The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

Harold Gilman Lady on a Sofa c.1910

The painter’s sister Irene is the subject of this domestic scene, lying on a sofa with open book in hand, possibly asleep. The figure is strongly delineated by her dark brown dress and hair in contrast to the light decorative furnishings surrounding her.
Harold Gilman 1876–1919
Lady on a Sofa
c.1910
Oil paint on canvas
305 x 405 mm
Inscribed by the artist ‘Gilman’ bottom right
Purchased (Benson Fund) 1948
N05831

Entry

The sitter for Lady on a Sofa was Gilman’s sister Irene Beatrice Gilman (1877–1944). Her daughter Betty Powell (born 1916) recalls that Irene told her the circumstances of the picture being made.1 Irene sat frequently for her brother, often in tiring poses, of which an example must be Tate’s Edwardian Interior (Tate T00096). This time she insisted on a more relaxed position, although lying for long periods on the sofa apparently turned out to be almost as tiring. The oblique angle of the book would make it impossible to read, and either Irene has tired of it or has actually fallen asleep. Gilman was renowned for the slow and careful pace at which he worked. Powell remembers the sofa being part of their household furniture. It was of the type that had two folding arms and, unlike in the picture, her mother would usually lie on it with either one or both arms folded down. The picture was painted in Preston, probably at their parents’ first house after their marriage.
Philip Wilson Steer 'Girl on a Sofa' 1891
Fig.1
Philip Wilson Steer
Girl on a Sofa 1891
Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service
© Estate of Philip Wilson Steer
Photo © Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service
Gilman painted scenes of the domestic life that surrounded him throughout his short painting career. Even the pictures of his landlady Mrs Mounter (Tate N05317), painted in his rooms at Maple Street after his separation from his first wife Grace, might be seen in this way. In one sense the artist was following the naturalist creed of painting what was about him, and it is tempting to regard pictures such as Lady on a Sofa as glimpses of everyday life. But there is nevertheless a staged quality to these works. In part, Gilman was responding to a resurgence of interest in seventeenth-century Dutch paintings of contemplative figures in interiors, a taste also to be found amongst contemporaries such as William Orpen, William Rothenstein, Ambrose McEvoy and Philip Wilson Steer (fig.1) (see Tate T00096 and T13024).2 The reading girl was also a staple subject of Victorian art from the 1860s onwards, and a nuance of the popular ‘dolce far niente’ pictures of women lost in reverie, listlessness or languor. But reading also signified access to the freedoms of learning, entertainment and the imagination. A private activity, located in the domestic sphere, reading was often characterised as a specifically solitary and female pursuit.
The picture’s first owner was Judge William Evans, a keen collector of Camden Town Group paintings (see Tate N05099). Gilman painted another picture of Irene on the same sofa, Lady on a Sofa (private collection),3 which once belonged to Edward Le Bas. This shows only the top half of Irene’s body. It is likely that one of these was exhibited by Gilman at the first Camden Town Group exhibition in 1911, but it is not possible to ascertain which with certainty.

Robert Upstone
May 2009

Notes

1
Conversation with the author, 20 May 1993.
2
See Richard Thomson, ‘Gilman’s Subjects: Some Observations’, in Harold Gilman 1876–1919, exhibition catalogue, Arts Council, London 1981, p.25.
3
Reproduced in Christie’s, London, 3 March 1978 (181).

How to cite

Robert Upstone, ‘Lady on a Sofa c.1910 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-lady-on-a-sofa-r1139229, accessed 15 October 2019.