I owe Glyn Philpot an apology on several counts. On entering this fascinating exhibition, I realised it almost immediately.
I’ve always thought that the British artist, born in 1884, created one mesmerising painting. My impression of him beyond this, though, was of a rather sad figure: a woefully conventional portrait painter, who died young with his tentative stabs towards modernism and repressed homosexuality painfully unresolved. That one remarkable work – a portrait, in fact, of his Black servant – seems to have been created almost by accident.
Jamaican Man in Profile (Henry Thomas), which is also the work he is best known for by far, is a portrait of a young Black man against a brightly patterned red background. If the strong colour and decisive composition give the painting a proto-Pop Art feel, it’s the sitter’s expression, and the keenness with which it’s seen, that make this painting feel modern. There’s no attempt to spin a sob story around this man or to frame him patronisingly as a certain “type”, as has often been the case with white portrayals of Black people. With his hair growing slightly long, and the faintest of smiles playing over his lips, Henry Thomas seems a man who knows and accepts who he is – as indeed does the man who is watching and painting him.
It’s a work that immediately arouses questions: who was the subject, who was the artist, and what were they to each other? If it has never become one of the iconic images of multicultural Britain, it’s because it belongs to a completely different time, painted – though you’d never guess it at first glance – in 1935-6.
Where other talented gay artists of the time were driven to suicide – Christopher Wood and John Minton spring to mind – Philpot, raised in relatively modest circumstances in Clapham, seems to have been fairly comfortable in his sexuality as he carved out a highly lucrative career as a society portrait painter.
No tragic dilettantism here, then, and barely a trace of fumbled modernism, or even an awareness – certainly not in the first few rooms – that “Modern art” is even happening. From super-slick “swagger” portraits of duchesses and eminent politicians to skilful, but mostly very dark-toned street scenes and mythological works, most of these paintings could have been painted decades, some even a century, before their actual moment: the late 1910s to the 1930s.
If that doesn’t sound as though it will have the crowds flocking to Chichester, there’s more to Phlipot than that. There are quirky lunges towards modernism as the show progresses – notably a pink-tinged classical scene that had newspapers speculating that Philpot had “gone Picasso” – and an exuberant, camp theatricality evident in portraits of dancers and divas, and some decidedly wacky Art Deco-flavoured mural designs.
But what makes this exhibition more than an atmospheric trawl through a world of long-vanished glamour is the large number of paintings and drawings of Black men, very diverse in style and feel, which make a startling impact in this otherwise all-white and apparently culturally conservative haute monde.
At one end of the spectrum, there are Old Master-style portraits of mostly anonymous men, seen against dark backgrounds with almost Rembrandt-esque lighting, painted between 1911 and 1914. If there’s a sense of heightened, theatrical sensitivity to these images – and Philpot was above all a theatrical painter – these feel like real people sympathetically seen. At the other end, there’s Melancholy Man (1936), in which Philpot’s sometime servant Henry Thomas is painted naked except for a red posing pouch, in flat planes of colour, with a touch of Modigliani in the subtle elongation of the forms. Only 20 years divide these works, but they seem to belong to different dimensions of time and reality.
Thomas appears again and again in this exhibition, from that signature profile portrait, seen in the first room, to Balthazar (1929), in which the young Jamaican radiates romantic mystery as one of the Magi from the Bible, and a superbly elegant portrait in cool blues and greys – Head of a Jamaican Man, Heroic Scale (1937) – with incisive lines that look clearly towards Matisse.
Philpot’s focus on Thomas is so obsessive, yet so understated, we find ourselves immediately curious about the extent, and the purpose, to which he was making use of Thomas as a “captive” model. Indeed, one of the chief fascinations of an exhibition like this, and at this moment in history, must be in asking to what extent a leading white artist of that time, however well-meaning, was inevitably eroticising, exoticising and objectifying the Black male form.
This exhibition doesn’t attempt to offer an explanation for Philpot’s fascination with painting Black men, perhaps because there are no clear answers.
Philpot’s bond with Thomas seems to have gone beyond the classic, often mutually manipulative, master-servant relationship. Philpot got to know Thomas first as a professional model, and employed him as a servant at his country house in Sussex to have him on hand to model, but also – according to letters recounted in the show’s catalogue – to provide him with stability (Thomas drank). Judging by his oration at Philpot’s funeral, after the artist’s death from a cerebral haemorrhage aged 53, Thomas regarded the painter as a father and brother figure as much as an employer.
There is an undeniable eroticism in the way Philpot looks at Henry. He was clearly entranced by the column-like – conceivably phallic – effect of Henry’s narrow handsome head atop his extraordinarily long neck, evident in many pictures. Yet his interest remains cool, fugitive and removed from overt desire. Melancholy Man, the painting where we see most of Thomas’s body isn’t a “sexy” image. The one exception, where Philpot lets this mask of self-conscious chasteness slip, is in Henry Thomas Sitting –Back View (1937) – shown in the catalogue, but not included in the exhibition – where there is an evident sensuality in the rendering of the light on the muscles of Thomas’s long narrow back. Yet the emphasis is on looking rather than touching.
While Philpot’s paintings of north Africa, based on several visits, play up to western ideas of an exoticised Orient of languid pipe-smoking and veiled women, the same can’t be said of his images of Black men. They include notable figures of the time such as the great American actor, singer and activist Paul Robeson, painted in the role of Othello at London’s Savoy Theatre in 1930, and the Parisian cabaret performer Julien Zaire, shown in two exquisitely sensitive portraits. Zaire is seen deep in thought against a background of modernist furniture in an image that corresponds, the exhibition claims, to ideas of the “New Negro” then being propounded by the radical African-American Harlem Renaissance movement. Philpot’s conservative London background notwithstanding, that connection feels just about plausible. Yet even here you’re aware of something obscurely sexual in Philpot’s sense of empathy with the Black man. It’s a quality that’s likely to remain enigmatic to us, just as it probably did, in many respects to Philpot himself. It’s that fundamental sense of mystery that gives this intriguing exhibition its particular, piquant flavour.
‘Glyn Philpot: Flesh and Spirit’ runs at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester until 23 October