Thursday, 19 March 2009

A Countryman in Town - Robert Bevan and the Cumberland Market Group The Independent, London 19 March 2009

Exactly a year ago, a large exhibition at Tate Britain – perhaps, on reflection, over-large, given the dismal quality of some of the works - reminded us all of the existence of the Camden Town Group of painters. Their art, urban in its subject matter to a large degree, represented a fairly low-key, British version of post-Impressionism, and it sputtered into - and out of - life just before the First World War.

   One of the painters represented in that show was Robert Bevan. After the collapse of the Camden Town Group, Bevan and a handful of others set up another tiny faction, and they named it after a place called Cumberland Market, the London square, just to the east of Regents Park, where Bevan himself happened to live. This group – it consisted of Bevan himself, 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 not that kind of a countryman. He was very serious about his art, and in the 1890s he had spent some time with the Pont-Aven group in France. He learnt from the likes of Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne. 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 to be learnt from what was then the newest of the new.

   He was also a bit of a depressive, as you can guess from a broody and rather austerely quizzical looking self-portrait in this show, who agonised long and hard over how to make a painting. Each painting shows us a slightly different cast of mind, a slightly different way of absorbing and re-working his influences. There is no complacency about this work. Perhaps he had a temperament somewhat akin to L.S. Lowry’s, who once wrote: ‘Had I not been lonely, none of my works would have happened.’  

   This show, in the entirely suitable Lakelands setting of Abbot Hall Gallery, Cumbria, enables us to examine more of Bevan’s work than we have seen in one gallery for more than forty years, and it is well worth a long, slow look. Bevan was passionate about horses, and horses play a crucial role in some of his finest works. In a sense, Bevan was recording a world that was vanishing before his eyes – horse-drawn omnibuses were finally withdrawn from service in the London streets in 1911, and Cumberland Market itself, which existed to provide hay for the nags that needed to munch on it, was in terminal decline, and would disappear altogether not too long after the German bombers of World War Two had done their worst.  

   Bevan’s best works in this show are of horses – horses ploughing; horses in cab yards; horses being offered for sale at Tattersall’s - and they date for the most part from between about 1911 and 1916. One of these paintings, ‘Under the Hammer’ (1913), shows him at his best. A gaggle of men are sizing up the quality of a frisky looking horse. We see many of them from the back, in their long coats, which are often surprisingly bright in colour. The subject matter sounds potentially rather dour and grey, but Bevan has transformed it into the polar opposite of a dour, grey scene.

   It’s a beautifully balanced and integrated composition, which perfectly fills the space allotted to it, and the colours, which have a lovely, airy lightness to them, quite unexpectedly so, give the scene an unusual grace and buoyancy. Dead centre stands a small girl in a blue coat and blue hat, the ends of her pigtails secured by a pair of rich red ribbons. That little detail, so tellingly right, makes the heart skip. 

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