Like other Camden Town Group painters, Harold Gilman chose everyday domestic interiors as the subject for his carefully observed paintings. Girl dressing depicts a narrow view of a modest bedroom where a young woman is putting on her jacket. The figure’s natural pose caught in arrested motion, and the homely details of the room with its ironframed bed, fireplace, wooden chair and floral wallpaper, give the scene an air of casual intimacy. The painting is one of a group of related works in which the same interior and model are depicted. Both Gilman’s unglamorous subject matter and his informal approach to composition were influenced by the paintings of Walter Sickert. Gilman met Sickert in 1907 and joined his Fitzroy Street circle before co-founding the Camden Town Group in 1911 with Charles Ginner and Spencer Gore.
Girl dressing represents the change in Gilman’s style made in response to post-impressionist painters such as van Gogh, Paul Signac and Gauguin. He had seen their work exhibited in London in 1910 and in Paris the following year. Gilman brightened his palette and began using closely juxtaposed and interlocking dabs of thick paint, resulting in a distinctive mosaiclike style. Here, Gilman has painted both figure and room in the same range of contrasting greens, yellows, browns, blues, mauves and pinks laid on in vigorously dabbed and broken brushstrokes. All parts of the composition are given equal emphasis, and the scattered touches of colour, particularly in the wallpaper, serve to break down the contours of the forms and to integrate background and foreground to create an all-over pattern. Gilman’s paintings frequently employ wallpaper as a compositional device; at the art school he ran with Ginner in 1916, he would often place models in front of a screen covered with boldly patterned wallpaper.
Gilman’s adaptation of post-impressionist colour and paint handling to his realist subject matter was innovative, and he made an important contribution to modern British painting before his premature death in the influenza epidemic of 1919. Girl dressing was included in the Harold Gilman memorial exhibition at the Leicester Galleries in London in 1919.
This essay originally appeared in Art at Te Papa (Te Papa Press, 2009).