LONDON – In the early 20th century, Glyn Philpot was one of Britain’s most respected portrait painters. The artist was known for depicting high society sitters in a style that emulated the old masters, so his works hung comfortably on the walls of his clients’ country homes alongside generations of their family members.
“All the newspapers are now raving about P. Did you see?” Philpot’s friend Gladys Miles wrote to art historian Randall Davies in 1910. “Everyone rushes to be painted like sheep.”
By the 1930s, however, Philpot’s painting style had not only become more modern, incorporating abstracted backgrounds and a In addition to a lighter palette, he also painted sensitive portraits of blacks, some of which, unusually for the time, were shown at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.
Philpot’s most frequent black subject was Henry Thomas, a Jamaican who met the painter in 1929 and became his servant and muse until Philpot’s death in 1937. In “Balthazar,” painted the year they met, Philpot introduced Thomas as one of the wise men of the Bible. In tasteful studies of Thomas himself, Philpot has carefully rendered the textures, shades, and contours of Thomas’s hair and skin.
Several portraits of Thomas, along with other paintings of black sitters, are part of Glyn Philpot: Flesh and Spirit, which is on view at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, England, until October. The exhibition is the first major retrospective of Philpot’s paintings in almost 40 years and comes at a time when his work is finding new resonance.
In the gallery, the pieces are generally displayed chronologically, from the printed books Philpot made as a student around the turn of the century to his final works of 1937. Among the paintings of aristocrats and celebrities that marked his career are his dignified and varied portraits of the black sitters stood out.
But when it came to putting the exhibition together, Simon Martin, his curator and director of the museum, thought some of the paintings’ original names were out of date, he said in a recent interview.
In Philpot’s day, many of these works were simply called ‘Head of a Negro,'” Martin said. “On the spectrum of titles, it’s probably on the more acceptable side” for the early 20th century, he added. “But in 2022, if we’re able and making an effort to find out who these people are and where they’re coming from, I think we should,” Martin said.
To do this, he worked with a team of consultants including Alayo Akinkugbe, who founded the Instagram account ABlackHistoryOfArt; the British opera singer and broadcaster Peter Brathwaite; and Michael Hatt, who teaches art history at the University of Warwick. When possible, they retitled Philpot’s paintings to include the model’s name and place of birth and to avoid mentioning the sitter’s race.
It’s not the first time that portrait names have been revised to provide more information about their black subjects. For a 2019 exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, works by Manet, Picasso and Cézanne were renamed to reflect the names of the black models.
The original title of a 1778 painting by David Martin of Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray referred only to the white British aristocrat Lady Elizabeth. Dido, who was black, was thought to be a slave or mate up until the 1990s, until research revealed the couple were related and had a comparable upbringing in British aristocracy (the painting inspired the 2014 film Belle ).
Organizations such as the National Trust, a British heritage conservation charity, have also begun to re-examine how the artworks in their major collections depict black people. “It is important that we do not delete the original language as this sheds light on historical viewpoints, but we have carefully updated the information on some artworks,” a National Trust spokesman said via email. For example, the 18th-century portrait of ‘A Young Coachman’ in Erddig, a National Trust property in North Wales, now contains information as to who the black man in the painting might be.
The National Trust’s ongoing efforts to recognize Britain’s colonial past have met with some opposition, and deciding whether to rename artworks can be complex. “Some believe that changing the name might change the artist’s intent,” said Esi Edugyan, whose recent collection of essays, Out Of The Sun: Essays at the Crossroads of Race, examines the relationship between Western art and black people. “If the artist himself chose the name, then the intent of that gesture needs to be considered,” she added.
Martin and his team of consultants felt that renaming Philpot’s work was appropriate, since it was most likely the auction houses of the time that gave his paintings their generic titles, rather than the artist himself. “A name like ‘Melancholy Negro’ is not very descriptive,” Akinkugbe said in a telephone interview. “Even if Philpot called it that, I don’t think he would question the socio-political context that we’re in now, which means we’re renaming it.”
Martin said that Philpot’s experiences as a gay man at a time when sexual activity between men was a criminal offense in Britain gave the artist a sense of connection with his black models. “Even though he’s doing everything he can to fit in and be a part of society, you always get the feeling that somehow he doesn’t,” Martin said.
Despite this, there was a deeply uneven power dynamic between Philpot’s social standing and a number of his black subjects, particularly in the case of Thomas, his servant. But the care with which he portrayed black people still contrasted with some of his peers’ approaches. Martin compared his work to the French artist Paul Colin, known for his Art Deco poster illustrations around the same time.
“You look at some of these depictions of Josephine Baker, for example, and they border on caricature at times,” Martin said. Baker, who became one of Europe’s most popular artists in the 1920s, was often depicted by Colin as topless with stereotypically big red lips. “You never get that in Philpot’s work,” Martin added.
In recent years, exhibitions, podcasts and researchers have examined how Black people are portrayed in European art. Though this has been particularly notable since the ” reckoning moment ” of George Floyd’s murder in 2020, Edugyan said, “Among artists whose primary subject is representation – literally, how something is represented and seen – the discussions about visibility have grown of blacks may have always kept an eye on the bigger picture, on the changing perception of blackness over the centuries.”
When Philpot began painting more black and working-class subjects in a modernist style, many in the art world were confused and even offended. “Glyn Philpot ‘goes Picasso,'” wrote The Scotsman newspaper in 1932 after one of his new paintings was unveiled at the Royal Academy.
But viewed today, Philpot’s portraits speak to current discussions about representation in art and reveal a depth of feeling that lingers a century later.