‘Orchidaceous’ was the adjective The Times obituarist used to encompass the lifework of the highly accomplished British artist Glyn Philpot (1884-1937) and, by implication, the man himself. Throughout Philpot’s life, gay men were mockingly likened to ‘exotic’ and/or ‘unnatural’ (oversized or impossibly coloured) flowers. In his professional and private lives, Philpot oscillated between establishment and anti-establishment. At the height of his career in the 1920s, he was fashionable society’s most desirable portrait artist, able to command eye-watering fees that bought him the time to portray his chosen subjects - invariably male; often Black models, dandies and/or performers. Outsiders, like himself.
Glyn Philpot: Flesh and Spirit is undoubtedly timely, but not strategically so. This exhibition (the first major retrospective since 1984 at London’s National Portrait Gallery), and accompanying book, evidence two decades of research and reflection by Simon Martin, Director of Pallant House Gallery. The sub-title Flesh and Spirit is more than a riff on the popular phrase ‘body and soul’; it communicates the essential humanity, eroticism and esoteric qualities of Philpot’s best work.
From childhood, Philpot demonstrated prodigious artistic talent. He studied at Lambeth School of Art and became the youngest full Royal Academician of his generation. For Glyn Philpot: Flesh and Spirit, Martin takes us on a journey through four galleries, revealing Philpot’s early work, which drew upon the methods and sumptuous colour palette of the Spanish and Italian Old Masters (he adored the work of Velázquez, Titian and Veronese), and through to the artist’s dramatic shift to modernism. Individually, many of the paintings – mostly portraits, but also mythological and religious subjects (Philpot converted to Roman Catholicism in 1906), flowers, underwater scenes, book plates and illustrations – are exceptional. Martin’s masterful storytelling achieves the curatorial standard of excellence by which placing one painting (or object) next to, or opposite, another makes one and one equal three.
In the first gallery, we are introduced to Philpot via his sole Self-Portrait (1908) in which he stands, wearing a white shirt and sleeveless pullover, palette in hand. Adjacent is a 1934 photograph of the artist, standing in the same pose and wearing similar clothes, in which we meet Henry Thomas, a Jamaican man, who is given centre stage in the show. At this time, it was highly unusual for an artist to be photographed with a Black model and thus Martin sets the scene for an exhibition in which members of the aristocracy are shown alongside circus performers and little-known models. And, in so doing, evidences not only the artist’s oeuvre, but also his biography.
Between 1912 and 1914, Philpot painted a series of portraits of Black models. From 1929, Henry Thomas became his principal muse and model. He painted and drew Thomas (sometimes naming him, sometimes not); depicted him in character as Balthazar (1929) and Harlequin (1937) and sculpted him in bronze as Walking Jamaican Man (1929). Jamaican Man in Profile (1934-35) depicts Thomas posed against a vibrant red batik backdrop; this painting is reproduced on the accompanying book cover. One of the six erudite chapters focuses upon Henry Thomas, in which Martin observes that, ‘…Philpot created a space for the sensitive representation of the Black male, not as racist stereotype, but as beautiful, modern, and elevated on the aesthetic ideal of the nude and portrait in Western culture.’ Between 1931-32, the artist painted three portraits and drew the Black model Julien Zaïre. He portrayed him wearing black and white tie; a picture of refined, jazz age sophistication.
Philpot was a keen observer of fashion, dress and textiles. His depictions of creased cotton shirt sleeves; lustrous ikat woven silk, the matte texture of uniform face cloth and crisp organza are expertly executed. His portrait A Young Breton (1914), looks so contemporary; in fact his clothes are stylistically very similar to those I wear. In Loelia, Duchess of Westminster (1929-30), the artist captures perfectly the sheen of the ivory-coloured silk satin, bias-cut, gown that encircles her feminine body and the texture of the fur-trimmed opera cloak that falls from one shoulder. She poses, perhaps surprisingly, against a Coromandel screen and holds a camellia; both attributes intimately associated with Coco Chanel, the Duke of Westminster’s former lover whom he left in order to make a ‘respectable’ marriage. In his 1930s modernist portraits, Philpot often portrays dress using flat, patterned surfaces and dry brush strokes. Miss Guendolen Cleaver (1933), sporting a pert conical hat, elegant black dress with dropped sleeves and red painted fingernails, is a study in modern female chic.
I first viewed Philpot’s paintings at Brighton Museum in the early 1980s; the artist was local and the museum houses the largest public collection of his work (14 pieces), donated posthumously and lent by the artist’s family to ensure his legacy. Acrobats Waiting to Rehearse (1935), redolent of Picasso’s rose period (1904-06), is among the exhibition loans from Brighton. Like Philpot’s earlier portrait of Nijinsky, we observe two men with fine musculature (neither acrobats, Henry Thomas was a body model for one), from behind the curtain occupying private space. Yet, their arched eyebrows alert us they are fully aware of our gaze. Martin describes the painting as an exercise in studied homoeroticism, expressive of an identity that could not be openly expressed (at a time when sex between men was criminalised).
Since his premature death (from sudden stroke), the work of this daring and prodigiously talented artist has variously passed in and out of vogue, but is surprisingly little known. Glyn Philpot: Flesh and Spirit will remedy this.
Glyn Philpot: Flesh and Spirit runs 14 May to 23 October 2022.