By Christian Kile
Aged 22, having long felt a draw to the Christian faith, Glyn Philpot joined the Catholic Church. He attained a thorough grounding in Catholic doctrine, become a founding member of the Guild of Catholic Artists and regularly attended Sunday Mass. Lacking the inclination to align himself with an artistic movement, he nonetheless did well to form ties with patrons, keeping his homosexuality discreet and steering clear of the rakish life in ‘high society’. Philpot seems to have led a sensible and generous life – not the best way to go about being remembered as an artist in the modern age, which partially explains why he has been little known. There’s not much room for God in modernism.
In 1910 Philpot had his break, establishing himself with Manuelito, the Circus Boy, a picture of a young bullfighter, likened to Velazquez, that ended up in the Stedelijk Museum collection. Although Manuelito is not on show in this exhibition, it resulted in portraiture becoming Philpot’s bread and butter. After its success commissions began to mount up, some of which came from the beau monde, and all of this by the age of twenty-five, keeping him comfortable through his triumphant years (1919-1930).
His sitters could be challenging; a long drawn out and much postponed portrait commission for the King of Egypt, Fuad I followed. There are not many society portraits in the exhibition, which is a shame, but the ones on display are among some of the best works on show. The large-scale portrait of Loelia, Duchess of Westminster– said by Tatler to be ‘squadron leader of Society’s Young Brigade’ – resembles an understated John Singer Sargent, and other similar works, such as The Countess of Dalkeith and Siegfried Sassoon made me think of these paintings as the pictorial equivalent of Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, with its artists and manners, and in its sexuality.
Like Powell, Philpot made it into the world of riches without being unduly seduced by it. The friendship between Philpot and Sassoon was not close, and the greatest blow for Philpot perhaps came following a dinner when Sassoon claimed that the artist just fell short of the first rank, a sure way to injure their relationship.
Even a quick walk through this show reveals the variety of Philpot’s work. ‘Literary’ subjects of religious, historical and mythological subjects were his preference from the start, providing a break from the social contortions required for society portraits. At times he produced thoroughly anti avant-garde works such as The Transfiguration of Dionysus before the Tyrrhenean Pirates, which has something of G.F. Watts about it, with its palette and handling of the water. Maybe the curator was feeling optimistic when describing Philpot’s The Journey of the Spirit as a ‘timeless expression of heroic masculinity.’ The figures here seem closer to the estrangement of The Colossus, now tentatively attributed to Goya.
The early 1930s brought a change of style in Philpot’s work: although the typical figurative subject matter remained, there was a move away from society portraits. This decision has been seen as a move towards a more modernist approach. However, judging by the paintings on show it looks as if Philpot found himself somewhere other than the main camps that then dominated: not necessarily high avant-garde and no longer a sure fit for the Royal Academy. His painting The Great Pan caused a stir when it was rejected on the grounds of indecency. The offence was a lick of flame which both conceals and emphasises a man’s aroused penis. The prosperity and demand for his paintings he enjoyed in the 1920s were over.
Philpot’s homosexuality and inclination to use black sitters, often for portraits, make him an obvious choice for an exhibition in 2022. There aren’t many British artists in the early 20th century who made black subjects a dignified and significant part of their work. The exhibition opens with a portrait of Paul Robeson as Othello, in 1930, the first black actor to play the role since Ira Aldrich in the early 19th century. When asked about her kiss with Robeson, co-star Peggy Ashcroft said, ‘racial prejudices are foolish at the best of times, but I think it is positively foolish that they should even come into consideration where acting is concerned.’
This is the first large scale showing of Philpot’s work since 1984 and the exposure is well deserved. It is the kind of exhibition at which Pallant House excels; exhibiting a representative number of works from an underappreciated artist; in this case, one who chose to eschew self-publicity, fashion and egoistic drama, and opted instead to work diligently and embrace experimentation.