The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

Charles Ginner, ‘Harold Gilman: An Appreciation’

in Memorial Exhibition of Works by the Late Harold Gilman, exhibition catalogue, Ernest Brown & Phillips, The Leicester Galleries, London, October 1919, pp.3–8.

*HAROLD GILMAN
An Appreciation
HAROLD GILMAN’S death, coming so few years after that of Spencer F. Gore, is a great loss to the modern art movements in this country. These movements owe much to the efforts of these two painters, especially to those of Gilman, whose achievements in painting and whose keen interest in all attempts to bring artists together will long be remembered. My present intention, however, is to deal with Gilman’s interesting development and to outline his endeavours to gather together certain artists in one compact group.
 In his earliest works he seemed entirely occupied with tone values, painting in a low keyed harmony of greys and browns, touched up here and there, in the stronger lights, with “arabesques” of lighter and purer colour, but even these not brought to a very high scale. The works of this period were painted according to the more recognized standards of art, and consisted, most of them, of full-length portraits, some life size, and generally on a large scale. There were also pictures dealing with interiors in which figures held a prominent part, and I have seen one or two remarkable little landscapes round Dieppe. Technically the painting of that phase of Gilman’s art is smooth in texture, the different tones are worked into each other according to the more academic and accepted formula. [end of p.3] Though he had not yet arrived at a full understanding of sound painting, these works are full of the same sincerity that characterised him through all his stages. They reminded one of Alfred Stevens and a little of Whistler and Manet. The most remarkable of this period is a small oil painting, at present in the collection of Mr. L. F. Fergusson, representing the cave dwellers of Dieppe. A whole family of these curious people are standing in a row in simple attitudes. The picture reminds one of a Le Nain, has the same intensity, the same direct outlook. Judging Gilman from these early works he might have developed a popular form of painting and entered the ring of those who are the fashion of the day, but one can say of him as Arthur Morrison said of Matabei, “He is said to have pursued his art, like a true artist, for its own sake, and to have held in contempt that general approval from his inferiors which we should call fame.”
It is interesting that even these works, academic as they appear now to our modern eyes, were not exhibited without causing anger. Gilman had had a show at Lewes and saw the Mayor of the Town letting forth his anger, beat his stick on the ground in his fury at the sight of his pictures. These works were painted in the accepted tradition and the anger of the Mayor remained a mystery to Gilman. From this stage he developed a sounder understanding of painting, observing each separate tone and building up in independent touches, each one in relation to its neighbour, the gradation being obtained by intimate observation and never by a blending of the tones at their intersecting points. At this period he was still working in tone values but, through his interest in Lucien Pissarro’s works and the impressionist movement generally, he was slowly realising colour values. Intensely a realist, he was at [end of p.4] that time, to a certain extent, influenced by Walter Sickert in his outlook and delighted in painting the poorer classes, the natives of Camden Town and their humble interiors. I associate, in my mind, Sickert and Gilman with Hogarth, Rowlandson and the great English tradition of realism. Gilman was doing powerful work, and preparing himself for that outburst of rich colours which he reached later on.
This began when he came under the spell of the French movement associated with Van Gogh and Cézanne, whose works at the Post-Impressionist Exhibitions at the Grafton Galleries greatly impressed him. Also, about this time, he went over to Paris and saw everything that could be seen: such collections as Bernheim’s, who possessed a room entirely decorated with the works of Van Gogh, a sight unsurpassed in beauty and intensity; Durand Ruel’s collection of French Impressionists; Pellerin’s Cézannes; also the Vollard and Sagot Galleries with their Rousseaus, Picassos, Vuillards, etc. Gilman was always open to finding qualities in works that at first sight he did not understand. He did not immediately accept Van Gogh, and I can remember a long argument we had on the merits of this master. It was interesting to see that he slowly developed an intense admiration for Van Gogh, and came to look upon him as the greatest of the group of painters, Cézanne, Gauguin, etc., with which the Dutchman is associated. Gauguin, whom he at first believed in most, he considered too æsthetic and classic in spirit, though he always admired his amazing variety of design. In his first use of the purer impressionist palette, Gilman worked at the juxtaposition of separate colour tones in the manner of the French Impressionists. The portrait of his mother, seated in a wicker chair, full face, with her arms crossed on her [end of p.5] lap, simple and dignified in composition and feeling, is perhaps the finest picture of this period. He painted several portraits of his mother, and his admiration and veneration for her were expressed by the dignity observable in these works. Gilman was not a copyist, a follower or imitator of some one master, but absorbed by conscious selection all that he required for his self expression. He concerned himself with the observation of each tone as a separate entity, opened his eyes to richness of colour and possessed a sound sense of draughtsmanship. One more thing he was to achieve which was the feeling for tones in larger and broader planes and more simplified masses, at the same time working up to a more rigid and firmer outline. It is especially in his beautiful wood scenes that he recently developed this sense of simplified design, without losing any of the other qualities that he had already absorbed. For richness and beauty of colour there is hardly anything in modern painting which can equal some of his portraits, such, for example, as his painting of a Mother and Child, one of his last works, in which he expressed himself to his full, in colour, pattern, draughtsmanship and design, or the large painting vibrating with air and light which he executed for the Canadian War Memorials.
Gilman worked slowly putting great thought into each touch. He felt that he could continue painting and re-painting the same subject. He remained unsatisfied, there was always something fresh to observe. One almost felt that he could have spent a lifetime on a picture. What would appear complete he never seemed to consider so, and he ceased working on a picture, as far as one could gather, because he was tired of it for the time being, or had got interested in some other subject, not because there was nothing [end of p.6] more to do to it. He would be quite ready to pick it up and carry it further, after he had left it as one imagined finished, or he would start a fresh canvas of the same subject with the object of making something better of it. With these characteristics he could hardly have been a popular painter during his lifetime, not even with the prophets of the modern movements. He was, by slow stages, working out the realization of his subconscious conception of art. He did not jump at some new fashionable expression of it, neither did he remain under the impressionist spell, and he was far from the academic ideals. He was an independent, building for himself something solid and durable. He belonged to that sound tradition of Realism which is not based on fixed formula, and does not wish to impose one, but is an attempt, by personal observation and feeling, to express the vision and conception of concrete objects and spiritual emotions as the artist feels them.
Gilman, at first, some eight years ago, always painted direct from nature. He believed firmly in this, a result of his admiration for the Impressionist teaching, but he finally arrived at working from drawings, finding in this method a fuller self-expression. This resulted in his producing a wonderful series, some of which, like his drawing for the picture of the “Mother and Child” previously mentioned, rival Degas or Van Gogh. They were all done with the sole object of being used for his paintings: curiously enough he did not seem to take much account of them, and he showed them at exhibitions with reluctance and hesitation.
One of his ambitions was to see a revival of good sound painting in England. He had a strong belief in the younger generation which seemed to be making an effort to find itself and the road to great art. He [end of p.7] wished to see all the artists of talent and sincerity grouped together in one compact body, so as to form a strong phalanx to oppose the bad work flooding the country. It was for that reason he was so keen on unearthing young men of real promise, and took such an interest in the Allied Artists Association where he continually hoped to find the hidden talent. It was he, with Walter Sickert and Spencer F. Gore, who was instrumental in forming the Camden Town Group out of the nucleus of artists that used to meet on Saturdays at No. 19, Fitzroy Street. From the Camden Town Group grew the London Group by amalgamation with the “Vorticists” headed by Wyndham Lewis. As president of the London Group, Gilman was unceasing in his efforts to keep the Society going and, in spite of many difficulties, he arrived at setting it on a firm basis. With Robert Bevan he had formed minor groups such as the Cumberland Market and Grey Room Groups all of which were created with the one object of reaching the public.
It is not only a painter of the first rank who is lost to us by the death of Harold Gilman, but also a man of untiring energy in the furtherance of true and sincere art.
Charles Ginner.
*“Reprinted by kind permission of “Art and Letters.”

How to cite

Charles Ginner, ‘Harold Gilman: An Appreciation’, in in Memorial Exhibition of Works by the Late Harold Gilman, exhibition catalogue, Ernest Brown & Phillips, The Leicester Galleries, London, October 1919, pp.3–8, in Helena Bonett, Ysanne Holt, Jennifer Mundy (eds.), The Camden Town Group in Context, Tate Research Publication, May 2012, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/camden-town-group/charles-ginner-harold-gilman-an-appreciation-r1104286, accessed 26 June 2019.