Glyn Philpot: Flesh and Spirit – a show with a ‘particular, piquant flavour’

‘Comprehensive’ exhibition in Chichester seeks to re-evaluate painter’s career

Glyn Philpot painting
Jamaican Man in Profile (Henry Thomas) by Glyn Philpot, 1934-5, oil on canvas
(Image credit: Pallant House Gallery, Chichester)

In his heyday, Glyn Philpot enjoyed considerable success, said Alan Hollinghurst in The Daily Telegraph. Philpot (1884-1937) made his name as a society portraitist, depicting “the rich, the gifted and the famous” with something of John Singer Sargent’s “combination of daring ease and oldmasterly resonance”.

Then, around 1930, “at the height of his public success, he left England for Paris, had a brief revelatory immersion in Weimar Berlin, and dramatically altered his style” for something far more spare and modernist. In the decades following his early death, “he lapsed into obscurity along with his subjects”. Only a few of his works, such as his dashing wartime portrait of Siegfried Sassoon, are widely known today.

Now this “comprehensive” exhibition in Chichester seeks to re-evaluate this career, bringing together more than 80 paintings, drawings and sculptures, many of which have not been displayed in decades. It provides “a wonderful opportunity to look again at the full span of his work, in all its richness and strangeness”.

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Philpot was both gay and a Catholic convert, and his work evinced a “constant dialogue” between his faith and his sexuality, subjects he often explored in “a quirkily contemporary way”. Remarkably, too, he became “a painter of black subjects without rival among British artists of his time”.

“Philpot appears as an artist – and a man – pulled in several directions,” said Hettie Judah in The Guardian. His talent for “flattering, somewhat old-fashioned” portraits, inspired by Velázquez and Manet, made him a “prodigy” and the youngest Royal Academician of his generation. His portrait of the “bright young thing” Loelia Ponsonby, for instance, is “awash in bias-cut satin, lush fur and gemstones”, while a likeness of the Countess of Dalkeith sees her as a “razor-cheeked waif in clouds of gauzy white”.

Yet clearly, he harboured more adventurous ambitions: in the 1930s in Paris and Berlin he began painting “the chrome, glass and glow of the transforming city”; perhaps unsurprisingly, these painting proved less successful than his previous works.

More convincingly modern are Philpot’s depictions of black men, said Mark Hudson on The Independent. Highlights here include a likeness of the singer and activist Paul Robeson and two “exquisitely sensitive portraits” of the Parisian cabaret performer Julien Zaire, one of which depicts him against a background of sleek modernist furniture.

More intriguing still are the numerous pictures of Henry Thomas, his Jamaican-born model, servant and friend. Jamaican Man in Profile (Henry Thomas), deservedly Philpot’s best-known picture, sees its subject in profile against “a brightly patterned” background, “the faintest of smiles playing over his lips”. Stylistically, it is a “remarkable” work of “protoPop Art” that feels decades ahead of its time.

Unusually, there’s no attempt to frame him patronisingly as a certain racial “type”. Overall, this is a “fascinating” exhibition that refuses to make assumptions about its subject. Philpot remains an enigma, giving the show a “particular, piquant flavour”.

Pallant House Gallery, Chichester ( Until 23 October

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