The Victorian social reformer Ebenezer Howard (1850–1928) had a Utopian vision of a new town in the country blessed with 'clean, pure air, flowers and perpetual sunshine'.
Working towards that unattainable ideal, architects Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin fashioned Letchworth, Britain's first Garden City. From 1903, an experimental community began to take shape in Hertfordshire, less than 40 miles from the smog and slums of London.
Many of the early arrivals were artists and crafts folk including four notable painters – Harold Gilman (1876–1919), Spencer Gore (1878–1914), William Ratcliffe (1870–1955) and Brynhild Parker (1907–1987).
Bookbinders, sandal makers, potters, folk dancers and free thinkers were among the first settlers. Conventional ideas of the period were turned on their head. A health food store catered for vegetarians and fruitarians and the pub, The Skittles Inn, held lectures and dances while refusing to serve alcohol. In the summer of 1912 Spencer Gore took up residence in the home of Harold Gilman who was a fellow member of the Camden Town Group. Gore produced 23 paintings of the emerging Letchworth landscape in a bold, fauvist style.
Gilman's house at 100 Wilbury Road was designed by Barry Parker whose brother Stanley lived at number 102 next door. Stanley was a craft teacher at St Christopher School where, in keeping with the Garden City's ethos, children called teachers by their first names and had a diet of vegetarian food. Gilman, who excelled as a portrait painter, was having marriage difficulties and produced fewer Letchworth paintings than Gore.
Eleni Zompolides, a designer for the Arden Press, had arrived in the Garden City with a bookbinder called Douglas Cockerell but soon took up with Charles Townsend who was a keen member of the Letchworth dramatic Society and ran the local laundry.
Gilman encouraged another Letchworth resident to change direction. William Ratcliffe began his working life as a wallpaper designer in Manchester but Gilman believed he should concentrate on painting and welcomed him into the Camden Town Group.
Norton Farm was owned by a third Parker brother, Roger, but it was Stanley Parker who was Ratcliffe's lifelong friend. The pair had both studied at the Manchester School of Art and, as Ratcliffe's artistic career stuttered and stumbled, he often found refuge at 102 Wilbury Road with Stanley, his Swedish wife Sigme and their three daughters the eldest of whom, Brynhild, became an artist. He painted several interiors of their Letchworth home.
Ratcliffe was an undemanding lodger. Being less than five feet tall he took up very little space and was able to survive on a diet of cornflakes and boiled onions. He exhibited at all three Camden Town Group exhibitions at the Carfax Gallery in London but his work was overshadowed by his more worldly colleagues including Gilman, Gore and Walter Sickert (1860–1942).
Wherever he was staying, whether it was with the Parkers, with his brother or in paid lodgings, he nearly always painted his room. His background as a wallpaper designer and his solitary lifestyle are reflected in Attic Room at the Tate, which is sparsely furnished with just a single pair of worn-out boots.
While Ratcliffe was a self-effacing bachelor who sold very few paintings in his lifetime, Spencer Gore was an outgoing family man who exhibited widely and was the first president of the Camden Town Group. Perhaps his most notable Letchworth painting, The Cinder Path, was one of the few British paintings shown at Roger Fry's 'Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition'.
For Letchworth Station, Gore's vantage point was a footbridge across the track with passengers waiting for services to Cambridge or Kings Cross about forty minutes away.
Gore's promising career was cut short two years after leaving Letchworth when he died from pneumonia after painting outside in the wet and cold. He was 35. His great friend Gilman, who produced at least two portraits of Gore, died five years later of Spanish flu in 1919, aged 43.
Meanwhile the unobtrusive William Ratcliffe lived well into his 80s although after the First World War he tended to paint in watercolours rather than oils. Always short of money, he could seldom afford the materials for the more expensive medium. Many of his happiest days were spent at Stanley Parker's Letchworth home where he made a sketch of Stanley's daughter Brynhild.
The sketch was discovered by a later resident of the house who donated it to the North Hertfordshire Museum, which has the largest collection of Ratcliffe's work. In old age Brynhild Parker was reminded of her family's long-term lodger:
'The Attic where I had my little room, William did a drawing of me up there. I wish I had kept it. He was such a dear little man, contented with nothing. Living the simplest of lives with hardly any money, and now his paintings are very sought after and very valuable. It's such a shame.'
Brynhild, known as Bryn, went to the Slade and became a prominent member of the East London Group before moving to the south of France in the 1940s.
Ratcliffe had only one solo exhibition in his lifetime in 1954, a year before his death, at Letchworth Museum. Nothing much sold but a photograph shows him adjusting a painting called Reflections, Ickleford (near Letchworth) whose whereabouts were unknown until Rosamond Allwood, the cultural services manager at North Hertfordshire Council, spotted it at a London gallery.
Rosamond is planning an exhibition of Ratcliffe's work, alongside paintings by Gilman and Gore, at North Hertfordshire Museum in the spring of 2023. The working title is 'Camden Town in Garden City'.
James Trollope, author and columnist