London’s Camden Town Group visits Brighton and Eastbourne

Some of my favourite early 20th century English artists have been highlighted in two exhibitions in Sussex – the ongoing Down from London: Spencer Gore and Friends at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, and John Nash: The Landscape of Love and Solace, which has just ended at Towner in Eastbourne.

Both exhibitions have featured bright, colourful paintings by artists who formed part of the Camden Town Group in London. Paintings by Spencer Gore, Harold Gilman and Charles Ginner sparkle at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, while at Towner they provided the context for some of John Nash’s beautiful early work.

Harold Gilman, The Coral Necklace, 1914, Royal Pavilion & Museums Trust
Harold Gilman, The Coral Necklace, 1914, Royal Pavilion & Museums Trust

The Camden Town Group has a historical link with Brighton dating back to 1913 when the artists held an exhibition at the Public Art Galleries, now known as Brighton Museum & Art Gallery. The Group was founded in London in 1911 by Spencer Gore and his friends Walter Sickert and Harold Gilman, and this was their last and only exhibition outside London. Almost all of the 16 members of the Camden Town Group – all men, women were not allowed to be members – lived and worked in north London, depicting its urban landscape and working lives, pubs and music-hall entertainment. They introduced modern, everyday life as a new theme in English painting as well as the innovative use of light and colour that had already appeared in Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings in France.

Charles Ginner, Leicester Square, 1912, Royal Pavilion & Museums Trust
Charles Ginner, Leicester Square, 1912, Royal Pavilion & Museums Trust

In the summer of 1913 Walter Taylor, an amateur artist and occasional patron of the Camden Town Group artists, invited his friend Spencer Gore to stay at his Brighton home in Brunswick Square. He introduced Gore to the Town Council’s Fine Art Committee who invited him to organise the Exhibition of the Work of English Post Impressionists, Cubists and others held at Brighton’s Public Art Galleries that winter. We are lucky to have in our Fine Art Collection Walter Taylor’s painting of his home, An Interior in Brunswick Square, and we know that Spencer Gore looked down from a balcony in that house on the scene captured in The West Pier, Brighton.

Walter Taylor Two figures in an Interior in Brunswick Square, c 1925, Royal Pavilion & Museums Trust
Walter Taylor Two figures in an Interior in Brunswick Square, c 1925, Royal Pavilion & Museums Trust
Spencer Gore The West Pier, Brighton, 1913, Royal Pavilion & Museums Trust
Spencer Gore The West Pier, Brighton, 1913, Royal Pavilion & Museums Trust

While not all of the paintings and drawings currently on display at Brighton Museum were in the 1913 exhibition, each of the artists represented took part.  And for the Brighton exhibition, the Camden Town Group invited and included paintings and drawings by a small number of women artists who worked alongside many of the Group’s members in London. Thus, our exhibition includes work by Sylvia Gosse, who worked with Sickert, Therese Lessore, who sketched on Brighton Beach, and Stanislawa Karlowska, who was a member of the New English Art Club in London and Robert Bevan’s wife.

Sylvia Gosse, La Rue Cousine, c 1930
Sylvia Gosse, La Rue Cousine, c 1930

The more avant-garde work in the third room of the 1913 exhibition by so-called Cubist or Vorticist artists was more challenging for the Brighton public. The Brighton Herald described it as “far and away the most challenging thing of the kind that Brighton has ever seen.”  “Don’t go to this exhibition after a bad night”, commented another reviewer. After the exhibition had closed in January 1914 and shortly before the Camden Town Group was absorbed into the London Group, Walter Sickert remarked that “At Brighton the Epstein-Lewis-Etchells room made me sick and I publicly disengaged my responsibility.” Even the 1913 exhibition catalogue had two separate introductions, one by James Bolivar Manson, Camden Town Group artist and secretary, subsequently Director of the Tate Gallery; and the other by Vorticist artist Percy Wyndham Lewis. Henry Roberts, Director of the Public Art Galleries, was careful to say in his preface that “The Fine Arts Committee have contented themselves with inviting the Camden Town Group to form the exhibition and are not responsible for the selection or arrangement, which has been undertaken by the Camden Town Group, acting through Mr Spencer F Gore.” This tiny catalogue is now on display in the exhibition at Brighton Museum.

Walter Sickert, The Laundry Shop, Dieppe, c1885
Walter Sickert, The Laundry Shop, Dieppe, c1885

The Royal Pavilion & Museums Trust’s fine collection of Camden Town Group paintings and drawings are all currently on display in Brighton Museum’s Fine art Gallery. The memorable 1913 exhibition is perhaps best recorded by the Town Council’s purchase of one of the exhibits, Robert Bevan’s The Cabyard, Night, the first and only painting by the artist to enter a public art collection during his lifetime.

Robert Bevan, The Cabyard, Night, 1913, Royal Pavilion & Museums Trust
Robert Bevan, The Cabyard, Night, 1913, Royal Pavilion & Museums Trust

Down from London is on display until next year, 2022. John Nash: The Landscape of Love and Solace at Towner closed at the end of September, but you can see many of the images and read about his relationship with the Camden Town Group artists in the new biography of John Nash written by Andy Friend and with the same title as the exhibition.

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Nicola Coleby, Partnerships & Development Manager, RPMT

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