Magazine article The Spectator

Velvet Revolutionaries

Magazine article The Spectator

Velvet Revolutionaries

Article excerpt

Modern Painters: The Camden Town Group

Tate Britain, until 5 May

The Millbank branch of the Tate empire is currently blessed with two major loan exhibitions of painting, and if you find the Peter Doig retrospective a bit too thin for your taste, the thick dry crusty surfaces of the Camden Town Group's pictures may be just the thing. A distinctly short-lived school of painting, it was effective for just a couple of years, from its founding by Sickert in 1911 to its dissolution at the end of 1913. Its influence perhaps extended a little beyond those strict limits, and it has become popular as a descriptive term or category for a particular kind of painting.

It actually consisted of a rather arbitrary group of 17 painters who banded together out of a mutual admiration for PostImpressionism. Its chief characteristics were the representation of daily life (mostly urban) through the formal organisation of often vibrating colours applied in broken touches.

Of the 17 Camden Town members, eight are not included in this exhibition, a large percentage of rejects, embracing such luminaries as Augustus John, J.D. Innes, Henry Lamb, Wyndham Lewis and Duncan Grant.

Another is James Bolivar Manson, painter and director of the Tate (1930-38), excluded because of 'too little individual character', as Wendy Baron has it. So, the select Group showing here may be seen as the core members of Camden Town, the very heart of the endeavour, whose work offers a certain stylistic cohesion. They were revolutionaries of a mild sort, eschewing confrontation but keen to show their new vision of modern life. It was the hostility of the ultra-traditionalist New English Art Club which drove the Camden Towners together; later the continuing need for an independent exhibiting body re-emerged as the London Group.

The exhibition is in the Linbury Galleries and comprises more than 100 paintings divided by themes. Unfortunately, the lack of flexibility of this suite of galleries means that not only is the show a large one (I don't think you can really do justice to it in one visit) but it is also laid out in a manner not entirely sympathetic. First impressions are jumbled, with too many potentially dull paintings. I would have preferred a smaller, more intense display, which might have made a more powerful argument. That said, there is much to enjoy. In the first room, Harold Gilman's bright 'Canal Bridge, Flekkerfjord' recalls his hero Van Gogh's painting of a drawbridge in Arles, while Charles Ginner's 'Embankment Gardens', a famous image again indebted to Van Gogh but laid out like a cloisonné design, is rather less delightful. Here, too, is a group of artists' portraits and self-portraits, a real Rogues' Gallery. It's quite a relief to turn the corner for a moving-picture break: a short selection of film clips of London in the period 1907-13. Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus are a charming confusion of horses, cars, trolleybuses, bicycles and people walking casually between the slowmoving vehicles.

Ginner's 'Leicester Square' (1912) hangs nearby, with its pleated and braided thick paint, its remarkable density of expression.

Robert Bevan's 'Belsize Park' is an altogether cooler affair (and a later painting, from 1917), lucid and less assertive in its paint matter. But the revelation for many, I suspect, and even for those who are familiar with the Camden Town Group, will be Malcolm Drummond (1880-1945). His work is not often shown (only two solo exhibitions in 45 years), so when it does appear it has a freshness of impact lost to better-known artists. …

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