The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

Harold Gilman Edwardian Interior c.1907

This early work by Harold Gilman takes the domestic interior as its subject. Seated in the corner of the drawing room the painter’s sister Irene faces away from the viewer, her upper body framed by light, leaning forward slightly with hands clasped together. Painted from a high viewpoint, her small figure is dominated by the clutter of objects and patterns surrounding her.
Harold Gilman 1876–1919
Edwardian Interior
c.1907
Oil paint on canvas
533 x 540 mm
Inscribed by the artist ‘H. Gilman’ bottom right and ‘H Gilman 19 Fitzroy St’ in ink on top stretcher bar
Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1956
T00096

Entry

Harold Gilman painted this picture at his parents’ home at the Rectory in Snargate, Kent, where his father was the local vicar. Standing next to the church, the Rectory was built in 1891 and first occupied by Gilman’s father. After his father’s death in 1917 it was sold, and so he was the only rector to live there; it has since been known as The Old Rectory.1 The painting shows Gilman’s youngest sister Irene Beatrice Gilman (1877–1944) seated in the drawing room. According to her daughter, Betty Powell, Irene was a frequent model for her brother.2 She also appears in Tate’s Lady on a Sofa (Tate N05831). Irene was apparently Harold’s favourite sister, and they were very close. She was nicknamed ‘The Imp’ by her family, as she was very small, and this explains why it has been thought to be a young girl in this picture, when in fact she was about thirty when it was painted.
There is a group of oriental items on a lacquer cabinet in the corner of the room, including two vases, still in the family’s possession, a bowl and a figure on a stand. These may have been sent back by Gilman’s brother Leofric, who worked in Hong Kong until 1914.3 However, they may have been products of the family’s longer-standing connections with the Far East; Gilman’s grandfather Ellis had founded a tea company in Hong Kong.4 Gilman was often to paint figures turned away in profile, but this extreme example where the figure is virtually facing the wall seems rather strange; it could be that Irene is contemplating the objects. Gilman’s widow Sylvia was unable to identify any of the pictures on the wall, although she wrote that the family ‘had many photographs and early watercolours’.5 However, the picture seen hanging at the top left of Edwardian Interior is Gilman’s own Portrait of a Lady c.1905 (Aberdeen Art Gallery),6 a portrait of his first wife Grace (née Canedy).
The first owner of Edwardian Interior was the artist Hubert Wellington (1879–1967), a friend of Gilman’s from the time they were at the Slade together. He recalled in a letter to the Tate Gallery dated 6 October 1955:
We called the painting ‘Edwardian Interior’ at the Lefevre Exhibition of Gilman’s work in 1943. I think I suggested the title in conversation with [Duncan] Macdonald,7 but there is no doubt that it was painted at Snargate Rectory, and I believe the likeliest date is 1905. I do not think that Sickert knew Gilman in the summer of 1906 and I remember Gore saying at 19 Fitzroy Street in 1907 that Gilman did not know Vuillard’s work. Certainly my picture is the work of a very English ‘intimiste’.8
Sir William Orpen 'The Mirror' 1900
Fig.1
Sir William Orpen
The Mirror 1900
Tate N02940
Wellington’s reference to Edouard Vuillard is important, as there is a great deal of resonance between the two artists’ scenes of domestic life. However, the vibrant, post-impressionist palette of Vuillard and others did not find its way into Gilman’s work until a later phase in his development. In its subtle tones, and rich, subdued colouring, Edwardian Interior has more in common with seventeenth-century Dutch pictures of interiors. These enjoyed renewed appreciation and emulation in the early years of the twentieth century, and their influence was felt in the work of a section of younger painters that included Gilman’s Slade contemporaries William Orpen, Ambrose McEvoy and Albert Rutherston. In Orpen’s ambiguous portrait study The Mirror 1900 (Tate N02940, fig.1), A Window in a London Street 1901 (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin)9 in which an isolated young woman (in fact Orpen’s fiancée Grace Knewstub) stares out of a drawing room window, or The Chess Players 1902 (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford),10 narrative suggestion is suppressed in favour of a subtle mood study of figures in interiors. Such works are ambivalent in their status, neither genre pieces nor straightforward portraits of the artist’s friends and lovers who appear in them. The frequency with which the New English Art Club artists painted this sort of picture was highlighted by Martin Wood in the Studio in 1909, who also noted their ‘dramatic setting of a psychological moment’.11 The article drew particular attention to Orpen’s group portrait Homage to Manet c.1909 (Manchester City Art Gallery)12 and William Rothenstein’s In the Morning Room (‘A Family Group’) c.1909 (Manchester City Art Gallery).13 The subdued, domestic paintings that Gilman painted between 1905 and 1909 therefore fit into an established vein of exploration among artists of his generation. Partly this was based upon admiration of Dutch art of the past, but they may also have been inspired by the telling dramatic tension of Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906), whose plays enjoyed an avant-garde status in London in the early years of the century. Picture sitters are deployed in interiors like actors on a stage, and their silences are as revealing as any narrative.14
Gilman painted such works in a restrained, harmonious palette of browns, greys and blacks sparingly accented with green, pink or blue.15 Essentially it was a formula derived from James Abbott McNeill Whistler, and found in other painters’ work of this time, notably Orpen’s. But in Gilman’s case it was also an effect of his study and copying of Diego Velázquez in Madrid in 1901–2. There was also a certain similarity to Walter Sickert, although Gilman appeared largely unaware of his work until their meeting in 1907.
In his appreciation of Gilman in the catalogue of the 1919 memorial exhibition, Charles Ginner emphasised the qualities that characterise these early works:
He seemed entirely preoccupied 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 ... 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 ... They reminded one of Alfred Stevens and a little of Whistler and Manet.16
Gilman’s friend Louis F. Fergusson also drew attention to both the surface and stillness of such works:
The pictures were very intimate – very smoothly painted – without impasto – without excrescences. Degas, who disliked anything growing out of a canvas – any thrust of pigment into the third dimension – would have passed his hand over the surface with entire satisfaction. The attitudes of the people represented at their domestic avocations were gravely rendered in an illumination both subtle and subdued; the tones harmonized with impeccable taste.17
Fergusson also drew attention to the debt such works had to the Old Masters, particularly Velázquez and seventeenth-century Dutch painting:
Gilman had a deep reverence for the art of the museums. His visits to the Prado during the summer he spent in Spain impressed him profoundly. In the National Gallery [London] there was one painting he loved to talk of with special affection. It is the portrait of Constanza de Medicis [style of Ghirlandaio]18 ... He loved the Arnolfini Couple [by Jan van Eyck]; and never tired of looking through a book of reproductions of Vermeer of Delft. He would expatiate with enthusiasm on a photograph of the most beautiful thing in Holland – that Head of a Girl in the Mauritshaus [Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring c.1663].19

Robert Upstone
May 2009

Notes

1
Information provided by Judith Peppitt.
2
Conversation with the author, 20 May 1993.
3
Information from Barbara Duce, daughter of Gilman’s brother John, Tate Catalogue file.
4
See Harold Gilman and William Ratcliffe, exhibition catalogue, Southampton City Art Gallery 2002, p.9.
5
Sylvia Gilman, letter to Tate Gallery, 26 September 1957, Tate Catalogue file.
6
Reproduced in Harold Gilman 1876–1919, exhibition catalogue, Arts Council, London 1981 (4).
7
Director of Alex, Reid and Lefevre.
8
Hubert Wellington, letter to Tate Gallery, 6 October 1955, Tate Catalogue file.
9
Reproduced in Bruce Arnold, Orpen: Mirror to an Age, London 1981, p.100.
10
Reproduced ibid., p.114.
11
T. M.[artin] W.[ood], ‘The New English Art Club’s Summer Exhibition’, Studio, no.47, 1909, p.178; see Richard Thomson, ‘Gilman’s Subjects: Some Observations’, in Arts Council 1981, p.24.
12
Reproduced in Arnold 1981, p.231.
13
Reproduced in Arts Council 1981, p.25.
14
See David Fraser Jenkins, ‘Orpen, Ibsen and the Plays within the Play’, in William Orpen: Politics, Sex and Death, exhibition catalogue, Imperial War Museum, London 2005, pp.53–61.
15
Andrew Causey, ‘Harold Gilman: An Englishman and Post-Impressionism’, in Arts Council 1981, p.3.
16
Charles Ginner, ‘Harold Gilman: An Appreciation’, in Memorial Exhibition of Works by the Late Harold Gilman, exhibition catalogue, Leicester Galleries, London 1919, pp.3–4.
17
Wyndham Lewis and Louis F. Fergusson, Harold Gilman: An Appreciation, London 1919, pp.19–20.
18
Reproduced in Arts Council 1981, p.21.
19
Lewis and Fergusson 1919, p.28.

How to cite

Robert Upstone, ‘Edwardian Interior c.1907 by Harold Gilman’, catalogue entry, May 2009, 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/harold-gilman-edwardian-interior-r1139025, accessed 20 March 2019.