Modern British & Irish Art

Glyn Philpot: Sense and Sensuality

By Julia Fischel
Glyn Philpot died suddenly on 18th December 1937, one of Britain’s most celebrated artists, famed for his sensuous paintings of young men and his exquisite society portraits. Five days later his former lover Vivian Forbes committed suicide, unable to comprehend life without Philpot. Philpot and Forbes had shared a studio together on Lansdown Road in Holland Park, where a blue plaque commemorates the string of artists who lived and worked in the building. This illustrious list includes Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon, both hugely influential to Philpot’s artistic development, Philpot, Forbes, James Pryde (brother-in-law of William Nicholson), and F. Cayley Robinson.
Glyn Philpot. Photographer Unknown.

G lyn Philpot was born in 1884 in London. An ill and frail child, he was largely home schooled, until he began his art studies at the age of fifteen, first at the Lambeth School of Art in London and then at the famed Académie Julian in Paris. The youthful Philpot had a tendency towards the poetic and aesthetic, in part informed by the precedent of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, founded by Rossetti, Millais and Holman Hunt, and artists associated with them, particularly William Morris. As part of Made in Britain on 20 March, Sotheby’s will be offering a superbly luscious early work from this period, The Mermaid, dated around 1902-03. Depicting a woman – the mermaid – in swirling water, the painting is a cacophony of jewel-like blues, greens and whites with touches of red streaked through. The naked mermaid is sensuous and beguiling, her face covered by strands of surreally green hair.

Seen as something of a rising star, his first painting was accepted by the Royal Academy in 1904. Portraits of society figures constituted the bulk of his output at the outset of his career, including Siegfried Sassoon, who wrote of Philpot:

“His own existence was one that consisted largely in an ultra-refined appreciation of beautiful objects. He had what might be called a still-life temperament; his eyes delighted not so much in the living realities of nature as in the richness and elegance of things contrived by human handiwork. This was shown in his paintings of silks, velvets and brocades, and in anything which evoked his sensuous joy in surface qualities and harmonious arrangements of colour. Too subtle and fine to be accused of preciosity, his taste was superbly artificial. The interior environment he had devised for himself was a deliberately fastidious denial of war-time conditions, a delicate defense against the violence and ugly destruction which dominated the outside world.”

Much to the dismay of his practicising Baptist family, Philpot converted to Catholicism, in some part inspired by a trip around Continental Europe whilst based in Paris, and he became a fervent devotee. Subject matter inspired by Christianity frequently appears in his paintings, often filtered through a mystical or mythological lens, for example, Repose on the Flight into Egypt, 1922, Tate, a surreal landscape populated by centaurs and sphinxes surrounding a sleeping Holy Family. The same year, he painted his first major religious picture for a Catholic Church, Altarpiece of the Sacred Heart, for the new church of St Peter, Morningside, in Edinburgh. Around the same time, Philpot painted Working Drawing for ‘The Black Madonna’. Combining Christian iconography with his fascination for depicting black people, Philpot presents the Madonna and Child being adored, replete with music and dancing. The scene is one of delight in the exotic and Philpot’s perceived nobility of his black subjects in opposition to the artificiality of polite English society.

Philpot united his devout Catholicism with a homosexuality that existed in plain sight in his paintings. The Great God Pan was rejected by the Royal Academy in 1933, its potent mixture of overt modernism and sexuality proving too much for the traditional institution. This combined with his negrophilia ensured a certain notoriety, though his drawings and paintings of black models, particularly of his man servant Henry Thomas, are amongst the most sought after and admired of his oeuvre. The immensely subtle yet striking drawing Study of a Young Man will be offered as part of the upcoming Made in Britain sale.

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