Glyn Philpot: Flesh and Spirit

24 May 2022 By
Leeds Art Gallery_Resting Acrobats, 1924_Oil_mention-min

“The more personal has been my desire to create some expression of my own emotional or spiritual experience, the more readily have I accepted the aid of a theme drawn from myth or legend.”

Philpot, Apollo magazine, 1933

Glyn Warren Philpot, RA (1884-1937) is the subject of an exuberant new exhibition – Glyn Philpot: Flesh and Spirit – at CAS Museum Member, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester. It is curated by its Director, Simon Martin, who, after 20 years since he first submitted on this subject for a post-graduate thesis, has written an excellent monograph of the artist with an introduction by the Booker prize-winning author, Alan Hollinghurst. The artist’s artwork is published in full colour for the first time and the catalogue is interspersed with interesting well-sourced historical black and white contextual photographs – some of which also act as a backdrop on the exhibition’s walls.

Philpot studied in a traditional manner at the Lambeth School of Art and at the Académie Julian, Paris. He first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1904 and was elected an academician as early as 1923, the youngest artist at the time. He was initially celebrated for his Edwardian-style English society portraits, emulating the great John Singer Sargent. He also picked up where Sargent had left off, with post-Gilded Age American clients, like Miss Isabelle McBirney, 1913, in her sumptuous orange velvet dress, subtly lit against a plain background, whose eye you catch a glimpse of from one room to another, if you look back.

From his well-paid earnings Philpot was able to travel widely, throughout Europe, Africa and to the USA but it was after influential visits to Paris and Berlin in the 30s, that he fully embraced modernism. He had also taken the RMS Mauretania with the artist and his close friend, Vivian Forbes, in August 1930 to New York. Along with Henri Matisse, he was on his way to be a juror for the Carnegie International Prize. He visited Harlem in Manhattan which was at the peak of its cultural ‘renaissance’. In his own inimitable style and technique in painting, drawing and sculpture, Philpot maintained an interest in the thematic but from an unconventional point of view.

He was a known homosexual, despite its illegality at the time, which was still euphemised even in the previous retrospective exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in 1984 – and was also a devout Christian, having converted to Roman Catholicism in 1905. He often used biblical scenes as his subject matter when religious or mythological depictions in painting had become less prevalent in 20th century avant-garde art. His abstruse homoerotic imagery had always been simmering – faith colliding with passion – as in the Repose on the Flight into Egypt, 1922, at Tate but it was his 1932 exhibition at the Leicester Galleries, London that shocked many of his clients. It caused his financial downfall – despite being a prolific exhibitor, including representing Britain at the 1930 Venice Biennale..

Like Degas and the young Picasso, Philpot also depicted performers, similarly soulful – The Resting Acrobats, 1924, Leeds Art Gallery is displayed here in such a manner that their gaze hauntingly follows you from one room to another.

Throughout his career, Philpot produced a series of striking male portraits of sitters of African descent which are wonderfully shown together as groups in the rooms of his earlier years. Their display emphasises how they are portrayed in an individual sensitive manner not hitherto much represented homogeneously in the Western canon of art history, including the stunningly contemporary looking Head of a Black Man, c.1913-14 that has not been seen in public for a hundred years. Black sitters were an enduring motif and included in the exhibition particularly is the Jamaican Henry Thomas, albeit Philpot’s servant as well as companion. He was a favourite model and the subject of several portraits and studies, including the profile to right against decorative wallpaper, reminiscent of a Renaissance ruler. It is owned by Pallant House Gallery having been bequeathed by one of the artist’s nieces Mrs Rosemary Newgas in 2004. Henry is also depicted in the role of Balthazar, 1929, one of the three wise men from the biblical Adoration of the Kings – the Macedonian proffering myrrh to the Holy Family but depicted, heroically, alone. He is also the model for the strident bronze Walking Jamaican Man, 1929, which pays homage to one of Philpot’s favourite sculptors, Auguste Rodin.

A recently re-discovered portrait of Paul Robeson (1898-1976), the American actor and black rights campaigner, in his acclaimed London appearance as the protagonist in Shakespeare’s Othello, 1930, also features. His likeness, Simon Martin has pinpointed after extensive research for the exhibition. It had been archaically called ‘Head of a Negro’ – a term still shamefully prevalent, especially in North America today, where the picture was, after being sold by Philpot’s family in 1944. It is particularly curious, his identity was misplaced as Robeson and his wife stayed with Philpot at Baynards Manor.

The Contemporary Art Society successfully acquired three of Philpot’s works and, sadly, the bronze Oedipus replying to the Sphinx, 1931, is not included. The subject, with its consideration of the varied notions of sexuality, was alluring to Philpot who depicted the story several times during his career. He painted a decorative mural on silver foil for Gwen Wilson Mond, Lady Melchett (1899-1982). For the drawing room at Mulberry House in Smith Square, 1931, he painted ‘Oedipus replying to the Sphinx’ which depicted the two characters together — the Tate sculpture shows him alone in a contemplative stance, preparing his answer to the Sphinx.

Eschewing the many portraits of patrician sitters, this exhibition demonstrates the more intimate exploration of his artistic practice whilst showing how diverse he could be. Referencing both the old masters and modernists in his own idiosyncrasies. It is exciting to see that many of the exhibits have been borrowed from private collections. The richly glazed portrait commissions of Sir Philip Sassoon, 1914, The Countess of Dalkeith, 1921 and Loelia, Duchess of Westminster, 1929-30, are interspersed with beautifully intimate 1920s period pictures of his sisters and nieces in pairs, and later an almost monochrome rendering – where the paint has hardly touched the canvas – of the fashionable Gertrude as Mrs Clement Cross, 1934. These coincide with unusual subject pictures of a more obscure deliberation like Penelope, 1923, The Transfiguration of Dionysius before the Tyrrhenean Pirates, 1924, and the crazy The Threehold Epiphany, 1929.