The sitter for Lady on a Sofa was Gilman’s sister Irene Beatrice Gilman (1877–1944). Her daughter Betty Powell (born 1916) recalls that Irene told her the circumstances of the picture being made.1 Irene sat frequently for her brother, often in tiring poses, of which an example must be Tate’s Edwardian Interior (Tate T00096). This time she insisted on a more relaxed position, although lying for long periods on the sofa apparently turned out to be almost as tiring. The oblique angle of the book would make it impossible to read, and either Irene has tired of it or has actually fallen asleep. Gilman was renowned for the slow and careful pace at which he worked. Powell remembers the sofa being part of their household furniture. It was of the type that had two folding arms and, unlike in the picture, her mother would usually lie on it with either one or both arms folded down. The picture was painted in Preston, probably at their parents’ first house after their marriage.
N05317), painted in his rooms at Maple Street after his separation from his first wife Grace, might be seen in this way. In one sense the artist was following the naturalist creed of painting what was about him, and it is tempting to regard pictures such as Lady on a Sofa as glimpses of everyday life. But there is nevertheless a staged quality to these works. In part, Gilman was responding to a resurgence of interest in seventeenth-century Dutch paintings of contemplative figures in interiors, a taste also to be found amongst contemporaries such as William Orpen, William Rothenstein, Ambrose McEvoy and Philip Wilson Steer (fig.1) (see Tate T00096 and T13024).2 The reading girl was also a staple subject of Victorian art from the 1860s onwards, and a nuance of the popular ‘dolce far niente’ pictures of women lost in reverie, listlessness or languor. But reading also signified access to the freedoms of learning, entertainment and the imagination. A private activity, located in the domestic sphere, reading was often characterised as a specifically solitary and female pursuit.