The Camden Town Group

A day in London yesterday, including a trip to Tate Britain, to see Modern Painters: The Camden Town Group. The newspaper critics have been (predictably?) sniffy about this show, but I loved it.

Is this because it’s so richly pictorial, and conveys a sense of pre-War London as full of character as an Edwardian novel? Partly – my wife, who gets superior about arty matters, tells me that I pay too much attention to the subject-matter of paintings, and not enough to dainty brushwork and so on. Well, I think what I’m responding to at this exhibition is the painters’ own relish for, and deep interest in, the world around them. These were very urban painters, and wanted to record the details of the fast-changing city, and also to look closely at people, to see what urban life was doing to them.

The star painter is Sickert.The show includes The New Bedford and Minnie Cunningham as well as Off to the pub and Ennui, and (my favourite) Brighton Pierrots. But Sickert is a known quantity, and what I really liked at this show was seeing the work of artists I didn’t know. Spencer Gore, for example. His picture of his cleaning lady, North London Girl is a terrific character study. This is what Arnold Bennett’s Elsie looked like, I think. There’s also his Rule Britannia, a scene from a ballet at the Alhambra. Clearly influenced by the theatre pictures of Degas and Sickert, but very different from them in mood.

The picture that made the biggest impact on me, though, was Walter Bayes’s Underworld, a huge painting (as big as Sargent’s Gassed, I think) of the Elephant and Castle tube station during an air-raid.


(This is about two-thirds of the picture. Over to the right, there is an area showing some air-raid victims receiving first-aid. And there’s a bored-looking dog.)

Previously I’d only seen this in a titchy black and white reproduction. Seeing it huge and real on the gallery wall was a revelation. Bayes was an official War Artist, painting the Home Front, and here he gives us the people of London, sitting out the raid. They are not idealised; there are no heroics. Each seems isolated, locked in their own thoughts. The classes are mixed – the lady to the right has a fur coat – but they are not communicating. So War is a democratic experience, in that it has brought all these people underground, but it has not brought them together.

I wondered about the posters. The pink poster to the left of the Elephant and Castle sign, is an advert for the Gaiety Theatre, and the word Gaiety is in ironic contract to the rather grim lady next to it. The two orange one-sheets are advertisements for Nevinson’s war-paintings show. Is this a hommage to Nevinson’s rather similar realism in his later war work, or a satirical comment on the gulf between the unromantic tedium of war and Nevinson’s earlier Futurist fantasy? Or is it just an in-joke? Nevinson included a poster with the word “Bayes” on it in his poster of a food queue.

It’s interesting to compare this painting with Henry Moore’s WW2 underground shelter paintings. Moore’s pictures are un-individualised, and suggest a mass of passive humanity doomed always to suffer. His war is like a force of nature, in the face of which humans are helpless, reduced to shapes. Bayes’s faces are individual and full of character. The War is an inconvenience, and these people all have better things to do. They have this experience in common, but it is not an experience that defines them – merely one incident in lives that will diverge. Each is responding in his or her own way.

There are some other good war paintings in the show. One I liked shows a hospital where the wounded are recovering. The ward is full of flowers, and the bedspreads are bright with a pattern of pink roses. I didn’t make a note of who was the painter.


One Comment

  1. Gary
    Posted March 6, 2008 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

    Hi George. I enjoyed your piece on the Tate exhibition, which I saw yesterday. I completely agree with all your comments. It was good to see your reproduction of Underworld, which I also thought was amazing. Your description does it full justice. I’m now trying to find out if it’s normally on display at the War Museum, and if not, why not.

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