Maeve Gilmore, Boys at Play, Darjeeling Mail, ca. 1958, acrylic on canvas, 20 7⁄8 × 15 3⁄4".

Maeve Gilmore, Boys at Play, Darjeeling Mail, ca. 1958, acrylic on canvas, 20 7⁄8 × 15 3⁄4".

Maeve Gilmore

Cats, children, dolls, interiors, still lifes, and contemplative self-portraits were not Maeve Gilmore’s only subjects, though they dominated a captivating display—her first institutional exhibition—at Studio Voltaire. Twenty paintings by the English artist, who was born in 1917 and died in 1983, spanned roughly four decades of her career, from 1943 through 1978. While Gilmore’s wider oeuvre includes abstract and pared-down, spiritually inflected work, here the focus was closer to home. A drab hush sometimes falls over invocations of the “domestic,” so often an undifferentiated shorthand for particular kinds of work or subject matter by women, but such muted reverence would hardly befit Gilmore’s paintings. In her paintings—replete with striking imagery and eccentric characters captured in moments of imaginative flight—interiors are filled with interior life. Her mysterious works, with their costumed characters and half-summoned narratives, hover somewhere between the work of Vanessa Bell and Leonora Carrington.

Two Boys, Cat’s Cradle, ca. 1952, and Boys at Play, Darjeeling Mail, ca. 1958, depict scenes of playful absorption. In the former, two young boys stand closely, their hands entangled in a pattern of string. In the latter, three shirtless boys engaged in coltish antics are clustered at the center of the image: Two wrestle while the third performs a perfect headstand. In these paintings, bodies are solid and clearly outlined, their shapes like geometric studies—overly rounded heads, angular entwined limbs, and backgrounds are abstracted in stark swaths of gray. The interior setting of Boys at Play is illuminated by moonlight that has rendered it strange and otherworldly; the black silhouettes of trees appear decoratively through the window beyond the tangle of bodies. In Boy in Orchard, ca. 1952, an impish, green-garbed figure stands in a wooded glade, his arms energetically raised, about to affix a headdress of yellow, pink, and red feathers. Face angled downward, features blurred, he appears lost in fantasy. We catch only a glimpse of his world.

If the realism and muted hues of these works betray the influence of Euston Road School painters such as Sir William Coldstream and Claude Rogers, other paintings made around the same time are more reflective of the European avant-garde. After receiving her education at Westminster School of Art, Gilmore traveled widely with her husband, writer and artist Mervyn Peake. She was particularly affected by a 1937 Paris exhibition where she saw the art of Calder, Miró, and Picasso, among others. Some of her works incorporate aspects of Surrealism. The protagonist of The Attendant, ca. 1950, in her feather-skewered hat and mismatching socks, is surrounded by arcane details—four pears, a stuffed bird on a wooden perch, a potted cyclamen—as she stares into the dove-gray distance, waiting. The figure in Boy at Window, ca. 1956, head festooned with feathers, holds a beige curtain back to peek mischievously out of the darkness. Two sprouting onions are carefully posed on the black ground below. Both works are at once elaborately staged and spare, flattened, staid—that grubby postwar English palette!

In these paintings, the home is a place of making and of make-believe—of painting and play. It’s a place in which to delve more deeply inward, away from the here and now. Self-Portrait with Charcoal, ca. 1958, and Self-Portrait with Amber Pendant and Butcher’s Apron, 1972, show the artist in states of intense contemplation. Of all the works in the exhibition, these were the most detailed—Gilmore’s golden eyes big and vivid, her brow slightly furrowed, the strands of her honey-colored hair delineated with care. (I see affinities with the astonishing clarity of Lucien Freud’s 1950s paintings of Lady Caroline Blackwood.) Gilmore was an enigmatic, versatile painter whose career was complicated by war, motherhood, and the illness and death of her husband, who was also her creative partner. This show pointed to how much more there is to be seen and known of her.