A Community of Colour: Norman Gilbert at Tramway Glasgow

Norman Gilbert, ‘People and black & white patterns’, oil on board, 1972
‘People and black & white patterns’, oil on board, 1972

Norman Gilbert

Tue - Fri 12:00 - 17:00, Sat - Sun 12:00 - 18:00

From: 3 Sep 2022

To: 5 Feb 2023

25 Albert Drive
Glasgow & the Clyde Valley
G41 2PE

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‘… each colour and shape enhances every other colour and shape, so it’s entirely satisfactory, so it’s at peace.’ – Norman Gilbert

Norman Gilbert (1926 – 2019) was a Glasgow painter who studied at the Glasgow School of Art between 1948 and 1952 and painted for around 70 years, completing some 300 paintings across his career, mostly at his home studios on the south side of Glasgow.

General view of exhibition with fabrics and artefacts from the Gilbert home
General view of exhibition with fabrics and artefacts from the Gilbert home

I came to view this exhibition starting from a point of knowing little about the artist’s work, but there is significant visual impact as soon as you enter the gallery space – paintings with vibrant colours and clearly defined figurative outlines, shapes and pattern are beautifully executed. Black and white painted studies with multiple bold patterns also quickly meet the eye.

Bruno and Danny Gilbert at the Tramway exhibition launch
Bruno and Danny Gilbert at the Tramway exhibition launch

The paintings are mostly of the painter’s family, neighbours and friends and I was fortunate to have conversations at the opening introduction to the show with two of Norman’s sons – Bruno and Danny Gilbert – who appear in many of the works. Bruno explained that Tramway had approached the Gilbert family with the idea of hosting this exhibition in Norman’s home area, Pollokshields, and that the family were pleased to agree and to provide their support and unique insight. The artist is clearly held in great affection by his sons, they are proud of their father’s artistic achievement and are looking to build more awareness and recognition of his work, and to secure his artistic legacy by cataloguing and archiving his works.

Claire Jackson, Senior Curator of Tramway, described the approach to the exhibition’s design. The gallery setting of the exhibition aims to evoke something of the atmosphere of the Gilbert family home, with original furniture and artefacts from the house and home studio that appear as recurring motifs in many of the works, and custom-made wallpaper patterns taken from Norman’s paintings applied to some of the gallery walls. The paintings are arranged on these backgrounds by ‘colour blocking’ complementary colourings together. Norman’s armchair with a colourful patterned blanket of the 1970s is here, and the richly-patterned textiles and children’s clothing on display are also recognisable in many of the paintings. A short stone sculpture from Norman’s time at Glasgow School of Art, of two embracing figures, appears in a painting too, and Danny remembers hugging these figures when he was a child of similar stature!

Norman Gilbert, black and white paintings
Norman Gilbert, black and white paintings

The design of the surrounding framing for a wall of six of Norman’s black and white paintings is inspired by a sideboard mirror in the house, seen in the monochrome The Old Sideboard, 1994. Significantly, in his process, before beginning each full coloured work, Norman completed a black and white ‘intermediate’ version of each of his paintings, which have something of the character of linocuts, and which Bruno Gilbert says should also be considered as completed paintings.

Norman Gilbert, ‘People and black & white patterns’, oil on board, 1972
‘People and Black & White Patterns’, oil on board, 1972

Some paintings show a further variation: a combination of his black and white and colour stages. In People and Black & White Patterns, 1972, it does look as if this painting could have been worked on further with more colours, and it’s unusual, amongst the other paintings shown, that he has left each figure in a single flat colour, blue and red, almost appearing only as shapes. The direction and form of the pattern of the black and white bedspread give the bed an almost 3-dimensional quality.

Colour experiments

Gilbert’s colour palettes are not conventional, nor naturalistic, that is he did not attempt to be realistic in his colour renderings. He experimented with limited colour palettes in different combinations, very successfully, and it is notable that no two paintings on show are the same in terms of colour composition.

It appears that even in the 1950s Norman was using bold flat colours, but it was in the 1960s that he started painting in his unique colour style, and Danny Gilbert explained to me that he continued to experiment in his painting and to develop throughout his career, right into his 80s and 90s. The artist said, ‘each colour and shape enhances every other colour and shape, so it’s entirely satisfactory, so it’s at peace’ and a viewer at the exhibition will appreciate what this means after seeing the paintings.

We are told in the exhibition text that these canvases were created over months through meticulous process, with Norman transferring outlines for his paintings by tracing through his line drawings. The remarkable harmony achieved by the bright and unusual colour combinations is clear, but what is not immediately visible is the layers of under-painting, described to me by Bruno, that resulted in the final tones of colours.

The more I look at these pictures, the more wonderful I think they are. Each time I look at a painting I see more interesting details – an architectural detail of a building across the street, or a depiction of some of Norman’s drawings or one of his paintings within the room’s interior. Foliage of plants is cleverly depicted without painting stems and branches. The more you look through the abundance of pattern, the more the excellent composition is evident too.

Norman Gilbert, ‘Children & Fishing Boats’, Oil on Board, 1973
‘Children & Fishing Boats’, oil on board, 1973

In Children & Fishing Boats, 1973, the two boys are shown at Kinlochbervie on a family holiday in the midst of the tied-up local fishing boats. In a cool palette of pale blues, cream and ‘olive brown’, the pattern of striped and starred jumpers, a grid of fishing boat masts and multiple wheelhouse windows creates a wonderful composition.

Norman Gilbert, ‘Three Girls and Tissue Paper Fish’, Oil on Board, 1970
‘Three Girls and Tissue Paper Fish’, oil on board, 1970

This viewer observed nods to several major artists in some of the paintings. Three Girls and Tissue Paper Fish, 1970, has female figures reminiscent of Gaugin’s females in the south sea islands in a palette of blue, red, green, black.

Norman Gilbert, ‘People and Red Furniture’, Oil on Board, 1973
‘People and Red Furniture’, oil on board, 1973

People and Black & White Patterns, 1972, has echoes of Matisse in its stylised shapes, and the demeanour of the figures and the setting in People and Red Furniture, 1973, is reminiscent of the work of Japanese printmakers.

Norman Gilbert, ‘Holiday Caravan’, Oil on Board, 1975
‘Holiday Caravan’, oil on board, 1975

The interior of Holiday Caravan, 1975, is a pattern of blues and yellows. The focus is on the two boys and their mother, but the small distant yellow building in the landscape outside the caravan window gives depth and scale to the composition.

Norman Gilbert, ‘The Red Van’, Oil on Board, 1977
‘The Red Van’, oil on board, 1977

The Red Van, 1977, is in a bold palette of blues, reds, olive and yellow. Again there is an abundance of pattern and the boy on the right appears to be holding the rug displayed in the show (covering Norman’s studio chair). The viewpoint selected, figure placement and the gaze of the driver towards the viewer convey the spatial quality of the van interior exceptionally well.

As well as the paintings, holiday pencil drawings from the Highlands and the south of France are also on display, along with exhibition posters and catalogues of various eras. Sketches covering both faces of a page have cleverly been displayed on clear panels in partitions, to allow viewing from both sides.

Norman Gilbert, ‘Plants, Patchwork and Two Green Chairs’, Oil on Board, 2019
‘Plants, Patchwork and Two Green Chairs’, oil on board, 2019

Norman’s final painting in 2019, Plants, Patchwork and Two Green Chairs, is displayed on his studio easel alongside his paint palette, and the related black and white Indian Ink study. Plants in the home and garden replace the figures seen in earlier works and his soft colourings here, though still in a limited palette, are a little different from works of previous decades. But right to the last, Norman Gilbert’s love of pattern and composition and his unique clarity of vision shine through.

The show has a lengthy run, to 5th February 2023, so hopefully many new visitors will see it and enjoy and appreciate this truly wonderful body of work.

Admission is free, with no ticket required. To learn more about Norman Gilbert’s life and legacy, visit www.normangilbert.com.

Artmag would like to thank Gordon Reid for this review, and Bruno and Danny Gilbert, Claire Jackson and Nicola Jeffs for their kind assistance. Photos are by Gordon – all paintings © Norman Gilbert.

Norman Gilbert’s work is also showing at Tatha Gallery in Newport-on-Tay in its exhibition ‘Norman Gilbert & Margot Sandeman: A Shared Passion‘.

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