Handsome, erudite and well connected, Glyn Philpot made a considerable name for himself in the 1910s and 1920s as a fashionable society portrait painter. After the First World War Philpot’s style became especially robust, acquiring a painterly machismo drawn from his study of Italian Renaissance masters Andrea Mantegna and Titian, as well as the portraits of Hans Holbein.
A deeply spiritual man, Philpot converted to Roman Catholicism in 1905, and elaborate religious paintings commanded his attention throughout the 1920s. These coexisted alongside the artist’s commitment to painting male beauty and the male nude, passions fuelled by the succession of striking young men who passed through his life as friends, employees or lovers (and sometimes all three combined) in an era of fluid if still highly closeted sexuality in Britain.
In 1931 Philpot travelled to Berlin, where the German capital’s politically dangerous and sexually charged atmosphere affected him profoundly. The city’s decadent nightlife, and the grimly satiric art of George Grosz and Otto Dix forced him to confront the many contradictions in his own life and art. Secluding himself in Paris, in an ultra-modernist steel and glass studio apartment, he now sought to reinvent himself, leaving his former Edwardian and Renaissance ideals far behind and experimenting with radical new paintings that engaged with Pablo Picasso and Surrealism and explored the erotically heightened milieus of the modern metropolis.
These dramatic changes in style and subject matter were unveiled at his one-man exhibition at the Leicester Galleries, London, in June 1932, where Philpot shocked the London art world with a shift to dry, chalky textures, a cool pastel palette and semi-abstracted compositions unified by elegant silhouettes.
Oedipus, 1931–32, a modernist reworking of a subject long sanctioned in art – the classical tale of the Greek antihero Oedipus’s confrontation with the terrifying and deceitful Sphinx – was arguably among the least provocative paintings shown by Glyn Philpot in his highly controversial exhibition at the Leicester Galleries in the summer of 1932. It was certainly tamer than other works in the show that now scandalised London’s art world with their depictions of decadent Berlin nightlife and intimations of a sexual profligacy that all but flaunted the artist’s hitherto ‘unspoken’ homosexuality –even if this Oedipus was strangely nubile and scantily clad, and bearing the noble features of Philpot’s handsome young German companion, Karl Heinz Müller.
The dialogue between Oedipus and the Sphinx, a favourite topic for the artist, featured prominently in the decorations Philpot had recently undertaken for the drawing room of Lord and Lady Melchett’s residence in Westminster, Mulberry House; and he was still absorbed by the subject when he painted this smaller, dazzling canvas in which crisp Art Deco silhouettes are enchained by Euclidian geometric tension.
The ‘primitive’ features and massive petrified wings of this Sphinx contain strong echoes of the controversial guardian spirit Jacob Epstein had carved in 1908–12 for Oscar Wilde’s tomb in the Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Its powerful grip on the painting’s Oedipus figure, itself a cipher for the artist’s libido, encapsulates Philpot’s struggle at this time with both his sexuality and the modernist esprit that he had moved to Paris in 1931 to confront and assimilate.
Despite the controversy aroused by Philpot’s new show, and a lamentation that the artist had ‘virtually abandoned that fine, scholarly and richly competent performance which placed him in the front rank of contemporary British painters’, Oedipus was generally well received in the London press.1F. Gordon Roe, ‘The riddle of Glyn Philpot’, Connoisseur, vol. 90, no. 372, Aug. 1932, p. 125. Oedipus was purchased for the National Gallery of Victoria by the critic Randall Davies, acting in his capacity as Adviser to the Felton Bequests’ Committee. Randall Davies, the husband of the Philpot’s friend Gladys Miles, who had shared a studio with him in Chelsea in 1903, had known the artist for at least two decades. Around 1912, while he and Gladys were still courting, Philpot had painted Davies’s portrait.
At the time of his 1932 exhibition Philpot had written to Davies in a state of vexation:
I hope you won’t lose faith in me as so many people are doing at the moment! I know I am on the way to doing something better, in the only possible direction which is now genuine and real and true to me.2Davies transcribed this correspondence from Philpot when he wrote to the National Gallery of Victoria to announce his purchase of Oedipus. Randall Davies, letter to the Felton Bequests’ Committee and NGV, 28 Jul. 1932, artist file, National Gallery of Victoria.
In acquiring for Australia an example of this unique moment in the career of one of Britain’s most intriguing contemporary artists, Davies also affirmed his faith in the aesthetic integrity of an old friend.
The controversy surrounding his 1932 exhibition made many of Philpot’s clients nervous. Portrait commissions, once the mainstay of his practice, all but dried up in 1932–33, and despite staging four one-man exhibitions in quick succession, Philpot was increasingly beset by financial problems as his new paintings failed to fetch the prices his work had earlier enjoyed. These worries took a dramatic toll on the artist’s health even as critics began to belatedly appreciate the extraordinary new dimensions his art was now attaining.
In an article published shortly after the fifty-three-year-old Glyn Philpot’s untimely death from heart failure in 1937, The Studio outlined the dilemma the artist had faced in these last five years of his life:
To the academician it seemed that he had suddenly become a revolutionary. To the modernist his adoption of a new style did not agree with their conception of the modern idiom. Philpot thus found himself occupying a curiously lonely and individual position as a rebel.3‘Academic rebel. The case of Glyn Philpot, R. A.’, The Studio, vol. 116, no. 547, Oct. 1938, p. 202.
Ted Gott, Senior Curator, International Art, National Gallery of Victoria
F. Gordon Roe, ‘The riddle of Glyn Philpot’, Connoisseur, vol. 90, no. 372, Aug. 1932, p. 125.
Davies transcribed this correspondence from Philpot when he wrote to the National Gallery of Victoria to announce his purchase of Oedipus. Randall Davies, letter to the Felton Bequests’ Committee and NGV, 28 Jul. 1932, artist file, National Gallery of Victoria.
‘Academic rebel. The case of Glyn Philpot, R. A.’, The Studio, vol. 116, no. 547, Oct. 1938, p. 202.