'The New Ideal Shop': Founding the Carfax Gallery, C1898-1902

By Shaw, Samuel | British Art Journal, Autumn 2012 | Go to article overview
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'The New Ideal Shop': Founding the Carfax Gallery, C1898-1902


Shaw, Samuel, British Art Journal


In March 1905 George Bernard Shaw wrote to Robert Ross (Pl 2), introducing him to a young sculptor by the name of Jacob Epstein: 'Epstein has come to London with amazing drawings of human creatures like withered trees embracing. He wants to exhibit them at Carfax, which is to him the centre of real art in London ... There may be something in him.' (1)

The main appeal of this passage would seem to lie in Shaw's recognition of latent talent in a young man who was to become one of the country's most famous sculptors. Of equal interest, however, is the reference to 'Carfax', a small commercial gallery in St James' Piccadilly, as 'the centre of real art in London'. It is hard to gauge the extent to which Epstein actually believed this. Shaw's positivity, however, makes perfect sense--not only was he a shareholder, but he was writing to Ross, who had since 1901 acted as the gallery's manager. (2) His sentiment, however, is not without echoes. Many contemporaries noted the Carfax's dissimilarity to the majority of West End galleries. Rodin trusted it with his first London show in 1900 after forming the impression (albeit across The Channel) that it was 'unlike the usual dealers'. (3) By the end of the decade The Studio was happy to announce that 'the galleries of Messrs. Carfax have the unique distinction of never being known to have had an uninteresting exhibition'. (4) Interesting and influential: Oliver Brown, who was to become partner of the Leicester Galleries in 1914 recalled that 'in the West End the private galleries were mostly very different from ours, but there were two very small galleries that always interested me'. (5) The Dutch Gallery in Brook Street, run by Elbert van Wisselingh, was one; the Carfax was the other. (6) Though both exhibited Old Masters, they won fame for their association with the younger generation, particularly those who opposed the Royal Academy. (7) The Carfax, in particular, was not averse to taking risks, offering debut shows to such young and inexperienced artists as Augustus John (1901), William Orpen (1901), Roger Fry (1903) and Paul Nash (1912).

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The Carfax's reputation as a, if not the, centre for interesting (or 'real') art would seem to be confirmed by its staging, in 1911, the first exhibition of the Camden Town Group. Here, at last, it makes its unambiguous entrance into the history of modern art in Britain. Robert Ross had left the gallery by then, leaving it in the hands of Arthur Clifton, who steered it firmly towards Walter Sickert and his milieu. This was not a radical shift: in fact, Sickert had been involved in the gallery from its early days--but it was an important one, if not for the Carfax itself, then at least for the way we have chosen to remember it. (8) Without this association, the Carfax would have attracted little attention up to now. And yet there is, of course, still much more to say.

Fortunately the field is changing. Much work has already--and continues--to take place on exhibiting spaces in London around the turn of the century, as art historians respond to the need to situate late 19th- and early 20th-century British art more closely within its institutional history. It is fair to presume that the Carfax will come to form a major part of this rich and rewarding history. (9) As a forbear of later, more explicitly 'modern' ventures, such as the Leicester Galleries, the Chenil, or the countless spaces that opened up in London in the early 1920s, the Carfax Gallery clearly feeds into the study of what Ysanne Holt and Anne Helmreich have recently described as the 'problematic relationship between commerce and bohemia'. (10) The relationship between the gallery and the careers of specific artists--such as Walter Sickert, Charles Conder and Augustus John--also repays further attention, as Barbara Pezzini's article reveals. (11)

Anticipating a growth of interest in the Carfax, the aim of this article is to lay the groundwork for further appreciation by establishing much-needed facts about the gallery's foundation, founders, and other key characters.

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