strength of his advice included the picture in a large solo exhibition at the Goupil Galleries in 1928.32 Sickert’s encouragement proved to be financially profitable on this occasion since The Ford was subsequently purchased from Goupil by the Tate Gallery, the first example of the artist’s work to enter the national collection.

Nicola Moorby
September 2003

Notes

1
‘The Camden Town Group and Others’, Star, 10 December 1912.
2
‘The Camden Town Group’, Pall Mall Gazette, 12 December 1912.
3
‘The Camden Town Group’, Morning Post, 17 December 1912.
4
Walter Bayes, letter to Mary Chamot, January 1953, Tate Catalogue file.
5
Ibid.
6
Walter Bayes, ‘The Grammar of Drawing’, Architectural Review, vol.55, January 1924, p.12.
7
‘Obituary: Mr. Walter Bayes’, Times, 23 January 1956, p.10.
8
Reproduced in Anthony Blunt, Nicolas Poussin, London and New York 1967, no.146.
9
Walter Bayes, The Art of Decorative Painting, London 1927, p.8.
10
Walter Bayes, ‘The Camden Town Group’, Saturday Review, 25 January 1930, p.100.
11
Ibid.
12
Wendy Baron, Perfect Moderns: A History of the Camden Town Group, Aldershot and Vermont 2000, p.146, reproduced fig.44.
13
Alfred James Montreuil (born 1907) and Alexander George Thompson (born 1910). Information supplied by Julia Bayes, great-niece of the artist, November 2007.
14
Walter Bayes, letter to Mary Chamot, [January 1954], Tate Catalogue file.
15
Information supplied by Frank Spence, July 2003; see also http://www.llangollen-railway.co.uk/, accessed July 2003.
16
Reproduced in C.C. Green, The Coast Lines of the Cambrian Railways Vol.2: Dovey Junction to Dolgelley, Didcot 1996, p.289.
17
Bayes to Chamot, [January 1954], Tate Catalogue file.
18
‘Art Notes’, Illustrated London News, 15 July 1911.
19
Christie’s, London, 13 May 1994 (lot 7, reproduced).
20
Exhibition of Paintings by Walter Bayes, exhibition catalogue, Leicester Galleries, London 1918 (42 and 45).
21
Reproduced in Pupil and Master: Reginald Goodfellow (1894–1985) and Walter Bayes (1869–1956), exhibition catalogue, Parkin Gallery, London 1986 (back cover).
22
See Hereford Court Sketchbook 1798 (Tate, Turner Bequest XXXVIII).
23
Cader Idris from the Barmouth Sands 1810, watercolour on paper (Tate T00988).
24
Reproduced in David Blayney Brown, Andrew Hemingway and Anne Lyles, Romantic Landscape: The Norwich School of Painting, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 2000 (33).
25
Richard Ayton and William Daniell, A Voyage Round Great Britain, first published London 1814, facsimile edition 1978, p.152.
26
Ibid., pp.153–4.
27
Bayes to Chamot, [January 1954], Tate Catalogue file.
28
For example, The Coast Road exhibited 1921 (whereabouts unknown), reproduced in The Royal Academy Illustrated, London 1921, p.37.
29
Reproduced in Beverley Cole and Richard Durack, Railway Posters 1923–1947, London 1992, p.33.
30
Reproduced ibid., p.90.
31
Bayes to Chamot, [January 1954], Tate Catalogue file.
32
Ibid.

How to cite

Nicola Moorby, ‘The Ford c.1917–20 by Walter Bayes’, catalogue entry, September 2003, 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/walter-bayes-the-ford-r1129462, accessed 22 March 2019.