The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

Walter Richard Sickert, ‘Mr. Ginner’s Preface’

The New Age, 30 April 1914, pp.819–20.

Mr. Ginner’s Preface.
By Walter Sickert.
A man may write an ethical treatise, and it may be possible for a critic who pursues investigations into the author’s own life to prove that it deviates in places from rules and conclusions laid down in the treatise. These revelations need not in any way invalidate the conclusions arrived at in the treatise, since theoretical conclusions can only be founded on a survey of innumerable facts and of long reaches of time. The individual life of an author bears such an infinitesimal proportion to such premises as to be negligible, and irrelevant to his general argument.
Painters who are in the thirties nowadays, that is to say, painters who are neither cadets nor in the reserve, are handling a language that is in course of being recast, and it is what these men say and do that is really of interest and importance. I believe that those among them who have the surer instinct know that, in this recasting, old material must be gratefully utilised, say, in the proportion of ninety per cent. of old to ten of new. A school of impatience is making itself heard which would reject all old material. By the strangest and most amusing coincidence possible, it is just this school whose hands are empty of any new contribution to take the place of the old they would so contemptuously reject.
The babus of painting, they are “out for” a “white hands” job. They have been educated just enough to be “above” drawing, “above” perspective, “above” light and shade, “above” human interest, even “above” representation as the babu of our board schools and university extensions is “above” digging. “It was good,” Tourguenieff makes one of his characters say, “for our old fathers to burrow like moles. We intend to fly!” “No,” he continues, “my little children, you will not fly. You must just crawl back into the burrows of your old fathers and continue to dig there like moles.”
Mr. Ginner is a digger. He comes to us with his hands full of honest, strenuous achievement, and anything he may have to say we will listen to with respect. Where was it I read the other day of the three things that matter in a speech in the House of Commons? What you say, how you say it, and, chiefly, who you are.
Mr. Ginner’s essay on Neo-Realism has been republished by permission of the Editor of The New Age as a preface to the catalogue of the exhibition he is holding with Mr. Gilman, at the Goupil Gallery, “at the lower end of Regent Street,” as Mr. Humphry Ward used to say. My object in life is to write as little as possible, and to seek two things in this matter of recasting the language of painting: the ventilation of theories, and the collection of all possible agreement. As readers of The New Age have only to turn back a few weeks to re-read Mr. Ginner’s article, I am saved the space of recapitulation.
In his essential drift I may say that I am in agreement with Mr. Ginner. Therefore I need only state my objections on certain points. Mr. Ginner’s main argument may, I suppose, be summed up thus. Art that is based on other art tends to become atrophied, while art that springs from direct contact of the artist with nature tends at least to be alive. This truth is so important, and it is so useful to repeat it, and the utility of its repetition is so intensified when the statement comes from a young man, and a man of such robust and honourable achievement as Mr. Ginner, that I am loth to remount the current of a stream, with which I am grateful to be swimming, for the purpose of one or two protests.
My protests are these. Of course, I dislike the prefix “Neo.” It is better for a painter not to call himself “new.” Time alone will show how his work will wear. He had also better not call himself a realist. Let us leave the labels to those who have little else wherewith to cover their nakedness. Charles Ginner is a very good name, and has gathered already around it associations of achievement and respect. “Harold Gilman” calls up to the mind a definite tendency in painting, and both names are only obscured when they are covered by a uniform domino which would tend to merge their identities. Let them remember the sordid bickerings about the property in the trade-mark, “Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.” What is history for if we are not to learn from it? Have Mr. Ginner and Mr. Gilman reflected that, when they put their heads between the sandwich-boards of this or any classification, they will have to carry the blasted boards about for another thirty or forty years, may be, and how much of their energy, and what useless fatigue they will be enticed against their will to spend on either sharing or disputing their property in the worthless copyright? Let them go one dark night, after the close of this exhibition, to some quiet place like Cumberland Market, and, dropping their boards outside some handy and discreet public monument, leave by another entrance and forget them. And neither I nor anyone else will mention “Neo-Realism” again.
Now, here, on this very paper, is a proof of the soundness of my advice. It would, I suppose, be difficult to find a critic more interested in their painting and more keen to discuss the principles arising from it than I am. And here they have forced me by their label to waste, how many lines is it? in discussing it, and not their work. [end of p.819]
Labels are admirable for men who are content to call themselves Post-Impressionists or Cubists or Futurists because these labels achieve the very purpose the painters have in view. They cause copy to foam up under the pen like paper roses in a conjurer’s hat to overflowing, and they put the pictures proportionately in the background. Who looks at or remembers the picture of a Cubist? Everyone can measure the length of the columns of print caused by the discussion of their theory, if they have one.
My second quarrel with Mr. Ginner is his inclusion, in the list of merely derivative painters, of Poussin. Go back, for God’s sake, Mr. Ginner, to the Louvre, and look at three passages in Poussin. Look at the painting of the vermilion chariot of Flora. Look at the living baby turning to his dead mother’s breast in the Plagues of Egypt, and look at the curve in the blade of a long sword the tip of which rests on some books in a kind of still life trophy under an apotheosis. Look at these three passages and fiche me the peace with your Cézanne!
My third quarrel with Mr. Ginner’s preface is this. As a matter of strategy his position would be stronger if he did not tend to suggest a confusion, almost an identity between the ideas represented by the word “academic” and the word “Academy,” used as part of the title of an august and popular exhibiting body which is lodged in Burlington House. The word “academic” has an honourable sense of permanent value, and belongs no more to the Royal Academy than do the words “New” or “English” or “Art,” exclusively, to my friends and colleagues in Suffolk Street. Our quarrel with the Royal Academy is that it is not academic enough. It is Mr. Ginner’s own lofty ideal rather to which the word “academic” might properly be applied. This, however, is only a quarrel about the exact meaning of a word, and my preference for using it in its more honourable sense may be merely personal.
What is really important is that we have now in England a group of young painters of ability who know where they are going, and one of whom can put together in words such a sound and coherent manifesto as Mr. Ginner’s preface. To understand its importance, and to judge it fairly, I must ask myself what sort of a profession of artistic faith could I or most of my contemporaries have got together on paper at Mr. Ginner’s age?
How admirably clear is Mr. Ginner’s analysis of the false affiliation of the Cubists to Cézanne. Let me confirm him with a delightful illustration I came across a day or two ago. It is my habit always to buy any text-book on drawing that I see in any shop. The other day, at Brighton, I picked up an excellent treatise on the subject, forming one of a shilling series called “The Self-Educator,” edited by John Adams, published by Hodder and Stoughton, and written by Robert Y. Howie. I found in this most useful and clear treatise, as I expected, the cone, the cylinder, and the sphere alluded to as type forms, and I found aids to the understanding of more complex objects very properly deduced from a consideration of these three simple types.
Now what had Mr. Roger Fry to bring us in the way of a decalogue when he descended from the mountains of Montmartre and Montparnasse, his face transfigured, like Mr. Barker’s fairies, by the sight of Cézanne? That Cézanne had made the amazing discovery that the forms of nature “peuvent se rarnener au cône, au cylindre et à la sphère,” which things have already been written in all the current shilling manuals on drawing from time immemorial. And my simple Cubist friends propose to have founded a new art on this fact, on which their grandfathers were suckled.
I will give them a new tip, for Cubism is already out of fashion in Paris, and they must be getting out their new Spring hats. Let them discover that draughtsmen have been in the habit of squaring up their drawings. Let them exhibit the squares, and leave out the drawings, and call themselves “Squarists.” This might last them over the season.
© Estate of Walter R. Sickert

How to cite

Walter Richard Sickert, ‘Mr. Ginner’s Preface’, in The New Age, 30 April 1914, pp.819–20, in Helena Bonett, Ysanne Holt, Jennifer Mundy (eds.), The Camden Town Group in Context, Tate Research Publication, May 2012,, accessed 19 April 2024.