The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

Louis F. Fergusson, ‘Harold Gilman’

in Wyndham Lewis and Louis F. Fergusson, Harold Gilman: An Appreciation, London: Chatto & Windus 1919, pp.19–32.

Harold Gilman
THE writer of the following impressions was not a very old friend of Harold Gilman. But he happened to spend a number of exceedingly happy hours in his company; and, holding both the man and the artist in the highest esteem, is proud to have the opportunity of trying to pay him a tribute.
Gore introduced me to Gilman at 19 Fitzroy Street in December 1908, on one of those delightful Saturday afternoons when you were free to feast your eyes on relay after relay of what were mostly little pictures for little patrons. The painters were the energetic young men who were going to call themselves a year or two later the Camden Town Group. Their diverse activities were linked together, it is to be supposed, by a common regard for Mr. Walter Sickert and Mr. Lucien Pissarro.
Il fait son petit Degas déjà!” remarked Mr. Sickert, referring to Gore’s delicate theatrescapes. And a few minutes later the Gores were replaced on the easels by half a dozen interiors – women sewing – women taking tea – persons conversing in parlours. In those days the writer’s love of art was young, and his appreciations worked mainly in accordance with the laws of the association of ideas; the thoughts that came into his mind almost simultaneously were Vermeer and Vuillard.
The pictures were very intimate – very smoothly painted – without impasto – without excrescences. Degas, who disliked any- [end of p.19] thing 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.
I do not remember ever seeing again Gilman’s du premier type until one evening in Maple Street many years later, when Gilman picked one up from the floor – a Lady at the Piano – with the remark, as he blew a cloud of dust off its enamel-like surface, “It’s almost like an Alfred Stevens.” I agreed, and it pleased me to think that my high estimate of the works I had seen eight years before, and now only dimly recalled, was not, perhaps, altogether exaggerated.
It was only my fortune to attend one other Fitzroy Street Saturday forgathering, and that was exactly a year later. I remember then a remarkable little Gilman of Cave-Dwellers, Dieppe – a family quaintly aligned like peasants, as Gore remarked, in a work by the Brothers Le Nain. Years after, when I spoke to Gilman of the value I ventured to set upon this particular painting, “There must have been something in it,” he said. “Sickert and Pissarro both liked it. But it all seems to me a very long time ago.”
Gilman was always advancing and always seemed indifferent to his various periods as he passed out of them. One almost felt that he would not have minded abandoning his canvases in the squares of Camden Town (as Cézanne left his in the fields round Aix), or at all events making holocausts from time to time of the relics of an outgrown phase.
The present writer always wanted to learn something of the practical side of picture-making – something more than a layman can glean from a treatise like Moreau-Vauthier’s. He wished to be able, without affectation, to perform more intelligent actions in front of a work of art, than to jerk a thumb and babble of values. [end of p.20] And, had he been able to profit by it, he might have learned much in Gilman’s company.
On one occasion, for instance, when several people assembled at 47 Maple Street before sallying forth to dine at Roche’s or the Étoile, a charming lady arrived in a very delightful hat. This so worked upon Gilman’s colour-sense that he incontinently seized a blank canvas, picked up his palette, loaded a brush with a combination of pigments that matched the mauve hat-band to a marvel, flung a dollop of the mixture at the canvas, and worked it across in a beautiful smear with his palette-knife. I seemed to have read of this procedure as one of the less reputable idiosyncrasies of Courbet, and looked on astonished. This bold onslaught upon a, at that moment, somewhat reluctant sitter was followed by a roughing-in of hat and head, and somewhat delayed the start for dinner. The work was never finished.
On another occasion Gilman demonstrated, in front of a lithograph by Toulouse-Lautrec of the comic singer Caudieux, how it was the practice of all great draughtsmen (among whom, with emphasis, he included Lautrec) to occupy themselves with their shading and their drawing of the contour as two quite independent operations, and not to be over-particular that contour and shading should exactly coincide.
It was always an adventure to talk of art and life with Gilman. As a talker, he was copious, quiet, sound – always willing to give his opinions fully if they were wanted, but not anxious to impose them. Mr. Sickert drew him standing before a fireplace and obviously holding forth, and entitled the drawing Mr. Gilman speaks. Very happily does this drawing suggest the man of decided views unaggressively held.
Constantly his words and looks revealed that quiet all-embracing sense of humour which determined his attitude to the human comedy and his fellow-actors in it.
For the matter of his personal appearance, it is worth rescuing [end of p.21] a sentence from “A Man about Town’s Causerie” in the Sunday Evening Telegram, which spoke of Gilman’s “bald head and regal mouth.”
Very notable was Gilman’s generous appreciation of other artists. He really had “l’âme riante et largement ouverte”; but not the abhorrence of fanaticism that Anatole France attributes to it. For genuine fanatics in contradistinction to adopters of a fanatical pose he could have every respect. As long as a painter seemed to him to be sincere, to be trying to search out the heart of his subject, Gilman would praise him – no matter what his label – no matter how extreme his parti pris in the great battle between Design and Representation, which is the characteristic feature hitherto of twentieth-century Art.
As regards labels, Gilman always thought of himself quite simply as a painter. He was enamoured of the group system: he belonged successively to the Camden Town Group, the Cumberland Market Group, the London Group; but these were just friendly assemblages of painters associated by contiguity rather than similarity. The men who formed them had only one trait in common – independence of Academism. Gilman was not an Impressionist or a Neo-Impressionist or a Post-Impressionist. If the art-historian were determined to classify him, he would no doubt be tempted by the phrase Neo-Realist, which deserves to be discussed at a little length.
In the spring of 1914 Gilman and his friend, Mr. Charles Ginner, held a joint exhibition at the Goupil Gallery. The preface to the catalogue – a less truculent and more impersonal manifesto than such prefaces from the days of Courbet and Manet onwards have been apt to be – was an article by Mr. Ginner, entitled “Neo-Realism,” and reprinted from The New Age. The term itself was a mere jargonal counterblast to the not especially felicitous [end of p.22] term Post-Impressionist. What mattered in the article was not the label – one doubts if either artist really wanted to assume it – but the exposition of certain artistic principles, which were undoubtedly the ideals of the two painters themselves and help us very greatly to understand Gilman’s artistic personality.
The key-notes of the kind of painting which Mr. Ginner designated as Neo-Realism are: (a) personal research, (b) love of the medium, and (c) objective transposition of nature. Objective transposition “verily means” (if we may borrow from William James’s masterly handling of that blessed word Apperception) “nothing more than” drawing the object as the eye sees it. From “this method of intimate research” results a “decorative composition,” which is “an unconscious creation produced by the collaboration of Nature and the Artist Mind.”
When Mr. Ginner wrote the phrase “unconscious creation,” it is improbable that he realized all its implications. But to-day the discoveries of the newer psychology are finding their way from the consulting-room to the market-place. And it is beginning to be realized that the curative method known as psycho-analysis pours a flood of light upon every activity – normal or abnormal – of the human mind. In no sphere of activity is this new knowledge more helpful than in the æsthetic. Freud’s psycho-analytic interpretation of Leonardo da Vinci has paved the way for a fundamental exploration of the artistic temperament. And it would seem that independent art (be it the art of a Pollaiuolo or a Greco, a Picasso or a Gilman) can only be fully comprehended in the light of analytical psychology. For independent artists, in revolt against the tradition and the teaching of the schools, are inevitably thrown back on their own mental resources.
Psycho-analysts teach us that these mental resources are twofold – the directed thinking that proceeds in our conscious mind and the fantasying that proceeds in our unconscious. Between these two self-contained divisions of the mind there is an inter- [end of p.23] mittent give-and-take; into the unconscious we repress thoughts or feelings that are incompatible with our environment; out of the unconscious there flows a stream of ideas – infantile, archaic, disguised – into our dreams and our day-dreams. Every creative artist is largely dependent on his unconscious for that which he creates; and the more so in proportion as he inclines to expression rather than representation. The unconscious at first was conceived as consisting of matter repressed from consciousness. It stood in bad odour, and was branded “a wicked jack-of-all-trades.” But Dr. Jung, of Zurich (a man of science with a leaning towards mysticism), has expanded and ennobled the original conception, and holds that if a man comes to terms with his unconscious, he will find it a good genie; so that no artist need wax indignant at the hypothesis that willy-nilly he is indebted to it. Dr. Jung conceives that the unconscious is not only individual but collective. In the æsthetic field we may illustrate this conception by suggesting that the Artist Mind, collaborating with Nature to achieve beauty, may be not only the mind of the individual artist, but the primordial racial mind, which moved the hunters of the quaternary epoch to deck the walls of their cave-dwellings with the lineaments of stags and bisons.
The one thing common to the Neo-Realist and the Post-Impressionist is an intense admiration for Cézanne, Gauguin, and Van Gogh – artists, all three, who were much given to unconscious fantasying, and afford an extraordinarily rich scope for psycho-analytic investigation. In the two cases the admiration follows very different lines. Most of the Post-Impressionists strive to frame formulæ and canons out of the work of their three dead leaders. They even work deliberately in the vein of creations like Cézanne’s Bathers, which seem to have come straight out of the unconscious. The Neo-Realist, on the other hand, is inspired by their intense enthusiasm for art and their splendid struggle to express themselves, but makes no deliberate attempt to see with their eyes or to adopt their technical deficiencies. [end of p.24]
To Gilman the three of them were men who gave themselves to art with a veritably Quattrocento fervour, who laboured at it “comme le mineur enfoui sous un éboulement” (in Balzac’s famous simile in the wonderful digression on creative art in “La Cousine Bette”). “Dans l’art, il faut sa peau,” said Millet. Vincent Van Gogh, who idolized Millet, painted in the fields, and the fierce Provençal sun beating down upon his uncovered head brought him to madness and to death. Every one for whom Art is anything more than a mere embellishment of life, must surely pity Van Gogh and honour him, however imperfect his sympathies with Van Gogh’s actual work.
The neo-realistic theory of an art that should be the unconscious creation produced by the collaboration of Nature and the Artist Mind was pregnant with meaning, and the cry “Back to Nature!” was, as it usually is, tonic and salutary. Without the stand-by of Nature, artists, unless they have some very definite philosophy of design, will inevitably fall victims to the archaic and infantile trends of their unconscious.
This tentative and inadequate outline of a psycho-analytic view of modern artistic independence is not, I hope, so much of a digression as it may appear. It is intended to lead up to the point that Gilman’s psychological equipment was just such as to fit him quite exceptionally to be a guiding and steadying influence in a time of artistic unrest. His premature death is a great misfortune for English independent art. Judging by the work he accomplished, his mental character was thoroughly healthy. He had had a hard struggle to support himself; he had met with a good deal of indifference and even hostility to his conception and practice of art. But in his work there is no trace of chagrin, of conflict, of dissociation – no hint of what psycho-analysts call a complex, and Saint Paul called a thorn in the flesh. He neither felt too much nor thought too much – in a word, he had come to terms with his unconscious, and worked in harmony with it and with Nature. [end of p.25]
There is one pronouncement of Cézanne’s which may very well have been a constant inspiration to Gilman. It is not his reduction of natural phenomena to geometrical types – an only too celebrated conception which has come to be the essence of Cézannism; but the ambition to make something solid and durable, like the art of the museums out of Impressionism. This idea (the essence of Cézanne as distinguished from Cézannism) will help us to appreciate Gilman’s art, if we analyse it and co-ordinate the activities of Gilman with each of its parts.
Solidity. – The prime characteristic of the most original art of the present generation is its preoccupation with the third dimension. This is chiefly a violent reaction against the superficial, imitative aspect of so much of the art of the nineteenth century. Art aims now at creation, not imitation. And the third, being the dimension which the artist has to provide for himself upon his flat surface, is naturally the dimension in which creative activity has freest scope. What seem to be the vagaries of modern art have sprung not altogether unnaturally from this plastic conception of painting. What is the Cube but a symbol of solidity?
Gilman’s later landscapes and portraits, with their rough surfaces, became increasingly plastic and rigid. The rocks which border a Norwegian fiord in one of his finest landscapes, The Waterfall, stimulate our tactile consciousness most forcibly, and Mrs. Mounter has the volume and weight of an image fashioned out of bronze. Technically, it is worth noting that, though the smoothness of the earlier manner was abandoned, he made a great point of not worrying his paintings; he kept each stroke separate; he painted always as directly as possible.
The followers of Cézanne, in their passion for depth, have treated height and breadth (as Mr. MacColl points out) “somewhat cavalierly.” They have aimed at achieving recession without [end of p.26] much respect for scientific perspective. Gilman, though as anxious as any modern to simplify and to eliminate inessentials, always drew soundly and learnedly. Amid the flamboyant ornamentations of the Café Royal, or the incredibly intricate girders of the roof of Leeds Market, he approves himself a man to whom Paolo Uccello would have doffed his cap.
Durability. – Gilman was erudite and careful about vehicles and pigments – a respect for his material being one of the tenets of the Neo-Realist’s creed, as already mentioned. In another sense of durability he developed away from that effort to render transitory moods of Nature, which was the main concern of Monet and Sisley – though one remembers snow-scenes, apple-trees in blossom, reapers in a Swedish cornfield that admirably recorded a fleeting hour.
Art of the Museums. – Gilman felt very strongly that the artist was under an obligation to finish his painting. Simplify to the top of your bent, he would have said, but do not let your picture be a mere sketch, a mere impression; carry it through completely and conscientiously. He could be very severe upon painters who, in his opinion, shirked the logical conclusion of their work.
On the other side of this there is no doubt a great deal to be said. All amateurs of painting – especially collectors living in little houses – will take up the cudgels in defence of the sketch – even the sketch in oils. And Gilman himself would readily admit that among the pillars of Modern Art some of the greatest of all – Daumier notably, and Degas – suffered from an almost chronic disinclination to finish their pictures, and yet their unfinished pieces are joys in any museum. Are there, again, two superber Hogarths than The Shrimp Girl in the National Gallery and Mr. Edmund Davis’s At the Staymaker’s? In any case, Gilman would have inclined to the Whistler scale rather than to that of Burne-Jones when weighing complete finish in his critical balance. [end of p.27]
Gilman had a deep reverence for the art of the museums. His visits to the Prado during a summer he spent in Spain impressed him profoundly. In the National Gallery there was one painting that he loved to talk of with a quite especial affection. It is the portrait of Costanza de Medicis – a young woman in a plum-coloured bodice on a mouldering panel. The cognoscenti have lately stolen her from Ghirlandaio and presented her to Lorenzo di Credi. The art of the future, Gilman used to say, would work back to Costanza – just good painting based on a reverent study of Nature without fuss or over-emphasis. He loved the Arnolfini couple; 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 at the Mauritshuis, which in 1878 passed through the fires of auction, and made the staggering figure of two florins and thirty cents.
Impressionism. – Gilman may be said to have been nurtured on Impressionism. In the Fitzroy Street days he was associated with Mr. Walter Sickert, and Mr. Sickert has done more by practice and precept to acclimatize in Great Britain the spirit of the great original group of the French Impressionists than any other man. Gilman never played the sedulous ape. A certain temperamental affinity with Mr. Sickert may appear in some of his paintings, but hardly a vestige of that first-hand influence which leaps to the eye in the work of so many pupils of that most compelling master. He encountered Impressionism in another of his associates – his very intimate friend, Spencer Frederick Gore – “the finest man I ever met,” as he once wrote to me. Gore united a naïve and charming sense of form with a charming and subtle sense of colour. Gilman liked to assert that Gore was the very first English painter to work in pure colour.
The brilliant colour of the Impressionists and their choice of subject, deliberately eschewing all appeal to history, poetry, reli- [end of p.28] gion, or anecdote, appear throughout Gilman’s oeuvre. But in his maturity his colour-sense grew greatly in intensity, reached at times a vibrancy, a metallic glamour that turns our thoughts to the work of Cézanne and Van Gogh – to such flaming manifestations of colour as Van Gogh’s Self Portrait at the Rycks-Museum [sic], and Cézanne’s La Maison du Pendu in the Camondo collection at the Louvre.
In no paintings did he key up this blazing effulgence of tone to such a pitch as in his two versions of The Eating-House. One of these versions, together with Leeds Market and several admirable smaller works, forms part of the collection of Mr. Walter Taylor.
One afternoon in the beginning of 1912 I went with Gore to 19 Fitzroy Street for a private view of its treasures. As a matter of fact I was set on acquiring a small picture or two, and Gore had written to me that he could “provide Gilmans to suit every purse if not every taste.” In a dingy light I gazed my fill at the panels and canvases which Gore indefatigably unearthed. Suddenly producing a still life, “Gilman’s breakfast!” said he. I often recalled this phrase.
Gilman’s breakfast! That was what Gilman liked painting – the intimate subject immediately to hand. He surrounded himself with objects that soon took on the character, even in his temporary Camden Town apartments, of household gods, and then set himself lovingly to paint them – a pair of contorted Indian figures, a mysterious Japanese painting on glass, a squat and sinister Chinese deity. He gloried in the wall-paper of his sitting-room at Maple Street. To my eye this paper was the least thing garish – nearly of a bilious hue; but as he painted it in the large Interior of 1917, showing two ladies at tea, it became almost Vermeeresque – banality transmuted to distinction by the magic of art. The hind- [end of p.29] most room at Maple Street, where Gilman performed his ablutions, was entirely commonplace, but when he depicted therein the back view of the redoubtable Mrs. Mounter facing the window, whence a shaft of light picked out a patch of brilliant crimson from the purple surface of a chest of drawers – well, you just felt that De Hoogh might have dwelt in such a chamber on the banks of a canal in the Venice of the North.
To fare far afield in search of subjects is a sharp test of a painter’s real significance. Too many painters return from their distant summer holiday with pictures eloquent of the ill-assimilation of unfamiliar material. The work that Gilman brought back from Norway and Sweden is among his happiest. His vision of The Valley, Gladhammar, Sweden, or the Norwegian Interior, where he lodged, is as intimate as his vision of Clarence Gardens or any back bedroom in Camden Town. You feel that the same equable and penetrating temperament has sat down in front of each of them and known how to render them – not only with unity, vitality, and repose, but with something of the quality of infinity which is so often to seek in realistic art.
In 1916 he came back from Gloucestershire with some half a dozen canvases that showed him in a new light. They were paintings of nothing but trees. You felt that Gilman planted himself in the heart of the woods and apprehended them passionately. He searched out the secrets of their being, and, however objective the transposition, design never lost the whip-hand of representation. There is much more formal pattern and much less sentimentality in Gilman’s trees than in Corot’s – and even than in the trees of your greatest modern master of the sylvan subject, Théodore Rousseau.
We had been discussing Daumier once and his extraordinary series of Quixotes and Panzas – so remote from the general run of pictures illustrating literature. Gilman confided to me that one of his greatest ambitions was to create a character in painting, or [end of p.30] rather to seize the essence of a character in real life and exhibit it on canvas in all its bearings and with all the resources of his technique. It is this ambition which underlies his numerous paintings and drawings of (1) his mother, (2) his one-time landlady, Mrs Mounter.
Surely he went a long way towards the realization of his purpose. The various portraits of his mother – in one little masterpiece belonging to the late Judge Evans she was taking tea, in other pictures she sits in a wickerwork chair – convey an abiding impression of an old lady gentle and capable and self-reliant. As for Mrs. Mounter, with her head-band and her mouth like a trap, reserve upon reserve of Cockney humour in her shrewd old eyes, she queens it over her mammoth teapot; and from the welter of bright tones which make up her countenance there springs into life a character indeed. A character, it seems, that might well have been conceived in the brain of some great novelist – akin to Richard Feverel’s Mrs. Berry or the Madame Cibot of “Le Cousin Pons.”
Gilman, by the way, was a great painter of teapots: a Gilman teapot is of gusto and tactile values all compact.
In 1918, when the ambitious programme of the Canadian War Memorials was enacting, Gilman was commissioned to journey to Halifax Harbour and paint an enormous canvas to commemorate the scene of the great explosion. For many weeks he was to be seen around the harbour, regarded by the natives as a man of mystery until a notice in the local press explained his presence. The result of his labours appeared in the first room at Burlington House at the Canadian War Memorials Exhibition early in 1919. The picture was complete, save for some slight amplifications that were to have been effected in the sky. In a sense a painting on so Gargantuan a scale is bound to be what the Paris student calls a machine; and there is always a grave danger of the painter overtaxing his capabilities, like an actor in a vast auditorium forced to [end of p.31] exchange eloquence for rant. Gilman came through the ordeal with quiet mastery. His picture – remote from active suggestions of the war – was the most reposeful in the whole Exhibition – a splendid space-composition suffused with radiant light. On the surface, no doubt, it was a piece of matter-of-fact topography, as impersonal as you please. The longer, however, you looked at it, the more sensible you became of the mind of the very sincere and serene man whose reverent collaboration with Nature had achieved it.
Running over Gilman’s life-work in our mind’s eye – from the smooth interiors of the early nineteen-hundreds to the beautiful painting of Mother and Child, and the spacious panorama of Halifax Harbour of 1918, the chemin couru appears as no right of way. It is a path, rather, which has been hacked out with infinite pains and many an orientation. But it is a path always leading forwards and upwards.
Unifying the whole work, so varied in endeavour, so consistent in strength, is the character of Harold Gilman – a man with a “completely fashioned will” who wanted to express himself in paint, and to that end directed all his craving and dedicated his life.
Louis F. Fergusson
© Estate of Louis F. Fergusson
© By kind permission of the Wyndham Lewis Memorial Trust (a registered charity)

How to cite

Louis F. Fergusson, ‘Harold Gilman’, in in Wyndham Lewis and Louis F. Fergusson, Harold Gilman: An Appreciation, London: Chatto & Windus 1919, pp.19–32, in Helena Bonett, Ysanne Holt, Jennifer Mundy (eds.), The Camden Town Group in Context, Tate Research Publication, May 2012,, accessed 13 April 2024.