By Nina Moeller
Harold Gilman lived from 1876 until his premature death in 1919, taking part in an eventful time for art history and beyond. Generally known for the Camden Town School, this exhibition extends the scope and gives an insight into Gilman’s stylistic variety over time. What struck me the most about the exhibition is how diverse Harold Gilman’s body of work is. It is astonishing, following his paintings and the stages of his life, that everything is from the hand of one man. There is no “Seen one, seen ’em all”.
Many of Gilman‘s earlier works are in earthy tones, with a free painting style with copious amounts of canvas visible between the colourful shapes. In the 1910s, his style changes to a cool palette, hiding the canvas under the liberal use of pastose oil colour. Yet, among these two phases there are many “maverick” paintings standing out. That Harold Gilman was greatly influenced by Impressionism is obvious throughout his works, but he seems to have been an artist who would not let himself be limited and who enjoyed experimenting with different styles. You find yourself detecting so many connections and being reminded of other artists. In his Self Portrait (c. 1907), where he poses self-confidently in front of the canvas, you can see that he spent time copying old masters like Velázquez and Goya. The same is true for his sketches of trees. In Orchard (1916), however, angular shapes of different greens look more like a contemporary sculpture than a group of trees. In the Mrs. Mounter series, Gilman’s paintings show his housekeeper in bright colours as a somewhat strict-looking matron, taking up the style of Van Gogh whom Gilman greatly admired, but then in 1918 drawing a sketch of her in ink and watercolour (Interior with Mrs Mounter in an Overall) which looks almost like a cartoon.
Gilman takes the subjects of his paintings from his surroundings, whether they be his house, a London street in the snow, scenes encountered while travelling abroad, landscape, or social institutions like Eating Houses. In a painting of the latter (1913/14), Gilman shows his love of experimentation when he returns to his earlier style of brisk brushstrokes with visible stretches of canvas, in this case omitting to show any facial features and contouring the shapes of people in scarlet. In this work, the social component of his works – showing members of the working-class in their surroundings and daily life – becomes especially obvious.
Probably my favourite work of the exhibition is The Coral Necklace (1914) which looks almost liquid because the oil colour is so thickly applied, rippling and glossy. The melancholy pose of Mary L. and the way she plays with her necklace, looking downcast, just captures your attention. Stepping closer to the painting, her features and the skin of her arms dissolve into two-dimensional shapes and brushstrokes of colour, ranging from white over shapes of green, blue and yellow to orange. But even when applying paint so generously, Gilman’s attention to detail remains obvious in her graceful hands and her forlorn expression. He is also careful about the environment he depicts the people or still life objects in, for example reproducing the vivid wallpapers with recurring patterns in several works.
A close second for the place as my favourite piece of work is Girl with a Teacup (c. 1914). Here, Gilman shows that he is a storyteller when he depicts Mary L. once more: this time, she sits at a table wearing Promenade clothes and not having removed her hat. The clock behind her shows it to be 5pm, past the hour of teatime as her empty cup proves. Obviously, she was or is still waiting thoughtfully for somebody which gives the painting a dynamic beyond the resting pose of the sitter.
A small and yet important feature I particularly liked are the frames. Some of these date back to or at least are in the style of the 18th century, as was popular with many Impressionist painters on the continent, while others are simpler. All are very tasteful and never overbearing or distracting from the paintings.
In his capturing subjects, the stories hidden in the paintings and in his experimentation with different styles, Harold Gilman delivers a wide variety of painting – beyond Camden Town – which makes this exhibition so fascinating.