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23 June 2021

The suburban utopias of Spencer Gore

How the painter kept an eye on the radical – but found his greatest inspiration in the most quotidian of places

By Michael Prodger

Spencer Gore may not have lived for art but he died for it. In late 1913 and early 1914, while living in Richmond in south-west London, Gore painted a series of 32 scenes of the nearby park. He was fascinated by this bit of rus in urbe, its stands of trees and ponds, the paths that cut through it and the fenced gardens of the houses that edged it, so he spent the autumn and winter outside, painting it in sun but also rain and cold. It was while working doggedly at his easel that he caught the pneumonia that killed him, just two months short of his 36th birthday.

What might he have become? He was already a leading British modernist and a proselytiser for a native form of avant-gardism. Percy Wyndham Lewis, the rebarbative painter, writer and critic, was a friend and included an obituary of Gore in the first edition of his vorticist magazine Blast (even though Gore had died before vorticism, with its emphasis on modern life and hard-edged abstraction, was fully formed). Gore’s painting, Lewis said, “although incomplete, is full of illustrations of a maturer future. His latest work, with an accentuation of structural qualities, a new and suave simplicity, might, in the case of several examples I know, be placed beside that of any of the definitely gracious artists in Europe.”

It was because Spencer “Freddy” Gore (1878-1914) died so young, with a career of only a dozen years, that his work is so full of the influence of other, older artists. At the time of his death he was still on the verge of finding a style, so the stepping stones – Van Gogh, Gauguin, the post-impressionists, Lucien Pissarro and Walter Sickert – are all the more obvious. Their influence may have been leading towards some sort of fusion, or Gore may have sloughed them off and followed an entirely new route.

Whatever form his radicalism might have taken, it is unlikely to have adopted too outré a shape. Gore was not given to extreme subjects and his truncated oeuvre consists largely of landscapes, still lifes and pictures of music-hall performances. “I always find things more interesting as they are, or, if you like, interesting because they are so,” he wrote. “I am perfectly incapable of inventing the shape of stone or how it lies on the top of another or how it would be related to everything else.”

If he felt this to be a limitation it didn’t diminish his determination to be an artist. In 1904, when his father – the winner of the inaugural Wimbledon tennis championship – hit business difficulties and abandoned the family, Gore was encouraged by his uncle, the Bishop of Oxford, to give up painting and find a more reliable way of supporting his mother and sister. The proposal was refused. When he had trained at the Slade School of Fine Art his peers included Augustus John, Wyndham Lewis, Harold Gilman and William Orpen, and their friendship and encouragement made him all the more determined to succeed in art.

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It was also in 1904 that Gore met Sickert, when he visited him in Dieppe. Sickert, painter and critic, was by then the forward-looking face of British art and he became something of a mentor to Gore. But if the music-hall paintings show Sickert’s imprint (which he himself imbibed from Degas after meeting him in Paris in the early 1880s) then Sickert was big-hearted enough to acknowledge that a brightening of his own palette was down to the younger artist: “My practice… was transformed from 1905 by the example of the development of Gore’s talent.”

Gore’s encouragement also helped persuade Sickert to return to London from France and take his place as a figurehead in the assorted groupings that formed in a small slice of north London – the Fitzroy Street Group, the Camden Town Group, and the London Group. These concentrations offered exhibiting possibilities outside the stifling embrace of the Royal Academy and promoted a style of art based on mundane urban life – garden squares, Mornington Crescent seen through a window, train tracks behind Euston Station.

In 1912, after Gore’s friend Harold Gilman moved to Letchworth Garden City in Hertfordshire – the first town of the garden city movement – he went to stay with him. Gore took a more vivid version of the Camden Town Group ethos with him, making bright pictures of this suburban utopia with its neat new cottages each with its own modest garden, of the spick and span train station that served its commuters, and of the cinder paths that led out into the gentle and unprepossessing countryside beyond.

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Gore was in Letchworth for just four months but he completed some 23 paintings in that time. Something about its ethos – offering a better life for the urban poor, satisfying a gentle nostalgia – suited him. It seems an unlikely place for him to produce the most dramatic work of his career but that is what happened.

This painting, The Icknield Way, now in the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Australia, shows just how effective all those French influences could be when they aligned perfectly with Gore’s sensibility. The luminous colours, a sky fractured into lozenges as if seen through a kaleidoscope, a landscape gently exhaling the day’s heat, and the simplification and sense of euphoria would seem better suited to the landscape of the south of France (indeed, the purple of the fields almost stands as a nod to the lavender meadows of Provence). This though is north Hertfordshire seen, or rather felt, with rare intensity, as if Cézanne had ramped up his colours and paid a visit.

The Icknield Way is an ancient track that runs from Buckinghamshire to Norfolk, and as Gore walked out that summer evening he found a means of harmoniously combining deep history and contemporary art. His wife Molly was also heavily pregnant at the time with their first child, Margaret – who was born in Letchworth that coming October – so the artist had his mind on the future too. He painted a joyous, fecund scene but with hindsight it is elegiac too: it is hard not to see the painting as an expression of the long Edwardian summer that came to an end in Flanders, with the grim irony that this part of England and the landscape of the trenches share many geological features.

It is perhaps this sense of time melded – past, present and future in one – that gives the painting its visionary, almost hallucinatory feel. Wyndham Lewis spoke of how Gore’s “boastfully confident attitude to Time’s expanse, and absence of recognition of the common need to hurry, characterised him”. Gore couldn’t know it when he painted the picture, but time’s expanse was shrinking fast.

This article appears in the 23 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit changed us