Friday, 25 October 2013

The Black Gardener at Lambeth

The Black Gardener

Recently, the Garden Museum, located in the old church next to Lambeth Palace, has acquired a very striking painting by Harold Gilman, depicting a tall man wearing work clothes of  white shirt and  dark grey trousers, standing with a garden spade and some garden pots.  It dates from 1905 and looks as if it meant to represent a gardener, even though the figure is shown barefoot and in a blank, apparently interior space. 

It’s a fine picture. The confident, relaxed drawing conveys a relaxed, self-possessed individual and the restricted palette of whites, browns and grey/blacks is both strong and quite beautiful. 
With his weight on one leg and the other knee bent, he stands in a classic /neo-classical pose derived from antique sculpture, and with the spade to help the pose he resembles numerous art school studies -of the draped male figure.   So there are suggestions that the individual portrayed was a model rather than a gardener,  that the terracotta pots are decorative accessories, and that the picture was painted in the studio, far from any presumed garden.  A real gardener, it is argued, would wear boots - not least because it's otherwise impossible to dig with a  spade.

Certainly the shadows - that cast on the wall behind the figure and the mysterious one to the left - indicate that this is an interior space.   But my eye was drawn to the date of 1905 and the fact that around this time, Gilman was visiting his wife's family in Chicago.   His in-laws were wealthy machine-tool manufacturers, whom Gilman is said to have found uncongenial.  I wonder if, obliged to make a relatively extended visit, he sought to carry on with his art and looked around for potential subjects?   His in-laws are likely to have employed African-American staff as maids, cooks, gardeners, and it seems plausible that Gilman asked this man to pose for him, perhaps attracted by the colour-scheme afforded by brown skin, white shirt and dark trousers as well as his dignified demeanour.

The sitter took off his boots because - in this scenario - the designated studio space was indoors, but the artist imported his spade and pots as attributes - precisely to show his model's true occupation.  so possibly he was a gardener - but not a Briton, as has been assumed.  It would be nice to know.

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