Harold GilmanMrs Mounter at the Breakfast Table 1916-17

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Artwork details

Artist
Harold Gilman (1876‑1919)
Title
Mrs Mounter at the Breakfast Table
Date 1916-17
MediumOil paint on canvas
Dimensionssupport: 610 x 406 mm frame: 808 x 605 x 93 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition Purchased 1942
Reference
N05317
On display at Tate Britain
Room: 1910

Catalogue entry

The subject of a number of portraits by Harold Gilman, Mrs Mounter lodged at the same address as the artist at 47 Maple Street, off Tottenham Court Road. In this painting her direct gaze and time-worn features, highlighted in warm tones and haloed tightly by an orange kerchief, draws the viewer in. The ordinary crockery on the table indicates the unceremonious sharing of breakfast across social classes and despite wartime shortages.
Harold Gilman 1876–1919
Mrs Mounter at the Breakfast Table
Exhibited 1917
Oil paint on canvas
610 x 405 mm
Inscribed by the artist ‘H. Gilman’ bottom right
Purchased (Knapping Fund) 1942
N05317

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:
Some servants. 4½ st.[orey] apartments. ‘The heart of foreign club land’. Some gambling & some respectable clubs. ‘Foreigners are directed to these clubs by their consuls; that is why foreigners drift this way.’ Fitzroy Club at east side of doubtful respectability.6
Gilman’s lodgings in 47 Maple Street consisted of a pair of rooms, probably on the first floor, divided by wooden doors. Before the house was split into flats, these rooms had probably been the drawing room. Gilman used the rear part for his studio, while the larger front section contained a circular dining table and his bed. The layout of the apartment is seen in a pair of his pictures, Tea in the Bedsitter 1916 (fig.1) and the Ashmolean’s Interior with Mrs Mounter 1916–17 (fig.2).
Harold Gilman 'Tea in the Bedsitter' 1916
Fig.1
Harold Gilman
Tea in the Bedsitter 1916
Photo © Huddersfield Art Gallery
Harold Gilman 'Interior with Mrs Mounter' 1916–17
Fig.2
Harold Gilman
Interior with Mrs Mounter 1916–17
Photo © Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Subject and composition

The first appearance of Mrs Mounter as the subject of any of Gilman’s exhibited works was at the November–December 1916 London Group exhibition, where he showed what was probably a drawing priced £5, and a more expensive picture at £35 that was undoubtedly an oil.7 Gilman made three oil portraits of Mrs Mounter. The earliest is likely to be the small picture now in Leeds City Art Gallery (c.1916).8 It shows her seated but half-turned and from a higher viewpoint than Mrs Mounter at the Breakfast Table, as if Gilman was standing at his easel looking down on her. She is dressed in the same coat and headscarf as in the Tate’s picture, and this would appear to be a preliminary approach to a subject that was subsequently refined and made more rigorous in its design.
Tate’s picture is identical to a larger version in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, the only differences being its slightly brighter palette and the addition of a William Morris chair on the right (c.1916–17).9 The artist’s widow Sylvia Gilman believed that the Tate picture was made first.10 A squared drawing in the Ashmolean Museum is the preliminary drawing for the Walker Art Gallery version of Mrs Mounter at the Breakfast Table.11 It is difficult to be certain if either of these two versions were included in the 1916 London Group exhibition in which Mrs Mounter pictures were included, but Tate’s painting was included in the April–May 1917 show held at the Mansard Gallery in Heal’s, just across Tottenham Court Road from Gilman’s lodgings.
Gilman painted two other pictures of Mrs Mounter in which she appears as a middle-distance figure in the Maple Street interior, Interior (Mrs Mounter) c.1916–17 (private collection)12 where she is viewed from behind, and the haunting Interior with Mrs Mounter 1916–17 (see fig.2), where she stands posed between the two sections of Gilman’s rooms, looking back enigmatically at the viewer.
Harold Gilman 'Girl with a Teacup' c.1914–15
Fig.3
Harold Gilman
Girl with a Teacup c.1914–15
Private collection
Gilman uses a psychologically sophisticated composition to draw us into Mrs Mounter’s space. The foreground consists only of the tea table, cutting the nearest plate in half, and it is as if we are sitting opposite her. Placed against the wooden doors, the lack of background recession further reinforces this personal proximity. Gilman had used a similar, but less confrontational arrangement in Girl with a Teacup c.1914–15 (fig.3), but Mrs Mounter at the Breakfast Table is more rigorous and austere. Mrs Mounter looks straight at us, her face enigmatic, neither questioning nor emotive, but her eyes showing fierce intensity. This is a study of a face that has aged, its deep lines and sags testifying to a life of work and probable hardship. Looking as if it has been broken and flattened, her broad, prominent nose contributes to a sense of masculinity, and overall her face has a toughness and resolve about it. This is a working class London woman, elderly, but still strong and full of native character. Gilman had always painted those around him, mostly his family, and sometimes servants. But here there seems to be a more naturalist, and deliberate commemoration or investigation of a social type. Gilman’s sympathy with ordinary people found expression in socialist beliefs, which reputedly irritated Sickert on occasion. His move to Letchworth Garden City was partly an expression of his political outlook, as it was a model community which attracted a mixed bag of idealists, fresh-air fanatics and vegetarians.13 It is interesting to compare Gilman’s pictures of Mrs Mounter with the pictures Sickert made in 1903–4 of the elderly Venetian woman known as ‘Mamma Mia Poveretta’. These take a similar approach to the subject of age and aging, and similarly sympathetic approach to working class life. For instance, Gilman would have been familiar with the head and shoulders portrait Mamma Mia Poveretta 1903–4 (Manchester City Art Gallery)14 that Sickert exhibited at the Stafford Gallery in 1911.15
William Hogarth 'Heads of Six of Hogarth's Servants' circa 1750-5
Fig.4
William Hogarth
Heads of Six of Hogarth's Servants circa 1750–5
In its almost anthropological recording of a ‘social type’, Mrs Mounter at the Breakfast Table shares affinities with a tradition of London observation. Henry Mayhew’s epic Victorian working class sociological survey London Labour and the London Poor appeared between 1851 and 1862, richly illustrated with wood engravings. Interest in painting working class Londoners extends back at least as far as the eighteenth century, with William Hogarth’s group portrait of his servants, c.1750–5 (Tate N01374, fig.4) or the famous series of pictures by Francis Wheatley, The Cries of London, which appeared as prints between 1793 and 1796. But Gilman offers something more intimate and direct with Mrs Mounter; this is someone with whom he is on close terms. There are two cups on the table, and it is clear that Mrs Mounter has come to join him for breakfast in his rooms. Her exact status as housekeeper, cleaner or landlady at Maple Street remains unspecific, but it is evident that the picture records two people from very different social backgrounds and classes meeting as equals.

Influences

In Some Contemporary Artists (1922), Gilman’s friend Frank Rutter drew particular attention to his pictures of Mrs Mounter:
Sometimes I think that more wonderful than anything else he did are the two portraits he painted of his landlady in Maple Street, Mrs Mounter. They have the reverent psychology of a Rembrandt with the colour of a Vermeer. These portraits are the apotheosis of the charwoman, the transfiguration of homeliness, age, and toil into a spiritual loveliness of colour that time cannot wither ... in these we get the whole of Gilman, the whole at his deepest and richest, of the painter we valued and of the man we loved, of the great colourist with his magic of harmony, and of the great-hearted democrat with his tenderness and love for all humanity.16
Vincent van Gogh 'La Berceuse (Portrait of Madame Roulin)' c.29 March 1889
Fig.5
Vincent van Gogh
La Berceuse (Portrait of Madame Roulin) c.29 March 1889
This meeting of artist and sitter is, as the art historian Andrew Causey has written, ‘a confrontation that dignifies without flattering and is not limited by any class condescension’.17 As such it was a process that fulfilled Gilman’s socialist convictions. This sort of direct confrontation between painter and sitter is found in pictures by Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and Paul Cézanne, all painters who inspired Gilman. With its vibrantly patterned background and the sitter’s direct gaze, van Gogh’s La Berceuse c.29 March 1889 (fig.5) may have been a source of inspiration. Another may have been Cézanne’s portrait Peasant in a Blue Smock 1892 or 1897 (Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth).18 While dissimilar in composition and style, the picture treats its subject with dignity and without being patronising, an aspect repeated by Gilman. In 1910–11 it was with Bernheim-Jeune when Gilman visited the Paris dealer, and so he is likely to have seen it. Even closer in intent is Cézanne’s Femme à la cafetière c.1890–5 (Louvre, Paris).19 As the art historian Richard Thomson has noted, Gilman would have seen this when he visited the Pellerin collection in Paris in 1910–11.20 Causey suggests a further source of inspiration for the picture might have come from Gauguin’s Christ in the Garden of Olives 1889 (Norton Museum of Art, USA).21 Included in Roger Fry’s exhibition Manet and the Post-Impressionists held at the Grafton Galleries from November 1910 to January 1911, Mrs Mounter’s orange headscarf may be based on Christ’s red hair, but this may be coincidence.
However, an altogether closer source of reference for the painting was one of Gilman’s own pictures. Among his earliest known works is Portrait of a Woman in Black c.1902–4 (private collection).22 Remaining in the Gilman family, it was believed to be a portrait of the artist’s grandmother, Amelia Gilman. Wearing black, and set against a slightly less black background, the seated woman looks directly out at us just like Mrs Mounter, and has similarly lumpy and lined features. Gilman evidently had in mind the portraits of Velázquez he had recently seen in the Prado, although there is also a striking similarity to the work of Edouard Manet.

The First World War

It is worth remembering that Gilman painted his pictures of Mrs Mounter during the First World War. In November 1916, the earliest date that Gilman might have painted Mrs Mounter at the Breakfast Table, the Battle of the Somme came to an end. Lasting from 1 July to 18 November, the battle claimed an estimated 420,000 British lives for an advance of just twelve kilometres.23 Gilman’s brother Leofric was serving in the forces,24 and Mrs Mounter’s son, Henry Edmund Mounter (born 1889), had likewise left for war in 1915.25
In January 1916 the government introduced the Military Service Act. Voluntary enlistment was not keeping up with casualty rates, and conscription was essential. The Act directed that men aged between eighteen and forty-one were liable for military service, unless they were married or in a reserved occupation. An amendment passed shortly after abolished exclusion because of marital status, and also gave the government the right to re-examine men previously physically exempted on health grounds.26 Gilman’s fortieth birthday was on 11 February 1916, and therefore notionally he was liable to be called up when the Military Services Act came into force. But his club foot and history of ill-health in his youth meant he was not selected. It is not known whether he attended a tribunal for exemption. There is no record of Gilman being engaged in war work of any kind, until his commission to paint Halifax Harbour in 1918 by the Canadian War Records Office.27 Throughout the war, Gilman’s life must have continued much as it had done before. In the summer of 1917 he married Sylvia Hardy, one of his former students at Westminster School of Art, and moved to Hampstead. Being an un-uniformed man in London, not engaged in helping the war effort, must perhaps have raised questions in his mind about the role of the artist in society and exclusion from what men of a slightly younger age were going through in the trenches. The practice of handing out white feathers for cowardice to men of serviceable age not in uniform gathered pace in 1915 and 1916 as popular perception of the troop shortage grew. Even men on leave were sometimes accosted in this way, often by female members of the Organisation of the White Feather set up by Admiral Charles Fitzgerald in the first month of the war. The government’s response was to issue all those in reserved occupations with a ‘King and Country’ badge which proclaimed their exemption from the armed services.28 Whether Gilman was issued with such a badge as an art teacher is unknown, but is perhaps unlikely.
By the time Gilman painted Mrs Mounter at the Breakfast Table, German attacks on shipping were beginning to interfere greatly with Britain’s food supply. Although the German fleet never again left port after the Battle of Jutland in May 1916, concerted submarine attacks were able to cut off British lines of supply. On 31 January 1917 Germany announced its reintroduction of unrestricted submarine warfare which targeted both neutral and enemy ships alike. The intention was effectively to starve Britain into submission, and 230 supply ships were sunk in February 1917. The following month a record 500,000 tons of shipping were sunk, but Britain managed to boost its wheat production that summer and the population was fed.29 Food was nevertheless in short supply and by 1918 a variety of staples such as butter, sugar and jam were rationed.30 It is against this background of dwindling food supplies that Mrs Mounter at the Breakfast Table might partly be viewed. It makes the sharing of breakfast a poignant connection between the artist and what may have been his charwoman. Tea in particular was hard to come by. Although never rationed it was difficult to obtain because it was imported from India and the Far East. Gilman’s family had connections with the tea trade; his grandfather Ellis founded a tea company in Hong Kong,31 and Gilman’s brother Leofric worked in Hong Kong, perhaps for the company, until 1914.32
Elegant conversation-piece paintings of tea served to grand sitters, such as Hogarth’s The Strode Family c.1738 (Tate N01153) or George Morland’s The Tea Garden c.1790 (Tate T00055), were relatively common in eighteenth-century British art, as Gilman was no doubt aware. It was a subject that recurred in twentieth-century painting, and at the Royal Academy in 1916 he may even have seen The Tea Party (‘Nanny, Bessie and John’) by his Slade contemporary Hilda Fearon (Tate N04832). This presents a comfortable image of a middle class ceremony continuing without the ravages of the First World War being allowed to intrude in any way. Gilman offers a rather different subject. At his table, tea is served not in the best china, but from a standard, utility-type teapot known as a Brown Bessie.

Ownership

Hugh Blaker (1873–1936),33 the first recorded owner of Mrs Mounter at the Breakfast Table, who also owned Gilman’s Lady on a Sofa (Tate N05831), was born in Worthing in Sussex. After studying painting in Antwerp and Paris, in 1905 he became curator of the Holburne of Menstrie Museum in Bath. He retired in 1913 and became a noted dealer and collector, as well as a sometime writer, actor, poet, critic and philosopher. Notably, he advised the Davies sisters on the building of their picture collection, which was bequeathed to the National Gallery of Wales, Cardiff. He was one of Gilman’s most important patrons, buying The Old Lady (City Art Gallery, Bristol) and Mountain Bridge, Norway (Museum and Art Gallery, Worthing). His collection was exhibited in 1929 at Platt Hall, Rusholme, Manchester, May–June, and at Brighton Art Gallery and Museum, September–October, and the catalogue lists a number of other oils by Gilman including Still Life, The Seamstress, Snow Scene,34 Interior, Portrait of a Girl, The Eating House, Mary L.,35 and A Girl’s Head. Blaker also owned pictures by other Camden Town Group painters, including Gore, Ginner, Bevan, Manson and Sickert, as well as works by Gertler, Grant, Augustus John, Innes, Strang, Roberts, Bayes, Greaves and Whistler. The Leicester Galleries in London showed a selection of works from his collection in March 1948.

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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