Harold Gilman

Mrs Mounter at the Breakfast Table

1916–7

On display at Tate Britain

Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 610 x 406 mm
frame: 808 x 605 x 93 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 1942
Reference
N05317

Summary

According to contemporary critics, Gilman's desire 'to seize the essence of a character in real life and exhibit it on canvas in all its bearings' was most successfully realised in his 1916-17 paintings of Mrs Mounter (Fergusson in Wyndham Lewis and Louis F. Fergusson, Harold Gilman: An Appreciation, London 1919, p.31). A socialist and a former member of the Camden Town group, those artists renowned for their depictions of gritty social realities in the rundown north-west-London suburb, Gilman chose as his subject not the glittering society ladies favoured by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) or Sir William Orpen (1878-1931), but a sitter of more humble social status: his landlady at 47 Maple Street, off Tottenham Court Road, where he lived from 1914-17.

Both compositionally and technically, Gilman draws the viewer into the life of his subject. While he had used a similar pictorial structure in Girl with a Teacup c. 1914 (private collection, reproduced in Harold Gilman 1876-1919, p.23 in colour), in this picture Mrs Mounter is brought forward in the picture plane, filling the cramped domestic space and fixing us with her stare. We, as much as Gilman, are drawn into the intimacy of her domain, the edge of a plate marking our seat opposite hers at the table. Through simplified masses and coherent design, Gilman endows his sitter and the objects around her with solidity and three-dimensionality. A measured and meticulous layering of small brushstrokes is used to add depth to the surface of the canvas; where the oil is most thickly applied, on Mrs Mounter's face, Gilman approximates the skin surface itself, aged and weathered. As his friend and fellow artist Charles Ginner (1878-1952) said in defence of their shared 'Neo-Realist' aesthetic, 'slap-dash, careless and slick painting' was to be avoided at all costs in favour of 'a sound and solid pigment' ('Neo-Realism', New Age, 1 January 1914, reprinted in J. B. Bullen (ed.), Post-Impressionists in England: The Critical Reception, London 1988, p.475).

Mrs Mounter's air of restraint and self-discipline, the teapot, cups and saucers were recognised by contemporaries as peculiarly English. Yet there was also a distinctly French streak in Gilman's work, developed after a trip to France with Ginner in 1910 and his visit to Roger Fry's (1866-1934) Post Impressionist exhibition at the Grafton Gallery in the same year. The vibrant orange of Mrs Mounter's head scarf echoes the dazzling palette of the Fauves, André Derain (1880-1954) and Maurice Vlaminck (1876-1958); the lively patterned wallpaper recalls Henri Matisse's (1869-1954) decorative interiors. Gilman was heavily influenced, too, by Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90), whose letters and reproductions he kept in his studio, and whose La Berceuse 1888 (Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo), with its lone matriarchal figure and colourful floral backdrop, bears striking similarities to Mrs Mounter at the Breakfast Table.

Mrs Mounter proved a fascinating figure for Gilman. Appearing in five of his paintings, one of which (at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool) is almost identical to this work, she gave form to his belief that 'Nothing but life can imitate the real' (Art News, 25 May 1910, quoted in Harold Gilman 1876-1919, p.14).

Further reading:
Wendy Baron, Perfect Moderns: A History of the Camden Town Group, Aldershot 2000
Maureen Connett, Walter Sickert and the Camden Town Group, Newton Abbott 1992, pp.45-51
Harold Gilman 1876-1919, exhibition catalogue, Arts Council of Great Britain, London 1981, pp.17, 32 and 80-1, reproduced front cover (colour)

Jacky Klein
February 2002

Display caption

Gilman was a member of the Camden Group of painters whose commitment to the painting of everyday life is typified in this work. Mrs Mounter was the artist’s landlady. He shows her with a blank, perhaps melancholy expression. She seems almost dominated by the very ordinary tea pot, jug and cups which speak, perhaps, of a simple life. Such simplicity in a painting would have seemed radical to audiences used to seeing more lavish subjects.

Gallery label, September 2016

Catalogue entry

Entry

Background

Mrs Mounter lodged at 47 Maple Street, off Tottenham Court Road, London W1, where Harold Gilman also lived from 1914 to 1917. Research by the art historian John Rolfe indicates that the sitter is Ann Emma Mounter, née Townsend (1850–1932), who stayed at 47 Maple Street with her husband Frederick at this time, and who may have occasionally undertaken housekeeping duties for Gilman.1
Maple Street crosses Fitzroy Street, and so the house, which no longer exists, was very close to 19 Fitzroy Street, where Gilman and other members of Walter Sickert’s group showed their work. Sickert’s etchings Maple Street c.1923,2 and O Sole Mio c.1923,3 show the corners of Maple, Cleveland and Southampton streets, and it is possible that they depict where Gilman lived. Both prints were based on an initial drawing made in c.1917, perhaps while Gilman was still living there (Aberdeen Art Gallery).4 However, by the time Gilman painted Mrs Mounter at the Breakfast Table he and Sickert, once his hero, had become somewhat alienated from one another. Gilman’s use of a bright palette and pure colour was not to Sickert’s taste. Gilman ‘would look over in the direction of Sickert’s studio’, Wyndham Lewis recalled,
and a slight shudder would convulse him as the thought of the little worm of brown paint that was possibly, even at that moment, wriggling out onto the palette that held no golden chromes, no emerald greens, vermilions, only, as it, of course, should do. Sickert’s commerce with these condemned browns was as compromising as intercourse with a proscribed vagrant ... bituminous painting, dirty painting, was the mark of the devil ... But he always retained a great respect for the virtues of his first real master.5
The neighbourhood around Fitzroy Street was a somewhat transient area. Noting the prostitutes found slightly further south towards Oxford Street, Charles Booth (1840–1916) walked the area in 1898, making observations in his notebook of its social mix for his survey of London poverty. He noted:

Subject and composition

Influences

The First World War

Ownership

Robert Upstone
May 2009

Revised by Helena Bonett
January 2011

Notes

1
John Rolfe, ‘The Identification of the Sitter in Harold Gilman’s Portraits of Mrs Mounter’, Burlington Magazine, vol.152, no.1285, April 2010, pp.236–8.
2
Reproduced in Ruth Bromberg, Walter Sickert Prints: A Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London 2000, no.212.
3
Reproduced ibid., no.213.
4
Reproduced ibid., no.213a.
5
Wyndham Lewis and Louis F. Fergusson, Harold Gilman: An Appreciation, London 1919, p.13.
6
Notebook B355, pp.87, 129, Booth Collection, Archives of British Library of Political and Economic Science, London School of Economics. Booth’s quotation marks suggest he walked the area with a police officer, as he often did in such surveys, and that these are the policeman’s observations rather than Booth’s.
7
Fifth Exhibition of Works by Members of the London Group, Goupil Gallery, London, November–December 1916 (54 and 109).
8
Reproduced in Leeds’ Paintings: 20th Century British Art from Leeds City Art Gallery, exhibition catalogue, Arts Council, London 1980 (18).
9
Reproduced in Anna Gruetzner Robins, Modern Art in Britain 1910–1914, exhibition catalogue, Barbican Art Gallery, London 1997, p.124.
10
See Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery Catalogues: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, vol.1, London 1964, pp.235–6.
11
Reproduced in Harold Gilman 1876–1919, exhibition catalogue, Arts Council, London 1981 (68 and back cover).
12
Reproduced in Modern British & Irish Paintings, Watercolours and Sculpture, Christie’s, London, 11 March 1994 (59).
13
Ysanne Holt, ‘An Ideal Modernity: Spencer Gore at Letchworth’, in David Peters Corbett, Ysanne Holt and Fiona Russell (eds.), Geographies of Englishness: Landscape and the National Past 1880–1940, New Haven and London 2002, p.92.
14
Reproduced in Sickert: Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy, London 1992 (36).
15
Exhibited at the Stafford Gallery, July 1911, as Mamma Mia poareta (11).
16
Frank Rutter, Some Contemporary Artists, London 1922, pp.135, 136–7.
17
Andrew Causey, ‘Harold Gilman: An Englishman and Post-Impressionism’, in Arts Council 1981, p.17.
18
Lionello Venturi, Cézanne, son art – son oeuvre, Paris 1936, no.687; reproduced in Cézanne, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1996 (137).
19
Reproduced in Arts Council 1981, fig.10.
20
Richard Thomson, ‘Gilman’s Subjects: Some Observations’, in Arts Council 1981, p.31.
21
Reproduced in Gauguin: Maker of Myth, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2010 (9).
22
Reproduced in Christie’s 1994 (66).
24
See Thomson 1981, p.31.
25
Rolfe 2010, p.237.
27
See Thomson 1981, pp.33–4.
29
30
See William H. Beveridge, British Food Control: Economic and Social History of the World War, London and Oxford 1928.
31
Harold Gilman and William Ratcliffe, exhibition catalogue, Southampton Art Gallery 2002, p.9.
32
Information from Barbara Duce, daughter of Gilman’s brother John, Tate Catalogue file.
33
For an account of his life, see John Ingamells, The Davies Collection of French Art, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff 1967, pp.19–22.
34
Reproduced as Washing in the Snow in The Painters of Camden Town 1905–1920, exhibition catalogue, Christie’s, London 1988 (58).
35
Probably Portrait in Profile: Mary L., reproduced ibid. (163).

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