How did a set of pre-WW1 painters in Camden shape our modern vision of London?

The Camden Town Group of painters disbanded after only 18 months, but their work shapes our vision of London to this day. Michael Glover looks forward to seeing their reunion

Next month, Tate Britain will be putting on a major show devoted to the work of the Camden Town painters, a London-based group, formed in 1911, which helped to redefine the nature of modern British art just three years before the outbreak of the First World War.

These artists - there was a core group that comprised Spencer Gore, Charles Ginner, Robert Bevan and Walter Sickert, and another dozen or so more loosely connected - came to be known as the Camden Town Group because a number of its members lived in the area. The Tate itself owns the largest collection of Camden Town Group paintings in existence, many bequeathed by relatives or private collectors.

The group stood for modernity of a kind - it had absorbed the lessons of the latest wave of inventiveness sweeping over from France called post-Impressionism - but it was also founded on pragmatism. These painters were finding it hard to sell their works, and if they defined themselves as a group, they knew they would have more clout. So, in 1911, a small group of not-so-young, male painters met at Gatti's Restaurant to try to define a new kind of art.

Camden, having once been grand (it's grand all over again these days), had become shabby, if not seedy, and that's why such painters as Sickert, who gave the group its name, and was its chief propagandist and most prominent member, liked it. The group didn't last for long - they had just three exhibitions over a period of about a year and a half - but the kinds of work that developed out of their collective endeavours continues to be a defining moment in the history of British art in the 20th century, and it has had a major impact on the art of our own day. Without the Camden Town Group, without the way they depicted the human figure, without their bravura use of colour, and how they helped to define the nature of London's architecture and London's life, often eked out in shabby rooms, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff might not be painting the texture of London, and the human figure too, quite in the way that they are still doing.

It was a movement that, looked at superficially, seems to be scarcely radical at all when compared with many of the 20th century's more famous artistic alliances - there is no wild distortion of the human figure here, and no extreme experiments in abstraction. Leave that to the Vorticists, who would follow so close on their heels. Instead, there were much more subtle absorptions of lessons in patterning, abstraction, unusual viewpoints, and non-realistic use of colour. There is much that is genuinely radical here, but it is often expressed in quite a sotto voce, hole-in-corner kind of a way. Most of all, there is the starkly absorbing subject matter of much of the art itself - human life, in the raw, in the greatest of the world's metropolises. This was egalitarian art for an egalitarian century.

The texture of London is what is at the core of much of the art of the Camden Town Group. London was a mighty, teeming metropolis then - as it is now. It was also a tense city, fearful of the threat of a German invasion. It was a maze-like place, full of corners, small alleys, and Dickensian character types. There was an ugliness about all this, certainly, but, within that ugliness, a certain kind of awkward beauty.

To the Camden Town Group, a relatively prosperous bunch of middle-class males, the coloratura of the streets was ravishing. You could hear the indomitable coster-girls, tricked out in their brilliantly colourful hats, bawling out, trying to persuade you to buy their wares. You could see the men teeming and lurching out of the pubs. And there were the charwomen, the cabbies, the cheering audiences in the cheap seats at the Alhambra Music Hall. This London had nothing to do with the fashionable society portraiture that John Singer Sargent had made so much his own. The Camden Town's London was homespun, down to earth, tackily real.

Sickert saw London's beauty in something different from the fashionable world of dutiful retainers and immaculate coiffure, as he wrote himself. "For those who live in the most wonderful and complex city in the world, the most fruitful course of study lies in a persistent effort to render the magic and the poetry they daily see around them."

Sickert was part Danish and part English by birth, and had come back to London in 1905 having spent much of the previous decade on the Continent. He'd learnt to be an Impressionist over there. He'd painted the melancholy of Venice, all that drowning, flickering glitter. He had also become a close friend of Edgar Degas during those years. Degas taught Sickert a lot about how to paint a nude body in the raw.

Now it was time for something new in England - but this would also incorporate what he had learnt over in France. Sickert bedded himself down in Camden Town, and began to paint what he saw: brutish modern life, in the raw; short, harsh and unflinchingly ignoble. Alienated modern life, if you prefer a more intellectualised handle. This was the kind of thing that Baudelaire had felt on his pulses in 19th-century Paris. It was also the kind of vision of urban life that seems to lead directly to the kitchen sink drama of the 1950s.

In the later 19th century, painters had been stymied by the need to be either sentimental or moralistic. The Church and the state seemed to have them in a tight squeeze. Sickert shrugged them off. Consequently, what he did was an out-and-out scandal. Being a self-confident and wily self-propagandist, Sickert revelled in their condemnation of his subject matter - and of his unorthodox painterly habits.

When we look at Sickert's paintings of big women - so much marketable flesh - sprawled across iron bedsteads in murkily lit rented rooms, often loomed over by square-jawed, fully dressed men of incalculable insensitivity and pent-up violence, with a brassy chamber pot naughtily peeking out from beneath the bed, we wonder whether this could be the same Edwardian London that Merchant-Ivory sees through its misted lenses. And yet Sickert loved all this, as he once told us. "London is spiffing!" he wrote. "Such evil racy faces & such a comfortable feeling of a solid basis of beef & beer. O the whiff of leather & stout from the swing doors of the pubs! Why aren't I a Keats to sing them?"

Yet there was more to the Camden Town Group than Sickert alone, and what is so pleasing about the show at the Tate are the discoveries. Among the most exciting is a painting by Spencer Gore, on loan from a private collector, of a group of connoisseurs admiring the exhibition of Post-Impressionist art from France that Roger Fry had brought to London in 1910, and which had caused such an outpouring of bemusement and critical venom.

Gauguin and Connoisseurs (1911) is a delightful exercise in pastiche. The paintings on display are all recognisable works by Gauguin, and their critical scrutineers are plainly recognisable too. Here is Philip Wilson Steer, for example, solidly old-guard, with his walking cane and grey gloves, distancing himself physically from the shock of the new; and here is a red-bearded Augustus John looking in the opposite direction with ferocious disdain. The way it is painted, including the muted, synthetic colours, perfectly matches Gauguin's own palette and manner of painting.

The Post-Impressionists were evidently here to stay, but now it was an Englishman, born in Epsom, Surrey, who was wielding the brush.

Modern Painters: The Camden Town Group opens at Tate Britain, London SW1 on 13 February. Tate Britain is offering Independent readers the chance to book two tickets for the price of one before the exhibition opens. Simply call 020-7887 8888 and quote 'Independent two-for-one offer'

Arts and Entertainment
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams star in 'The Falling'
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions