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The Literary London Journal

Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 8 Number 1 (March 2010)

'The Most Wonderful and Complex City in the World': London and the Camden Town Group[1]

Bernard Vere

<1> The quotation which gives this paper its title comes from Walter Sickert’s Introduction to the only show of the ‘London Impressionists’, which took place at the Goupil Gallery in 1889. But, over twenty years later, when Sickert founded the Camden Town Group in 1911, London still had claims to be the most wonderful and complex city in the world. It was certainly the largest. Le Corbusier gives a figure of 7.2 million people for the population of London in 1910, well ahead of New York –- 4.5 million –- and Paris –- 3 million.[2] What is also remarkable is that, out of its nearest competitors, London had by far the most rapid rate of growth in the 30 years from 1880 –- 1910, almost doubling in size. One of the ‘complications’ of London is the difficulties artists encountered in establishing a viable form of modernism to accompany these rapid social changes. As Lisa Tickner points out a single generation – Sickert’s generation –- experienced the impact of the typewriter, the telephone, the gramophone, electric lighting, the internal combustion engine, the underground tube train, wireless telegraphy, the cinema, the mass-circulation daily newspaper, the motor bus and powered flight.[3]

<2> Many of these inventions and their subsequent development were specifically British. As peripheral Camden Town Group member Wyndham Lewis wrote in the first issue of the Vorticist magazine, Blast of 1914: 'The Modern World is due almost entirely to Anglo-Saxon genius, -- its appearance and its spirit.'[4] Lewis’s statement was written as part of a wider feeling, shared by foreign visitors such as the Futurist F. T. Marinetti and the former Director of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius, that a metropolis of the scale and technological advancement of London should be able to produce a home-grown avant-garde movement and should not continually have to look to the much smaller Paris to dictate artistic terms. Although short-lived, Lewis’s belligerent, manifesto-producing Vorticist movement was in many ways the Camden Town Group’s nemesis. As David Peters Corbett writes, 'Vorticism remains the principal contender for an indigenous "avant-garde movement."'[5] If the Camden Town Group was not that movement this does not mean that it is without interest. It is, at times, wonderful and the accounts of its emergence and dissolution are indeed complex. I want to situate it within that modern metropolis that it takes as its subject matter, within a London that between 1911 and 1913 was pervaded by Post-Impressionism, Italian Futurism, Cubism and Expressionism and also against other competing factions within the English art scene.

<3> The Camden Town Group was not Sickert’s first attempt, following his 1905 return to London after seven years in Dieppe, to progress modernism in England. First came the Fitzroy Street Group, whose membership overlapped considerably with that of the Camden Town Group. Founded in 1907 to form, in Sickert’s words, ‘an incessant proselytizing agency to accustom people to mine and other painters’ work of a modern character’ it was an effort to ‘create a Salon d’Automne milieu in London’.[6] Members of the Fitzroy Street Group shared the rent on 19 Fitzroy Street and held open house on Saturday afternoons for other painters and prospective clients, enabling the Group to operate without the need for dealers. The prices asked were typically modest – about 20-25 Guineas (a guinea is £1 and 1s and was the standard way that artworks were priced). This was in line with Sickert’s determination to point out to prospective purchasers ‘[t]hat a picture costs less than a supper at the Savoy’.[7] The Fitzroy Street Group stood in an interesting relationship with the New English Art Club (NEAC), which in turn had been set up to contest the Royal Academy official exhibition. Once radical, the NEAC had become part of the establishment, although many Fitzroy Street members continued to exhibit there. Wendy Baron believes that Sickert, ‘clearly envisaged the Fitzroy Street Group as a co-operative commercial enterprise, run by a partnership of socially acceptable friends who broadly represented an offshoot of the NEAC’.[8] Few sales resulted from the Saturday afternoons, but it did establish a common subject matter amongst certain members of the group who would go on to be members of the Camden Town Group and who shared Sickert’s belief that: ‘The more our art is serious, the more it will tend to avoid the drawing-room and stick to the kitchen. The plastic arts are gross arts, dealing joyously with gross material facts’.[9] The overlap between the two groups, which continued in tandem, is commemorated in Malcolm Drummond’s 19 Fitzroy Street of 1912-14. Drummond’s work shows three of his fellow members of Camden Town, the Secretary, J. B. Manson; Spencer Gore; and Charles Ginner, examining a painting taken from the stacks behind the easel. The impression is one of quiet and deep concentration as the figures seem oblivious to the fact that they are themselves the subject of a painting. Several of the works around the group are identifiably by Harold Gilman, Ginner and Drummond himself. The painting captures some of the convergences and also some of the differences between the Fitzroy Street Group and the Camden Town Group. On the one hand, the trio discuss a work that they themselves obscure almost totally. Their bodies are positioned in such a way to exclude the viewer from entering the discussion. Everything in the centre of the work is closed off, representing the closed nature of the Camden Town Group and their internal artistic discussions. On the other hand, the title gives the location as Fitzroy Street and the works that surround the group are clearly displayed as if in preparation for a Saturday afternoon and the attempt to sell their works in a commercial setting.

<4> It is often claimed that it is problematic, impossible even, to ascribe a unified style to Camden Town painting now, but in this early Fitzroy Street stage, the difference between the works produced by many of the group from those that surrounded them seemed obvious enough to critics of the time. Reviewing the NEAC exhibition of 1910 for the New Age, Huntly Carter identified colour as the overriding issue, setting ‘monochromists’ against ‘colourists’. Within this latter group, Carter singles out a number of painters who ‘intimately understand the colour of colour and the colour of shadows’. These painters –- Spencer Gore, Harold Gilman, Lucien Pissarro and Robert Bevan -- would all go on to form part of the Camden Town Group the following year. ‘Their work’ writes Carter, ‘has characteristics in common. They do not seek to uphold the academic traditions of the NEAC, which is to be congratulated upon admitting a little fresh blood of fine quality into its exhibition. They conceive and express subject in colour; they work putting the colour on in separate touches all through; they use very simple palettes and make very simple mixtures. They avoid the use of varnishes; their surfaces are, in consequence, matt, and thus their work largely partakes of the character of early tempera ... it is bright and cheerful and introduces the right note of the joy of life into our dreary existence.’[10] An important aspect of Camden Town painting would be this emphasis on the material of paint and the craftsmanship of its application. In time, it would also become a focal point of disagreement between three of the Group’s principal members.

<5> By the end of 1910 Fitzroy Street was far from being the only show in town. ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists’, Roger Fry’s exhibition, introduced a whole host of artists, among them Cézanne, Derain, Gauguin, Picasso, Seurat, Signac and van Gogh, to a wider gallery-going public and a new term, ‘Post-Impressionist’, into artistic and popular debate. The Camden Town Group were familiar with these artists of course –- Sickert had a well-documented friendship with Degas and first-hand knowledge of the Impressionists and their successors, while Lucien Pissarro was the son of Camille and had exhibited with his father as a neo-Impressionist alongside Seurat and Signac at the last Impressionist exhibition in 1886. Bevan had been at Pont Aven in Brittany, where Gauguin and Bernard had based themselves in the 1880s. The most immediate consequence of the show for the Fitzroy Street Group was that it provoked a conservative backlash at the NEAC and the society that Carter had praised a few months before for introducing a ‘little fresh blood of fine quality’ into its exhibition now became increasingly hostile to those it perceived as aligned with Post-Impressionism.

<6> Developments at the NEAC hastened the formation of the Camden Town Group, established in the convivial settings of three London restaurants: An initial meeting at Gatti’s on Regent Street was followed by a meal at the Criterion Grill Room and a further meal on Golden Square, where the name was decided on. 16 members were elected. Unlike the Fitzroy Street Group, all were men and thus Nan Hudson and Ethel Sands were excluded. As Sickert bluntly put it ‘the Camden Town Group is a male group, & women are not eligible. There are lots of 2 sex clubs, & several one sex clubs, & this is one of them’.[11] The list of names comprises the core group: Bevan, Drummond, Gilman, Ginner, Gore, Ratcliffe and Sickert (whose works collectively comprised Tate Britain’s 2008 exhibition on the group), but it also throws up some high-profile oddities: Augustus John, who did not share the core group’s concerns with London, the music hall, or the shabby interiors of Camden Town itself, and who only sent pictures to the first of the three exhibitions; Lucien Pissarro, who was a major influence on the Fitzroy Street Group, but whose work was rooted in Impressionism and neo-Impressionism; and above all Wyndham Lewis.

<7> Camden Town subject matter is predominantly urban and suburban and, although Gore had shown an interest in music hall before meeting Sickert, its repertoire of music halls, nudes in shabby bedsitters, views of suburbia and central London was largely established by Sickert himself. But, as Baron suggests, significant divergences were beginning to be apparent within the core group even at its inception:

The Camden Town Group was, in fact, even less representative of a particular movement in painting than the Fitzroy Street Group. Drummond and Ratcliffe were broadly aligned with the nucleus of Camden Town painters: Bevan, Gilman, Ginner, Gore and Sickert. However, by 1911 this nucleus was rapidly losing its self-contained identity as each of its members began to outgrow the teaching of Sickert and Pissarro to explore new stylistic avenues. If we define Camden Town painting as the objective record of aspects of urban life in a basically Impressionist-derived handling, and recognize it as a distinct movement in British art, then we must accept that the heyday of Camden Town painting was over by the time the Camden Town Group was born.[12]

To take just one example, Spencer Gore’s The Balcony at the Alhambra of 1911 or 1912 clearly derives its subject matter from Sickert’s music hall works such as Noctes Ambrosianae of 1906. But the treatment of the subject is very different. In Sickert’s work, the gurning faces of the individual audience members at the Middlesex Music Hall are discernable and the overall colour range remains characteristic of Sickert’s muted palette. In Gore’s piece he adopts a vertiginous viewpoint also found in Inez and Taki of 1910 and Gauguins and the Connoisseurs of 1911. In The Balcony at the Alhambra, Gore adopts a highly coloured palette, influenced by Gauguin and also by Matisse. In contrast to Sickert’s work, the faces of the audience in the background give nothing away. Two empty rows of seats in the centre right of the picture emphasize the contrast with the bright red of the central aisle. This central aisle is only painted to give the impression of actual steps in the most cursory way. Instead, it seems to lift itself away from the floor of the theatre and tilt itself towards the viewer, reinforcing the near abstract quality of Gore’s painting at this time, which is best seen in a work such as The Beanfield, Letchworth of 1912 (fig. 1 available online at: http://www.tate.org.uk/servlet/ViewWork?workid=5530&searchid=17298).

<8> Another of the Group’s members, Charles Ginner, was developing a technique of applying paint extremely thickly, picking out subjects such as the boat in Evening, Dieppe of 1911 as much by variation in paint thickness as by subtle colour modulation. Ginner’s best canvases are his views of central London. In 1911 he painted The Café Royal (fig. 2 available online at: http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/modernpainters/images/works/modernity-metopolis_031a.jpg), showing its richly gilded interior. The Café Royal had been established by the Frenchman Daniel Nichols in 1865 and towards the end of the nineteenth century had become London’s foremost social meeting place for artists. Whistler and Wilde were regulars and Verlaine was an enthusiastic customer when in London. The Camden Town Group would go there following the Saturday afternoon open house at Fitzroy Street and Gilman also painted it the following year. By this time, the Café had become slightly dated, but would soon become reinvigorated by a new generation. Sickert, in his 1914 obituary for Spencer Gore, took a more cynical view of the Café’s re-emergence as a centre for London’s progressive painters, contrasting the example of Gore to ‘the young men who sit in the Café Royal waiting to be crowned on the strength of their own post-dated stumers on futurity,’[13] a remark usually taken to be directed at the group of painters around Lewis.

<9> Gore, however, was at his most abstract in 1912. This was a crucial year for visual modernism in England. Fry held the Second Post-Impressionist exhibition at its end. This exhibition included an English section, curated by Clive Bell. Gore was the only member of the Camden Town Group’s core artists to be included, sending two of his Letchworth works: The Cinder Path (fig. 3 available online at: http://www.tate.org.uk/servlet/ViewWork?workid=5531&searchid=17306&tabview=image) and Letchworth Station. The emphasis on design in these paintings (as with The Beanfield) moves Gore far away from Impressionism. As Ysanne Holt writes of the Letchworth paintings, ‘Roads and pathways were always attractive to Gore because of their ordering effect.’[14] Although the subject matter is very different, there is a continuity here between the cinder path, which seems to tilt up towards the picture plane, rather than receding into the distance, and the red carpeted stairs of The Balcony of the Alhambra, just as there is a similarity between the anonymous spectators of that work and the faceless commuters waiting for the London train at Letchworth station. These works demonstrate the influence of the first Post-Impressionist exhibition of 1910. Although the painters included there would have been familiar to Gore, at least by reputation and through reproduction, the younger generation of Camden Town painters lacked the intimate and personal connections of Sickert, Bevan and Lucien Pissarro. Seeing the works grouped together made a big impact on Gore, who wrote an enthusiastic review for Art News.

<10> But there was another influence in play in 1912. It is more mediated in Camden Town painting than that of the Post-Impressionists, but it was one that no painter could ignore. As F. T. Marinetti later wrote, ‘the 1912 winter season in London was at the disposal of Italian Futurism’.[15] Italian Futurism launched itself with a large exhibition at the Sackville Galleries, reportedly attended by 40,000 people. It dominated the press, with virtually every major mass circulation newspaper devoting articles to it. Marinetti himself considered London ‘the most Futurist city in Europe’[16] with its underground railway, electric lights and advertising plastered on buses. Futurism came armed with a series of manifestos and a statement by the painters, ‘The Exhibitors to the Public’, in the exhibition catalogue which announced that they were ‘absolutely opposed’ to the post-Impressionists and sought instead ‘a style of motion’. In Futurist painting the spectator ‘must in future be placed in the centre of the picture’, immersed within it, encircled by ‘force-lines’. Vibration and motion would endlessly multiply an object, so that a ‘running horse ... has not four legs, but twenty.’[17]

<11> At about this time, Gore, as well as Bevan, Ginner, Gilman and Sickert, began to attend the Tuesday evening meetings organised by the philosopher and art critic T. E. Hulme at Ethel Kibblewhite’s apartment in Soho. Continental ideas, such as those of Henri Bergson, were discussed here by a diverse crowd that also included the editor of the New Age, A. R. Orage, Jacob Epstein, Ezra Pound and Lewis. Another important meeting place was the nightclub, The Cave of the Golden Calf, off Regent Street, launched in June 1912 in the aftermath of the Futurist exhibition by Frida Strindberg, the former wife of the playwright. Writing of the aims of the club that May, Strindberg claimed ‘that we do not want to Continentalize, we only want to do away, to some degree, with the distinction that the word ‘Continental’ implies, and with the necessity of crossing the Channel to laugh freely, and to sit up after nursery hours.’[18] The Channel must have seemed incredibly narrow in 1912 and Gore himself supervised the decoration of the Golden Calf, producing a Tiger Hunting and a Deer Hunting Scene. Ginner contributed a triptych, Chasing Monkeys, Birds and Indians and Tiger Hunting and Lewis the curtain for the theatrical stage and his painting Kermesse, which was hung above the stairs leading down to the club. The decorations for the club no longer exist and Lewis’s Kermesse is now lost, but the work is proof that collaboration was still possible between the Camden Town Group and those producing their ‘stumers on futurity’. It also marked a change in style for both Gore and Ginner.

<12> In particular, Ginner’s lost poster design, ‘Piccadilly Circus’ for the Cave (fig. 4 below – known only through its reproduction in the French newspaper L’Actualité) demonstrates the influence of Italian Futurism on Ginner as well as acting as a precursor for his canvas of the same name. It relates to Gino Severini’s Memories of a Journey of 1910-11.[19] Severini’s canvas, on display at the Futurist exhibition, records the impressions of a journey between his home town of Cortona in Tuscany and Paris (fig. 5 http://www.terminartors.com/severini-gino/memories-of-a-journey-47818-p). Severini juxtaposes his impressions from varying places and at varying scales around the central image of a well found in Cortona, in line with Bergson’s theories. There is less of this in Ginner’s poster, which remains a unitary moment, but there are compositional similarities in the way that the statue of Eros leans slightly to the left in the same way that the well does in the Severini and the houses behind lean to the left and the right in the same way that a clock tower and the Sacré-Coeur do in Severini’s work. The tram on the left of Ginner’s poster intrudes into the picture at roughly the same height and angle as a train does in Memories of a Journey and both works contain a tram and two horse-drawn carriages.

<13> Much of this similarity is not present in Ginner’s painting Piccadilly Circus (fig. 6 http://www.tate.org.uk/servlet/ViewWork?workid=16932&searchid=17364&tabview=image) of the same year, although the flower seller still sits at the foot of the statue’s steps. The central statue is now ‘cut-off’ at the right-hand side of the work, so that only the steps of the plinth are visible, a device that could have come from Manet or any number of Impressionist or Post-Impressionist painters, but which is especially reminiscent of Monet’s decision to cut off the central island of Bathers at La Grenouillère in his painting at the National Gallery. Two buses cross on the South side of the Circus. These are type ‘B’ General buses. Dates for the first bus vary, but the type B was the first bus to run with any reliability and the first to be mass-produced. It was developed in 1910, the year that Ginner settled in London. The General company produced over 3,000 of them. On the side of the number 19, which still runs from Battersea to Highbury, there is an advertisement for the Alhambra, Gore’s favourite music hall. Contemporary films show the type B as ubiquitous in London and as bearers of a surprising amount of advertising. The top deck was accessed by a curving staircase at the rear, the risers of which would have been covered with adverts, typically for Pears soap, Nestlé or Fry’s chocolate. Women sit on the top deck, something that had only recently become acceptable and demonstrated the new possibilities for mobility offered to women. Another nod to the Group itself is presented in the word ‘Room’ visible above the cab of the bus. This is part of the sign for the Criterion Grill Room, scene of the second meal to inaugurate the Group. In the foreground a single middle class women walks, her gaze not meeting that of the flower seller, who seems hemmed in by the background of buses and the taxi to her side. Behind the buses rises a wall of implacable buildings (Ginner had previously worked in an architects’ office). Isolated physically and psychologically from the city in a way that she would not have been thirty years before, the flower seller concentrates on her, possibly imitation, flowers, the only suggestion of the natural world in the painting. This is not Futurism; although it has learned some lessons from the Italian movement, it does not celebrate this new city. But neither does it retreat into melancholy or sentimentality. Although its technique is vastly different, Ginner painting in thick worms of paint, its feeling towards the city is similar to that of the Vorticists, with their claim that ‘London is Not a Provincial Town’.[20]

<14> I think it is also possible to detect Severini’s influence on Gore. Memories of a Journey was painted in a series of large dots, reflecting Severini’s acknowledged debt to Seurat. But whereas Seurat placed miniscule points of paint next to each other in order that they would mix in the observer’s eye to produce a new colour, Severini places large areas of usually unmodulated colour next to one another, with no thought that they should blend into one another. At the same time that Memories of a Journey was being exhibited at the Futurists’ exhibition, Art News, where Gore had published his review of the First Post-Impressionist exhibition, was translating Paul Signac’s theoretical account of neo-impressionist painting, From Eugène Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism, with commentary by the critic Frank Rutter.[21] Rutter was friendly with Gilman and Ginner and a champion of the Group. David Fraser Jenkins writes that Rutter’s ‘frequent mentions of Group members in his reviews were their best publicity, especially for Gore who seems to have been his favourite’[22] so it is reasonably certain that Gore would have been aware of Rutter’s interest in Signac’s work. One of the central claims of Signac’s book is that neo-Impressionism goes far beyond the simple process of pointillist painting and instead rests on dividing the canvas. Signac also asserts that the artist’s inspiration comes from nature,[23] but that ‘the artist must choose and arrange these elements, and that a painting composed linearly and chromatically will display an order superior to the chance outcome of direct copying from nature’. This seems to fit Gore’s own conception of what he was doing in The Beanfield. A note attached by Gilman to the back of the picture reads: ‘The colour found in natural objects (in the field of beans for instance in the foreground), is collected into patterns. This was his own explanation’.[24] In another Letchworth work, The Icknield Way, Gore’s remarkable treatment of the sky seems to owe something to Severini’s The Boulevard, also in the Futurist exhibition, while Camden Town’s debt to Seurat is most clearly demonstrated in Drummond’s St James’s Park -– exhibited at the third and last Camden Town group exhibition in December 1912 -- with its hieratic figures it is a clear homage to the Sunday Afternoon on the Ile de la Grande Jatte.

<15> The Beanfield was never exhibited during Gore’s lifetime and he retreated from such formal experiments in the final eighteen months of his life. Others, such as Lewis, were to continue their experimentation and push it to new levels. In 1913, the Group held an exhibition, ‘Post-Impressionists, Cubists and Others Organised by the Camden Town Group’ at Brighton. The sculptor Jacob Epstein had joined the Fitzroy Street Group. Expansion of the Camden Town Group had long been on the agenda. The first move amalgamated the Fitzroy Street Group and the Camden Town Group, with a number of Lewis’s collaborators, the future Vorticists Frederick Etchells, Cuthbert Hamilton and Edward Wadsworth and the only English Futurist C. R. W. Nevinson, now joining. The new group would be called the ‘London Group’ which is still in existence today. Pissarro in particular was aghast at the growth in power of the supporters of Futurism: ‘Fancy people joining with the idea of forming a teetotaller society’, he wrote to Manson, ‘and coming to the conclusion that in order not to be narrow-minded, they should admit some drunkards!’[25] In March 1914 he resigned from both the Fitzroy Street Group and the London Group.

<16> By the time of the Brighton exhibition, the work that Lewis and his cohort were producing looked so different to that of the Camden Town Group that it was shown in a separate room and Lewis wrote a separate catalogue introduction titled ‘The Cubist Room’ (both ‘Cubism’ and ‘Futurism’ were being used fairly interchangeably and with little specificity at this time). Sickert’s own reaction was visceral. As he told Nan Hudson: ‘At Brighton the Esptein-Lewis-Etchells room made me sick & I publicly disengaged my responsibility’.[26] He did not exhibit with the London Group.

<17> Interestingly, although Sickert did not like the work of the proto-Vorticists, he also argued in print with two members of the core group of Camden Town, Ginner and Gilman, now describing themselves as Neo-Realists. Ginner published his quasi manifesto, ‘Neo-Realism’ in the New Age on New Year’s Day 1914. It rather overreaches itself with attacks on Matisse and cubism, but the conclusion of the piece, with its emphasis on technique, remains a strong statement:

The good craftsman loves the medium and the tools he uses. The real painter loves his paint as the sculptor loves his marble, for it is through these mediums that he reveals himself, is himself, and finds all his joy ... Furthermore, in this matter of medium, it is only out of a sound and solid pigment that good surface and variety can be got, and durability in ages to come. Neo-Realism means intimate study of Nature, deliberate objective transposition, good craftsmanship and love of the medium.[27]

The essay was republished in the catalogue for Ginner and Gilman’s joint exhibition later in the year. Sickert’s response is rather oblique, but consisted of praise for Henry Lamb, another former member of Camden Town, but never part of the core group. Sickert writes:

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 an 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 in itself is not a sign of virility. He knows that even that it is, when practiced 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.[28]

<18> Although not mentioned by name in the article, both Ginner and Gilman knew that this was an attack on their heavily laden canvases and both wrote letters to the New Age the following week. Ginner’s was brief and to the point: ‘Sir –- Paint is thicker than turpentine. In answer to Mr. Sickert I have but one statement to make: I shall paint as thick as I damn well please.’[29] Gilman’s response was printed above Ginner’s under the heading (probably not his own) of ‘The Worst Critic in London’. He claimed:

I am not acquainted with any man who thinks there is any merit in thick paint for the sake of thick paint. Mr Sickert has himself painted in both thick and thin paint. This violent paragraph of his may be merely his way of expressing his present preference for thin. He will be painting in thick paint in six months. It is, in any case, a technical detail, and depends on questions of brilliance, permanence, covering power, deliberateness of workmanship, etc., impossible to discuss here.[30]

Sickert responded with a further essay, archly titled ‘The Thickest Painters in London’. It is a rather peculiar piece, covering reminiscences about George Moore’s shaky French and liberally interspersed with quotations from music hall songs. But it concluded with an address to Ginner and Gilman: ‘Will they look at the Gores in the New English Art Club and say whether that skilful, delicate, draughtsmanlike, reticent use of thick paint, that eloquent variety of touch, is not an ideal technique? Considerable painters are often blind to more than one truth at a time. I am inclined to think that, just at present, Mr. Gilman and Mr. Ginner attach a somewhat doctrinaire importance to the virtue of impasto in itself.’[31]

<19> This unedifying technical spat, overdetermined by the break up of the Group the previous year, might seem a rather disheartening note on which to conclude a paper on the Camden Town Group. Its marginal relevance to even artistic debates (it comes in the same weeks that the Vorticists definitively broke with the Futurists) let alone world events, was clear even at the time. Alongside a further response by Gilman in the following week’s New Age, there appeared a scorching satire of the debate and Sickert’s writing style which concludes, in the style of Sickert, ‘As the old music hall song says:- ‘Champagne Charlie is my name’ Let’s split a bottle of stone ginger among the three of us and say no more about it.’ The writer’s name was Arifiglio, almost certainly a pseudonym of Ezra Pound, inventor of the new term ‘Vorticist’.[32]

<20> But in another sense, technical considerations were what motivated the group. Whether in Sickert’s obituary of Gore or Ginner’s statement on ‘Neo-Realism’, the business of painting was what held them together as something more than just a group of artists who exhibited on the basis of shared commercial advantage. Above all, they were painters, which is to say that they were not also philosophers, theoreticians, novelists, architects, or manifesto writers (or when they were, as Ginner’s piece proves, they were not very good at it). At times they can appear as sociologists, but as David Peters Corbett claims: ‘If in the Camden Town Group ... the materiality of the paint surface comes to stand in for the resistant and impenetrable quality of the modern world, for them it is also a way in which the difficulty and unknowableness of that world can be ameliorated. It becomes a pleasant visual field in which the disquieting aspects of new social experience are displaced and made comfortable in the technique of representation itself.’[33] It may be that this strategy results in works that Jenkins calls ‘modest, vernacular and ... conservative’.[34] It may also be symptomatic that it is when painting can no longer displace those ‘disquieting aspects’ that the core group make accusations amongst themselves along the lines of ‘he’s doing it wrong’. In 1913-14 painting alone was perhaps not enough to hold a grouping together. But their position – that the material aspect of painting was the paramount business of a painter –- demands a serious consideration which does not simply dismiss them as the country –- or suburban –- cousins to the Vorticists or the Futurists.


[1] This paper was originally presented at ‘Metropolis and Modernity: Modern Painters’ held at Tate Britain on 12 April 2008 as part of the ‘Modern Painters: The Camden Town Group’ exhibition. My thanks to Alan Morrison of the University of Westminster’s London Studies Programme, which co-organised the day, and to Sylvia Lahav and Silaja Suntharalingam of Tate, as well as the other participants. [^]

[2] Le Corbusier, The City of To-Morrow and Its Planning, trans. Frederick Etchells (New York: Dover, 1987), p. 94. [^]

[3] Lisa Tickner, Modern Life and Modern Subjects: British Art in the Early Twentieth Century (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 190. [^]

[4] Wyndham Lewis, ‘Manifesto’, Blast1 [1914], rpt. (Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow, 2002), p. 39. [^]

[5] David Peters Corbett, The World in Paint: Modern Art and Visuality in England, 1848-1914 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004), p. 218. See also Alan Munton’s discussion of Lewis published in this issue. [^]

[6] Walter Sickert, Letter to Nan Hudson and Ethel Sands, 1907. Quoted by Robert Upstone in ‘Painters of Modern Life: the Camden Town Group’, Modern Painters: The Camden Town Group, ed. Robert Upstone, exh. cat. Tate Britain, 13 February – 4 May 2008 (London: Tate, 2008), p. 14. [^]

[7] Walter Sickert, Letter to Nan Hudson, 1907. Quoted in Upstone, ‘The Painters of Modern Life’, p. 14. In fact, they would prove to be a rather better investment than dinner at the Savoy: One of Spencer Gore’s music hall scenes The Music Hall (Lady with a Dulcimer) sold for £90,000 at auction in summer 2007. [^]

[8] Wendy Baron, The Camden Town Group (London: Scolar, 1979), p. 13. [^]

[9] Sickert, ‘Idealism’, Art News, 12 May 1910. [^]

[10] Huntly Carter, New Age, 9 June 1910, p. 135. Upstone also discusses this review. [^]

[11] Walter Sickert, Letter to Nan Hudson and Ethel Sands, June 1911. Quoted in Upstone, ‘The Painters of Modern Life’, p. 21. [^]

[12] Baron, Camden Town Group, p. 4. [^]

[13] Sickert, ‘A Perfect Modern’, New Age, 9 April 1914, p. 718. A stumer was a slang term for a counterfeit coin, a sham, or a horse bound to lose. [^]

[14] Ysanne Holt, ‘An Ideal Modernity: Spencer Gore at Letchworth’, Geographies of Englishness: Landscape and the National Past, 1880-1940, eds. David Peters Corbett, Ysanne Holt and Fiona Russell (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 2002), p. 103. [^]

[15] F. T. Marinetti, ‘Reciting Poetry While Marching and London Ladies’ in Marinetti, Let’s Murder the Moonshine: Selected Writings, ed. R. W. Flint, trans. R. W. Flint and Arthur A. Coppotelli (Los Angeles: Sun and Moon, 1991), p. 240. [^]

[16] F. T. Marinetti, Interview with the Daily Mirror, 16 May 1914. Quoted in William C. Wees, Vorticism and the English Avant-Garde (Toronto and Buffalo, NY: University of Toronto Press, 1972), p. 102. [^]

[17] All quotes from Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Luigi Russolo, Giacomo Balla, Gino Severini, ‘The Exhibitors to the Public’ in Futurist Manifestos, ed. Umbro Apollonio, trans. Robert Brain, R. W. Flint, J. C. Higgitt and Caroline Tisdall (Boston: MFA, 2001), pp. 45-50. All the italics are in the original. [^]

[18] Frida Strindberg, ‘Aims and Programme of the Cabaret Club’, quoted in Richard Cork, Art Beyond the Gallery in Early 20th Century England (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 1985), pp. 101-03. [^]

[19] Memories of a Journey is illustrated as fig. 1 in Gino Severini: From Futurism to Classicism, exh. cat. National Touring Exhibitions (London: Hayward Gallery, 1999), p. 30. It will also be included in Tate Modern’s ‘Futurism’ exhibition (June – September 2009). [^]

[20] Lewis, ‘Manifesto’, Blast 1, p. 19. [^]

[21] See the chronology in Anna Greutzner Robins, Modern Art in Britain, 1910-1914 (London: Merrell Holberton, 1997), entries for 7 February and 9 March 1912, p. 183. [^]

[22] David Fraser Jenkins, ‘The Response to Camden Town Painting, Then and Now’, Modern Painters: The Camden Town Group, p. 50. [^]

[23] Paul Signac, From Eugène Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism. Taken from the translation by Willa Silverman in Floyd Ratcliff, Paul Signac and Color in Neo-Impressionism (New York: Rockefeller University Press, 1992), p. 217. [^]

[24] See Nicola Moorby’s catalogue entry for the work, Modern Painters: The Camden Town Group, p. 143. [^]

[25] Lucien Pissarro, Letter to J. B. Manson, 30 November 1913. Quoted in Upstone, ‘Painters of Modern Life’, p. 22. [^]

[26] Walter Sickert, Letter to Nan Hudson, before March 1914. Quoted in Richard Cork, Vorticism and Its Allies, exh. cat Hayward Gallery, London, 27 March – 2 June 1974, p. 13. [^]

[27] Ginner, ‘Neo-Realism’, New Age, 1 January 1914, p. 272. [^]

[28] Sickert, ‘The New English Art Club’, New Age, 4 June 1914, p. 115. [^]

[29] Ginner, ‘Art and Criticism’, New Age, 11 June 1914, p. 143. [^]

[30] Gilman, ‘The Worst Critic in London’, New Age, 11 June 1914, p. 143. [^]

[31] Sickert, ‘The Thickest Painters in London’, New Age, 18 June 1914, p. 155. [^]

[32] Arifiglio, ‘Laying it on Thick’, New Age, 25 June 1914, p. 191. Anna Greutzner Robins, ‘Introduction’ to Walter Sickert: The Complete Writings on Art, ed. Anna Greutzner Robins (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. xxxiii, writes that Arifiglio “almost certainly was Ezra Pound”, but notes that “‘Arifiglio’ is not a pseudonym that Pound was known to have used” (n. 20). Pound did use other pseudonyms, however, and comparing the style of Arifiglio’s other pieces for the New Age as well as his insider’s knowledge of the London art world strongly suggests that Arifiglio was indeed Pound. [^]

[33] Corbett, The World in Paint, p. 247. [^]

[34] Jenkins, ‘The Response to Camden Town Painting’, p. 48. [^]


To Cite This Article:

Bernard Vere, ‘The Most Wonderful and Complex City in the World': London and the Camden Town Group’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 8 Number 1 (March 2010). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/march2010/vere.html. .


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