The lighthouse and the sea at Orford Ness

Garden Museum acquires Portrait of a Black Gardener by Harold Gilman 


The Garden Museum is delighted to announce the acquisition of Harold Gilman's 'Portrait of a Black Gardener'. 

This enigmatic painting was acquired with the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, Art Fund and the Royal Horticultural Society. The portrait will go on display at the museum in spring 2013 after the completion of restoration work.

Alan Titchmarsh MBE VMH DL, Trustee of the Garden Museum, said: "This picture, rich in content and wonderfully executed, is a great addition to the Garden Museum's collection, reflecting, as it does, the diverse and complex history of gardening. It's a tremendously evocative portrait which for me, as a gardener, is every bit as moving as that of Sir Joshua Reynold's celebrated painting 'Omai'. I'm proud to be associated with a museum that had the wisdom to recognise the painting's importance and the good fortune to acquire it."

Portrait of a Black Gardener, dated to 1905 by Wendy Baron, is unique as an heroic image of gardening; Gilman, Sickert's friend and rival, was a radical figure in British art before the First World War and this picture demonstrates his skill with the brush - but also with the spade; he was a pioneer of Letchworth Garden City. It is also a key painting in the story of how black people have been presented in British art; it is one of the first portraits in which a non-white person is painted alone and as a proud full-length. The picture is an enigma - we would love to know who the model might have been - but its display in a public collection means we can begin to unravel its mysteries.

Harold Gilman, born 11 February 1876, was a founder member of the Camden Town Group, along with Walter Sickert. Trained at the Slade with Spencer Gore and Wyndham Lewis, Gilman was an important figure in this short lived but influential movement in the early 20th century. His work features prominently in several national collections, and his portrait by Sickert held by Tate, gives us insight into his determined nature. Gilman’s 'Portrait of a Black Gardener' is one of very few portraits to illustrate his formative period between a year's study in The Prado, and we can see both the shadow of Velasquez in this work and Gilman’s his transformation under Sickert's influence. Portraits of gardeners are rarer still, and his choice of topic may reflect Gilman’s own interest in the subject as a pioneer of Letchworth Garden City.

Wesley Kerr, Chair of the HLF London Committee, said: "Pensive, poised, poetic. This compelling and powerful portrait of a black gardener briefly resting amidst terracotta pots before the next task is an important acquisition which the Heritage Lottery Fund is proud to support. Great news for the unique and ground-breaking Garden Museum and its main partner in the purchase, the Royal Horticultural Society. People from many backgrounds have played an immense and dignified part in the horticultural, agricultural and labouring history of the UK, the USA and the Commonwealth. Harold Gilman’s enigmatic picture from a century ago will help to tell hundreds of stories to tens of thousands of people."

Elizabeth Banks, RHS President, on the acquisition: "I’m delighted that the RHS has been able to support the Garden Museum in its acquisition of this rare and important work of art. The painting is interesting from a horticultural perspective because despite the influence the UK’s rich gardening heritage has had on the world of culture, actual depictions of gardeners are extremely rare. However it is also unique in that it is the earliest example of a 20th-century British full-length portrait to feature as its subject a person of sub-Saharan origin. As a charity dedicated to promoting gardening and horticulture to all, as well as ensuring that its history and influence is understood and preserved, we are pleased to have been able to help secure the future of this memorable painting. The RHS and the Garden Museum will share access to the picture and we very much look forward to displaying it to the general public, alongside the Lindley Library’s growing collection of portraits of contemporary and historic gardeners, so that it can be seen by and inspire new and existing generations of gardeners and art lovers alike."

Further information

HLF press office: Katie Owen on 020 7591 6036 / 07973 613 820.

Harold Gilman's Portrait of a Black Gardener, c1905 
Harold Gilman's Portrait of a Black Gardener, c1905