The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

Harold Gilman French Interior c.1907

This painting was given its title in 1919 as the armchair in the foreground and the bed with raised mattress are typically French in style. At the edge of the frame a female figure sits facing the viewer, but it is unclear what she is doing and why. This creates a sense of ambiguity, a common characteristic of Harold Gilman’s interior scenes.
Harold Gilman 1876–1919
French Interior
c.1907
Oil paint on canvas
615 x 520 mm
Inscribed by the artist ‘H. Gilman’ bottom right and ‘No 2 Interior, H Gilman, [...]gate Road, England’ in ink on label on back
Purchased (Benson Fund) 1947
N05783

Entry

Harold Gilman 'In Sickert’s House at Neuville' 1907
Fig.1
Harold Gilman
In Sickert’s House at Neuville 1907
Leeds Museums and Galleries (City Art Gallery)
Photo © Leeds Museums and Galleries (City Art Gallery) UK / The Bridgeman Art Library
This has traditionally had the title French Interior since Harold Gilman’s memorial exhibition in 1919. The bed is of a typically French type, as is the high mattress and the chair in the foreground.1 The style indicates it is an early work, and therefore its title might suggest that it was made during or after Gilman’s visit to stay in Walter Sickert’s house in Neuville near Dieppe in 1907 (see also fig.1). The picture’s smooth, sleek surface, thin, liquid application of paint, and beautiful, subdued palette of pinks and greys demonstrate the influence Velázquez still had on Gilman at this date. Gilman spent more than a year in Madrid in 1901–2, studying the Spanish masters in the Prado and making copies after Velázquez.2 Interest in the Spanish Old Master among British artists around the turn of the century was stimulated by the appearance in 1899 of R.A.M. Stevenson’s influential monograph.3
Around the time he made French Interior, Gilman painted a number of pictures of interiors, usually of houses in which he lived. Here the composition is tightly constrained, the picture space pushing all the elements together to create a mixture of intimacy and claustrophobia. It is possible that Gilman was using some sort of proportional composition formula. The woman remains unidentified. She is not Gilman’s wife Grace, nor apparently their maid Susan who appears in pictures such as Interior 1908 (private collection);4 neither does she appear to be Sickert’s housekeeper in France.
However decorously dressed and modest, the picture was likely to have raised questions for an Edwardian audience about the probity of showing a woman in her – or the artist’s – bedroom. The sitter’s tidy posture, hands folded in her lap, suggests self-containment, and her direct gaze is confident. But there is also a feeling of marked ambiguity about the scene. Fitting into Gilman’s programme of painting scenes of figures in interiors (see Tate T00096 and T13024), it raises questions about why the woman is sitting in the bedroom – is she waiting for someone, or simply observing the painter observing her? Why is she doing nothing? Seated against the door, she blocks any exit from the bedroom. What is the purpose – or intention – of a scene that, while a piece of ‘naturalist’ observation, is evidently completely staged? The dominance of the room’s furniture, and the figure’s marginality within the composition, suppress any sense that the picture is a portrait, while the cropping of the foreground makes us feel as if we are in the room with her, in a kind of enforced intimacy.
There is a certain similarity to a painting by William Orpen, The Bedroom (‘The Bed, Cany’) 1900 (private collection),5 which shows Orpen’s fiancée Emily Scobel seated beside a canopied bed. It was only exhibited at the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1901, and so Gilman is perhaps unlikely to have seen it, but it is another example of the type of subjectless interior scene that was popularised in the first decade of the twentieth century. Gilman returned to the theme again in his painting Interior of 1917–18 (British Council),6 which shows his second wife Sylvia sitting on the corner of a bed with her back facing the viewer.

Robert Upstone
May 2009

1
Information from Clive Wainwright, Victoria and Albert Museum.
2
See Harold Gilman, ‘The Venus of Velasquez’, Art News, 28 April 1910, p.198.
3
R.A.M. Stevenson, Velasquez, London 1899.
4
Reproduced in Harold Gilman 1878–1919, exhibition catalogue, Arts Council, London 1981 (8), and in 20th Century British and Irish Art, Christie’s, London, 6 June 2003 (14, as ‘In the Nursery’).
5
Reproduced in Bruce Arnold, Orpen: Mirror to an Age, London 1981, pl.5.
6
Reproduced in Arts Council 1981 (91).

How to cite

Robert Upstone, ‘French 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-french-interior-r1139856, accessed 19 February 2020.