Maeve Gilmore LRB July 7, 2022
JWhere to advertiseDuring simultaneous exhibitions of their paintings in two London galleries in 1939, Maeve Gilmore and Mervyn Peake posed for a photograph at their home in Maida Vale. Peake, dressed in a fiery floral tie, sits in the foreground, his menacing shadow on the wall behind him. He draws a charcoal portrait of Gilmore, looming against the window, brush in hand, absorbed in her work. The easel is turned away from the camera, so it’s impossible to tell if she’s painting a picture of her husband or something else. In his memoirs, A world apart (1970), an account of their life together from which she is conspicuously absent, Gilmore describes the thrill of meeting Peake on her first day at Westminster School of Art. He was the teacher, she nurtured him, a dynamic that fit easily into married life.
Gilmore always put Peake’s career first. After his death in 1968, she worked to preserve his legacy, completing the last volume of his Gormenghast series of summary notes, organizing his letters and papers and cooperating with various biographers, scholars and curators. She had raised their young children while the increasingly mentally ill Peake was on military service, and described in A world apart the pleasures of their ramshackle lives in various London studios and homes in Kent, Surrey and Sark as well as the huge success that followed his first novel, Moan of Titus (1946). References to her own work flicker almost imperceptibly: painting is what she does while baby Clare sleeps, while Peake writes, while her sons Sebastian and Fabian play, when there is no dinner to prepare or number of family accounts to add up. “I always have the impression of having been able to paint when an intense life surrounds me, she writes, despite the eternal meals, the arguments of her children and the constant demands of domestic life.
I’ve known about Gilmore’s art for a few years through an Instagram account Sebastian’s daughter, Christian Peake, set up to celebrate her grandmother’s work: Christian’s regular posts of Gilmore’s paintings – almost all owned by family members – gained a large following. During his lifetime, Gilmore’s work was exhibited on only a few occasions: with the London Group, in the annual group show Artists of Fame and Promise at the Leicester Galleries, and in two solo exhibitions at twenty. interval.
In 2011, a joint exhibition of the couple’s work, drawn from the family collection, was shown at Viktor Wynd Fine Art in East London. A solo exhibition for Gilmore followed three years later at Bruce Haines in Mayfair. The latest exhibition, his first institutional exhibition, is at Studio Voltaire in Clapham (until August 7), a former Victorian chapel less than a mile from his birthplace at 49 Acre Lane in Brixton. Twenty paintings are distributed around the main gallery. Several canvases bear the traces of the family’s many moves and anarchic storage: pierced with holes where they were once nailed to the walls, scratched on the edges, the paint has peeled off or marked.
The arrangement is flanked by two self-portraits, painted in 1958 and 1972. Gilmore lacerates himself in both, detailing his wrinkles, the bags under his eyes, his furrowed brow. In the previous painting, she cuts an elegant figure, with diamond earrings and a black sleeveless blouse, lifting a piece of charcoal between two fingers like a cigarette. Her hair, worn long and loose, is naturalistic, unlike the angular shapes that make up her neck and visible hand. She looks exhausted – the dark hollows of her eyes pushing her face away from his features – as if she’d stayed up late to paint and wouldn’t stop until she was satisfied. In the later work she is more active and authoritative: wearing a striped butcher’s apron, she gazes behind her easel, focusing on something beyond the frame.
Most of Gilmore’s work is figurative, his subjects drawn from his domestic life: a woman rolling up wool, young acrobatic boys (Sebastian and Fabian were dubbed “the blue-eyed thugs” by Louis MacNeice), pears on a platter, the family cats (which appear in more than half of the paintings here). But there is also something else at stake, something fantastic. In its menacing stillness Interior of Sarkpainted in 1947, reminds me of Dorothea Tanning’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943) but without the characters: moonlight from a window, an empty corridor surrounded by a somewhat intimidating ramp, a wall dominated by a painting representing a skeletal tree and a mysterious white tower.
Things aren’t quite what they seem either Boys in the orchard (1954), in which the blue-eyed thugs huddle on a bench, striped shirts and socks criss-crossing the bench slats and the striped tortoiseshell cat cradled between them. Trees frame the scene like a stage, while protective branches reach out and meet above. Part of what is interesting or unsettling about Gilmore’s work is his use of contrast: not just in terms of color and pattern, but also in his symbolism. The mood of Boys in the orchard is melancholic, but the boys’ expressions are soft. The trees are bare, but there are piles of apples and pears around the boys’ feet. In another painting, two boys are playing at the cat’s cradle against an almost totally abstract background (Gilmore often chose austere single-color backgrounds to emphasize his strong outlines). Yet she excels at the simple detail: the oversized socks rolled up to the boys’ ankles and the delicate skein wrapped around their spread fingers. Its palette echoes the school playground – grays, alternately moody and warm, layered with subtly muted colors – but it’s unclear what kind of playground it is.
His paintings of children playing enter into the imaginary landscapes of their subjects. The boy wearing a feathered headdress in Boy in the orchard (vs.1952) may actually be safe at home, but Gilmore shows him alone in a dark forest. The character pushing back the curtain boy at the window (vs.1957) wears the same headdress, while a pair of onions sit just inside the frame, their shoots rising upwards like food for a spiritual visitor. In The attendant (vs.1950) – inspired by Piero della Francesca The Dream of Constantine – a boy in a harlequin costume sits in contemplative mode, more alert than Piero’s young man, but attentive only to his own thoughts. A stuffed bird (one of a lot of taxidermy Gilmore and Peake acquired at a closing sale) perched on the bench points us to the feather stuck in the boy’s hat. It also tells us something else: Gilmore’s skilful transformation of elements from Piero’s painting. Her holy spirit becomes her stuffed bird, her pink and yellow royal tent her pink and yellow harlequin hat.
For a small show, the selection at Studio Voltaire is uneven. Some of the works – two wacky portraits of family cats, a neat depiction of a flint wall, a family scene in Sark’s garden – fall flat compared to the works I’ve seen online, ambivalent domestic paintings of much greater depth. Several of these omitted works posit motherhood in ambiguous terms. mother and child (1978) shows a topless woman holding a two-headed rose (she casts a spiky shadow) while an infant claws at her dress. woman in doorway (1978), one of Gilmore’s most complex compositions, is a frame within a frame. A cat sips from its bowl in the center of a brightly lit kitchen, while further away, in the shade of an open door, a woman stands with her arms raised, undressing. Gilmore’s signature is found in the lower corner of this second scene, on the threshold between the two rooms, emphasizing the separation of the woman from the first sphere. Is the house the painter’s prison or simply the setting that highlights his painting?