The Pivotal Role of Drawing: Constructing Halifax Harbour 1918

Harold Gilman, Halifax Harbour, 1918. Oil on canvas, 198 × 335.8 cm. Transfer from the Canadian War Memorials, 1921. National Gallery of Canada , Ottawa. Photo: NGC

In 1918, the British artist Harold Gilman was commissioned by the Canadian War Memorials Fund to paint the subject of ‘Halifax Harbour in Wartime’. The result – an intricately constructed panorama of the harbour in a glowing dusk light – was the largest painting Gilman ever produced and among the last he was to complete before his death in 1919.

The National Gallery of Canada's exhibition Masterpiece in Focus: Halifax Harbour 1918 provides the first public opportunity to view this painting alongside Gilman's numerous preparatory drawings. While the monumental work dominates the exhibition, the drawings emerge as its primary story, revealing Gilman’s artistic methods and demonstrating the pivotal role of the medium of drawing within his artistic practice.

There are over two dozen known Halifax drawings, ranging from thumbnail sketches of individual ships and patches of coastline to highly complex, finished works that lay out the full sweep of the buildings edging the harbour and the ships animating it. Some are executed only in pencil, some in pen and ink, and others incorporate a mix of these materials, as well as washes of watercolour. The drawings served as aide-mémoires, allowing Gilman to capture scenes he witnessed in Halifax over the summer of 1918 and to develop the final painting based on the drawings back in London that fall.

Harold Gilman, Study for Halifax Harbour, c. 1918. Pen, black ink and watercolour on paper, 40.5 × 68 cm. Private collection

The drawings show the artist's iterative process. In several compositions, Gilman focuses on a single ship or an isolated section of coastline, demonstrating that he studied individual elements of the landscape before combining them into an ensemble in the final painting. These compositions also point to the fact that the two most detailed, squared-up studies, Study for Halifax Harbour and Halifax Harbour, are themselves the product of preliminary works on paper.

 Study for Halifax Harbour and Halifax Harbour put the rigor of Gilman’s methods on full display. In Halifax Harbour, a grid of 26 by 56 squares overlays a dense ink drawing that closely aligns with the composition of the final painting. Precise annotations, such as “bluest” and “greener” on sections of sky and “shadows on Georges Island much darker than hills behind,” spill into the drawing’s borders, which also feature thumbnail sketches of ships, calculations for squaring up the drawing (enlarged roughly five times in the painting), and the pin-holes where the strings used to create the grid were attached to the paper. Analysis of the Halifax Harbour painting at the National Gallery of Canada's Conservation Laboratory has revealed highly detailed graphite under-drawing in the lower portion of the canvas, reinforcing the deliberateness of Gilman’s process and his reliance on drawings to construct the final work.

Gilman’s determination to pin down fluctuations of light and colour suggests a keen sensitivity to his commemorative mandate: the faithful visual reconstruction of an active naval hub and site of the deadliest explosion of the war becomes a means of paying tribute to the fallen. This is underscored by his choice to proceed from the squared-up drawing not to the final canvas, but rather to another preparatory work, the large-scale, highly finished painting, Study for Halifax Harbour, in the Vancouver Art Gallery.

Harold Gilman, Study for Halifax Harbour, 1918. Oil on canvas, 69 × 145 cm. Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Founders’ Fund

Gilman’s scrupulous and drawing-intensive process evinces his training at the Slade School of Art in London. The instruction he received, notably from Henry Tonks, focused on drawing as a fundamental artistic skill. Several of Gilman’s fellow Slade students, including Walter Sickert, accordingly privileged the medium, regularly employing on-site drawings and direct-transfer to aid in the creation of paintings.

Gilman arguably took this commitment to an extreme point by creating drawings that, like the Halifax compositions, deploy both finely detailed renderings and extensive notations to capture a scene that he subsequently recreated in paint. In a 1914 interview in The Standard, Gilman characterized himself as a "realist", claiming "I want the object to remain ... after I have painted it". The Halifax series indicates that for Gilman, the medium of drawing was pivotal to achieving this mode of “realism”.

The Halifax drawings are not merely instrumental, however. The range of mark-making and subject matter in these works attests to Gilman’s creativity as a draftsman and suggests that certain of the drawings were created as stand-alone compositions. In House at Halifax, Nova Scotia, for instance, he deploys an array of stippled marks to evoke contrasting materials and textures, from the dense dots and heavy outlines of the chimneys, to the firm parallel lines of the roof tiles, and the widely spaced dots that convey the airiness of the sky. The drawing reveals Gilman’s attention to the work of Vincent van Gogh, recalling the inventive mark-making in the Montmajour drawings and particularly van Gogh’s explorations with pen and ink.

Harold Gilman, House at Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1918. Pen and ink on paper, 41.8 × 54 cm. Higgins Art Gallery & Museum, Bedford, UK

Compared with many of the other Halifax drawings, House at Halifax, Nova Scotia – a residential scene in which the harbor can only be glimpsed in the background – maintains a certain distance from the artist’s war commission. Gilman reported in a letter to his daughter in June 1918 that, due to the misty weather, “I cannot even see the harbour I came to paint on most days. But the last few years I have learnt not to worry. I ... must just wait and meanwhile do other things as if there were no harbour here at all.” House at Halifax seems to be one of these “other things”, which turns away from the war commission to consider a scene that appears largely unaffected by the ongoing conflict.

Harold Gilman, Halifax Harbour, 1918. Ink and watercolour on paper, 33.5 × 54.4 cm. Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Gift of Mrs. Harold Gilman

The Halifax drawings transcend their preparatory function not only through this range of technique and subject matter, but also because Gilman interweaves the pragmatic purpose of the compositions with elements of lyricism. The Vancouver drawing Halifax Harbour provides a preliminary rendering of the harbour that Gilman adjusted in subsequent compositions. At the same time, the Vancouver work has a radiance and delicacy that echoes the atmosphere of the final painting. The study exists not merely to refine the placement of ships, hills and buildings in the final work, but also seems to have informed the luminosity of the final painting and the way in which it provides a vision of postwar peace.

These combined modes of pragmatism and lyricism are distilled in one section of Dazzleships and Tug, an ink sketch showing two dazzle ships looming over a small, dark tug boat. Gilman uses repeated, hooked marks of ink to capture the rippled surface of the water and, at bottom right, these marks lead into the phrase “gleaming water”. The arm of the “r” then extends to form one of the marks that describe the ebbs and flows of the water. Gilman’s strokes of ink enact a transition from visual marks, to letters, back to visual marks. The content of the note is also elusive – how would one paint “gleaming” water? – rendering it at once practical and poetic.

Harold Gilman, Dazzleships and Tug, 1918. Pen and ink on paper, 13.3 × 23.5 cm. Private collection.

The porous relationship between visual mark and text in Dazzleships and Tug points to an organizing principle of the Halifax drawings and the finished painting. In attempting to capture the site of the Halifax explosion first-hand, Gilman deploys both drawing and text, interweaving images and words as mutually reinforcing tools to ensure that the colour, light and atmosphere of the finished work, although produced in London, nevertheless aligned as closely as possible with his in-person experience of Halifax harbour. In this sense, it is significant that an analysis of the Vancouver oil painting by the conservators at the National Gallery of Canada suggests that Gilman completed this work while in Canada, removing it from the original stretcher for transportation to London, and then re-stretching it, presumably to use for reference as he completed the final painting. Like the final version, the Vancouver painting reveals evidence not only of careful gridding, but also of detailed underdrawing.

This approach speaks to the commitments at the core of Gilman’s artistic project. His oeuvre insists on the importance of things as seen in the world and, as such, gives primacy to drawing for its capacity to shift from rendering words to conveying volume, texture and atmosphere, as well as to replicating entire compositions. The Halifax drawings play out the simultaneously exacting and supple roles that Gilman assigned to the medium, establishing the artist’s works on paper as a conceptual and artistic driver not only of his war commission, but of his artistic practice overall.


Masterpiece in Focus: Halifax Harbour 1918 is on view at the National Gallery of Canada until 17 March 2019 and at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia from 12 April to 2 September 2019. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery news, exhibitions and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.​


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