Harold GilmanNude at a Window c.1912

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Artwork details

Artist
Harold Gilman (1876‑1919)
Title
Nude at a Window
Date c.1912
MediumOil paint on canvas
Dimensionssupport: 610 x 508 mm frame: 842 x 735 x 125 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition Accepted by HM Government in lieu of inheritance tax and allocated to the Tate Gallery 2010
Reference
T13227
Not on display

Catalogue entry

Bent over towards a window, the model in this painting provocatively presents her naked body to the viewer. The spontaneous feel of her pose and Gilman’s loose brushwork in complementary purples and oranges gives the work an atmosphere of sexual freedom.
Harold Gilman 1876–1919
Nude at a Window
c.1912
Oil paint on canvas
610 x 508 mm
Inscribed by the artist ‘H. Gilman’ bottom right
Accepted by HM Government in lieu of inheritance tax and allocated to Tate 2010
T13227

Entry

Description

In this painting a female figure, seen from behind and wearing only stockings, leans towards a window supporting herself with her left arm and right knee on a piece of furniture. It is a casual pose: the figure seems to be trying to reach forward to catch a glimpse of something outside while dressing. It is also a picture of remarkably relaxed and frank sexual allure.
Harold Gilman 'Nude on a Bed' c.1911–12
Fig.1
Harold Gilman
Nude on a Bed c.1911–12
Photo © Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge
The light from the window creates a contre-jour effect with deep purple shadows down the figure’s left arm and side. A blue and mauve register has been used throughout, punctuated with complementary orange and yellow highlights. Semi-abstract patterns appear to float around the body; these undoubtedly indicate the design of a net curtain, but the gestural quality of their handling lends a dreamlike and private aspect to the scene.
The artist often worked slowly and methodically from squared-up drawings to create his paintings. In this case, however, he loosely sketched the scene directly onto the canvas using dark blue oil paint. The rest of the brushwork is freely handled with the ground showing through in many places, indicating that much of the painting might have been executed with the model in front of him.
It is not known who the model is; she looks to be the same woman depicted in Nude on a Bed c.1911–12 (fig.1),1 while in their 1981 catalogue Andrew Causey and Richard Thomson note that the same setting and possibly the same model were used for Woman Combing her Hair c.1912 (Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter).2 She could be a professional model or possibly the person described by Ethel Sands as being Gilman’s ‘chère amie’ at this time, who also modelled for Walter Sickert; Sickert, likewise, remarked that Gilman kept a ‘superfluous’ woman after his marriage break-up in 1909.3 Although it cannot be known for certain who the model is, the impression given in this painting of the figure’s ease in her nakedness can be seen as suggesting that the scene is one of reciprocal sexual freedom. However, the work is also part of a series Gilman executed at this time that engage with the nude as a subject for modern painting.

The nude

Walter Richard Sickert 'Nuit d'été' c.1906
Fig.2
Walter Richard Sickert
Nuit d'été c.1906
© Estate of Walter R. Sickert / DACS Photo © Ivor Braka Ltd, London
In the nineteenth century the nude was most typically presented in an ideal form and often with a mythological character. Depicting real bodies was anathema for some: the Victorian artist George Frederick Watts claimed, ‘It is not possible to represent nudity with any attempt at realism without drifting perilously near vulgarity’.4 Overt reference to sexuality was also frowned upon, as Tate curator Alison Smith has noted, ‘both the moral and aesthetic codes of the day would suggest that “sex” had to be banished from the nude for it to be in any way respectable’.5
Inspired by French impressionist artists such as Edgar Degas, Sickert broke with academic tradition in the early 1900s, painting nudes from unusual viewpoints,6 and in sexually explicit positions (fig.2). His La Hollandaise c.1906 (Tate T03548, fig.3) obscures the model’s features, allowing the viewer to focus simply on her body, in a manner similar to Gilman’s frank view of a woman from behind. Gilman’s friend Spencer Gore also explored the subject, presenting comparatively unidealised unclothed figures in domestic settings in such works as Nude 1910 (fig.4).
Walter Richard Sickert 'La Hollandaise' c.1906
Fig.3
Walter Richard Sickert
La Hollandaise c.1906
© Tate
Spencer Gore 'Nude' 1910
Fig.4
Spencer Gore
Nude 1910
Photo © Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery

The amount of critical attention given to Sickert’s paintings of nudes in the first Camden Town Group exhibition held in June 1911 may have inspired Gilman to take up the subject. Gilman exhibited two paintings of naked females at the group’s second exhibition in December that year, and went on to produce a series in 1911–13, including Nude 1911 (Mayor Gallery, London),7 Nude on a Bed 1911–12 (York City Art Gallery),8 Nude Seated on a Bed 1911–12 (Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester),9 The Model. Reclining Nude 1911–12 (Arts Council, London)10 and Nude on a Bed c.1911–12 (fig.1). He is not known to have returned to the subject after this period.
Diego Velázquez 'The Toilet of Venus ('The Rokeby Venus')' 1647–51
Fig.5
Diego Velázquez
The Toilet of Venus ('The Rokeby Venus') 1647–51
Photo © National Gallery, London
Gilman may have been predisposed to follow Sickert’s example by his fascination with the work of Diego Velázquez, in particular the Spanish artist’s only known female nude, The Toilet of Venus (‘The Rokeby Venus’) 1647–51 (fig.5). At this period the authenticity of The Toilet of Venus was the subject of much debate in the press. Following the Art Fund’s public campaign for its acquisition, the work entered the National Gallery collection in 1906; but its presentation of an unidealised, erotic female form was counter to the prevailing sexual mores of the time. Some felt that Velázquez could not be the author of such an apparently licentious work: in an Art News editorial, Frank Rutter quoted a Spanish art connoisseur, Leonard Williams, who argued that the painting was a copy after Titian made by ‘menial servants ... in the degenerate days of Spanish art’.11 Later, in 1914, the painting was attacked by the suffragette Mary Richardson. While Richardson stated at the time that her attack was provoked by the government’s treatment of the leader of the suffragette movement, Emmeline Pankhurst, she later said, ‘I didn’t like the way men visitors to the gallery gaped at it all day’.12 The Toilet of Venus was therefore a subject of much attention and controversy at the time.
In one of the few articles he ever published, Gilman contributed to the debate surrounding The Toilet of Venus by verifying that it was a work by Velázquez. He stated in the Art News in 1910:
In the controversy about the Venus of Velasquez perhaps I may be allowed to give evidence of identification. I am as one who has been hospitably entertained by a man, and has learnt to know his every attitude and characteristic so that I can recognize him at a distance with his back turned, or by the sound of his footsteps. For I spent more than a year almost constantly in the museum of the Prado, and made several copies.13
He goes on to confirm the authenticity of the work: ‘The red curtain, which I know as well as I know my own overcoat, figures in two or three of his other masterpieces.’14
Gilman’s sequence of nudes should, then, be viewed in the light of his enthusiasm for Velázquez.15 The Toilet of Venus and Nude at a Window share the defining feature of presenting a back view of a woman in an erotic, inviting and naturalistic way. A strong advocate of realism, Gilman stated in 1910: ‘Almost every picture painted, or at any rate hung on the walls of the galleries, is nothing but an impudent criticism of Nature.’16 The model in Gilman’s work is not a passive figure with gaze averted for the benefit of the viewer, but a real woman actively moving to look out of the window, gazing on to the street below or houses opposite.

Exhibition and reception

The reviews of Gilman’s two nudes at the second Camden Town Group exhibition in 1911 were mixed. The Daily Telegraph critic Sir Claude Phillips claimed:
‘Nude, No.1,’ is not only needlessly repellent but pictorially uninteresting, while ‘Nude, No.2’ – the same model with the same imperfections less cynically exhibited – is made attractive by a flicker of fitful sunlight on the undraped body that seems to crave indulgence from the spectator for its ugliness.17
The critic of the Queen found that ‘Mr H. Gilman shows perhaps more sympathy with colour than some of his companions, but his nude studies are not particularly pleasant’.18 It is unlikely that Nude at a Window was shown in this exhibition, as the Times critic stated that the depicted figures were seated:
Mr. H. Gilman, who shows the influence of Mr. Sickert, does not produce quite the same impression with his two very able nudes (20 and 22). They look as if they were sitting to be painted, not as if the artist had surprised them at some characteristic moment. You scarcely notice Mr. Sickert’s colour, it belongs so entirely to his subjects. But Mr. Gilman’s colour seems rather to be imposed upon his subjects, though it surprises with its freshness and ingenuity. His pictures are very well made, but they are made, whereas Mr. Sickert’s seem to have grown.19
However, fellow Camden Town Group member James Bolivar Manson writing in Outlook enjoyed Gilman’s work:
I admire Mr. Gilman’s robust, frank, courageous way of looking at life. He has an extraordinary power of seeing a thing as a whole, with a quite remarkable appreciation of all sorts of values. He has a profound knowledge of values of tone, colour, light, and interest, and consequently his pictures are finely lucid and have a rare quality of unity. Everything keeps its place, and there is no confliction of intentions. His brilliant expression is entirely through the medium of separation of tones. His pictures are virile pieces of life, not collections of objects, as in pictures painted after the Royal Academic recipe, where every detail is equally important, or rather unimportant.20
Gilman went on to exhibit more paintings of nudes in his joint show with Spencer Gore at the Carfax Gallery in January 1913. Analysing the layout sketch for this exhibition,21 the art historian Wendy Baron argues that Nude at a Window is Nude (No.4), as the plan ‘shows Nude (No.1) as a small painting, Nude (No.2) and Nude (No.3) as slightly larger, upright, paintings and Nude (No.4) as larger still and of pronounced vertical format. This last was inscribed on the plan “Back View” and priced at £20, whereas the other three were £15.’22 The only known back views are the Tate work and the Fitzwilliam’s Nude on a Bed (fig.1).
In a review of this exhibition, the critic of the Times exclusively focused on Gilman’s nudes:
Mr. Gilman remains an Impressionist who attempts the difficult task of seeing the nude with an Impressionist innocence of vision. By that we do not mean a moral innocence, for that is common to all good art, but the innocence which can see a nude figure as if it were merely an object in a landscape, which can forget its human interest in the play of light upon its delicate surfaces and in all the subtleties of colours that result from that play. Mr. Gilman paints, not the permanent facts of the human body, the facts which are learnt in a drawing school, but only those which are revealed at a particular moment and in particular circumstances of lighting. Or, rather, that is what he tries to do. For underneath all his precise and alert observation of those momentary facts we are still aware of a rather commonplace and even photographic drawing which is incongruous with the artist’s impressionism. The colour is always original in that it is a rendering of what he has actually seen, but the design is not equally original, for it is partly based upon what he knows to be there. The least photographic of his four nude studies is the first (7); but here he has painted the light on one side of the body as Segantini painted light upon a snowy peak, and the violence of the execution distracts our attention from what is represented, and indeed smothers all facts in a mess of paint. Still, this picture is charming and original in colour, and there is also much beauty of colour in all the other nudes. Mr. Gilman is still in the stage of eager curiosity; but an artist cannot discover the nature of his own talent without that.23

Ownership

Nude at a Window was first owned by Spencer Gore, who may have acquired it after his and Gilman’s joint exhibition in 1913. It is generally assumed to have then come into the possession of their fellow Camden Town Group member Robert Bevan.24 Walter Bayes wrote of Bevan:
Bevan was rather the Mæcenas of the group whose subscription was always paid to date, and he was, I fancy, sometimes a help in time of trouble. His gruff voice and appearance of a fox-hunting squire was rather refreshing at Fitzroy Street, where some (of the visitors rather than the members) tended to be ‘arty.’ When respectable American ladies who were seeing ‘Yurrup’ came to Fitzroy Street, it was Bevan who used to fish out for display to them Gilman’s most realistic and intimate nudes.25
Bevan’s son, Robert A. Bevan, displayed the work in the library, his private study, in Boxted House in Boxted, Essex.26

Helena Bonett
November 2010

Notes

2
Andrew Causey and Richard Thomson (eds.), Harold Gilman 1876–1919, exhibition catalogue, Arts Council, London 1981 (27).
3
Wendy Baron, Miss Ethel Sands and her Circle, London 1977, pp.99, 134. Equally, Causey and Thomson think that the lover might be the model in both Nude on a Bed 1911–12 (York City Art Gallery) and Nude Seated on a Bed 1911–12 (Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester), where the woman looks up at the viewer/artist. This model’s hairstyle and body indicate that she is not the same person as in Tate’s painting. See Arts Council 1981, p.53.
4
Quoted in Mary S. Watts, George Frederic Watts: The Annals of an Artist’s Life, London 1912, p.11.
5
Alison Smith, The Victorian Nude: Sexuality, Morality and Art, Manchester and New York 1996, p.8.
6
See, for example, Woman Washing Her Hair 1906 (Tate N05091).
7
Reproduced in Arts Council 1981 (21).
8
Reproduced ibid. (24).
10
Reproduced in Arts Council 1981 (26).
11
Quoted in Frank Rutter, ‘Editorial. The Rokeby Venus Again!’, Art News, 28 April 1910, p.200.
12
Interview in the Star, 22 February 1952. Quoted in Lynda Nead, The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity and Sexuality, London and New York 1992, p.37.
13
Harold Gilman, ‘The Venus of Velasquez’, Art News, 28 April 1910, p.198.
14
Ibid.
15
Of the Arts Council’s The Model. Reclining Nude, Andrew Causey and Richard Thomson note that although the figure ‘faces the spectator, her torso, head and arms are arranged in a similar fashion to Velasquez’s nude’. Arts Council 1981 (26).
16
Harold Gilman, ‘Composition in Painting’, Art News, 12 May 1910, p.218.
17
Sir Claude Phillips, ‘Art Exhibitions. The Camden Town Group’, Daily Telegraph, 14 December 1911, p.16.
18
‘The Carfax Gallery’, Queen, 9 December 1911.
19
‘Picture Shows. The Camden Town Group’, Times, 11 December 1911, p.12.
20
James Bolivar Manson, ‘The Camden Town Group’, Outlook, 9 December 1911, pp.823–4.
21
Reproduced in Wendy Baron, Perfect Moderns: The Camden Town Group, Aldershot and Vermont 2000, fig.5, p.57.
22
Ibid., p.124.
23
‘Pictures. The Carfax Gallery’, Times, 24 January 1913, p.10.
24
This possibly might not be accurate as it is listed as ‘Lent by Mrs M.[ollie] Gore’, Spencer Gore’s widow, to the 1954–5 Arts Council exhibition. In which case, Robert A. Bevan would have acquired it from Mollie after this date.
25
Walter Bayes, ‘The Camden Town Group’, Saturday Review, 25 January 1930, p.101.
26
A photograph of the work hanging in the library is reproduced in From Sickert to Gertler: Modern British Art from Boxted House, exhibition catalogue, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh 2008, fig.31, p.69. A photograph of the painting hanging in the drawing room is reproduced in Christopher Neve, ‘Pioneer Collection in a Vivid Setting: Camden Town Pictures at Boxted House’, Country Life, vol.161, no.4170, 2 June 1977, p.1505.

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