The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

Spencer Gore The Gas Cooker 1913

Gore’s wife Mollie is shown cooking over the gas stove in their flat at 2 Houghton Place, NW1. The painting’s strong verticals emphasise the height of the ceiling in their quarters, located on the first floor of a five-storey house once occupied by a single family. Crimson wallpaper with a gold laurel wreath pattern indicates the kitchen’s previous function as a drawing room. Lowered blinds suggest the time of day to be evening; the family’s laundry hangs near the window from a line secured to shelving stacked with plates and pots.
Spencer Gore 1878–1914
The Gas Cooker
1913
Oil paint on canvas
710 x 370 mm
Inscribed by Harold Gilman ‘Painted by S.F. Gore at 2 houghton Place [...] the Gas Cooker. Painted from a drawing without any painted study [...] is his [...] to represent gas light. Painted in the year 1913. Unsigned 173(a)’ on label on back; studio stamp ‘S.F. GORE’ bottom right.
Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1962
T00496

Entry

Spencer Gore shows the kitchen at 2 Houghton Place, NW1, with his wife Mollie cooking at the gas stove. The writer John Woodeson stated that:
Mrs S. Gore informed me that she did not formally pose for the picture, but that Gore made sketches of her while she was working in the kitchen. The room is the kitchen of the Gore’s flat at 2 Houghton Place, and double doors lead to the front room.1
Three pencil studies for the painting are in private collections: one shows just the figure of Mrs Gore (356 x 254 mm), another the kitchen without any occupant (355 x 240 mm, Agnew’s, London), but the third is a graphite and blue pencil version of the oil painting’s full composition (354 x 258 mm), the only difference being that in this third drawing Gore has included the detail of their cat Bunty drinking a saucer of milk, a feature absent in the final design. None of these drawings are squared up; a squared-up watercolour for the final composition, presumably that upon which Gore based the Tate painting, was sold at Sotheby’s.2 It differs from the final painting only in that it shows Mollie standing more upright, rather than slightly bending over the stove.
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
The long thin format of the picture gives a vivid sense of the high ceiling of the Gore’s accommodation. They occupied the first floor of 2 Houghton Place, a substantial five-storey residence built in the kind of brick and stucco Regency style common to Camden Town and Mornington Crescent. The first floor would originally have housed the principal drawing room. The Gores seem to have used the front half of this room as their living room, and the back half, through dividing doors, as the kitchen. The previous use of this area, when the house was all one, explains the kitchen’s smart red wallpaper with its gold imperial laurel wreath pattern. In its viewpoint and subject matter, the painting bears similarities with Harold Gilman’s In Sickert’s House at Neuville 1907 (fig.1), The Kitchen c.1908 (fig.2) and Shopping List 1912 (fig.3).
Gore showed this painting in the Exhibition of the Work of English Post-Impressionists, Cubists and Others he organised at Brighton Public Art Galleries that opened on 16 December 1913. A label on the back of the stretcher written by Harold Gilman states: ‘Painted by S.F. Gore at 2 houghton Place [...] the Gas Cooker. Painted from a drawing without any painted study [...] is his [...] to represent gas light. Painted in the year 1913. Unsigned 173(a)’.3 Gilman’s reference to Gore attempting to capture the effect of gas lighting is interesting. This is evidently an evening scene, something also suggested by the window’s lowered blind. There is, however, little in the picture that implies a type of light that is distinctive to gaslight, although Gore does emphasise the warm rich colours of the red wallpaper and its harmony with the browns of the floor and cupboards and Mollie’s blouse.
Harold Gilman 'The Kitchen' c.1908–9
Fig.2
Harold Gilman
The Kitchen c.1908–9
National Museum of Wales, Cardiff
Photo © National Museum of Wales
Harold Gilman 'Shopping List' 1912
Fig.3
Harold Gilman
Shopping List 1912
British Council
Photo © Rodney Todd-White & Son


It might be supposed that gas stoves were unusual when Gore painted this in 1913, but in fact they had become quite common and technically modern in their design. The sort of gas stove at which Mollie stands, apparently cooking something in a frying pan, was extremely common and was produced in large numbers. Like a modern stove, it had an oven below and a ring with gas jets above.4 Until about 1880 gas had been relatively expensive, the preserve of more affluent households, and gas companies were not interested in providing gas to working class houses. The invention of the pre-payment gas meter in the 1880s transformed the potential of gas supply and made it commercially viable for mass consumption, both for lighting and cooking. The meter meant that the company was paid for its gas in advance, something they considered an important feature if gas was to be piped into working class houses. They also offered simple appliances such as gas rings, small cookers and lights on hire purchase or rental agreements which proved an effective way of selling more gas. Cooking with gas seemed in some sense to represent a modern world, as well as having a number of practical advantages. N.R. de Lissa noted in a guide devoted to using the new stoves published in 1913:
To use gas for cooking means, in effect, a saving of labour, time, temper, prevents dirt and mess, and it keeps the house cool and free of cooking odours in summer ... Never let the flame appear outside the saucepan but extend simply under the entire bottom surface. Any excess of gas beyond this is simple waste ... It is a well-recognised fact that gas companies and stove makers do not like to hear of gas used extravagantly, as this, although it may swell a quarter’s account will never arrive at encouraging the use of the finest domestic medium for obtaining heat for cooking that has ever been known to the present day.5
The Houghton Place kitchen also has an older range in the fireplace, presumably coal-fired, on which sits a copper saucepan, and in the hearth is a kettle. The kitchen has a string of washing across the window, presumably to catch the breeze when the window was open, a symptom both of not having enough space or perhaps access to the garden, and also a young baby. Foodstuffs crowd along the mantelpiece and tins and pans are stacked on the open shelves. The Gores occupied an interesting social position. They were living in relatively modest accommodation, in an area that once had been more affluent. Formerly occupied in their entirety by single families, the large houses were now divided into flats. When Charles Booth (1840–1916) walked the area with Police Inspector Wait on 28 October 1898 for his survey of London poverty, he recorded in his notebook, ‘East into Harrington Sq and south down Houghton Place into Ampthill Sq: “The whole of this district” said Wait “is on the decline: lodgers are coming in more and more”’.6 In his Maps Descriptive of London Poverty (1898–9), Booth colour-coded Houghton Place as a mixture of red – indicating the second most affluent level in his system of categorisation and described as ‘Middle class. Well-to-do’ – and purple, which was two steps lower and which he described as ‘Mixed. Some comfortable others poor.’ Presumably the Gore’s only had income derived from picture sales, but nevertheless they employed a cleaner, the sitter in Tate’s North London Girl (Tate T00027).7

Robert Upstone
May 2009

Notes

1
Spencer Gore 1878–1914, exhibition catalogue, The Minories, Colchester 1970 (61).
2
Modern British & Irish Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, Sotheby’s, London, 28 September 1994 (56, reproduced).
3
The ellipses indicate illegible text.
4
This and subsequent gas historical information supplied by British Gas.
5
N.R. de Lissa, Cooking by Gas: A Guide to the Correct and Economical Use of the Gas Cooking Stove, London 1913, pp.29, 28.
6
Notebook B357, p.26–7, Booth Collection, Archives of British Library of Political and Economic Science, London School of Economics.
7
Spencer Gore 1878–1914, exhibition catalogue, The Minories, Colchester 1970 (39).

How to cite

Robert Upstone, ‘The Gas Cooker 1913 by Spencer Gore’, 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/spencer-gore-the-gas-cooker-r1139842, accessed 25 March 2019.