Modern painters: The Camden Town Group, Tate Britain, London

The seamy side of London town

Call it a fairly quiet revolution. In 1911, a group of male painters – Walter Sickert, Robert Bevan, Malcolm Drummond, Spencer Gore and others – came together in London to define what looks, with hindsight, like a pragmatic English response to continental developments in painting – to Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Van Gogh, Gauguin and others.

A number of this so-called Camden Town group lived in north London, and the paintings they made, all within the realist, figurative tradition, helped to document, and redefine, the nature of the metropolis itself. The group exhibited together for a brief period – about 18 months. With the onset of war came new movements; vorticism was one. The art of the vanguard became starker, more mechanised, more brutalised.

So, for the most part, don't expect to be enthralled by the shock of the new in this show. There is experiment, but it is by no means as radical as that of its French predecessors. It represents a kind of catching up with what had been happening overseas – with the use of bold and unnatural colours, for example, or the way in which a painting can be both a depiction and an exercise in pure decoration.

Only one painter, Sickert, is truly shocking, and he was only one-quarter an Englishman – his father was Danish, his mother Anglo-Irish. Sickert towers above the rest of the painters in this exhibition, for various reasons. His paintings of the female nude were brazen and provocative, and seem so even today. He painted female flesh in the raw, lumped across grubby iron bedsteads, in the murkiest of lights. Gone completely was that questionable Victorian passion for showing women as ethereal beings.

Nor did he apologise for what many of his critics regarded as flagrantly tasteless, if not downright immoral, renderings of the female form. In fact, he positively sought out publicity. One group of paintings was called The Camden Town Murders. He chose the title to associate his paintings with a celebrated murder mystery that engulfed the front pages of the Daily Mirror – you can see facsimile reproductions of some of these pages on the gallery's walls. It provoked outrage – and Sickert was delighted.

Other paintings by him in this show demonstrate his powers as a commentator on working-class entertainment – the music hall, the end of the pier show. Perhaps the saddest canvas by Sickert in the entire show, dated 1915, shows a troupe of clowns and comics performing, at dusk, on the pier at Brighton. Half the deck chairs are empty. The gas lighting, a strangely glaring pinky-blue, has a ghastly, almost acidic, ominousness about it. The clowns look as if their diminished forms are barely sufficient to bulk out their outrageously comic costumes. Somewhere just over there – within earshot, when the wind is in the right direction – the guns of France are booming, heartlessly.

In another painting by Sickert, Gallery of the Old Mogul, we see scarcely anything but the dark backs – so dark as to be barely visible – of spectators standing in the gods at the music hall. The excitement, emphasised by the murky tones, is steamily bovine.

The date is 1906, well into that gloriously prolonged Edwardian summer before the Great War snuffed it all out. Sickert's paintings show us a London bereft of such glamour, stripped bare, often nasty, damp, dingy and impoverished.

To 5 May (020-7887 8888)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week