Camden Town art

In March twenty years ago, the Museum of London opened an exhibition ‘Creative Quarters: the art world in London 1700-2000’. In the accompanying book, the period 1905-1920 was titled ‘Art Movements: Camden Town, Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia’ and an accompanying map indicates the several studios that Walter Sickert occupied in Fizrovia and Stanhope Street as well as Mornington Crescent. As this web page has recorded, Sickert and others of his ‘group’ had little to do with Camden Town itself.

But many artists – indeed hundreds – lived and worked in Camden Town across the nineteenth century. Camden Town was accessible to the traditional central arts areas of Pall Mall, Newman Street and Fitzrovia, yet also cheaper for housing families and with fields still close in the north. The height of activity was in the 1850s and several Royal Academicians had houses in Camden Road and Camden Square. People stayed from a year to decades, although by the end of the century there were only a few, working in two purpose-built studios at 28 Camden Street and 23 Camden Road.

It was paradoxical that many of the artists toured Britain and the Continent to record picturesque landscapes and village genre scenes, which they painted-up in their town studios, yet did not paint the townscape of their own lives. Their pictures sold at exhibitions and through dealers. Just a few remain in the reserve collections of regional museums: but we are now able to find some through the benefit of the online gallery The collection is also published by location: there are two volumes for Camden and others for wider parts of London. Although these contain few Camden Town artists, they are printed in full colour on excellent paper and fine bargains at £10 each plus postage.

St Pancras archaeology and Camden Road conservation

There are proposals for major rebuilding of hospitals around St Pancras, adjacent to Camden Town, and small-scale but significant alterations for the shops of Camden Road broadway.

The Archaeological Assessment for St Pancras includes a photograph of 70 years ago, see above. However, the Assessment is deficient in understanding the Fleet River valley pre-history. Why is this ancient site here? Is ‘St Pancras’ related to Roman or earlier funerary practices? What has happened to the ‘sixth century altar stone’ described by antiquarians? Read this response.

The proposed ten-storey building is criticised by the Victorian Society and Regent’s Network as too high and too dense. We also object.

Also important are two proposals for alterations no 128 and no 126 of the shopping terrace at Camden Broadway which also need arguments for conservation.

Poor housing

This month, Camden borough held a conference, A hundred years of council housing’. Its theme fits with my August blog describing the 1919 sell-off of parts of the Camden Town Estate. The government’s policy after the First World War was to build housing with public funds, providing employment and homes for returning soldiers as well as redirecting industry from war production. Camden Town was only lightly affected at the start of this period, with the mansion blocks of Highstone in Camden Road in the interwar period. But there was much more serious rebuilding happened after the Second World War, beginning with the St Pancras Way estate and then in the 1950s and 1960s when properties owned by the Church of England, around Camden Street, were sold to St Pancras borough.

Was rebuilding for ‘poor housing’ or ‘housing the poor’? Both – and they were linked. The first streets of Camden Town were set out east of the High Street in the 1790s. The main contractors, Kirkman and Hendy, had taken a large lease but after four years went bankrupt. Partial leases passed on their creditors, who slowly sold on to new builders. Under less control from the Camden Town Estate, some builders put up cheaper houses, without front areas and with small back gardens: they could be afforded by poorer people, but became overcrowded; and with shortish leases before redemption, there was little incentive for improvement by the owners. 

Any London Street, Richard Nevinson, 1920s.

I’ve recently come across this painting by Richard Nevinson which he titled Any London Street. Nevinson had been a friend of Walter Sickert at the time of the short-lived ‘Camden Town Group’ (1911-1913), but fell out with him and most of the rest of the art establishment. Although he is now remembered particularly for his paintings at the front in the First World War, during the 1920s Nevinson painted different aspects of London including street scenes. This painting, showing the work of women and the road as playground for children, has no specific location yet could well be Camden Town (see Museum of London and Tate Gallery). Nevinson included an etching of it as an illustration in his autobiography Paint and Prejudice (1937). The original oil painting sold for £63000 in 2011 at Sothebys.

It has been easier in Camden Town Local History to recall the architecture and development of Camden Town than it has been to recall the lives of people.  Nevinson’s portrayal is festive, pedagogic, humane – as successful as the words of an historian.