The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

Walter Richard Sickert, ‘The New English and After’

The New Age, 2 June 1910, pp.109–10.

The New English and After.
By Walter Sickert.
George Moore used to say of a sometime critical colleague of ours that he wrote like a man yelling abuse up the area steps at Burlington House. A friend of mine, who had the privilege of making his studies of rhetoric under the roof of the fish market at Boulogne, tells me that certain candours are there described as “des compliments de matelot,” sailors’ compliments.
Impelled by the furies of candour (to quote Signor Giardini, “Il s’est trompé sur son époque, il dit la vérité à tout le monde, personne ne peut le souffrir”) to unpack myself of certain of these sailors’ compliments, it seemed to me prudent rather to deliver them from the pavement of Suffolk Street, than from the top of the steep staircase that leads to the galleries.
The New English Art Club has now run for about a quarter of a century, long enough to make it possible to gauge the direction of its influence. Like all organisms endowed with the wisdom of self-preservation, it has grown and consolidated itself on reasonably practical and diplomatic lines. If it had not it would not have been alive to tell the tale. It has accomplished what it could, and like most middle-aged bodies resigned itself cheerfully to not accomplishing what it couldn’t. Most of the more serious reputations of the day have been made or strengthened on its walls. Of the makers of these many remain, and many have moved on, urged by a natural desire for larger and more popular audiences. But I doubt if any unprejudiced student of modern painting will deny that the New English Art Club at the present day sets the standard of painting in England. He may regret it or resent it, but he will hardly deny it.
If our English shyness and passion for conformity has, as I believe, a deadening effect on our art production, it saves us, at least, almost entirely from the mass of mere eccentricity that we find in the independent or secessionist exhibitions of other European countries. Englishmen do not deliberately paint and exhibit canvases that they know to be nonsensical, with the cynical and avowed intention of attracting notice. In my long recollections of the exhibitions at the Dudley Gallery, in Dering Yard, and, now, in Suffolk Street, I cannot remember any exhibit in which the painter has not obviously tried, in all seriousness, to tackle his job to the best of his ability. Technically we have evolved, for these things are done in gangs, not by individuals, we have evolved a method of painting with a clean and solid mosaic of thick paint in a light key. I should like to be able to trace this method more closely to its sources, but I am safe, at any rate, in describing it as the New English technique, and in saying that a whole generation holds it at the present time in common. (Mr. M’Evoy [sic] alone, oh, so wisely, seeing that this method was unsuited to the tonality of his subjects, and to the scale on which he is impelled to express himself, continues undisturbed in the admirable Rubens-Wilkie-Orchardson tradition of execution, of which I have spoken before. It may be that there is more force of character shown in this gentle, well-mannered abstention, more serious criticism of modern fashions implied, than the ablest pen can ever accomplish.)
The pictures at the New English Art Club are often described as impressionist, and their painters called impressionists. This always surprises and amuses French visitors to England. A painter is guided and pushed by his surroundings very much as an actor is, and the atmosphere of English society acting on a gifted group of painters, who had learned what they knew either in Paris or from Paris, has provided a school with aims and qualities altogether different from those of the impressionists.
The New English Art Club picture has tended to be a composite product in which an educated colour vision has been applied to themes already long approved and accepted in this country. In this tendency, some may see the wisdom of the serpent and others dangerous compromise. I will take as examples of pure impressionism a Sisley or a Pissarro. In these, though exquisite places, or exquisite groups, are sometimes the excuse for the painting, the principal personage is the light. It was found by a pleiad of the keenest and ablest talents in history, that certain laws imposed themselves if this protagonist was to remain paramount. It was found that direct painting in broken colour imposes a limit to the size of the canvas. The immense majority of Monets, of Pissarros, of Sisleys are on a small scale, and, we may be certain, not for nothing are they so. Theirs is an art closely conditioned by an incessant readjustment and restatement of the message sent from the eye to the hand. I doubt if you are free to alter the size of the stitches in this tapestry of sensibility as you please. Certain relations in nature are stable. A general would be ill-advised, it seems to me, who ordered the step, in marching, to be henceforth lengthened. A cup must always retain a certain proportion to the hand that lifts it, and the mouth that is to drink from it. So I am inclined to think that, wherever we have been tempted to do impressionism on the scale of the exhibition picture, we have run considerable risk of losing the essence of what we had learnt from the French impressionists.
It is certain that the impressionists put themselves out more than we do in England. We all live like gentlemen, and keep gentlemen’s hours. A glance round the walls of any New English Art Club exhibition does certainly not give us the sensation of a page torn from the book of life. There is an over-insistence on two motifs. The one the august-site motif, and the other the smartened-up-young-person motif. It may be that it is just this concession which is leading on the plain man to appreciate us. My diagnosis inclines the other way.
It is admitted that the painters in this country are crying out. Whatever we utter, from north, south, east, or west, is one long litany. Art is not encouraged! The Briton is inartistic, and will not buy our bow-wow, etc! Are we quite sure that we have not overlooked one little point? Is he perhaps too artistic, and do we perhaps disappoint him? Have we underrated our audience, the most fatal of all mistakes?
After all, I can remember that it was as long ago as 1890 that the undergraduate began to sit up and take notice of impressionism. The word “Degas” was lisped, I remember, in the “Cambridge Observer,” and George Moore’s features were printed from photozinc therein. In fine, culture was nascent. How old are those undergraduates now? Great heavens! Forty or thereabouts. And meanwhile what have they been doing? Some may have travelled. They know all about Gauguin and the Salon d’Automne. They have been to Spain. Who knows if there are not stockbrokers and bankers who know the Prado better than we do? But this line of reflection is too painful to pursue.
Now what are the remedies we hear of on all hands? Not so much that the public is to be urged and tempted to buy the work of young men at a living wage; but that a few very wealthy people are to be persuaded, as a sort of penance, to purchase a few pictures at high prices – to adorn their own houses? Not at all. Not for worlds! But for a public gallery, somewhere else, that some unfortunate municipality is to be urged to endow, in order to raise the masses at the expense of the ratepayer.
These are not the remedies, and it is no use to pretend they are. We must make up our minds to one thing. The ratepayer is cruelly overburdened as it is. More, and not fewer, calls are being made on him. Less and less can he be squeezed for anything not of vital necessity, and exhibition pictures are not a national or municipal necessity.
The remedy for us painters has been pointed out to us by Paris. The modest collector of small means must be met. Boudin used to sell his pictures for from £2 to £12, Claude Monet began by many a sale at £4, Sisley the same. And purchasers at these prices bought because they wanted the pictures for their own houses, not because they had to be persuaded that the [end of p.109] inhabitants of some far-away municipality wanted “raising.”
The New English Art Club are not in receipt of public money, so that they are well within their rights in rejecting or accepting whom they please. But they will not meet the needs of the rising generation, and so keep their lead, unless they see their way to hang each man’s work in groups. This has been found the only way to give the painters who cannot afford to paint exhibition pictures – what someone has called annual posters – the consideration they require. And the future of painting lies with the twelve and the twenty pound, not with the five-hundred pound picture.
© Estate of Walter R. Sickert

How to cite

Walter Richard Sickert, ‘The New English and After’, in The New Age, 2 June 1910, pp.109–10, 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-richard-sickert-the-new-english-and-after-r1104301, accessed 21 April 2019.