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Perspectives

Your place to explore new perspectives on British art from 1900 to now. Through interviews, films, image galleries and essays, we uncover the creative lives of the people behind the art on our walls.

Painting by British painter Harold Gilman showing women drinking tea in a domestic interior with blue patterned wallpapers

Harold Gilman: Beyond Camden Town

[ Essay )

In the last decade of his life, Harold Gilman broke away from his contemporaries in the Camden Town Group to create his own distinct style, influenced by the French post-impressionists.

Lara Wardle and James Rawlin, co-curators of our 2019 exhibition, Harold Gilman: Beyond Camden Town, examine the significance of Gilman’s late work.

2019 marked the centenary of Harold Gilman’s untimely death at the age of 43 and it therefore offered a timely spur to look again at his work and assess the importance of his legacy. In Harold Gilman: Beyond Camden Town we focussed on Gilman’s work during the last decade of his life.

It was during this period from 1910 to 1919 that his paintings and drawings displayed an increasing engagement with French Post-Impressionist painting and he developed a style quite unlike his mentor Walter Richard Sickert and the other Camden Town Group painters with whom he is so often grouped.

Curating the first major Gilman show in over 35 years threw up some challenges: primary source material on Gilman is scarce; the dating and titles of some works are in need of re-examination; and the impressive and accomplished body of drawings has rarely been studied.

We do know the broad biographical facts of his life. Gilman was born in Rode, Somerset, and spent a year in Odessa (1895) before studying at the Hastings School of Art and then the Slade School of Fine Art in London where his contemporaries included Spencer Frederick Gore, Augustus John and Percy Wyndham Lewis.

His early work displays the influence of Diego Velázquez whose paintings he studied on a visit to Spain after leaving the Slade. Soon after this he had a chance meeting with Walter Richard Sickert in 1907, leading to Gilman becoming a founder member of the Fitzroy Street Group, the precursor to the Camden Town Group.

Sepia photograph of the painter Harold Gilman standing in front of his easel with paintbrush in hand, at his studio at Snargate Rectory in 1905

Harold Gilman in his studio at Snargate Rectory, c.1905, photograph, private collection

We do have also contemporary accounts which describe Gilman, the man – including those from his friend Louis Fergusson who recalled that at the time of the formation of the Fitzroy Group in 1907 that Gilman was:

“a figure of dignity in snuff-coloured suit and black neckerchief. He impressed you with his transparent earnestness. Painting meant ever so much to him. He told you with the utmost conviction that Freddie Gore was going to be a very great painter, that the next important art-movement would certainly emanate from the room in which we were standing.”

Other important artistic influences on Gilman included Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin and in particular, Vincent van Gogh. The EY Exhibition: Van Gogh and Britain at Tate Britain ran concurrently with Pallant House Gallery’s exhibition, exploring how Van Gogh was inspired by Britain and how he, in turn, inspired British artists including Gilman, several of who’s paintings were included.

Although he is by no means a household name and is certainly not as well-known as his contemporaries like Sickert, Duncan Grant or Vanessa Bell, Gilman is nevertheless surprisingly well-known outside the world of 20th century British art through the body of works that are held in public collections around the UK.

Major examples of his painting can be seen in London, Manchester, Liverpool, Cambridge, Oxford, Sheffield, Brighton, Wakefield and Glasgow, to name but a few and these works have become firm favourites amongst visitors through the strength of their image and the boldness of their colour.

In several cases Gilman painted at least two versions of a composition, striving to develop the image and find yet more within the subject. One of his best-known images is of The Eating House, of which he painted a number of versions around 1913 to 1914. It is in these paintings that Gilman comes closest to his friend and fellow artist Charles Ginner’s assertion that he [Gilman] ‘delighted in painting the poorer classes, the natives of Camden Town and their humble interiors’ (Memorial Exhibition catalogue, 1919).

A painting by Harold Gilman showing the interior of an eating house, in which three customers are sitting

Harold Gilman, An Eating House, 1913-14, Oil on canvas, 45.7 x 61, Private Collection

From looking at the two different versions of the same subject included in the first part of the exhibition we are able to understand how Gilman honed the focus of these paintings and emphasised certain narratives. It is likely that the earlier, looser version was inspired by Van Gogh’s Interior of a Restaurant in Arles (1888), which Gilman could have known as it was then held in a private collection in London.

Gilman’s higher keyed version of The Eating House, of which a companion piece is held in Museums Sheffield Collection and will be on display in the Van Gogh and Britain exhibition, has a very different feel to it. This is a much lower class of establishment than in his earlier painting and the customers have been reduced to glimpses of their hats, faces and coats. Gilman has shifted the focus in these paintings to the formal properties of the room and patterned wallpaper, emphasising the isolation and anonymity of the men eating by making them just small parts of the whole.

 

Painting by British painter Harold Gilman showing women drinking tea in a domestic interior with blue patterned wallpapers

Harold Gilman, Tea in the Bedsitter, 1916, oil on canvas, 71 x 92 cm, Kirklees Collection: Huddersfield Art Gallery

For this exhibition we are delighted to have been able to bring together Gilman’s two versions of Tea in the Bedsitter, both painted in 1916, which have very rarely been seen side by side.

At first glance, the two images appear to be very closely related – they both show the same room, arranged in roughly the same way. On closer examination it becomes apparent how different the two versions are, with Gilman manipulating the space and viewpoint of the room, adding an extra figure at the table and altering the dynamic between the participants.

We are left unsure as to the actual subject (Tea in the Bedsitter is a later title; Gilman exhibited it during his life as Interior) – is this a narrative of some drama being played out, or is Gilman simply rendering his own rooms peopled by his friends? In each version the balance and questions raised are subtly different.

As well as bringing together alternate versions of his paintings for this exhibition to study how Gilman adapted his compositions, we also borrowed a number of works on paper from both public and private collections to look at how these relate to Gilman’s oils.

Gilman was a prolific and talented draughtsman. It seems that he did not generally attach any especial significance to them beyond their role in the development of a composition, but we can see that both in technique and preparation they were closely involved in this process. Ginner recalled that when Gilman initially began to work in a more modern manner, he tended to work from nature, a habit inherited from Impressionist painters.

However, Gilman gradually developed a technique of working from drawings and we can see in some of these not only the squaring up of a working drawing but extensive notation as to colour and tone. Ginner also tells us that Gilman ‘did not seem to take much account of them, and he showed them at exhibitions only with reluctance and hesitation’.

The drawings repay close study and they essentially fall into three categories: the immediate and swift pen sketch, the more worked drawing of a subject and the heavily annotated and measured drawing intended as an aid to the production of a painting.

So often viewed in the context of the Camden Town Group, we felt that it was time for Harold Gilman to step forward and be seen afresh once more, allowing a reassessment of his distinctive contribution to British art in the second decade of the 20th century.

Alongside the more narrative works, including The Eating House and Tea in the Bedsitter, Gilman is also known for his portraits and still-life groupings. After 1910 he seems to have painted almost exclusively women, portraying those who were familiar and close to him; either family or friends, including several female artists. There is a particular sensitivity in Gilman’s portrayal of women that is also shared with women painters working in the first part of the 20th century such as Dame Laura Knight and Dod Procter.

Gilman’s paintings fall into two distinct groups: One in which the women are presented more or less directly within a more traditional portrait format; and another group in which a stronger narrative element is implied either through the pose of the sitter or the surroundings and objects he used in the composition.

Painted against the backdrop of the campaigns for women’s suffrage and the shifting social strata brought about by WWI, Gilman’s paintings of women still feel both sympathetic to his sitters and strikingly modern in their approach.

A painting by Harold Gilman showing a woman through a doorway, bent over her shopping list.

Harold Gilman, The Shopping List, c.1912, Oil on canvas, 61 x 51 cm, British Council

We were fortunate to be able to locate a rare example of a painting of a male sitter and so included in the exhibition is a portrait of John William Harold Battiscombe (1879-1965), Gilman’s brother-in-law. Like his paintings of women, this small work is notably informal and offers us an unusual glimpse into how Gilman approached a subject that was also being treated by his Bloomsbury contemporaries such as Grant, Bell and Carrington.

So often viewed in the context of the Camden Town Group, we felt that it was time for Harold Gilman to step forward and be seen afresh once more, allowing a reassessment of  his distinctive contribution to British art in the second decade of the 20th century.

This was an extract from Pallant House Gallery magazine, Issue 47, Harold Gilman: Beyond Camden Town, published in March 2019. With thanks to Lara Wardle and James Rawlin.

Find out more about the exhibition