Camden Theatre, (c) Penny Burns, 2021

The Camden Town Group – Painting Modern Life

Camden, Canvas and Controversy

Mention the name Camden Town and you will immediately think of a busy interchange on the Northern line, a bustling and busy town within the city of London and an area where you can enjoy pubs, clubs, fashion, curiosities and of course a famous market.  

However, it was also the name of a short-lived art group.  

With three brief exhibitions between 1911 and 1912, the group were swiftly swept aside by the revolution of abstraction and modernism.

Nevertheless, by ditching the moral conventions of Victorian painting, the group did attempt to embrace art’s move towards the modern.  Uniquely British, they were seated between tradition and the more radical avant-garde: celebrating ordinary London life, from the kitchen to the salon, the music hall to the opera house, and thrusting in the mix a landlady, who was to become a local celebrity. 

By challenging the independent styles of the French Post-Impressionists, as well as showing an interest and engagement in everyday urban life, they set themselves apart as a group; painting the streets and people of London with bold, anti-naturalistic colours and making the ordinary sometimes feel extraordinary.  

Here is the story of their contribution to the history of art. 


In Edwardian Britain, The Camden Town Group was responding to the experience of living in a city like London.  If we take ourselves back to Edwardian London, this was where the intellectual, upper classes and working-class people collided on crowded pavements and underground stations. Buses and motor cars were starting to outnumber horse cabs and electric lighting, telephones and film shows gave a distinctly modern taste to London life.  

Lurking beneath the modernity and progress still existed the decaying and deprived city of the past; and although this was a period of technological advancement, it was also a period of economic and social instability and life was not full of sumptuous summers devouring scones with copious cups of tea!

It was against this background of social unrest and volatility that the Group was formed one boozy evening at Gatti’s, a restaurant on Regent Street also specialising in the delights of chocolate and ice cream!  (A picture of Carlo Gatti and his ice-bucket in the mid-19th century may be seen at

Walter Sickert was to turn to his companions and exclaim “We have just made history.”  The others present on that momentous night were Harold Gilman, Spencer Gore, Robert Bevan and Charles Ginner.  

Deliberations and debates about the aims of the group were to continue the following week at 19 Fitzroy Street and this was soon to become a regular venue for many a gathering.  

Today, 19 Fitzroy Street is an unremarkable stone-faced block.   

19-23 Fitzroy Street - Properties - Derwent London
19 Fitzroy Street, (c) Penny Burns, 2021

It was to be two further eating establishments later, the Criterion Grill Room and, later, on Golden Square, Soho, before sixteen members were elected under the rather modest and unassuming name of The Camden Town Group. 

According to the artist Walter Bayes, the name was chosen by Sickert because of Sickert’s own personal association with the Camden area. This was where Sickert lived and worked, and he identified with the deprivation, depravity and death of the area. It was these topics that were to form the backdrop and theme for many of the paintings by the Group.

Down to the Business of Painting

Stylistically, they rejected painting that involved what they saw as the dull recording of details, moving towards an increasing simplification of forms and a kaleidoscope of exaggerated colours.

This is no more apparent than Harold Gilman’s colourful portrait of ‘Mrs Mounter at the Breakfast Table’ (

We might raise a mug or two to Mrs Mounter, Gilman’s landlady, as she became a bit of an unlikely celebrity in Gilman’s paintings, her rather austere and unsmiling face appearing as a defining legacy of his paintings.  

He was to paint her again and again.  

She may have been his housekeeper, but this painting was to show an intimacy beyond her role at 47 Maple Street, Fitzrovia: the two cups on the table suggesting that she and Gilman might be sharing a quiet cup of brew away from the toil of domestic duties!

Spencer Gore

As mentioned, colour was an important component of their work and the artist Spencer Gore enthusiastically embraced this by mixing it with the life of London culture.  His depictions of everyday urban life gave an intimate glimpse into the ordinary – transforming the dreary and drab to settings of ‘loveliness’ according to Sickert.

Gore lived from 1909 at 31 Mornington Crescent, where today his contribution to British art is commemorated with a blue plaque. 

Spencer Gore Plaque, (c) Penny Burns, 2021

This crescent of curved stuccoed terraces was originally called Bedford New Town and surrounded by green fields with views to the country.  

Mornington Crescent, (c) Penny Burns, 2021

When Gore lived here, he could see the gardens and tennis courts and was to paint the view from his window many times, usually looking east with the backdrop of the rising steeple of Old St. Matthew’s church peeping out in the distance and the dome of the Camden Theatre (featured image above) to the left: see St. Matthew’s Church in Oakley Square was demolished in 1977.

To the outrage of local residents, the green foliage of the communal gardens was replaced in the 1920s by what would later become as equally an eye-catching vision, the art-deco splendour of the Carreras Cigarette Factory. 

Carreras Cigarette Factory, (c) Penny Burns, 2021

Crime and Conspiracy – Walter Sickert

The Camden Town artists painted the streets, the cafes, the gardens behind their lodgings, the public parks and the music halls. The Old Bedford Music Hall, which used to stand in Camden High Street, in its worn Victorian red and gilt, was a favourite subject, especially for Sickert.  He is seen as the most influential member of the group and the most widely recognised because of his substantial body of work and his fondness for realism. 

Walter Sickert plaque, (c) Penny Burns, 2021

Sickert took his inspiration from the dingy streets and lodging houses of Camden Town.   For most of his career, the attraction of the music hall became a recurring theme in his paintings, but for Sickert it was not about the performance on stage, it was the spectacle of the audience. 

It was also here at 6 Mornington Crescent, that he painted several of his most memorable pieces, including a series of nudes and the infamous ‘Camden Town Murder.’

6 Mornington Crescent, (c) Penny Burns, 2021

Sickert’s Mornington Crescent Nudes, started with his obsession to create narratives and suspense.  Here he re-invented the depiction of women, no longer like classical sculptures but real women on rickety iron beds; focusing like a film director on the psychological tensions and thrills of everyday life, as well as exploring the theme of suffocating boredom. See, for example, Reclining Nude (Le lit de cuivre) (Robert Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter),

Later, his paintings were to become gripped by the lurid newspaper reports of the Jack the Ripper killings, with rumours linking him to the murders.  He painted a sequence of four paintings entitled ‘The Camden Town Murder’, this series of canvases aimed to create a mood of shabby bedsits, shadowy lighting and indistinguishable images of women. There is nothing subtle about them. Like a still from a film these are graphic and grim scenes of murder and women suffering at the hand of violence. 

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The Camden Town Murder’ (originally titled ‘What Shall we Do for the Rent?’) –Walter Sickert (Yale Centre for British Art)

There is no doubt that Sickert was fascinated by the subject of murder and the depiction of the crime and the criminal.  But it is hardly evidence of a murderer.  This is what the author Patricia Cornwell tried to prove in her book Portrait of a Killer – the Jack the Ripper Case Closed.  The links have been seen as a little unconvincing.  There was no evidence to place him at the scene of the crime: family members put him holidaying in France and the DNA comparisons were, to say the least, a little shaky.  Nevertheless, it is an interesting narrative for a highly successful crime writer, which takes her readers along for a thrilling rollercoaster ride. 

Perhaps the relatively short life of the Group is partly attributable to the presence of Sickert as a member. Sickert was much older than most of its members, by 1912 he was 52, and widely recognised as a major painter, even if his achievements were not critically acclaimed at the time. 

What cannot be disputed is that the legacy of the Group will always be their focus on the exploration of social issues.  They were creating their own quiet revolution on the streets of Camden. 


Modern Painters: The Camden Town Group, Edited by Robert Upstone, Tate Publishing, 2008.

Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper – Case Closed, by Patricia Cornwell, Sphere Publishing, 2003.

Featured image at top of the page is the dome of the Camden Theatre, (c) Penny Burns, 2021

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