The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

Wyndham Lewis, ‘Harold Gilman’

Harold Gilman: An Appreciation, Chatto & Windus, London 1919, pp.11–15.

Harold Gilman
HAROLD GILMAN died in February of this year (1919). The following are the principal landmarks of his life. He was the second son of the Rev. John Gilman, Rector of Snargate with Snave, Kent. He was born at Road, Somerset, on February 11, 1876: educated at Abingdon, Rochester, and Tonbridge schools. In 1894 he went to Oxford, but ill-health compelled him to terminate his stay there before he could take his degree.
 In 1895 he went to Odessa for a year. Returned to England in 1896, he started painting at the Hastings Art School. The following year he went to the Slade, remaining for three years or more. His masters were Professor Browne [sic], Henry Tonks, Wilson Steer, and Russell.
 In 1904 he went to Madrid, spending a year in Spain. A journey to America in 1905 and another in 1918 (excepting short holidays spent in Sweden and in Dieppe) were his only further deplacements. In 1918 it was in order to get the material for his painting of Quebec Harbour for the Canadian War Memorial at Ottowa [sic]. The last ten years of his life were spent principally in London.
 If you are to seek for anything dramatic in his death, it is that his last picture (that of Halifax Harbour), on exhibition during his last illness, was in many ways the best he had done. Also, he was a painter who steadily improved, and at the time of his death was making an effort of self-expression that many abandon at a far earlier stage in the proceedings. In any appreciation of Gilman, [end of p.11] this appears to be one of the two or three fundamental things about him: that whether you sympathized with his work or not, he never abated his standards, but pushed on in a logical progression towards his best. When you say he was an honest painter, it is as though you should say of another man, “He is an honest man.” There was a parsonic honesty in his painting; a moral rectitude in his pursuit of pictorial truth, as he understood it. He showed indulgence for dishonourable painters – such as would have nothing to do with Sickert’s trail of dabs and points, for instance; or later the enemies of Gogh – he even showed a happy humour in considering their misdemeanours. But there was a very frigid Anglican core to his make-up as a painter that came into full and useful play in his functionings as President of a Group – an influential character in his circle.
His evolution as a painter can be stated fairly simply as follows: At the Slade he attempted to do the regulation charcoal drawing of the nude without conspicuous success. When he went to Madrid in 1904 he made numerous copies from Velasquez, and his first personal paintings were Whistler-like in tendency, and were attempts to carry out the tenets of the Spanish painter. His next stage was a freeing of himself from this model (rather unsuitable for his particular talent), with the enthusiastic connivance of Mr. Walter Sickert; and companioning, as a painter, Spencer Gore. The next stage in the process was, in company with Charles Ginner, a rather rapid assimilation (much speeded up by his new friend) of the modes in Paris that immediately succeeded the Impressionists. Many of his paintings, up to the time of his death, were much of a kind with Vuillard and men of that school. In his more venturesome and more developed mood, he directed himself towards the figure of Van Gogh. If you went into his room, you would find Van Gogh’s Letters on his table: you would see post cards of Van Gogh’s paintings beside the favourites of his own hand. When he felt very pleased with a painting he had done [end of p.12] latterly, he would hang it up in the neighbourhood of a photograph of a painting by Van Gogh.
After his break of what was more or less discipleship with Walter Sickert and his plunge into the Signac palette and a brighter scheme of things (with a certain amount of noise for such a quiet man), bitumen was anathema for him, and Sickert was bitumen. Sickert’s obstinacy in not adopting the Signac palette he admitted was a source of great perplexity to him. He would look over in the direction of Sickert’s studio, and a slight shudder would convulse him as he thought of the little brown worm of paint that was possibly, even at that moment, wriggling out onto the palette that held no golden chromes, emerald greens, vermilions, only, as it, of course, should do. Sickert’s commerce with these condemned browns was as compromising as intercourse with a proscribed vagrant. He criticized with an impressive and rolling severity the slothfulness and sinfulness, the outward and visible sign of which was bitumen. You felt that he was exhorting you on the text, “Cleanliness is next to godliness”; and that bituminous painting, dirty painting, was the mark of the devil. I do not mean by this that he exactly regarded Mr. Sickert as a devil; but on several occasions it has been for me not difficult to understand that he considered him as lax (pictorially lax), if not wholly immoral. Mr. Sickert’s paintings of Camden Town atrocities, in shuttered rooms, of Gilman himself, built up in, alas, impure spots, his picturesque houses in Dieppe, not so brightly coloured as Gilman would have wished, he shook his head over! But he always retained a great respect for the virtues of his first real master.
The Gilman tick was a thing prized by his friends next to the sternness of his painting. He was proud of a pompous drollery, which he flavoured with every resource of an abundantly nourished country rectory, as he was proud of his parsonic stock. He was proud of his reverberating pulpit voice: he was proud of the eccentricities of his figure. He was also proud of a certain fleeting [end of p.13] resemblance, observed by the ribald, to George Robey, the priceless ape. But, above all, he was proud to be a man who could sometimes hang his pictures in the neighbourhood of a picture post card of the great modern master, Van Gogh. He would roll his eyes, and roll his voice, and shake his head in the very thick of his cultivated tick; and glory in being alive, in having a bald head, a humorous eighteenth-century eye, a new wife, a new baby, a new and quite unexpected enemy (for whom he was very sorry and over whom he sadly shook his head) – proud of everything that came within his ken. He had a great capacity for friendship, a poor and third-rate gift for hatred, every virtue of middle-class England, and, in fact, was one of the most amusing, genuine, equable, sensitive individuals I have met. And all his contemporaries agreed that he was a good painter.
As to his attitude to contemporary movements in art, or to any movement in art, that was not wicked, bituminous, or like Burne-Jones, he was almost equally cordial. He seemed to be shouting to almost any one he noticed painting a picture that he detected was not too bad, “What a fine morning! Isn’t painting nice! Don’t you love colour? Yes, I thought you did! Thank God we are not ‘dirty’ painters! You never use black, do you? Nor raw umber? I was sure you didn’t! How like that bridge is to Van Gogh!”
As to a detailed account of his paintings, the reproductions in this book will show to any one knowing the movements in painting agitating these years, what Gilman was: and the exhibition being held this autumn (1919) will display sufficiently what a fine painter he was. If you mix the Signac palette; Van Gogh’s strips and Sickert’s spots; Charles Ginner’s careful formularization of modern buildings, all their bricks painted in; a little Vuillard and a little Vlaminck; you get the material of his talent. His sanguine and sensitive personality worked on that to individual ends.
I personally prefer amongst his paintings his last one of Halifax [end of p.14] Harbour (one of the two or three best paintings in that large exhibition), his portrait of Mrs. Mounter, and the drawings and studies directly kindred to that. I think, had he lived, he would have proceeded indefatigably and without haste on those lines: for an interminable time! I consider his early death a flat contradiction to every feeling that one had about his destiny. If it is true, as Whistler said of Titian, that he would still be painting as hard as ever if the plague had not carried him off at the age of ninety: it is equally true that Gilman’s personality, as well as his friends, suffered a defeat in what was a paradoxical decease.
The artists that he has been chiefly connected with were the members of the original Camden Town Group, and the larger society that grew out of that, the London Group. Of these artists, those most closely connected with him in his work were Charles Ginner, Spencer Gore, Ratcliffe, and, in a rather less close way, Walter Sickert. The only other society at which he has exhibited is, I believe, the New English Art Club.
My own interests in painting lie in different channels to those navigated by Gilman. I admired much of his work, had a great relish and liking for him; but I am not so well equipped as some more closely associated with him in his work to give a specific account of it. But I hope that this personal sketch of him, and indication of the character and history of his talent, will serve, in the interim, to accompany the first photograph-collection of his paintings. I am sure that his work is of consequence, and that his memory will be attended to accordingly. Mr. Charles Ginner’s admirable article on him, which appeared in Art and Letters, is a first rough document of that nature. I hope soon that such stray articles or personal notes like these may be followed by a comprehensive book.
Wyndham Lewis

How to cite

Wyndham Lewis, ‘Harold Gilman’, in Harold Gilman: An Appreciation, Chatto & Windus, London 1919, pp.11–15, in Helena Bonett, Ysanne Holt, Jennifer Mundy (eds.), The Camden Town Group in Context, Tate Research Publication, May 2012,, accessed 25 June 2019.