These four colourful walls

The Camden Town Group capture both the claustrophobia and possibilities of domestic life.

Earlier this week, I took refuge from absolute domestic chaos in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. My house currently has no heating, and someone (me) had managed to set fire to the kettle – the Ashmolean had the trifold appeal of being warm, quiet, and not cross with me.

And yet, in trying to escape the midst of household disorder, I found myself walking unthinkingly towards a small room on the third floor called ‘Sickert and his contemporaries’. Sandwiched rather awkwardly between ‘Pissarro and the Impressionists’ and the many Hepworths and Freuds of ‘Modern Art’, this room is anything but a change of scene from domesticity.

The Camden Town Group was a group of artists including Walter Sickert, Robert Bevan, and Harold Gilman who held only three exhibitions of their work between 1911 – 1913. Sickert is the most famous of the bunch, and the group is named after the part of London in which he lived and worked. The group’s hallmark is an attention to ‘little pictures for little people’: imagine suburban interior scenes, worker’s eating houses, and intimate, tentative nudes. All the artists were painting during the tumultuous years of early modernism, and lived through the stylised decadence of the fin-de-siècle. But, rather than bold vorticist posters or Aubrey Beardsley’s angular figures, the paintings are united by an attention to light, colour, and unpretentious human life.

Sickert’s ‘Ennui’ (1917-18) is the most famous painting associated with the group – it inspired Virginia Woolf’s 1934 pamphlet on the artist. It’s a painfully oppressive scene of marital and domestic alienation: the couple’s bodies are so heavy and leaden as to physically weigh the painting down on the wall.

Ennui’ by Walter Richard Sickert, 1860-1942. (Photo by: World History Archive/UIG via Getty images)

There are other masterpieces of everyday life – Sickert’s ‘A Cup of Tea’ (1905) is a brilliant evocation of movement in stillness. The woman sits in such an unremarkable pose – and it is such an unremarkable moment – that she is almost completely unidentifiable. And yet, within this obscure motionlessness the smoke from her cigarette insists on winding its way up to the top of the canvas, and the relentless shades of green make the scene almost tactile. ‘Gaieté Montparnasse, dernière galerie de gauche’ (1906) is an almost Bob Dylan-esque commitment to visual and aural synaesthesia; it is as if the music hall scene is ‘tangled up in yellow’.

And yet, for as long as I have had a near-terrifying obsession with the Camden Town Group (I had Sickert nudes on the wall of my first-year university bedroom; they were anything but an icebreaker in freshers’ week), there is only one artist to whom I return to again and again. Harold Gilman – once disparagingly described to me by a friend’s artist-parent as ‘Sickert on crack’ – is dazzling.

‘Mrs Mounter at the Breakfast Table’, by Harold Gilman, 1916-7. (Photo by Print Collector/Getty Images)

When picturing the Ashmolean’s Camden Town room, I always think there are more Gilman paintings than there are – probably because each visit sends me on a near-feverish mission to see and stare at the others all over again. But, as it stands, Oxford only has two paintings of his: ‘Cave Dwellers’ (1907) and ‘Interior with Mrs Mounter’ (1916-17). ‘Cave Dwellers’ is a rather crude parody of ‘little pictures for little people’ – none of the painting’s subjects looks above four foot, and it is anything but a sensitive exploration of their lives.

‘Interior with Mrs Mounter’, however, is beyond impressive. It’s a scene from Gilman’s lodgings, with Mrs Mounter – his housekeeper – in the midground. In the background is an open sash window on to the rooves and walls of the Tottenham Court Road. In the foreground is the most brilliantly lit drawing room: its doors and woodwork are painted in orange and pink, and a bag hanging on a hook in wonderfully sickening orange and green. The wallpaper is a bright blue with fuchsia flowers, and there is a rug that is a near-perfect match for a 1970s avocado green. But for all this outlandishness, I feel I can see – and could describe – the room better than any I have looked out without Gilman’s borderline-obscene colour palette. In real life, the woodwork must be dark panelling – but who cares about pedantic reality when you can have psychedelic joy.

With the ever-encroaching terror of another lockdown and all the ennui that would bring, this painting is a reminder of the joy in leaving a domestic space: there is a crumpled overcoat on the back of the door; an empty bag waiting to be filled; a tantalisingly open window – and Mrs Mounter’s face is one brimming with accusation at someone who is not going to be in for dinner, or who has been out gallivanting for too many days.

But it is also a reminder of the possibility within a set of four walls: Gilman’s lodgings are transformed by the colours within this picture, but there is a palpable sense that there are other transformations waiting to happen. On the table sits an empty vase, there are canvases covered in sheets by the window, and in the left foreground there are boxes and cupboards to be opened and explored. During his lifetime, Gilman painted his lodgings and Mrs Mounter again and again. Whilst we cannot all live in Gilman’s garish paint-box – and to do so would almost certainly induce migraines – maybe another lockdown would be alleviated by a Gilman-like ability to see our surroundings continually anew.

Interior with Mrs Mounter
Interior With Mrs Mounter Interior with Mrs Mounter, 1916-1917. Artist Harold Gilman. (Photo by Ashmolean Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Francesca Peacock