Charles Genge, 1874-1958

Genge studied at the Académie Julian in Paris (established in 1868 as a more radical alternative to the Ecole des Beaux Arts, attracting students from throughout France and overseas) and subsequently exhibited at Goupils, the Royal Society of British Artists, the Royal Institute of Oil Painters and the New English Art Club. Considered a leader of the British Post Impressionists, he was one of the founders of Bethnal Green Working Men’s Institute, where he offered tuition until 1925. Amongst others whom he influenced was the painter and print-maker, John Kashdan (1917-2001), whose father was a Russian refugee and who, on leaving school at 14, attended Genge’s classes, before applying to, and being accepted by, the Royal Academy Schools. These early years laid the foundations for the rest of Genge’s career: an artist who rejected academic traditions, who believed that art should be available to all, and who was a dedicated teacher.

Genge was appointed Curator at the RA Schools in 1927. This was at a time when the RAS were attracting undesirable criticism for their lax approach to teaching and learning; by which was meant the failure of the staff to persuade students to follow the conventional path to artistic success. In an attempt to remedy the situation, George Clausen was temporarily made Director and Master of the Painting School in 1926-7. In his Annual Report for 1927, Clausen wrote a rather well-considered review of the School, acknowledging that times had changed and that, though students were, ‘impatient of control .. it must be recognised that the younger generation no longer accepts the old ideals: a different spirit exists and must be reckoned with’. It was in this context that Genge – by this time recognised as an artist who was a leading figure of the ‘modern’ school, a very model of ‘a different spirit’ – was appointed Curator, with one of his primary roles being to maintain, ‘discipline and order amongst the students’[1].

Genge was successful, partly because his work displayed a real understanding of the power of colour and mark-making in the French artists – the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, the Fauves and the Cubists – whose work was still very influential in Britain. It was also infused with a love of the everyday delights of the countryside and the suburbs, which he painted in both England and France: a road bending round a corner, a glasshouse catching the sun in its panes, a church tower embowered with trees, a muddy farmyard. At their best, Genge’s pictures demonstrate a spontaneity and enthusiasm for the plein-air technique of painting. Bold application of paint laid on paint – dense stripes of colour building up tightly-knit compositions – distinguishes his work. He revelled in his medium (oil and watercolour), heightened the intensity of his tone and he used this vocabulary to communicate what is, gloriously, a traditional theme: his excitement at the brilliance and beauty of the ordinary, familiar, British - or French - environment.

This ability to combine a radical technique with a familiar scene ensured that Genge’s work appealed to many. In 1930, the works shown in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale were, for the first time, sponsored by the British government: Ramsay MacDonald’s second Labour government. This was at the behest of the British Ambassador to Italy, Sir Ronald Graham, who promoted the exhibition on the grounds of its political and commercial significance - surely important to a Europe beset by an economic Depression and increasingly conscious of distant rumbles which presaged yet another war. Thus, this 1930 exhibition must be seen as the acme of what British art – and, of course, British culture and British society – was about: radical, modern, colourful, democratic in its appeal, as well as engaging and thought-provoking. Fascinatingly, the Pavilion included work not only by Charles Genge, but also by many other interesting artists, from Vanessa Bell and Roger Fry to Emily Beatrice Bland, David Bomberg, Muirhead Bone and Jacob Epstein.

Genge died in 1958. On his death, he had instructed his nephew, William Genge, to clear his studio and burn his paintings - a sign, perhaps, that he was never satisfied with what he had produced. Instead – fortunately – the paintings were stored and ignored. They lay virtually hidden for many years. Eventually the entire studio collection was handed over to Campbell's of Walton Street Ltd., in Knightsbridge, to market and sell. The first major exhibition of Genge’s work was in June 1985, and this was highly successful. In subsequent years, smaller exhibitions were held - altogether, in the 1980s, more than 250 paintings by Genge were sold. In the following decade, in 1997, a small number of watercolours, ‘Works on Paper’, were exhibited and sold in New York. On William Genge’s death in 2002, the remaining paintings were bequeathed to Campbell’s, who sold their Knightsbridge Gallery in 2003. Since that date, a few of Genge’s paintings have appeared at auction, on a fairly regular basis, thus offering a new generation a chance to engage with this interesting, ambitious, half-forgotten artist.

© Dr Hilary Taylor, 2012

[1] Sidney C. Hutchison, The History of the Royal Academy, 1768-1968, 1986, p.166.