Pallant House Gallery opens a major exhibition of the work of Glyn Philpot

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Pallant House Gallery opens a major exhibition of the work of Glyn Philpot
Glyn Philpot [1884 – 1937), Entrance to the Tagada, 1931, Oil on canvas, Private Collection Photo © The Fine Art Society, London, UK / Bridgeman Images.

CHICHESTER.- Pallant House Gallery is presenting the first major exhibition in almost 40 years of the British artist Glyn Philpot R.A. (1884-1937). Bringing together over 80 paintings, drawings and sculptures, many unseen in public for decades, the exhibition charts the artist’s development from Edwardian swagger portraits to a radically modernist style in the 1930s. It includes Philpot’s portraits of actors, dancers, poets, society hostesses, male lovers, friends and family members. The exhibition also examine the artist’s important contribution to the sensitive representation of black sitters from the 1910s to 1930s, as well as his exploration of both queer and religious subjects.

Glyn Philpot enjoyed a prodigious rise to fame winning a scholarship to Lambeth School of Art in 1900 where he created early works inspired by Pre-Raphaelite and Arts & Crafts movements. After encountering the works of Velázquez, Titian and Manet, during his studies at the Académie Julian in Paris and travels in Spain, he created a series of sumptuous figure paintings with rich glazes influenced by the Old Masters. Philpot went on to become a highly successful and soughtafter portrait painter, based in London. He achieved international recognition when one of his works was acquired by the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, following its showing at the 1910 Venice Biennale, and he won First Prize at the Carnegie International Exhibition in Pittsburgh, USA in 1913. That year, and again in 1921, he spent several months in the USA, where he painted portraits of society figures in Chicago including The Man in Black (1913), depicting his lover Robert Allerton who was dubbed ‘the richest bachelor in Chicago’, and Isabelle McBirney (1913), both of which have been included in the exhibition.

Philpot’s sitters included a Who’s Who of British society, from glamorous duchesses and countesses, such as Loelia, Duchess of Westminster, whom he painted in 1930, to poets and writers including Siegfried Sassoon, painted during the First World War, and actors such as Glen Byam Shaw, who he painted as the character Laertes in Hamlet in 1934-5. Alongside these portraits, Philpot gained a reputation for his paintings, sculptures and drawings of unknown black sitters, and central to the exhibition is an exploration of how these relate to wider dialogues about identity and representation in modern art. In 1912-13, Philpot produced what is possibly the first recorded group of portraits of black subjects in Modern British art, which include sensitive paintings of an Ethiopian model known as ‘Billy’. The exhibition also includes his Portrait of a Black Man (1913-14) which has been recently rediscovered, having not been shown in public since 1923 when it was part of Philpot’s first retrospective at The Grosvenor Galleries. In 1928-9, he was introduced by the theatre designer Oliver Messel to Henry Thomas, a Jamaican ship stoker, who had missed his boat home. Thomas was the model for a compelling series of paintings, drawings, and sculptures over the next eight years, including Philpot’s powerful Jamaican Man in Profile (Henry Thomas) (1934-35) and Head of a Man, Heroic Scale (1937), both of which will be on display.

Philpot’s career was defined by seemingly opposed contradictions: between tradition and modernity; society portraits and unknown black models; and religious subjects and bold expressions of queer identity at a time when it was illegal to be homosexual. Philpot was a convert to Catholicism and even became President of the Guild of Catholic Painters. However, he created paintings of religious subjects that are often homoerotic in tone, such as Resurgam (1930) and Angel of the Annunciation (1925), a very modern interpretation of the Annunciation where the viewer takes on the perspective of Mary. Alongside these, he presented modern interpretations of Greek and Roman myths, which arguably he used to explore themes relating to his homosexuality under the cloak of classicism, such as Penelope (1923) and Echo and Narcissus (1930).

During a third visit to the USA in 1930, when he travelled with Henri Matisse to Pittsburgh to judge the Carnegie Institute Prize, Philpot visited Harlem, then in the midst of the black cultural movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. Following this trip, Philpot took a modernist studio in Montparnasse filled with Bauhaus chrome furniture in which he painted a series of paintings of French Caribbean cabaret performers and nightclub doormen. This group of works included three masterful portraits of a Martinican called Tom Whiskey, whose real name was M. Julien Zaïre. During a trip to Berlin in October 1931 he met a young German called Karl-Heinz Müller (a lover of Christopher Isherwood, whose novel Goodbye to Berlin was adapted into the musical Cabaret) who subsequently appeared in several paintings that reflect the influence of the German Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) art. This dramatic change of style in the 1930s, in which he abandoned tradition for the clean lines of Art Deco modernism, was a move that led to newspaper headlines declaring that Philpot had ‘gone Picasso’. Having been able to charge up to £3000 for a portrait, he moved away from society portraiture to painting with increased freedom in terms of subject matter and personal expression. This included a series of exquisite still life paintings, watercolours produced in North Africa, and paintings of circus performers and Russian ballet dancers.

Philpot died of a stroke in 1937, just as he was receiving acclaim for his modern style. He was given a memorial exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 1938. Although he was best known in his lifetime for his society portraiture, Philpot created one of the most substantial and sensitive artistic records of the black presence and of queer culture in Britain and Europe in the years before the Second World War.

The exhibition includes loans from public institutions including Tate, National Portrait Gallery, Victoria and Albert Museum, the Fitzwilliam Museum, the Ashmolean Museum, Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, Victoria Art Gallery Bath, Leeds City Art Gallery, Manchester Art Gallery, Jerwood Collection and the Royal Pavilion and Museums Trust Brighton and Hove, as well as numerous private collections.

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