When you think of British art at the beginning of the 20th century, you rarely think of works filled with vibrant pinks, teals and bright blues; and when you think of members of the Camden Town Group, Harold Gilman may not be the first to come to mind. Yet, Harold Gilman’s vibrant colours are captivating, and together they create a brilliant solo exhibition which feels both remarkably modern and long overdue.
This is the first major exhibition of Harold Gilman in over thirty-five years. His work has previously been featured in several exhibitions of the Camden Town Group, an exhibiting society which he co-founded alongside Walter Sickert in 1911. Until recently Sickert’s gloomy style has tended to define the Camden Town ‘feel’, but as the curators James Rawlin and Lara Wardle stress, there is so much more to Gilman “Beyond Camden Town”.
Gilman developed an artistry unique amongst his Camden Town contemporaries. Under the influence of French Post-Impressionism, his style changed from being relatively conservative with a muted colour palette, to one where his brushstrokes become more broken, his colours lighter and more vivid. Van Gogh in particular would become a very important influence on Gilman’s work; some of which will be featured in the Tate’s upcoming exhibition ‘Van Gogh and Britain’. It will explore how Van Gogh was inspired by British art and culture, and how he in turn influenced modern British art and artists, including Gilman. One of the key works by Van Gogh to be included is L’Arlesienne (1890), which has his favourite book by Dickens in the foreground and significantly, unlike the 1888 version with the same sitter, has a vibrant pink background. In Portrait in Profile (1914) you can clearly see Van Gogh’s influence on Gilman, as demonstrated in his newly adopted technique of using a mosaic of opaque and expressive touches of oil paint and the bright pink wallpaper - you are immediately drawn to the colours and the gentle, slightly melancholic expression of the sitter, known only as Mary L.
A recurring motif in the exhibition is that of the interior which appears in the form of Gilman’s flat at 47 Maple Street in London and its distinctive pink and blue patterned wallpaper. The bright coloured wallpaper gives a sense of vibrancy to otherwise often mundane spaces, and this is paralleled in his portrayal of one of his most famous subjects, Mrs Mounter. She was one of the other lodgers, and also worked occasionally as Gilman’s housekeeper, and is therefore closely linked to his understanding of the interior. In Mrs Mounter at the Breakfast Table (1916-17), rather than using dull, ‘dirtier’ colours we see that her face is composed of dashes of blue, green, pink and orange, and she has a bright red scarf tied around her hair. In his use of vivid colour, Gilman gives Mrs Mounter a sense of vitality and spirit that is rarely seen in depictions of elderly, working class women, and critic Frank Rutter described her portrait as the “spiritual loveliness of colour that time cannot whither.” At her joint lecture with James Rawlin which opened the exhibition, Lara Wardle spoke of how Mrs Mounter’s intense gaze, the tightly cropped composition, and the lack of recession in the background draws you into the interior space. She also highlighted how Gilman places two teacups on the table in the foreground and cuts the nearest plate in half, indicating that there is a place set for the viewer and there is “no choice but for us to join her for a cup of tea.”
While visiting the exhibition it struck me that Gilman’s work doesn’t feel over one hundred years old; the vibrant colours and the universal themes of the interior and identity make them appear timeless. This is also reflected in the physical exhibition space. Echoing the theme of the interior, the Djanogly Gallery has been painted a gorgeous deep purple and blue, and the lights have been softly dimmed to create a delicate contrast against the bright colours of Gilman’s work and a more domestic feel. Two new walls have also been constructed in the first gallery space, creating hidden corners and making the gallery feel more intimate, the works more personal, and creating the sense that you are discovering something special. To me, this sums up the whole exhibition. Walking around you feel as though you have been let in on a secret; as if you are uncovering works by a brilliant artist that the rest of the world doesn’t know about just yet. As the curators said, there’s much more to Harold Gilman than just Camden Town. Make sure you discover Harold Gilman for yourself before the exhibition closes on 10 February.
The Djanogly Gallery is open Tuesday to Saturday, 11am-5pm & Sunday, 12noon-4pm. Admission free.