The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

The Camden Town Group and Early Twentieth-Century Ruralism

Ysanne Holt

In the early 1900s the relationship between town and country underwent a period of dramatic change, as the growth of suburbs and transport systems allowed people to escape from London to the countryside. Ysanne Holt considers contemporary attitudes towards the rural and the image of the countryside shown in Camden Town paintings.
The title, the Camden Town Group, generally conjures associations of a realist or truthful style of painting and a range of themes associated with everyday life and social class in the metropolis, if not specifically the north London suburb from which the painters took their title in 1911. A large proportion of paintings by members of the group shown in their three exhibitions at the Carfax Gallery were, however, of landscapes and rural scenes or else of glimpses of nature to be perceived within the city. It is interesting therefore to consider these Camden Town Group images of rural, semi-rural or of urban scenes of nature within a transition from late Victorian to Edwardian cultures of ruralism, and in relation to representations by other artists and exhibiting societies and other views of the countryside being circulated in London in the years leading up to the Great War.
While for many throughout the nineteenth century the city was both imagined and experienced as a site of progress and opportunity, it is more generally the case – as Raymond Williams has demonstrated – that the country and the city were more commonly perceived throughout the period as polarities of good and bad, order and disorder, health and disease.1 From the late 1880s into the early years of the twentieth century a series of characteristic laments – as typified by Liberal MP C.F.G. Masterman’s The Heart of Empire: Discussion of Modern City Life (1901), From the Abyss (1902) and The Condition of England (1909) – expressed anxieties about the ‘problems’ of city life, in which the inner city is an over-crowded, unhealthy site of moral and physical degeneracy and decay. Such a view recalls Victorian concerns about generations of ‘street-bred’ children and wider fears of an underclass – rekindled for many perhaps by Walter Sickert’s lurid representation of lives lived out amidst degrees of poverty and desperation. Concerns continued about restless workers, increasingly prone to strikes and union unrest; and about the uneducated, unemployed and unemployable, morally and physically unfit. These were all social and economic problems to be addressed by a reformist Liberal government in the years before 1914. More generally, newspapers and periodicals in the Edwardian era were consistently underlining, and at times fomenting, unease and resentment among classes who were increasingly segregated in distinct locations within the capital. This was a period of sustained growth in the inner suburbs, areas that were often, although not exclusively, perceived and represented by writers and commentators in terms of stifling monotony. Appearing in 1906, H.G. Wells’s Tono-Bungay delivered a typically bleak account of suburbia: ‘Endless streets of undistinguished houses, undistinguished industries, shabby families, second-rate shops, inexplicable people who in a once fashionable phrase, do not “exist”.’2
In this context we might comprehend Georgian poet Edward Thomas’s 1913 account of ‘the modern, sad passion for nature’ as, fundamentally, a nostalgic yearning for traditional ways of being, for ordered structures of class and society, for a sense of wholeness and a ‘felt-life’.3 This typically conflated fantasies of rural virtue with notions of a vital and more vigorous rural stock; healthy children bred in country villages and sturdy clean-limbed labourers on the land, despite clear indications to the contrary and continual processes of rural depopulation following the depression of British agriculture in the late 1880s and 1890s. The move to the city was for many rural inhabitants a move for work and an escape from the relentless tedium of life on the land – a fact acknowledged in numerous turn of the century accounts of rural decay and decline, but not loudly enough to quell ingrained urban fantasies. Underlying these yearnings were anxieties too about the gradual decline of Empire, the constant pace of change, and antipathies towards modernism and wider European and transatlantic influence on culture and society more broadly. The English countryside seemed an all the more precious commodity.
Throughout the Edwardian era a vein of melancholic nostalgia, fuelled by negative responses to urban life, underpins accounts of Englishness as a dominant national, cultural identity perennially rooted in the countryside – most particularly the picturesque villages, cultivated fields and rolling hills of the south – and predicated on appeals for tradition and continuity. But this was not the only response. The culture of ruralism was more changeable and unfixed in the Edwardian era than has been recognised. Perceptions of rural life were increasingly adaptive to diverse tendencies and communities and were, for many, less defined by deep lament and backward longings as the era progressed. Despite the persistent tone of much ruralist literature, an impulse ‘back to the land’ and for a ‘simple life’ did not necessarily imply a rejection of modern civilisation. That observation certainly applies to paintings of rural subjects by key members of the Camden Town Group, in contrast to works by many artists at institutions like the Royal Academy and the New English Art Club in the years leading up to the war.
The first years of the century were characterised by rapid social and technological transformation and ever more widely circulating forms of visual communication: colourful posters, newsreel and more accessible and widespread photography following the advent in the late 1880s of Kodak cameras and rolled film. The latter, of course, gave rise to photography shops in the city, to numerous photographic societies and to the developing popularity of tourist photography and guidebooks.4 Most important in this respect too was greater access to transport – from the appearance of the first electric tube line in 1890 to the growing number of suburban train lines before 1914.
Make Motoring Delightful by Fitting your Car with Dunlop Tyres and Detachable Wire Wheels 1912
Make Motoring Delightful by Fitting your Car with Dunlop Tyres and Detachable Wire Wheels 1912
Country Life Picture Library
Photo © Country Life Picture Library
Increasingly from 1911 significant numbers of a wealthier middle class took to the roads in newly available motor cars. Signs of this particular new engagement emerge in rather unexpected quarters. The popular magazine Country Life Illustrated: The Journal for All Interested in Country Life and Country Pursuits, which had been dedicated since 1897 to reports of notable country gardens, country house sales, photographs and illustrated accounts of rural types and activities ‘O’er field and furrow’, devoted nine pages in an issue in 1912 to ‘The Automobile World’. Here are numerous advertisements for Vauxhalls and Daimlers including one for Dunlop tyres with the slogan, ‘Make motoring delightful’, depicting a carful of carefree young things taking a spin in the countryside with a fashionable young woman behind the wheel (fig.1).5 These are hardly seekers after Poet Laureate Alfred Austin’s 1908 ‘Haunts of Ancient Peace’. And while these well-heeled young motorists emerge, it appears, from the driveway of a country house, it is apparent that a much broader cross-section of Londoners was increasingly mobile not just within the city, but outside it too, in what for many was the growing availability of, and aspiration for, leisure time and fresh air. Access to the countryside was more widely available and experienced, and perceptions of nature and the countryside were less bound to nostalgic memory than they had been only a decade earlier.
John Henry Lloyd 'Too Much of a Good Thing' 1910
John Henry Lloyd
Too Much of a Good Thing 1910
London Transport Museum
Photo © TfL from the collection of London Transport Museum
As Labour politician Philip Snowden remarked in his 1913 The Living Wage, ‘People cannot see tramways without wanting to ride sometimes; they cannot see newspapers without at least buying one occasionally; they cannot see others taking a holiday into the country or to the seaside without desiring to do the same’.6 What we find by this point is a much greater visibility of the countryside within the city, a condition brought about through modern transformations and underpinned by notions of health, leisure and social aspiration. Fundamental to this widespread visibility of the country was the growth in London Underground poster campaigns from around 1908. In Living London (1902–3), for example, George Sims had commented upon ‘the posters, plain and pictorial, artistic and the reverse which are such a feature of the capital’.7 Within a short period, technical improvements in colour lithography and printing enabled full-colour large posters, including one by Henry Lloyd of 1910, entitled Too Much of a Good Thing (fig.2) in which, as the art historian Catherine Flood has described, a family in excursion clothing gaze at an array of country destination posters, demonstrating ‘the visual pleasure of browsing open air scenes’,8 an activity to be enjoyed in itself by those with or without the wherewithal to buy tickets or with time to travel.
It is within this context of a shift away from an overtly sentimental and retrospective pastoralism towards a more modern representation of landscape and a potential intermingling of town and country that the paintings of Spencer Gore can be perceived. As a student at the Slade between 1896–9, Gore’s most immediate influence was Sickert’s exact contemporary, Professor of Painting, Philip Wilson Steer. Steer had been a founding member of the New English Art Club in 1886 and an exhibitor at Sickert’s London Impressionists exhibition in 1889. Unlike Sickert, however, Steer was not drawn to low-life urban subjects. He was more typically a painter of landscape and had achieved notoriety in the late 1880s for his daringly impressionist, at times neo-impressionist handling of sea and beach scenes, revealing an advanced knowledge of Claude Monet and even Georges Seurat at a time when conservative British tastes struggled to accommodate those artists (Tate N05766, fig.3). By the later 1890s, however, Steer was reworking the English landscape traditions of the earlier nineteenth century in oils and watercolours and was increasingly venerated during a wave of cultural chauvinism in the 1890s as the foremost successor to John Constable, with works such as Bird-nesting, Ludlow 1898 (Tate N04955, fig.4). A taste for tree-framed compositions in some of Gore’s landscapes painted in Yorkshire demonstrate signs of Steer’s influence on the young artist, as in The Milldam, Brandsby, Yorkshire 1907 (private collection).9
Philip Wilson Steer 'Figures on the Beach, Walberswick' circa 1888-9
Philip Wilson Steer
Figures on the Beach, Walberswick circa 1888–9
Tate N05766
© Tate
Philip Wilson Steer 'Bird-nesting, Ludlow' 1898
Philip Wilson Steer
Bird-nesting, Ludlow 1898
Tate N04955
© Tate

A more enduring influence for Gore, however, was to be the broken colour and handling of the French artist Lucien Pissarro, whose rural and semi-rural landscapes dating from the 1890s Gore was able to see at New English Art Club exhibitions from 1904 (Tate N04747, fig.5). By late 1907, Gore was well acquainted with Lucien at Fitzroy Street Group meetings and signs of the latter’s impact are clearly visible in the modified divisionism of Gore’s paintings of the garden and landscape around his mother’s house at Hertingfordbury, as, for example, in The Garden, Garth House 1908 (fig.6), which bears similarities to paintings by Lucien of his father Camille’s garden at Eragny in France and of his own gardens in England. Lucien was also to be of long-standing importance to the works of later Camden Town Group secretary James Bolivar Manson, who praised his ‘faculty of finding in the beauty of everyday life, material for the exercise of [his] art ... a characteristic, from the beginning of the Impressionist school’.10 Manson, like Gore, emulated Lucien’s handling in subjects like Lilian in Miss Odell’s Garden c.1910 (private collection).11
Lucien Pissarro 'April, Epping' 1894
Lucien Pissarro
April, Epping 1894
Tate N04747
© Tate
Spencer Gore 'The Garden, Garth House' 1908
Spencer Gore
The Garden, Garth House 1908
Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool
Photo © National Museums Liverpool

Spencer Gore 'Mornington Crescent' 1911
Spencer Gore
Mornington Crescent 1911
Tate N05099
There are also clear connections between Gore’s depictions of the country garden in Hertingfordbury and his views of the leafy central square he observed from the window of his first-floor flat at 31 Mornington Crescent in, for example, Mornington Crescent 1911 (fig.7). Such an image avoids those conventional polarities of country and city, determinedly seeking out glimpses of tranquillity and the natural world in the midst of what was endlessly described as the dreariness of north London. There is no sense here of urban anomie or alienation, of being lost in a crowd, or any of those sensations so often described in accounts of the individual in the city. As Sickert later remarked in relation to Gore’s Mornington Crescent pictures, ‘it is not only out of scenes obviously beautiful in themselves, and of delightful suggestions, that the modern painter can conjure a panel of encrusted enamel ... A scene, the dreariness and hopelessness of which would strike terror into most of us, was to him [Gore] matter for lyrical and exhilarated improvisation.’12
Gore, and equally both William Ratcliffe and Harold Gilman in their paintings of nearby Clarence Gardens of 1912, resist categorisations of the inner suburbs as had emerged in Masterman and most notably in T.W.H. Crosland’s The Suburbans (1905).13 Camden Town Group painters very frequently sought out more orderly and tranquil London locations. They avoided either bustling or sordid and shabby scenes, underlining fragments of nature, tree-lined squares, corners of parks and spots of green and point to a more optimistic, pleasurable view of a coexistence of town and country. This is a more modern vision, quite in tune with contemporary social developments and aspirations. In this respect Camden Town Group paintings are, very often, markedly different from a variety of other Edwardian images of nature.
If, as we have seen, by 1912 the capital was full of images of the countryside in Underground and railway station posters, in newspaper and periodical photographs, and in the lithographic illustrations to the proliferating rural guidebooks of the period, it was also full of an array of different types of landscape paintings to be seen in numerous and diverse sites of display: commercial galleries, art societies and institutions. Partisanship between venues and associations between landscape types typically seen at those institutions were much discussed, with, by 1912, a very clear sense that distinctions between the works shown at one-time rival institutions the New English Art Club and the Royal Academy were now no more. As the critic C.H. Collins Baker noted in May 1912:
For some weeks the tubes have urged us to book to Dover Street for the Royal Academy, indicating that the number of visitors to the show will be lucrative from a traffic standpoint ... Obviously the exhibition ... is a conspicuous social and business concern ... we encourage people who have the minds of sentimental schoolgirls (or boys) to bore us with their trivial ideas ... it is almost fatuous to make this perambulation, every year, among things we know by heart.14
Sir Alfred East 'Golden Autumn' ?1904
Sir Alfred East
Golden Autumn ?1904
Tate N04917
Collins Baker was referring essentially to the works of landscape and ruralist artists including the widely popular Sir Alfred East, who endlessly reproduced the formulaic landscape conventions – panoramic vistas or peaceful riverbanks framed with trees – he had established in the 1890s, full of melancholic longing for a dreamy old world as in Golden Autumn 1904 (Tate N04917, fig.8). Sickert, contemplating East’s Autumn in England at the 1912 Summer Exhibition, noted ‘a man of talent, and by no means without a vein of romantic observation in landscape. But he is the victim of the exhibition system, and some necessity that I don’t understand forces him to expand too many ideas on too large a scale.’ For Sickert the explanation may be that, unlike the Camden Town Group painters who, on his advice, were producing ‘little pictures for little patrons’, East and other Academicians painted with an eye to purchases by public galleries not private ones; ‘the taste of mayors and syndics at home and abroad runs rather to forced and rhetorical canvases on a large scale, than to art of any delicacy’.15
Sir George Clausen 'The Gleaners Returning' 1908
Sir George Clausen
The Gleaners Returning 1908
Tate N02259
© Tate
Another artist popular with public galleries at home, and also overseas in the colonies and dominions, was founder New English member George Clausen who, by 1904, was Professor of Painting at the Royal Academy Schools. Throughout these years Clausen consistently exhibited paintings of vigorous rustic types engaged in traditional (though fast disappearing) rural activities like ploughing, in increasingly idyllic sun-filled settings; see, for example, The Gleaners Returning 1908 (Tate N02259, fig.9) obviously referencing Jean-François Millet’s compositions and again rehearsing deeply sentimental ideals of the timelessness of rural life. This, fundamentally, is still typically late Victorian ruralism, still wedded to clichéd distinctions between city and country, but with a moderately updated handling which, in Clausen’s case, accommodated some degree of impressionism.
East and Clausen were frequently illustrated in contemporary art journals, like the influential and widely circulated Studio magazine, which in its reviews and studio-talk sections directed London gallery-goers around the bewildering number of galleries and exhibitions. The Studio itself was a powerful proponent of ruralism from its inception in 1893, frequently containing lengthy biographies of landscape painters, notes on artists’ haunts and sketching grounds and photographs of, for example, ‘Artistic Arrangements of English Gardens’, book reviews on ruralist subjects like Mr Batsford’s The Essentials of a Country House, and accounts of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society. Its 1910–12 gallery round-ups are full of reference to landscape and rural subject artists like Steer, Walter Russell and Edward Stott who had come to prominence in the 1890s. Indeed, it is easy to forget from a survey of that magazine’s pages with its accounts of ‘noble pastorals’16 (a reference to Arnesby Brown’s ever-popular scenes of contentedly grazing cattle) that these are the years of the introduction of post-impressionism to the London galleries and the formation of the Fitzroy Street and Camden Town groups – although a short review of the group’s third Carfax show in December 1912 did admire ‘Mr J.B. Manson’s virility and sometimes charm and Mr Spencer Gore’s unconscious poetry in landscape [over] the pattern making pure and simple of Mr Ginner and Mr Drummond’.17
Other magazines like Country Life had, by 1912, also begun to refer to contemporary artists in their pages. Among advertisements for motorcars, contractors for ‘Bungalow and Cottage residences’, for Rexine fake leather sofas and Heal’s bedroom furniture appear reviews of Lucy Kemp-Welch and Alfred Munnings’s exhibition Horses at the Academy. All of which demonstrates a familiar disjunction within the period – a deep conservatism in its tastes in art, and modernity in the world of advertising and material consumption – here in a magazine which is much more metropolitan-oriented than we might expect.
After 1909 Gore, Charles Ginner and Robert Bevan made several painting trips to a West Country farm, Applehayes, in the Blackdown Hills near Clayhidon in Devon. Applehayes was a 300-acre estate acquired in 1909 by Harold Bertram Harrison, an older student contemporary with Gore at the Slade, who erected artists’ studios among his extensive farm buildings. The adjacent county of Cornwall had long been an artists’ haunt and its fishing villages the site of several artists’ colonies since the 1880s. Sickert and Whistler had painted seascapes at St Ives in 1882 and, for example, the Manson painting of his wife Lilian referred to earlier was painted in a holiday cottage garden in Padstow c.1910. Cornwall had increasingly become a popular tourists’ destination too, but Devon – aside from its seaside resorts – was less visited by artists and tourists, hence perhaps expectations of the unspoilt and remote.
Spencer Gore 'Applehayes' c.1909–10
Spencer Gore
Applehayes c.1909–10
Ulster Museum, Belfast
Photo © National Museums Northern Ireland
Charles Ginner 'Landscape with Farmhouses' 1912–13
Charles Ginner
Landscape with Farmhouses 1912–13
Manchester City Galleries
© Estate of Charles Ginner
Photo © Manchester City Galleries

Gore’s plein-air paintings of the surrounding landscape demonstrate a marked shift from the impressionism of the Pissarros, as seen in Applehayes c.1909–10 (fig.10), towards a greater emphasis on structure and outline derived from Paul Cézanne. The physical character of the landscape encouraged such a transition in technique. For Bevan and Ginner the influence of Paul Gauguin’s cloisonnisme, as shown, for example, in Ginner’s Landscape with Farmhouses 1912–13 (fig.11), is especially marked and, for the latter, this was combined with the decorative impasto from van Gogh. Examples of Cézanne’s, van Gogh’s and Gauguin’s works were to be seen, controversially, in London exhibitions from 1910, but the Camden Town Group artists were already familiar with their paintings from earlier visits to France. Gore, for instance, had visited the Cézanne exhibition at Durand-Ruel’s gallery in Paris in 1905 and saw Gauguin’s works at the 1906 Salon d’Automne in the company of Sickert. Bevan had met Gauguin at Pont-Aven in Brittany on a visit to the artists’ colony in 1894. Stylistic influence from artists associated with ‘primitive’ or isolated landscapes in France – in the Midi or off the beaten track in Brittany – seems especially appropriate in the context of this ancient Devon landscape. Nonetheless, with their generally strong emphasis on rhythmic pattern in the observation of orderly stone walls or hedgerows and long-standing but well-maintained farm buildings, the overall effect of many of these Camden Town painters’ depictions of the Devon countryside is not actually of a wild and untamed landscape, but of a secure and cultivated one with, as the art historian Sam Smiles has noted, some connection through to an earlier nineteenth-century picturesque landscape aesthetic.18
These visits were very much temporary painting vacations for Gore and Ginner. Long solitary periods of immersion in an isolated natural environment was to be a feature only of Bevan’s practice as he spent the First World War years and afterwards in sustained periods painting in nearby Bolham Valley. The concept of ‘going away’ – but always predicated on the ‘coming back’ in time for key London exhibitions – relates best to the practice of two ex-Slade students and short-term members of the Camden Town Group, J.D. Innes and Augustus John. In the spirit of dissipated bohemians infatuated with the ideals of unfettered gypsy life, these ‘artist travellers’ spent time before 1914 on prolonged painting trips to remote locations in Wales, Ireland and the south of France. They were in flight from the city, for which John at least felt much distaste, and in search of more elemental, uncultivated scenery than the largely Home Counties ‘picnic’ or ‘august site’ landscapes – as Laurence Binyon and Sickert respectively described works on display at New English and Royal Academy shows and in West End galleries.19
James Dickson Innes 'Arenig, Sunny Evening' circa 1911-12
James Dickson Innes
Arenig, Sunny Evening circa 1911–12
Tate N05367
The first Camden Town Group exhibition at the Carfax Gallery in June 1911 included two small oil studies of Welsh landscapes by John.20 The second show in December included one of Innes’s vivid studies of the mountain in North Wales, Arenig (see, for example, Arenig c.1911–12, Tate N05367, fig.12). John displayed his more attention-grabbing figure-in-landscape Provençal studies at the Chenil Gallery late in 1910, featuring his mistress Dorelia ‘behaving aesthetically’, in Sickert’s terms, dressed in flowing garb and surrounded by their bare-footed tribe of children.21 Gauguin and to an extent early Picasso appear the closest stylistic influences, but both Innes’s and John’s representations, despite variations in handling, derive fundamentally from the same distaste for the homogeneity and the sham vulgarity of everyday life in London as those of Royal Academy stalwarts like Clausen. The real irony is that John, Innes and equally Henry Lamb, who showed his Brittany Peasant Boy at the June 1911 exhibition, should have been Camden Town Group members at all. None showed at the third and final exhibition in December 1912.
Spencer Gore 'Letchworth' 1912
Spencer Gore
Letchworth 1912
Tate N04675
Spencer Gore 'The Fig Tree' c.1912
Spencer Gore
The Fig Tree c.1912
Tate T00028

That final show displayed a large number of rural scenes and landscapes, including Gore’s vivid study of an enclosed area of woodland by a stream, Letchworth Common, which the art historian Wendy Baron has noted may be the Tate’s Letchworth 1912 (Tate N04675, fig.13).22 The Fig Tree 1912 (Tate T00028, fig.14) – a study of lush blue-green foliage in a vertiginous view down into the gardens of Houghton Place seen from Gore’s first-floor window – was hung in the same exhibition. Perspective in both works is very different; the Letchworth picture is painted en plein-air using broad sweeps of colour and from an intimate ground-level position, allowing a greater sense of the artist’s involvement in the natural environment than the distanced observation in The Fig Tree. But the rich colour, broad handling and dense composition are similar and give a clear sense of the artist’s developing direction. Gilman and Ratcliffe both lived in Letchworth at this period and Gore and his young family stayed in Gilman’s house in the summer of 1912. These artists’ attraction to the First Garden City, thirty-four miles outside London, firmly underpins the particular form of Edwardian ruralism this essay describes.
Ebenezer Howard 'Three Magnets diagram, showing the Town, Country and Town-Country' c.1898
Ebenezer Howard
Three Magnets diagram, showing the Town, Country and Town-Country c.1898
First Garden City Heritage Museum
Photo © First Garden City Heritage Museum
Frank Dean 'Garden City, Cheap Cottages Exhibition Road' c.1905
Frank Dean
Garden City, Cheap Cottages Exhibition Road c.1905
First Garden City Heritage Museum
Photo © First Garden City Heritage Museum

Letchworth c.1906
Letchworth c.1906
First Garden City Heritage Museum
Photo © First Garden City Heritage Museum
Ebenezer Howard’s 1903 utopian vision, Garden Cities of Tomorrow (fig.15), intended to bring together the advantages of town and country and was, fundamentally and in practice, a re-housing scheme, designed to remove Londoners from cramped and unsanitary inner-city conditions into the beneficial atmosphere of space, healthy fresh air and access to surrounding green fields and woodland – as depicted in Gore’s painting. Competitions for small cottage designs, frequently reported upon by the Studio, emphasised the importance of simplicity and sound construction, primarily interpreted in a vernacular style and underlining the extent to which Garden Cities were envisaged as an ideal compromise between tradition and modernity (figs.16 and 17). Their impact and the general drift to the outer suburbs and to the Home Counties was clear to see and Letchworth’s population, for example, rose from 400 in 1903 to 6,000 by 1910. Country Life reported in its 1912 survey ‘The Future of London’:
Only a few years ago it seemed that the growth of the ‘great wen’, as Cobbett called the metropolis, was a thing unpreventable. For hundreds of years it had steadily continued swallowing up villages, covering streams, forming crowded tenements ... Now apparently the tide has turned ... the number of empty houses is continually increasing ... families are leaving the central boroughs at a rate of about thirteen thousand per annum, ... it by no means indicates any falling off in the prosperity of London. It is due, as all men know, to the modern passion for country life and the facilities afforded for enjoying it by the increased methods of transport ... When the tube railways were started it was considered doubtful whether they would be remunerative, so few was the number of passengers, but now in the morning and in the evening they are overloaded to a degree that is certainly uncomfortable and might be dangerous ... At first the egress from the City practically stopped at the suburbs, then it reached out for a mile or two beyond them, and now the country within a radius of thirty or thirty five miles is drained of its population in the morning and refilled in the evening. Instead of suburbs we have growing cities that have become the adjuncts of London, places like Letchworth and Golder’s Green for example. The overall effect is not in the slightest degree to be deplored. Those who take up their residence in the country adjacent to the metropolis are invigorated by the fresh air, even though they do little more than go home to sleep. Business is transacted with all the greater spirit and vigour for the change. The movement and excitement of the journey are in themselves beneficial.23
Louis Weirter 'What Some People Think Of Us' 1909
Louis Weirter
What Some People Think Of Us 1909
First Garden City Heritage Museum
Photo © First Garden City Heritage Museum
Country Life’s extraordinarily positive account of these developments points too to the fact that the class mix at Letchworth extended far beyond those working class residents able to cycle to work at the local Spirella corset factory. Rapidly it had extended to include business commuters, second home country-cottage owners, and a good selection of what the Fortnightly Review in a 1910 fourteen-page account termed ‘cranks and faddists’, ‘Sandal-wearers, the hatless brigade’ and wearers of ‘aesthetic dress’ (fig.18).24 All of which underlines the great variety of motivations, the different ideals and the investments in (semi-)rural living – from ex-tenement dwellers encouraged towards healthier living and more disciplined ways of life (including teetotalism and gardening), to middle class city professionals desiring fresh air and relaxation, and vegetarian simple-lifers seeking spiritual fulfilment in alternative movements like Madam Blavatsky’s theosophy.
Of interest here too are contemporary Garden City artistic links to Scandinavia. Ratcliffe spent time painting in Scandinavia and Gilman’s neighbour in Wilbury Road was Signe Bergström, Swedish wife of Stanley Parker, the brother of one of the Letchworth architects. Gilman himself visited Sweden in 1912 and the following year travelled to Norway. On both occasions he produced brilliantly coloured and simplified landscapes and studies of field workers at a time when his work was demonstrating the influence of van Gogh. Gilman showed three Swedish pictures at the final Camden Town Group exhibition that year, including The Reapers, Sweden (Johannesburg Art Gallery).25 A particular mix of Scandinavian and British aesthetic tendencies emerges in this period, intermingling with discourses of health, sunlight and the outdoors. A Scandinavian taste for clean, uncluttered lines and simple proportions also contributed a modern and cosmopolitan influence to late manifestations of the Arts and Crafts movement in Britain, as can be seen in Gilman’s Verandah, Sweden 1912 (fig.19), and Scandinavian design, crafts and architecture were frequently featured in the Studio magazine throughout these years.
Harold Gilman 'The Verandah, Sweden' 1912
Harold Gilman
The Verandah, Sweden 1912
The Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Gift of The Second Beaverbrook Foundation
Photo © The Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Fredericton, NB
Golder's Green for Healthy Homes 1910
Golder's Green for Healthy Homes 1910
London Transport Museum
Photo © TfL from the collection of London Transport Museum

In its continual campaign to educate its pre-war expanding readership on matters of taste, the Studio increasingly included articles on the new advancements in poster design referred to earlier. In fact there is a noticeable lag between the modern character of the design and architecture discussed in the magazine and the much more conservative nature of the paintings, landscapes or others reproduced in its pages – a situation not really adjusted until after the First World War. Modernism was more immediately palatable in the form of architecture, design and decoration. By 1910, however, the modern posters which the Studio discussed were already characterised by a radical simplification of colour and form.26 As Curator at the London Transport Museum David Bownes has demonstrated, from this point posters were increasingly ‘selling an aspirational vision of suburban life’ in a departure from simply encouraging Londoners to take days out and holidays in the country. Especially talented emerging poster designers, like the once architectural draughtsman Fred Taylor and the landscape artist Walter Spradbery, evolved ‘a visual language for suburban selling’. The 1910 poster Golder’s Green for Healthy Homes (fig.20) is a good example, using, as Bownes points out, ‘an artistic, rather than photographic representation of an idyllic house’ and emphasising, as with Letchworth, a sense of the best of both worlds – fresh air and easy access to the city, with a style of architecture rooted in the Arts and Crafts tradition pioneered by Voysey and Baillie Scott.27
Spencer Gore 'Letchworth, The Road' 1912
Spencer Gore
Letchworth, The Road 1912
Letchworth Museum and Art Gallery
Photo © Letchworth Museum and Art Gallery (North Hertfordshire Museum Service)
Spencer Gore 'The Cinder Path' 1912
Spencer Gore
The Cinder Path 1912
Tate T01960

Gore’s Letchworth, The Road 1912 (fig.21) perfectly demonstrates the simplification of his forms and the brightening of his palette at this period, resulting in a decorative composition that retains the fundamental character of the scene before him. As a result of this process, as his own critical response to Cézanne, Gauguin and van Gogh at the first of Fry’s post-impressionist exhibitions reveals, the artist might best express ‘the emotional significance which lies in things’.28 It was a quality he observed too in Henri Matisse, André Derain and Auguste Herbin at this period. The process of radical simplification and emphasis on an overall balanced and rhythmic design seen both in The Road and in, for Gore, the large-scale work The Cinder Path 1912 (Tate T01960, fig.22), shown at Fry’s second post-impressionist exhibition, combine to represent a view of the Garden City as harmoniously merging into the countryside in an ideal unity of town and country, of culture and nature. Gore’s Letchworth Station of 1912 (fig.23 and 24), also shown at Fry’s exhibition and illustrated in the catalogue, might actually stand as a perfect illustration to that summer’s Country Life article, extolling – rather like the modern poster – the advantages afforded by the increased methods of transport in bringing nature and the city together, rather than, as P.G. Konody described the painting in the Observer, ‘the silent protest of a lover of the green countryside against the unbending iron and black smoke’.29
Spencer Gore 'Letchworth Station' 1912
Spencer Gore
Letchworth Station 1912
National Railway Museum, York
Photo © National Railway Museum / Science & Society Picture Library
Letchworth Station c.1907
Letchworth Station c.1907
First Garden City Heritage Museum
Photo © First Garden City Heritage Museum

Konody’s remark recalls Masterman’s lament and those earlier insistent distinctions between the country and the city that were fuelled by nostalgia, resistance to change and modernity, sentiments still much in evidence in Royal Academy and New English exhibitions, despite increasing criticisms. Nevertheless, as certain Camden Town Group painters on their trips to the countryside around 1910–13 were able to observe, it was modernity in the form of new communication and technology that enabled any potentially beneficial, harmonious relationship to develop between town and country, and Gore in particular had achieved the formal means – adapted from European modernism – with which to represent this ideal. There may be, as Edward Thomas had noted, a ‘modern’ ‘passion’ for nature, but it was not necessarily ‘sad’ by 1914.


Raymond Williams, The Country and the City, Hogarth Press, London 1973.
H.G. Wells, Tono-Bungay, C.M. Joad (ed.), Collins, London 1966, pp.97–8.
Edward Thomas, The Country, Batsford, London 1913, pp.19–22.
On the developing enthusiasm for landscape photography from the 1890s, see, in particular, John Taylor, A Dream of England: Landscape, Photography and the Tourist’s Imagination, Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York 1994.
Country Life, 4 May 1912, p.26.
Cited in Donald Read, Edwardian England, 1901–15, Society and Politics, Harrap & Co., London 1982, p.50.
Catherine Flood, ‘Pictorial Posters in Britain at the Turn of the Twentieth Century’, in David Bownes and Oliver Green (eds.), London Transport Posters: A Century of Art and Design, Lund Humphries, London 2008, p.15. Quote taken from George Sims, Living London, vol.3, Cassell and Company, London 1903, p.216.
Reproduced in Spencer Gore & his Circle, Piano Nobile, Richmond 1996, p.10.
See David Buckman, James Boliver Manson: An English Impressionist, 1879–1945, exhibition catalogue, Maltzahn Gallery, London 1973, p.18.
The Manson painting is reproduced on the cover of David Buckman’s catalogue.
Walter Sickert, ‘A Perfect Modern’, New Age, 9 April 1914, p.718, in Anna Gruetzner Robins (ed.), Walter Sickert: The Complete Writings on Art, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2000, p.355.
For an account of Crosland’s study and for an excellent discussion of early twentieth-century distaste for ‘The Suburbs and the Clerks’, see the chapter with that title in John Carey, The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880–1939, Faber and Faber, London 1992.
C.H. Collins Baker, ‘The Royal Academy’, Saturday Review, 4 May 1912, pp.551–2.
Walter Sickert, ‘The Royal Academy’, English Review, June 1912, in Robins (ed.) 2000, p.319.
Studio, June 1912, p.13
Studio, December 1912, p.318.
See Sam Smiles (ed.), Going Modern and Being British: Art, Architecture and Design in Devon c.1910–1960, Intellect Books, Exeter 1998. And see especially Rosalind Billingham, Artists at Applehayes: Camden Town Painters at a West Country Farm, 1909–1924, exhibition catalogue, Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry 1986. Ginner painted at Applehayes in 1912, 1913 and 1914, Gore in 1909, 1910 and 1913 and Bevan in 1912, 1913 and 1915. Slade students Mark Gertler, Stanley Spencer and William Roberts also stayed there at different times in the summer of 1911. Between 1916 and 1919 Bevan rented Lytchetts, a cottage a few miles from Applehayes, and purchased another, Marlpits, on nearby Luppitt Common in 1923. See Helena Bonett, ‘‘In these English farms, if anywhere, one might see life steadily and see it whole’: Representations of the Countryside in the Paintings of Robert Bevan and E.M. Forster’s Howards End’, in Helena Bonett, Ysanne Holt, Jennifer Mundy (eds.), The Camden Town Group in Context, May 2012,, accessed 27 August 2013.
Binyon was dismissing the ‘picnic landscapes’ at the NEAC which were too engaged in realistic imitation and ‘sensations of well-being’, ‘E Pur Si Mouve’, Saturday Review, 31 December 1910, p.840. Sickert commented on the NEAC’s ‘over-insistence on two motifs. The one the august-site motif, and the other the smartened-up-young-person motif’, in ‘The New English and After’, New Age, 2 June 1910, in Robins (ed.) 2000, p.242.
Wendy Baron suggests that John’s choice of small-scale informal studies was an indication of his support of the group, but of not wanting to outshine the less well-known members. See Perfect Moderns: A History of the Camden Town Group, Ashgate, Aldershot and Vermont 2000, p.47.
They were shown at the Chenil Gallery in December 1910. Sickert’s comment came later in his 1914 review of the exhibition Twentieth-Century Art: A Review of Modern Movements at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in the New Age, 28 May 1914, p.83; Robins (ed.) 2000, pp.371–3.
Baron 2000, p.55.
‘The Future of London’, Country Life, 11 May 1912, p.670.
C.S. Bremner, ‘Garden City, The Housing Experiment at Letchworth’, Fortnightly Review, 1 September 1910, pp.512–26.
Reproduced in Harold Gilman 1876–1919, exhibition catalogue, Arts Council, London 1981 (35).
Paul Rennie, ‘The New Publicity: Design Reform, Commercial Art and Design Education, 1910–1939’, in Bownes and Green (eds.) 2008, p.94.
David Bownes, ‘Selling the Underground Suburbs, 1908–1933’, in Bownes and Green (eds.) 2008, pp.109–13.
Spencer Gore, ‘Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh &c., at the Grafton Galleries’, Art News, 15 December 1910, pp.19–20, in J.B. Bullen (ed.), Post Impressionists in England: The Critical Reception, Routledge, London 1988, pp.140–2.
P.G. Konody, ‘Art and Artists: English Impressionists’, Observer, 27 October 1912, p.10, in Bullen 1988, p.388.

How to cite

Ysanne Holt, ‘The Camden Town Group and Early Twentieth-Century Ruralism’, in Helena Bonett, Ysanne Holt, Jennifer Mundy (eds.), The Camden Town Group in Context, Tate Research Publication, May 2012,, accessed 16 April 2024.