The ‘Camden Town Group’ existed for three years. Why does its name live on?
The group included some of the English early modernists. Yet the name was deliberately (mis-)chosen to benefit Walter Sickert. Few of its members had an interest in or worked near Camden Town.
Mornington Crescent, next to the Euston railway line, is on the west side of Camden Town High Street. Camden Town, the estate of Lord Camden, stretches east to St Pancras and north up Camden Road. Among the many places Sickert rented for his home and his studios, in England and France, he had a house for a time at 81 Camden Road (now demolished) and briefly held a studio lease in the mews behind, Whitcher Place. But he made no paintings of Camden Town.
The 1911-13 ‘Camden Town Group’ was a club of sixteen (all-male) artists led by Walter Sickert, Spencer Gore and Harold Gilman who exhibited in three group shows. [i] The New English Art Club had been founded in 1885 in opposition to the Royal Academy but by the 1900s was itself refusing to show works by younger artists. In 1907 Walter Sickert, recently returned from France and Italy, joined several other younger artists debating how to present their work for sale.
Memoire – 1
The result of these numerous conversations was an intimate meeting over a dinner at Gatti’s, and that evening the decision, after a lengthy discussion, was arrived at to form a new society. [Harold] Gilman was jubilant and as we had indulged in a good dinner with abundance of wine to wash it down (this was 1911) Sickert, striding out of the restaurant ahead of us, turned and waved his arm exclaiming “We have just made history”. Discussions continued at No. 19, Fitzroy Street, where a group of painters, formed some years previously by Walter Sickert, held Saturday afternoon “at homes”. A second, slightly larger meeting took place at the Criterion, and here the new society could be said to have been safely launched with the names finally decided of several artists to be invited. This resulted in a full meeting held at yet a third restaurant, this time in Golden Square, where Walter Sickert himself was responsible for the christening of this new venture as “The Camden Town Group”. Spencer Gore was elected President.
Charles Ginner, ‘The Camden Town Group’ The Studio, November 1945, pp.129–36.
Memoire – 2
That year there had been a particularly well-advertised murder in Camden Town, and I think it was Sickert, who already had some connection with that district, who suggested that the new society should be called “The Camden Town Group.” To keep up the association Sickert contributed to the first exhibition two genre subjects, entitled “The Camden Town Murder,” one of which was afterwards exhibited as “Father Comes Home,” and ultimately sold, I understand, as “The Germans in Belgium.” Otherwise, to the inquiry, “Why Camden Town?” the correct reply was “Because some of the members live at Hampstead, and others at Hammersmith and Chelsea.”
Frank Rutter, Preface: ‘The Camden Town Group: A Fragment of History’ in The Camden Town Group: A Review, exhibition catalogue, Ernest Brown & Phillips, The Leicester Galleries, London, January–February 1930, pp.7–11.
Sickert and Gore in Mornington Crescent
Walter Sickert had come to London from Germany with his parents in 1868, when he was eight years old. After school, for four years he was an actor. He took up painting in his twenties, his work of theatrical scenes including at the Bedford Theatre in Arlington Road near Mornington Crescent.
Sickert had divorced his first wife, Ellen Cobden, in 1899 and spent six years on the Continent – in France and Italy. On returning he rented rooms near Mornington Crescent to live and nearby studios for work. He formed a strong friendship with Spencer Gore, twenty years his younger, who in due course also moved there to paint and to live for a short period when he married.
Before the Carreras cigarette factory was built on the garden in the 1920s, Mornington Crescent and Harrington Square were adjacent open grassy areas, beside the railway line to Euston which ran in a cutting under Hampstead Road. They were light and airy – if smoky – rather than densely ‘urban’.
Both Sickert and Gore painted the view from the back garden of Rowlandson House, the private art school that Sickert set up nearby, looking north over the railway line towards Mornington Crescent. (Now only the far end of the distant block remains. The Rowlandson House site is currently being tunnelled for HS2.)
Gore’s appartment in 1911 at the northern end of Mornington Crescent looked towards the newly built Camden Theatre and Mornington Crescent tube station, with Harrington Square church spire in the background. A painting by Sickert, of his 13-year old red-haired model, Rachel, also shows the spire
Sickert was charismatic and a womaniser – Germaine Greer called him ‘the archetypal teacher-lover, who exploited his female students to the limit’.[ii]
Arguing against the Academy, Sickert chose to ‘take the nude out of the salon into the bedroom’. Some French painters – Degas, Bonnard – had used domestic settings for intimate art. From 1902 in Dieppe and Venice Sickert painted nudes in ordinary rooms, his models lying on a metal-framed bed, and using strong perspective – he talked of a ‘keyhole’ vision. In some pictures he used two figures – one clothed, one naked.
In the later half of 1907, a woman of 23 was found by her common-law partner in their bedroom with her throat slit, at No 29 St Paul’s Road (now Agar Grove) – a four-storey terrace house on the east side of Camden Town. With an eminent defence lawyer, the accused man was found not guilty by the jury. The trial reports filled the newspapers.
Sickert had been painting nudes on plain beds, and two figures, clothed/unclothed for six years. He now gave the title l’Affaire Camden Town to a nude painting shown in Paris in 1909. And in 1911 he entitled two canvases The Camden Town Murder 1 and 2 for the inaugural show of the ‘Camden Town Group’.
Choosing a title
Sickert’s titles were not fixed – he changed them to suit the audience. He had earlier titled these two, Summer afternoon or ‘What shall we do about the rent?’, a common music hall refrain.
Sickert urged the new sixteen artists to take the name ‘Camden Town Group’ for commercial reasons:
– it made an alternative ‘centre of gravity’ for art compared with the tradition of the academies and the new advocacy of Clive Bell since his October 1910 exhibition of French ‘post-impressionists’.
– it had an ‘otherness’ – the ‘unknown’ side of Euston road – that was attractive, and enhanced this ‘forbidden’ character by association with the notorious Camden Town Murder.
His paintings show no signs of murder, no blood from the slit throat or the murder weapon. But the labelling – like a horror film – allowed the viewer to believe what they saw. And his representations were more uncompromising than those of others.
Two other associations will be left aside. The nudes were not infrequently interpreted as prostitutes, with accompanying patriarchic and moralistic connotations and the hubris linking prostitution with murder. The second was poverty, again in the motive for the prostitution and also in the setting, described by some as ‘dingy’ or squalid, the place of the destitute. Yet these have remained as myth for the ‘Camden Town Group’ – including in the mind of art historians.[iii]
Painting Camden Town
Very few of the Camden Town Group painted Camden Town. One picture, by Robert Bevan, shows Kentish Town Road looking southwards, the canal and railway bridges .
There is also a picture by Harold Gilman which is titled ‘Mornington Crescent’ in the National Museum of Wales. The perspective is from high up, looking across semi-industrial open space and shows the backs of houses rather than their fronts. There is a yellow-brick tall building on the right side. Although not exact (the industrial windows are a different shape) this is like the interior of an area behind Lyme Street, off Camden Road, which has a former piano factory looking onto houses with back central chimneys.
Intriguingly, this area was more recently Barford’s workshop producing Anthony Caro’s metal sculptures.
The name ‘Camden Town Group’ was a marketing strategy, drawing on popular prurience, in opposition to the Academy. Sickert and Gore lived in and painted the gardens of Mornington Crescent, while Sickert’s ‘murder’ paintings were set in Warrren Street. The earlier title ‘Fitzroy Square Group’, where the artists met and showed their works regularly, was more accurate. NOT the Camden Town Group.
[i] I am indebted to the many materials in the Tate Gallery unique online research publication Camden Town Group in Context, and also Wendy Baron Sickert (Phaidon 1973), Barnaby Wright, Wendy Baron & Lisa Tickner Walter Sickert The Camden Town nudes (Courtold Gallery 2007), John Yeates NW1 The Camden Town artists a social history (Heale Gallery 2007).
[ii] Germaine Greer, The Obstacle Course, Secker & Warburg, 1979.
[iii] John Bold, ‘Walter Sickert and the image of Camden Town’, The British Art Journal, 2012/13; 13(3): 95-100.