The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

Walter Richard Sickert, ‘Whitechapel’

The New Age, 28 May 1914, p.83.

Whitechapel.
The exhibition of twentieth century art at the Whitechapel Art Gallery is interesting and stimulating. The classification suggested in the preface I will not quarrel with. It is perhaps as just as attempts to write contemporary history can well be. Influences being mutual and re-agent in their nature, I am not even called upon to protest too much against the classification of a whole group of moderns as influenced by myself and Mr. Lucien Pissarro. That whole group might perhaps more correctly be described as being students of the great Impressionist group. Mr. Pissarro, holding the exceptional position at once of an original talent, and of the pupil of his father, the authoritative depository of a mass of inherited knowledge and experience, has certainly served us as a guide, or, let us say, a dictionary of theory and practice on the road we have elected to travel. I have, of course, as a teacher, had a hand in leading a generation of students in the comprehension of these same principles. To come down to historical fact, I may as well say that it is my practice that was transformed from 1905 by the example of the development of Gore’s talent. I taught him certain things about drawing, mainly the great principle I received from Whistler to draw, in working from nature, from some selected focus of impression, with observation radiating outwards. But on the whole, if later history concerns itself with a study of our group, the sentence I am discussing in the Introduction to this exhibition will have to be re-written thus: “The first group has been influenced by Mr. Gore and Mr. Lucien Pissarro.”
Gore’s development will long serve as a chapter of reference for students and practitioners of modern painting. If he had foreseen the date of his death, he could hardly have divided his life more wisely into the progressive sections that constitute the sum of his production. First comes the period of study at the Slade, observation, reflection, and the well-bred silence of a gift sure of itself and respectful of the achievement of others. In the pictures at Billy near Cany in Caux we have exercises somewhat on the lines of Steer’s landscape. In the Neuville series of 1905, objective work straight from nature on Impressionist lines. This was characterised by form of extraordinary sureness, luminous, solid, and with a curious unhasting, unresting completeness of research. These qualities were pushed to their highest development in the Mornington Crescent and London music-hall series.
After this, taking what he was able to assimilate from the qualities of Cézanne, and, naturally a better-balanced draughtsman, seeing no reason to caricature or even imitate that master’s defects, he moved towards a simplification of planes, and a sharpened interest in accentuated direction of outline. The historian of art may classify movements and register influences, but the essential factor, the factor of personal talent, escapes with laughter from all his nets. What Gore possessed and developed to an astonishing degree was a divine beauty of touch. He used thick paint, without obtruding it. He had the secret of letting his touches descend upon canvas with innumerable and expressive variety. You never feel, in a canvas of Gore’s, that he is doctrine ridden or belongs to any school of execution. He is the heir of the moderns, and he wears his wealth with nonchalant ease, as if he were unconscious of it, like a speaker naturally eloquent or a born musician.
In the work of the groups covered by this exhibition – and this being the subject of my present essay, I do not go outside it, the less as I have had no hand whatever in the choice or arrangement of the exhibition – we see two main tendencies. There is the realistic and objective work of the painters who derive from the French Impressionists, and the work deriving from the influence of Augustus John. A third category consists firstly of the painters who have been misled by Mr. Roger Fry to see what could be done by caricaturing in a superficial manner the faults of Cézanne without an attempt at Cézanne meticulous and colossal laboriousness, and secondly a group for whom Augustus John may, on the principle of lucus a non lucendo, again be said to be responsible. A certain number of Slade students and others appear to have come, quite justly, to the conclusion that to go on trying to learn to draw as well as John would be not only a long and arduous, but probably an impossible task. The Cubists may perhaps best be described as the group who have thrown up the sponge of Augustus John.
But here again the greater personalities escape from classification. We may register and enrol as we please the work of Thérèse Lessore; she will always appear to be the most interesting and masterful personality of them all. She seems to me to have the merits that all the groups would like to claim. First and foremost, she has human interest, without which art on this planet probably cannot exist. Her pictures are seemingly not painted from models pretending to do certain things. By some strange alchemy of genius, the essentials of their being and movement are torn from them, and presented in ordered and rhythmical arrangement of the highest technical brevity and beauty. She seems to have no parti pris like John, of a certain processional solemnity, or like Henry Lamb or Stanley Spencer, of a certain fateful strangeness, only perhaps a point of cold and not unkindly malice. I cannot see her pictures going out of date.
As between the realists and the followers of Augustus John this question may fairly be said to arise. An attitude may, in the hands of its inventor, be sufficiently interesting to resist the scythe of fashion. The Burne-Jones attitude is almost intolerable to the present generation, though it certainly charmed a great many people thirty years ago. Augustus John’s intensity and virtuosity have endowed his peculiar world of women, half-gypsy, half model, with a life of their own. But his whole make-up is personal to himself, and the last thing a wary young man had better do is to imitate John. When it comes to a whole school who imitate his landscape panels the limit of thinness has been attained. The realist has over the derivative painter this advantage. The realist is incessantly provisioning himself from the inexhaustible and comfortable cupboard of nature. The derivative romantic, on the other hand, can hardly expect such varied and nutritious fare if he restricts himself to the mummies he can find in another man’s Blue-Beard closet.
Walter Sickert.
© Estate of Walter R. Sickert

How to cite

Walter Richard Sickert, ‘Whitechapel’, in The New Age, 28 May 1914, p.83, 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-whitechapel-r1104305, accessed 23 March 2019.