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From Camden Town to the Garden City… three artists showcase in Hitchin

The Road by Spencer Gore

Come to see paintings by a trio of Britain’s most modern early 20th century artists, borrowed from museums and private collections from Cornwall to Copenhagen, Liverpool to Leeds, until 30 June at North Herts Museum, Hitchin.

Giving a “vivid snapshot of our social and cultural history”, the exhibition looks at Harold Gilman (1876-1919), Frederick Spencer Gore (1878-1914), and William Ratcliffe (1870-1955), and specifically at paintings they made while living in Letchworth, the world’s first Garden City. Many of these works have never been shown in North Herts since they were painted over a century ago.

The three artists are also linked as founding members of the Camden Town Group of artists in 1911, so-called because many of the members lived in that area of north London. A key feature of the group’s work was that they were some of the first artists in the UK to paint ordinary everyday items and informal domestic settings.

A painting of a maid at a kitchen sink seen through a doorway
The Kitchen by Harold Gilman

The exhibition is supported by the Weston Loan Programme with the Art Fund. Created by the Garfield Weston Foundation and Art Fund, the Weston Loan Programme is the first ever UK-wide funding scheme to enable smaller and local authority museums to borrow works of art and artefacts from national collections. The show also has funding towards the illustrated catalogue from the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, and the Hertfordshire Heritage Fund, and is covered by the UK Government Indemnity Scheme.

Cllr Keith Hoskins, Executive Member for Enterprise and Arts, said: “This is a fascinating exhibition celebrating pioneering artwork from our local area, which could not have happened without such generous external funding. The young Garden City was a good place to be creative, with many of the early settlers being artists and writers drawn there by a utopian idealism. And it’s wonderful to see creativity alive and well in Letchworth and Hitchin still today.”

Sir Michael Palin, actor and comedian, and fan of the Camden Town Group of artists, said: “What I find so appealing is the attention to detail. They show us, with honesty and precision, the fine detail of everyday life at the turn of the twentieth century. Their subjects are bedrooms, kitchen tables, teapots and mugs. Apart from being beautiful works in themselves, they offer a wonderfully vivid snapshot of our social and cultural history. What people washed in, what crockery they used, how they decorated their rooms. These are very English paintings. They move me most of all because I recognise a truth there. They have captured a corner of English life in a way few others ever tried, and they should be treasured for that.”

Lord Chris Smith of Finsbury, Chair of the Art Fund, said: “There is no better place in the world for an exhibition of the works of Harold Gilman, Frederick Spencer Gore and William Ratcliffe than the North Herts Museum.” 

Sophia Weston, Deputy Chair of the Garfield Weston Foundation, said: “We’re so glad to be able to support this exhibition, which brings a number of paintings by these three important Camden Town Group artists back to North Hertfordshire where they were made. Our programme is all about helping museums tell compelling stories like this through new loans, allowing more people to enjoy world-class art in their local area.”

A painting of a plant and smaller vase of flowers on a windowsill, main colours are purples and green
The Window by William Ratcliffe

William Ratcliffe arrived first in Letchworth Garden City and stayed the longest, with the town becoming his home on and off throughout his long life. In 1908 Gilman chose the new garden city as an ideal place to bring up his young family and commissioned a house from the Arts and Crafts architects Parker & Unwin, down the road from where Ratcliffe lived. Gilman recognised Ratcliffe’s potential to become a more interesting artist and encouraged him to give up his secure commercial work for a life of art. When Gilman left Letchworth he rented out his newly-built family house to his friend Spencer Gore and his wife Mollie for four months in 1912 – during this time Gore produced some of his most progressive and important paintings, many of which are included in the exhibition.

North Herts Museum is located on Brand Street, Hitchin, open Tue-Sat 10.30am-4.30pm and Sun 11am-3pm, this exhibition and general admission is free.

For more information check out @northhertsmuseum on Facebook and Instagram, @nhertsmuseum on Twitter, visit the North Herts Museum website or call 01462 474554.

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