Curator James Rawlin has been instrumental in pulling together this particular selection of paintings and drawings, made in the last decade of Gilman’s life. “We are aiming to expand on his ‘greatest hits’ and to explore how he got to the point where, particularly from 1915 onwards, he was displaying a real sense of exploration and development,” he says.
Gilman trained at London’s Slade School of Fine Art, and was a founding member of the Camden Town Group: a collective known for their shared interest in urban life, and who will feature heavily in Tate Britain’s 2019 blockbuster Van Gogh and Britain. Gilman’s command of the medium – predominantly oil paint – is therefore unsurprising, and the paintings in the first gallery space are competent, yet subdued.
A fascinating and vibrant trio made between 1913 and 1914 are an exception. The largest of the three captures an eating house in its entirety; it’s an unfinished yet spirited depiction that’s so full of life you can almost hear the plates crashing on the tables. The second and third pieces focus with uncomfortable proximity on private conversation in the same space. There’s a glimmer of reformist thinking in these works: not simply because of the representation of different social classes in humble surroundings, but the shift from a narrative to a more incommunicative approach. If paintings are not simply vehicles for storytelling, what other purpose might they serve?
One of the joys of seeing a comprehensive body of Gilman’s work is the exposure to that 1915 seismic shift. The artist’s attention moved markedly from exterior to interior worlds, and the show takes a pleasingly progressive turn by the time you enter the second gallery. “They don’t feel like 100-year-old paintings,” Rawlin says as we encounter Tea in the Bedsitter: a series which, in terms of both colour and content, packs a real punch. Emblems of the everyday permeate the canvases – from laundry drying to striking patterned wallpaper – and are almost celebratory of the mundanity of working-class life in London.
Searing at times and subtle at others, Gilman’s application of colour is stylistically removed from his contemporaries, including his mentor Walter Sickert, who opted for a darker, more shadowy approach.
What is also markedly different is Gilman’s representation of women, which after 1910 became the artist’s almost sole focus. In both iterations of Tea in the Bedsitter, and likewise in another series Interiors with Mrs. Mounter, he depicts single, working women living in small and tidy rooms in central London. “What’s important to realise is just how shocking and ‘avant-garde’ these works would have been at the time,” Rawlin tells me, before pointing one out that previously belonged to David Bowie.
Seen as voyeuristic by some critics, Gilman’s unwavering commitment to investigating the independent, interior worlds of women instead stirs me. If you were to call Gilman’s pursuit of a modernist agenda into question, the fact remains that these works preceded the suffrage movement, and were similarly prescient of World War One and its implications for women.
Gilman’s sympathetic investigations of people in claustrophobic pictorial spaces reputedly irritated Sickert. Yet baulking against his contemporaries, Gilman revelled in London’s increasingly conglomerate nature, in terms of genders, cultures and lifestyles. Today seems like a particularly pertinent time to revisit Gilman’s oeuvre, and to celebrate his determined interest in sectors of society that defied tradition.
As we leave the gallery, Rawlin explains: “This exhibition marks the move out of living connection and into historical connection for Gilman’s work.” Beyond Camden Town is a colourful and considered look back into a different world, and it succeeds in highlighting just how illuminating the process of recollection can be. Gilman valued the everydayness of life, breathing colour and light into the inner worlds of humans in a markedly modernist way, and for that it certainly warrants such a focused revisit.
Harold Gilman: Beyond Camden Town is showing at Nottingham Lakeside Arts’ Djanogly Gallery until Sunday 10 February 2019