In the period 1911-1913, a group of British artists regularly met in Camden Town, north London, and established themselves as the vanguard of early-20th-century British art. The painters, including Walter Sickert, Harold Gilman, Charles Ginner and Spencer Gore, depicted London life in a style influenced by French Impressionism and other Modernist styles.
Tate Britain's huge retrospective of their work traces the artists' developing styles. A group dynamic exists, with Ginner's Piccadilly Circus leading to a flurry of other street scenes, while an interior of a music hall inspired a number of stage paintings. In one of these, Sickert's majestic Noctes Ambrosianae sees him turn his gaze towards the gods of a Drury Lane theatre, where the blur of faces appear like pinpricks in the dark.
Sickert's paintings are more innovative than his contemporaries. Ennui is a domestic scene showing a couple subsumed by lethargy in a dimly lit room. Despite the gloomy themes, there is a mischievous element, too; the same pair appear to be depicted in Off to the Pub, with the man resorting to alcohol to alleviate his despair.
Sickert appears to enjoy toying with Edwardian prudishness. While his colleagues portrayed demure paintings of women washing, Sickert paints bedroom scenes with his subjects openly gazing at the viewer. With the Camden Town Nudes series, which depict a contemporary murder, he adopts a more sinister theme. Indeed, his fascination with this event became the catalyst for an unlikely case identifying him as Jack the Ripper.
The exhibition captures the development of the other artists, too, with Gilman's An Eating House one of the best. In it, the artist's gaze roves above the heads of diners in a cafe, offering an outstanding example of how a painting fires the viewer's imagination by alluding to what's left out rather than what's included.
The later paintings in the show portray the devastating impact of the Great War on Britain. Even the elegant portraits of brightly lit drawing rooms are suffused with melancholy. Again, Sickert captures the mood perfectly in Brighton Pierrots, where extravagantly dressed actors perform in front of a sparse audience, many of whom are men with bandaged heads.
This engaging exhibition also includes Pathé News footage, which provides an illuminating backdrop to the social changes alluded to in the paintings.
To 5 May (020-7887 8888)
Andrew Byrne, Bank employee, LondonReuse content