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).
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)