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On display: the other faces of Glyn Philpot

In a new show at Pallant House Gallery, Glyn Philpot – known primarily as a portrait painter – is reassessed, bringing his depictions of Black models and queer desire the attention they deserve

Chloë Ashby
On display: the other faces of Glyn Philpot

Part way through ‘Glyn Philpot: Flesh and Spirit’, at Pallant House Gallery, is a painting of four circus performers waiting in the wings. Rather than the spectacle of the big ring, the artist provides a voyeuristic glimpse of the daily grind and the backstage emotions. A young boy cradles a monkey and tenderly kisses it on the cheek. A red-headed woman sits on a stool, slumped with exhaustion, in a daze. A man leans against a wall, one arm tucked behind his back, the other outstretched, providing an unobstructed view of his muscular body, barely covered in a pastel pink vest and shimmering briefs. Beside him, a second man in a matching get-up watches us watching him.

Part of the Chichester gallery’s mission is to provide new perspectives on overlooked British artists, and Philpot is ripe for reappraisal. From an early age he had talent and in 1900 he won a scholarship to Lambeth School of Art, where he made paintings inspired by the Pre-Raphaelite movement. During his studies at the Académie Julian in Paris and trips to Spain, he encountered the art of Manet, Titian and Velázquez, and in his early works he emulated their veiled backdrops. In the 1910s and 1920s, he became one of the most successful and best-paid artists in Britain.

With a flair for fashion and a style reminiscent of John Singer Sargent, Philpot made a name for himself as a society portraitist, painting aristocrats and countesses, actors and writers: Isabelle McBirney in an elegant clementine gown; Loelia Ponsonby, Duchess of Westminster, in a silk slip draped with furs. Philpot brought sophistication to his sitters and took care to record details, from the subtle gauze of a dress to the softly furled petals of a magnolia. His portrait of Siegfried Sassoon, in profile, wearing a dark jacket and a floppy shirt, presents the war poet as thoughtful rather than heroic.

Philpot afforded the same sensitivity to his portraits of Black sitters, who instead of secondary figures in subordinate roles – as was common at the time – are presented as individuals with presence and heft. On show in this exhibition are six portraits made between 1912 and 1914, as well as a newly discovered image of Paul Robeson, who in 1930 became the first Black actor since 1860 to play Othello. A moustachioed Ethiopian man called Billy appears first in a charcoal sketch with chalky highlights, and then again in an oil painting. In both works, he turns to the side. On the canvas, a Rembrandt-like golden-yellow light warms his flesh, setting him apart from the background.

Throughout his career, Philpot looked to art history and the Old Masters that hung in the National Gallery and further afield. He found inspiration in religion, merging biblical scenes and modern life, and in literature and film, too. Classical myths and legends inspired portraits of ancient Greek gods – among them, a bare-chested Dionysus – and watery paintings of fragmented stone figures at the bottom of the sea. His version of the Annunciation skips the Virgin entirely and focuses on a muscular angel, based on a favourite subject, George Bridgman, bursting through a brick threshold.

Though the label didn’t exist then, Philpot’s homoerotic desire shines through in his art – and his every excuse to depict a handsome male figure. Unlike the earlier Orientalist scenes painted by Delacroix and Ingres, which focused on the female nude, L’Apres-midi Tunisien (1922) is an intimate snapshot of two languid men. The preparatory drawings show the artist testing out various positions, which culminate on canvas with the slightest point of contact, a set of toes brushing against a knee. Similar sketches for a painting based on an episode from The Odyssey reveal how a naked man ended up cloaked – on the safe side of propriety.

Philpot’s art toggles between homosexuality and religious faith (he converted to Catholicism in 1906), high society and the working class, tradition and modernity. In the 1930s he turned away from the Old-Masterly portraits that had won him favour among the elite and took up a sparse modernist style. He moved to Paris, found a studio in Montparnasse and made portraits of folk he met at the Tagada Biguine nightclub: Félix, the doorman, dressed in lemon yellow with a hibiscus flower tucked behind his ear, and Julien Zaïre (stage name Tom Whiskey) in black tie.

It took time for his supporters to catch up with this shift and in 1937 he died of a stroke. Now, thanks to this striking retrospective at Pallant House Gallery – the first of Philpot’s work since his centenary show at the National Portrait Gallery in 1984 – we have the chance to appreciate anew his art and what it says about identity, sexuality and race.

Further reading

‘Glyn Philpot: Flesh and Spirit’ is on display at Pallant House Gallery until 23 Oct

Image credits, from top: Resting Acrobats, 1924. Leeds Museums and Galleries. Given by H. M. Hepworth, 1934 © Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery) U.K. Leeds Museums and Galleries, UK/Bridgeman Images; Profile of a Man with Hibiscus Flower (Félix), 1932. Private Collection Photo © Piano Nobile; Siegfried Sassoon, 1917. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; Head of an Ethiopian Man (Billy), 1912-13. Courtesy Agnews and Stephen Ongpin Fine Art, London; Balthazar, 1929. © Pallant House Gallery/Luke Unsworth; Acrobats Waiting to Rehearse, 1935. The Royal Pavilion & Museums Trust, Brighton & Hove, © Royal Pavilion & Museums Trust, Brighton & Hove; Glen Byam Shaw as ‘Laertes’ in Hamlet, 1934-35. Ömer Koç Collection. © Pallant House Gallery/Barney Hindle; Tom Whiskey (M. Julien Zaïre), 1931. Private collection. Courtesy of Richard Osborn Fine Art

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