In the last decade, Pallant House Gallery in Chichester has made the running in rethinking 20th-century British art and what that might be, not least in the acclaimed centenary exhibition dedicated to John Minton in 2017, the 2012 double-header that saw Keith Vaughan set alongside Robin Ironside and the superlative Edward Burra show of 2011–12. Many of these artists’ works are present in more or less copious quantities in Tate, the National Portrait Gallery and other national collections, though the disappointing ‘Queer British Art 1861–1967’ (2017) at Tate Britain found space for just one or two canvases by each, crammed into one room, with a whole other room dedicated to yet another Bacon versus Hockney rematch.
This survey of the career of Glyn Philpot (1884–1937) offers another chance to interrogate tastes past and present. Having become a self-made Edwardian portraitist of some renown and some wealth too, Philpot effectively sabotaged his own future. He abandoned the ‘feel-good’ Edwardian palette inherited from the likes of John Singer Sargent to produce works that were challenging in form, incorporating symbolist, modernist and surrealist elements, as well as in subject matter – particularly the black male nude. The novelist Alan Hollinghurst recalls in a well-informed, agile introduction to the catalogue that the last major exhibition dedicated to Philpot was held at the National Portrait Gallery as long ago as 1984. Lest we forget, at the time many UK art institutions were facing political pressures and were firmly on the defensive. It was a brave move at that time for the National Portrait Gallery to seek to rehabilitate a gay artist like Philpot.
Born in Clapham in 1884 but raised in Kent, Philpot trained at the Lambeth School of Art and the Académie Julian in Paris. Fame came quickly: he exhibited at the Royal Academy aged nineteen; before reaching thirty, he had won the gold medal at the Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh.