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Art review: Glyn Philpot: Flesh and Spirit at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester

08 July 2022

Jonathan Evens on an ‘outsider’ of the early-20th-century art world

Private Collection © Pallant House Gallery/Luke Unsworth

Glyn Philpot (1884-1937), Balthazar (1929)

Glyn Philpot (1884-1937), Balthazar (1929)

AT THE 1929 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, Glyn Philpot showed his portrait Lady Lloyd of Dolobran, plus three uncommissioned representations of a Jamaican male model: two paintings, The Threefold Epiphany and Balthazar, and the bronze sculpture Walking Jamaican Man. In the 1920s, the RA was not known for diversity of representation on its walls; so, although Philpot had previous form, having included several portraits of Black models in his 1923 Grosvenor Gallery exhibition, these works stood out. They encapsulate the main strands of Philpot’s work.

Pallant House Gallery, ChichesterGlyn Philpot, Portrait of Henry Thomas in Profile (1934-35)

Philpot had gained wealth and renown as a society portrait artist — the successor to John Singer Sargent — but, in the 1930s, made a modernist shift that reduced his commissions and income while enabling development as an artist exploring themes of identity and representation. These themes were of significance to him as an artist who was both Roman Catholic and homosexual. Simon Martin, Director of Pallant House Gallery and the exhibition’s curator, notes that “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.”

The year 1929 was significant for Philpot. as it was when he first met Henry Thomas, the male model for these three works. Thomas was a stowaway from Jamaica, who came to Britain as a stoker on a merchant vessel. It was also the year in which Philpot became a founding member and first President of the Guild of Catholic Painters, founded as part of the centenary celebrations for Catholic emancipation in Britain.

The Threefold Epiphany and Balthazar are both included in “Glyn Philpot: Flesh and Spirit”, along with his earlier Angel of the Annunciation (1925) and the slightly later Resurgam (1930). In 1930, Philpot, under the influence of Matisse, Picasso, and also German Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) art, abandoned his traditional style based on the Old Masters for the clean lines of Art Deco modernism. His subsequent focus was on “modern interpretations of Greek and Roman myths, which arguably he used to explore themes relating to his homosexuality under the cloak of classicism”.

He also painted a series of exquisite still-life paintings, watercolours produced in North Africa, and paintings of circus performers and Russian ballet dancers, wonderful examples of which can all be seen at Pallant House.

Angel of the Annunciation is a stunning image that places the viewer in the place of Mary or alongside, and in which a Pre-Raphaelite Gabriel, as he looks up at Mary, “reaches forward with an anemone flower, almost as if about to break through the picture plane, figuratively bringing the divine presence of the angel close to us”. As Simon Martin notes, this “has the effect of making our experience of the angel’s arrival feel direct and unmediated”.

Private Collection Photo © Piano Nobile Glyn Philpot, Profile of a Man with Hibiscus Flower (Félix) (1932)

Resurgam quotes the format of Piero della Francesca’s The Resurrection, but presents us with a sensuous depiction of a young Christ emerging from a chest tomb as a sleeping soldier from Pilate’s guard reclines alongside. Thomas Bromwell has suggested that the “erotic charge of this painting subverts Catholic iconography” and, in doing so, “Philpot achieves a reconciliation of homosexuality with the religious image that he otherwise struggled to achieve within his own life.” With this image, Philpot looks towards “a future related to eschatological resurrection and his homosexual acceptance”.

Martin argues that “Alongside his society portraits and subject paintings, Philpot created a space for the sensitive representation of the Black male, not as racist stereotype, but as beautiful, modern, and elevated on to the aesthetic ideal of the nude and portrait in Western culture.”

That is what we see in Balthasar, where Philpot eschews the other Magi to “focus entirely on the African king who brings myrrh to the child Jesus”. “With his head held aloft, he is depicted as empowered, noble and dignified.” He looks not at us, but to the Holy Family, placing us in a privileged position, as if witnessing Balthasar’s arrival among the Holy Family. Philpot paints in this way and with this sensibility because, Martin says, “As a queer man, Philpot was a social outsider himself, and so it is tempting to believe that he identified with an outsider of a different sort.”

“Glyn Philpot: Flesh and Spirit” is at Pallant House Gallery, 9 North Pallant, Chichester, until 23 October. Phone 01243 774557. pallant.org.uk

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