The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

Harold Gilman The Artist's Mother c.1913

Reclining in a wicker chair in the family drawing room at Snargate Rectory is Gilman’s mother, a recurring sitter for the artist who invariably painted the people and interiors around him. Painted in bright whites, the simplicity of her dress delineates her figure from the decorative floral wallpaper behind.
Harold Gilman 1876–1919
The Artist’s Mother
Oil paint on canvas
610 x 505 mm
Inscribed by the artist ‘H. Gilman’ bottom right
Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1943


Gilman painted several pictures of his mother Emily, née Purcell Gulliver. These include The Old Lady 1911 (Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery),1 The Artist’s Mother at Lacon Hall c.1911 (Aberdeen Art Gallery), Interior with the Artist’s Mother 1917–18 (fig.1) and The Artist’s Mother Sleeping c.1918 (private collection),2 as well as a number of drawings (fig.2). The Tate picture shows Emily Gilman in the drawing room at Snargate Rectory. The dabbed touch and heightened palette are common to other portraits of Gilman’s mother from this period, notably The Old Lady.
Harold Gilman 'Interior with the Artist's Mother' 1917–18
Harold Gilman
Interior with the Artist's Mother 1917–18
Manchester City Galleries
Photo © Manchester City Galleries
Harold Gilman 'Portrait of the Artist's Mother writing in Bed' c.1917
Harold Gilman
Portrait of the Artist's Mother writing in Bed c.1917
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Photo © Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

In his introduction to the memorial exhibition of Gilman’s work held in 1919, Charles Ginner drew particular attention to Gilman’s pictures of his mother, and specifically to the Tate painting:
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 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 discernible in these works.3
James Abbott McNeill Whistler 'Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, Portrait of the Artist's Mother' 1871
James Abbott McNeill Whistler
Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, Portrait of the Artist's Mother 1871
Musee d'Orsay, Paris
Photo © Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France / Giraudon / The Bridgeman Art Library
That Gilman should choose his mother as a subject is not surprising, as he invariably painted those around him, and notably those who played some part in his emotional life. But it is interesting to think of Gilman’s picture in relation to Whistler’s famous Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, Portrait of the Artist’s Mother 1871 (fig.3). Acquired by the French Government in 1891 – and delivered to Paris by Whistler’s pupil Walter Sickert – it is highly likely that Gilman was aware of this picture, and would have been able to see it in the Musée du Luxembourg on his visits to Paris. Such was the picture’s stature, and Gilman’s acknowledged early interest in Whistlerian harmony and smoothness, that it must be suspected that he was engaged in some form of mental comparison with this iconic image of Aestheticism. Gilman’s bright impressionist palette and crusty surface would have horrified Whistler, and it is as if Gilman is bidding goodbye to the subtle harmonies and glossy surfaces of his earlier pictures.
Further evidence that Gilman used such works to engage in a form of aesthetic didacticism comes from the art critic Frank Rutter, who recalled:
The prevailing fashion some years ago of putting a heavy outline round the contours of figures and other objects annoyed him [Gilman] exceedingly. The line did not exist in nature, colours melted one into another, and to put a line between them was untrue, therefore to be condemned. To signalise his abhorrence of this practice, Gilman once exhibited a portrait of his mother at the Allied Artists [Association] with the title, Thou shalt not put a Blue Line round thy Mother. Notwithstanding his seriousness, he had a keen sense of humour, and could enjoy a joke as well as anyone.4
It is unknown which of the paintings of his mother Rutter was writing about, but the careful placing of colours next to each other in The Artist’s Mother must make it a possibility that it was the work shown as Thou shalt not put a Blue Line around Thy Mother.5
Gilman’s pictures of his mother might also be viewed as studies of age. This is an attribute also found in his paintings of Mrs Mounter (see Tate N05317), which similarly have the character of a woman who is old, but still resilient and independent.
The wicker armchair in which Mrs Gilman sits is the one in which she is depicted by her son in several of the other portraits, and a photograph exists of her sitting in it.6 The wallpaper in the background appears to be the same as in Edwardian Interior (Tate T00096), another Snargate picture painted some years before, and establishing the location as the Rectory’s drawing room. Gilman frequently favoured placing his sitters against such decorative wallpaper backgrounds, which were often brightly coloured and with geometric patterns. The wallpaper in the sitting room at 47 Maple Street W1, glimpsed as a patterned strip at the centre of Mrs Mounter at the Breakfast Table (Tate N05317), appears to have been a particular favourite, and one which featured in several portraits. At the small art school he opened with Ginner in January 1916 at 15–16 Little Pulteney Street in Soho, Gilman would reputedly seat models in front of a screen covered with a boldly patterned wallpaper.7

Robert Upstone
May 2009


Reproduced in C. Gordon, ‘London Commentary’, Studio, June 1948, p.189.
Reproduced in Modern British Art, Christie’s, London, 19 June 1997 (123).
Charles Ginner, ‘Harold Gilman: An Appreciation’, in Memorial Exhibition of Works by the Late Harold Gilman, exhibition catalogue, Leicester Galleries, London 1919, pp.5–6.
Frank Rutter, Some Contemporary Painters, London 1922, p.130.
Andrew Causey views this identification as a possibility. See Andrew Causey, ‘Harold Gilman: An Englishman and Post-Impressionism’, in Harold Gilman 1876–1919, exhibition catalogue, Arts Council, London 1981, p.16.
Reproduced ibid., p.38.
See John Rothenstein, Modern English Painters: Sickert to Smith, London 1952, p.158.

How to cite

Robert Upstone, ‘The Artist’s Mother c.1913 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,, accessed 13 April 2024.