Glyn Philpot review – a master portraitist’s secret gay passion

Fashion elevated Glyn Philpot, but it also cast him aside. Before and after the first world war, Philpot painted the spirited lovelies – suited or skirted – of London’s high society. He died unexpectedly shortly before the next war. By the time the dust of that conflict settled, his silken party people looked outmoded, remnants of times past.

Philpot had also turned his brush to more personal passions: the male body and portraits of Black men. It is these works that have stimulated the reappraisal of an artist who had long-since slipped out of view.

Philpot was a prodigy, becoming the youngest Royal Academician of his generation. After close study of works by Diego Velázquez, and, later Édouard Manet, by the 1910s and 20s he was confecting flattering, somewhat old-fashioned likenesses. “Bright Young Thing” Loelia Ponsonby is seen awash in bias-cut satin, lush fur and gemstones. The Countess of Dalkeith stands out against darkness as a razor-cheeked waif in clouds of gauzy white, a woman less substantial than the fleshy magnolia flowers jabbing toward her.

Glyn Philpot.
Magpie creativity … Glyn Philpot. Photograph: Everett/Shutterstock

Philpot appears an artist – and a man – pulled in several directions. A practising Roman Catholic and gay, mesmerised by performance and masquerade, he allowed his interest in the male nude to play out in (at times awkward) symbolist works on classical themes. Influenced by developments in Paris and Berlin, in 1930 he experimented with modernism, painting the chrome, glass and glow of the transforming city. Indebted to Picasso, Cocteau and Matisse, Philpot’s new style was less appreciated in London.

His interest in Black subjects was unusual for its time. Some were performers: Portrait of Paul Robeson as Othello (1930) was rediscovered during research for this exhibition (an earlier painting of the African American tenor Roland Hayes singing is still unaccounted for). In Paris, he painted two portraits of Julien Zaïre, a Martiniquan who performed in cabaret as Tom Whiskey. Positioned against the tubular furniture of a chic interior, Zaïre is the acme of handsome sophistication in black tie and pomade.

Philpot’s favourite Black model was a Jamaican-born man named Henry Thomas. Thomas worked with Philpot for eight years, sitting for him until a few weeks before the artist’s death in 1937. At first he was paid a retainer: later he joined Philpot’s household in a combined role as model and servant. Philpot painted him in character as Balthazar (1929) and Harlequin (1937), and his body was used as an anonymous arrangement of limbs (male or female) in paintings of acrobats or classical subjects.

He is also the subject of studies, drawings and paintings in his own right, sometimes named, though often not. Philpot paints him adoringly, relishing the particularity of his face. The elongated, statuesque Head of a Jamaican Man, Heroic Scale (Henry Thomas) (1937) brims with emotion. A profile against a red background is a glorious, richly coloured character study in which the contours of Thomas’s face are described in licks of deep rose and indigo.

How should we now approach these paintings, in which the social and economic asymmetry between Philpot and Thomas is so uncomfortably evident – and suggestive of exploitative fetishisation of this Black man’s body? Cultural historian Kobena Mercer has suggested that Thomas may have had a different kind of power within this relationship: that of the elusive object of desire. “Philpot was undoubtedly attracted to Thomas’s blackness, yet the way in which he, as an artist, repeatedly returned to his favourite model suggests that Thomas’s beauty gave him, as a servant, a degree of power, too. Was there something in this interplay across racial lines that eluded capture, thus sparking off the artist’s quest to depict him again and again?”

Related: Lost portrait of black actor and rights campaigner Paul Robeson to go on show

Thomas was not Philpot’s only long-term model. From 1924, a striking drawing in red chalk presents George Bridgman, a young Caucasian man with unruly red hair, a broken nose and an angular, heavy-boned face from which gaze eyes of otherworldly pallor. Philpot draws Bridgman as a malevolent beauty, mesmerised by both the face and the body. As with Thomas, Bridgman was paid a retainer and appears in many guises over 18 years: as working men in dramatic street scenes; acrobats clad in sheeny pink satin; stripped to the waist, hair tangled with vine leaves, as Dionysus in the high camp of transfiguration.

This show is a passion project for Pallant House’s director, Simon Martin, who first saw one of Philpot’s paintings of Thomas as a student more than 20 years ago, and went on to write an MA thesis on the artist. Those decades of devotion are writ large in this exhibition, which allows us to rediscover Philpot in all his magpie complexity, and to afford his treatment of homoerotic subjects the honest appreciation they could not have received in his lifetime.