The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

Walter Richard Sickert, ‘The New English Art Club’

New Age, 4 June 1914, pp.114–15.

The New English Art Club.
In an article that I wrote some years ago on the New English Art Club, I ventured to urge the critics to occupy themselves solely with the work of the younger men, and to leave the older reputations to take care of themselves. A welcome symptom that this view is gaining ground in influential quarters is the article by Mr. Laurence Housman in the “Manchester Guardian” on the exhibition that has just opened in Suffolk Street. The spirit that has dictated to Mr. Marsh the publication of this anthology of Georgian poets is gaining ground in art criticism. That anthology is, I learn, to be followed in the region of pictorial art by an anthology of reproductions from the work of the younger generation of painters. It is natural and fitting that the New English Art Club, piloted as it has mainly been by teachers of painting from the Slade school (Professor Brown, Mr. Steer, Mr. Tonks, Mr. Russell, Mr. Lees) from the County Council Institutes (Mr. Walter Bayes, Spencer Frederick Gore, Mr. Gilman), by Mr. Orpen from Dublin, and by teachers from general schools (Mr. George Thomson, from Bedford College), Miss Hogarth, Miss Gosse (from High Wycombe), and from private studios (Mr. Augustus John, Mr. Bate, Mr. Bellingham Smith, Mr. Rich, Mr. and Mrs. McEvoy), should show a parental concern for the careers of the students for whom it has been responsible, and from whose fees the senior members have largely derived their incomes. Such concern is not only a duty and a debt, but has also probably reacted on the talents of the teachers in the most favourable manner. You cannot flatter the more decent kind of dowager more than by showing your appreciation of the débutantes who are more or less her granddaughters.
All this teaching has certainly produced a higher level of accomplishment, and a suffusion of clearer and loftier aim in Suffolk Street than can be found at the exhibitions of the Royal Academy as a whole. We have in Suffolk Street a tableland from which an occasional peak can be seen to rise in unquestioned eminence. The Spring Exhibition of 1914 may perhaps fairly be said to belong to Mr. Henry Lamb and to Mr. Gertler; and both painters are, I think, to be placed to the credit, Mr. Gertler directly, and Mr. Lamb indirectly, through Augustus John, of the Slade School, University College, London. We have only to glance at “The Fortune-Teller,” by Mr. Tonks, who seems to have been startled, in the last two years, by the rumbling menace of nihilistic revolution, into a second and joyous [end of p.114] puberty, to see that here is a debt, a debt of clear thinking and faultless execution that the younger generation will only too gladly acknowledge.
Mr. Lamb is not only a great talent, but a great talent under the guidance of a clear and educated brain. He has never been, for a moment, the dupe of technical pedantries. He knows, for instance, that it is a trivial thing to spend a life-time in an effort after intrinsic brightness of paint. He knows that the brightest colours will fade. He knows that there is a strict limit to the advantages of impasto. He knows that, firstly, excessive impasto is not even durable. He knows that impasto is not in itself a sign of virility. He knows even that it is, when practised as an aim in itself, only another subterfuge. Intentional and rugged impasto, from the fact that each touch receives a light and throws a shadow, so far from producing brilliancy, covers a picture with a grey reticulation and so throws dust in the eyes of the spectator, and serves, to some extent, to veil exaggerations of colour or coarseness of drawing. It is a manner of shouting and gesticulating and does not make for expressiveness or lucidity.
Mr. Lamb also knows that, in a picture, design is the only thing that matters, and that its lucid expression is the whole of pictorial art. I wish I could remember to whom is to be attributed what is probably the best definition of style in literature. “Style,” it has been said, “is economy of the reader’s attention.” Mr. Lamb composes academic pictures, but he draws his matter, his figures, his gestures, his landscape, from the inexhaustible well of nature. His people are individuals, each one unique. They are somewhere, and they are doing something. They are behaving naturally, even if they are only sulking or thinking, like the Sussex yokel, of “maistly nowt.” In his Donegal picture the lads are truculent, shy and self-conscious, the men morose, dreamy or observant, and the girls have an added histrionic emphasis in their knitting colloquy due to the presence of the tongue-tied males.
In countless compositions influenced by Augustus John, if you ask what the people are about, it is difficult to find any other answer than to say that they are behaving æsthetically, and we cannot long be interested in people who claim our attention on the ground that they are behaving æsthetically.
It is possible that this charge may be brought against Mr. Gertler’s “Fruit-sorters.” But here the picture is justified by a sort of intensity and raciness that practically repels the charge. The picture is important also because it is a masterly piece of painting in well-supported and consistent illumination, and the work of a colourist at the same time rich and sober. The Contemporary Art Society have made an excellent choice in buying a work which painters will agree to consider exemplary. Painters cannot but continue to deplore that this is a country in which, at present, patrons are disinclined to buy such works to put on their own walls, and so, by backing their fancy, to increase their own estate. We deplore that you can only just summon up courage enough to buy, with other people’s money, and then only such pictures as you believe to be elevating for the masses. Our reformers would close the clubs of the poor, and offer them, instead of ale, my portrait of George Moore and Mr. Duncan Grant’s inverted Adam! Believe me, ladies and gentlemen, the people will be more grateful if you would leave them their ale, and hang our æsthetic essays up in your own dining-rooms, and send us your own multi-coloured and engraved cheques if only for variety’s sake, as a change from the official ones of Mr. Cyril Butler.
I am not given to scolding, but is it not a scandal that the painter of “The Nursery Landing’’ and the decorative panel numbered 225 can, in this wealthy country, find no spaces on the walls to cover? With all this insincere talk of encouragement to art, might we not encourage the artist to the extent of putting the walls of some of our houses into the hands of Walter Bayes?
Walter Sickert.
© Estate of Walter R. Sickert

How to cite

Walter Richard Sickert, ‘The New English Art Club’, in New Age, 4 June 1914, pp.114–15, 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-art-club-r1104333, accessed 27 June 2019.