A year ago, an exhibition at Tate Britain reminded us of the existence of the Camden Town Group of painters. Their art, chiefly urban in subject matter, represented a low-key British version of post-Impressionism. It sputtered into, and out of, life just before the First World War.
One of the painters in that show was Robert Bevan. After the collapse of the Camden Town Group, Bevan and a few others set up another faction, named after a place called Cumberland Market, the London square just to the east of Regents Park where Bevan himself happened to live. This group – Bevan, Harold Gilman, Charles Ginner and John Nash (younger brother of the much more famous Paul) – could loosely be described as neo-realists.
Bevan was a well-to-do, well connected countryman from a banking dynasty – his well appointed ancestral acres, all one hundred of them, were in Sussex – who was doomed to live the life of a thoroughly modern man in the racket and the stink of town, and photographs generally show him dressed as if still living in, and perhaps yearning for, the countryside. For all that, he was no gentleman ignoramus of a Sunday painter. He was very serious about his art, and in the 1890s he had spent time with the Pont-Aven group in France. He learnt from the likes of Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne. You see it in the way he paints a wind-lashed, tortured tree (Van Gogh), the wonky angle of a roof (Gauguin) or an apple on a plate (Cezanne). He was keen to absorb the lessons from what was then the newest of the new.
He was also a bit of a depressive (as you can guess from a broody self-portrait in this show) who agonised over how to make a painting. Each work shows us a slightly different cast of mind, a slightly different way of absorbing and re-working his influences. There is no complacency in this work.
This show lets us see more of Bevan's work than we have seen in one gallery for more than 40 years. It is well worth a long, slow look. Bevan was passionate about horses, which play a crucial role in some of his finest works. In a sense, he was recording a world that was vanishing – horse-drawn omnibuses were withdrawn from service in London in 1911, and Cumberland Market itself, which existed to provide hay for the nags, was in terminal decline.
Bevan's best works here are of horses – ploughing; in cab yards; for sale at Tattersall's – and they date for the most part from 1911 to 1916. One, Under the Hammer (1913), shows him at his best. A gaggle of men are sizing up a frisky-looking horse. We see many of them from the back, in long, bright coats. The subject matter sounds dour, but Bevan transforms it. It's a beautifully balanced composition. Dead centre stands a small girl in a blue coat and hat, her pigtails secured by rich red ribbons. That detail, so right, makes the heart skip.
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