Modern Painters - The Camden Town Group At Tate Britain

By Rachel Hayward | 15 February 2008
painting of a heavily ornamented cafe with high ceilings

Charles Ginner, The Cafe Royal, 1911. Tate © Tate

Review: Modern Painters at Tate Britain, London, until May 5 2008. Rachel Hayward encounters the prophets of modern times.

‘Each age has its landscape, its atmosphere, its cities, its people. Realism, loving Life, loving its Age, interprets its Epoch by extracting from it the very essence of all it contains of great or weak, of beautiful or sordid, according to the individual temperament.’ - Charles Ginner, 1914.

The landscape of Ginner and his fellow Camden Town artists was predominantly an urban one, and the focus, London. Now, fittingly on show at Tate Britain, Modern Painters: The Camden Town Group reveals an English response to the concerns of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists across the Channel. Featuring subjects from everyday life of modern man at work and play, the paintings chart a transitional period in British history, leading up to the First World War.

‘Camden Town Group’ was coined by artist Walter Sickert for the 1911-formed society of 16 painters. Lucien Pisarro, son of French Impressionist, Camille Pisarro, and Robert Bevan joined Sickert as the older members of the group along with the 30-somethings Spencer Gore, Harold Gilman and of course, Charles Ginner.

At the turn of the 20th century, London was the largest city in the world. It was a chaotic mix of architecture from former centuries and Victorian ‘newbuild’. Nowhere was the Victorian zeal for urban industrialisation more apparent than in North London. Indeed, Camden Town was practically reshaped by the expansion of the railways. Though a thriving hub of commerce, Camden was also another of London’s network of disconnected and soulless suburbs.

This was in stark contrast to Hausmann’s coherent 19th century makeover of Paris which created a modern metropolis for its citizens. The Camden Town group were to record this London’s uneasy move into the modern era.

painting of early 20th century vehicles and a flower seller at Piccadilly Circus

Charles Ginner, Piccadilly Circus, 1912. © Tate

Contemporary sociologist Georg Simmel characterised life in the metropolis as the ‘rapid crowding of changing images, the sharp discontinuity of the grasp of a single glance, and the unexpectedness of onrushing impressions’. Look around you in the exhibition and there are plenty of pictorial examples of Simmel’s reflections.

The sumptuous interior of the Café Royal, 1911, by Ginner captures a pre-war Edwardian society keen to display its wealth. Yet there is malaise shown by the isolated figures at the tables. The bleak, soulless gaze of the lone female figure on the left and the gentleman seated along the rich velvet banquette from her, penetrate the viewer as if confronting us with uncomfortable truths.

Critic Beatrix Terry hinted at how the painting captures the unease of its time when she wrote of it in 1911, “…all is theatrical and transient and irrevocably futile. You feel that the air is heavy with fate.”

Outside the Café Royal, in the busy thoroughfare of Piccadilly Circus, 1912, Ginner shows us the island around the statue of Eros. But instead of focussing on this tourist attraction, Ginner, in true Impressionist fashion chooses to portray an ordinary ‘coster’ woman selling flowers.

Great attention has been paid to the intricate flowery design of the woman’s cloak which continues the line of blooms she holds on her hands and yet her face lacks any real definition. She’s as anonymous to the crowds of people on buses and in motorcars around her as the men and women who hand out LondonLite or the London Paper to harried commuters on the streets of London today.

The painting is a sensory overload; colours are garishly complementary as reds and greens fight with each other like harried commuters. The dark outlines and woodcut-like daubing of paint provide an insistent energy to the painting. The brash lettering of the advertising on the buses assaults us with a society increasingly materialistic in nature. This is modern life laid bare, where progress is relentless and the machine threatens to engulf the individual.

painting of two horse and carts

The Cabyard, Night. Robert Polhill Bevan, c1909-1910. © Royal Pavilion and Museum, Brighton and Hove

Alongside the paintings of modern life, the exhibition has its own small cinema of contemporary footage of city life. Here Piccadilly Circus becomes a moving image but lacks the visual treat, the sensual colour of the paintings, which you find yourself yearning to return to.

For an up-close encounter of modern life as it comes to terms with a changing social order, look no further than Harold Gilman’s, Mrs Mounter at the Breakfast Table, 1917. Gilman blurs the relationship between master and servant in his work. The subject of the painting was Gilman’s housekeeper and yet the artist not only elevates his servant by choosing to paint her but he also suggests equality in the inclusion of the two cups on the table. It is clear that she has come to join Gilman for breakfast.

The way that society was opening up is also very much in evidence in Spencer Gore’s Brighton Pier, 1913. With rail links to the coast, the working class was able to escape the city, however briefly. The painting displays a wide social spectrum enjoying the distraction of the resort with the wealthy in their carriages and motorcars and the poor man on his bicycle.

painting of an elderly lady in a headscarf at the breakfast table

Harold Gilman, Mrs Mounter at the Breakfast Table, 1917. © Tate

The richness of the exhibition lies in its ability to surprise and delight. True, there are the disturbing series of Walter Sickert’s Camden Town Murder series of nudes but there are also the landscape paintings that transport you away from the darker and seedier side of Modern life to the countryside. Painters including Robert Bevan with A Devonshire Valley, 1913, provide painting snapshots of a life under threat not just from rapid urbanisation but also war.

By the time the First World War broke out on August 9 1914, the Camden Town Group had been dissolved for nine months. The exhibition nevertheless contains the men’s war year paintings, with their home front emphasis. Human beings are turned into mechanised factory workers, displaced Londoners shelter uncomfortably together in underground stations.

For Sickert, the wounded soldier replaces the nude on the bed. The grim realities of war’s consequences were made only to clear for those, like Sickert, who had believed that war would be a ‘walkover’.

The group may be criticised for lacking the modernity of approach in their style, preferring as they did the Post-Impressionist brushstroke and palette to the abstraction of Vorticist artists such as Wyndham Lewis, but for a view of a world about to change forever, this exhibition is hard to beat.

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