Glyn Philpot, A Student with a Book, 1920. Ömer Koç Collection.
Glyn Philpot is one of those artists who should never have been forgotten. There’s a long discussion in ‘The History of Art’ which asks who the last ‘Old Master’ was – but of course it’s a question which has no answer. There is also a long discussion about whether the term ‘Old Master’ really has any validity nowadays. However, you could just conceivably argue that one answer to the first question would actually be ‘Glyn Philpot’. There is certainly no doubt that for the two thirds of his career he was consciously working in the tradition of the Old Masters. Not only did he have the most brilliant technique, but he also had a superb understanding of their work – as today’s painting demonstrates. The current exhibition at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester – the first retrospective of his work in 38 years – is a brilliant introduction to the artist and his career, and I’m looking forward to talking about it this Monday, 8 August at 6pm, as part of my series Looking in Different Ways, in a talk entitled Looking at Men. Two weeks later, and still part of that series, there will be an introduction to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s comprehensive exhibition Barbara Hepworth, which fits into my subseries Negative Spaces. I thought talks for the summer would end there, but there was so much material in the Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibition Reframed: The Woman in the Window, I ran out of time last week, and decided to do a cut-price sequel, Women Looking 2 – which will be on Monday 29 August at 6pm. All of these exhibitions are accompanied by superb books, rather than a ‘traditional’ catalogue. Chichester has published a monograph on Glyn Philpot – the first in 71 years – written by the curator of the exhibition, Simon Martin, who is also the director of the Pallant House Gallery – none of which is a coincidence. I can recommend it very highly – although it came out after I’d published a list of The best recent exhibition catalogues with Shepherd, a new book sales website, which might interest you.
Today’s painting was exhibited in 1920 under the title A Student with a Book next to another, The Rice Family. The student looks similar in appearance and dress to Mr and Mrs Rice’s son Bernard, and so it has long been assumed that he was the model for this work. The family had recently arrived in England from Austria: Bernard was born in 1900 in Innsbruck, and had studied drawing, painting and wood engraving even before arriving in London. The family had been interned in Austria during the First World War, and, according to the exhibition label for this painting, ‘Philpot found them accommodation in London and helped Rice to secure a place at Westminster School of Art’. Bernard went on to study at the Royal Academy Schools, but didn’t hang around: in 1922 he left for Yugoslavia, and continued to travel for much of his life, not dying until 1998.
Rice sits on a plain wooden table with a large book held open on his lap between the thumb and forefinger of each hand. Visible on the right hand page – the one which has more visual prominence when leafing through – is a monochrome image, presumably a black and white engraving. But then the painting as a whole is more-or-less monochrome, moving through a palette of ivory, creams and browns to black, with nothing quite as bright as high white, or even as dark as the deepest black. It is the palette you would associate with the late works of Leonardo, Rembrandt or Caravaggio, although the clarity of depiction is closer to the earlier, but mature phase, of the third of these. The sitter looks over his left shoulder, creating a strong twist through the body, given that his legs are angled to our left, and his head to our right. He doesn’t appear to be looking at anything, though, but remains deep in thought, maybe contemplating what he had been looking at in the book, or planning something, or maybe even musing on the past – we are not told: this, I think, is part of the allure of the work for me.
At the back right corner of the table is a still life arrangement of rectangular objects: a cuboid box with a lid and a book with a pale cover on which rests a thin, cream-coloured booklet. There is a pencil just in front of the objects, and a piece of paper tucked under the book – together with the book Rice is holding, these can be seen as some of the tools of a student artist. Formally they are also an abstraction of Rice himself – the box is equivalent to his torso, while the booklet resting on the pale book is not unlike the larger open book resting on the student’s lap. As well as echoing Rice’s form, these details also close off the composition, making sure that our eyes don’t follow his gaze. By placing the sitter’s head in the centre of the painting Philpot creates a strong pyramidal composition – a typical construction of the Renaissance and Baroque.
Philpot was a keen observer of fashion, and interested in details of clothing of any sort. The attention he pays to the turned-back left cuff of Rice’s shirt is typical, as is the precise delineation of the folds of the thin cotton of the sleeves. You should see Siegfried Sassoon’s collar in another portrait! The artist was also keenly aware of human anatomy – particularly male anatomy – but apart from his own personal interest in the subject, this was also something he’d learnt from another artist. If you look at the very specific inflection of the right wrist, which is maybe slightly exaggerated, you may recognise the major influence on this painting. But then, if you can work out what the illustration in the book represents, the inspiration is made explicit.
It’s one of Michelangelo’s Ignudi, the naked men who sit atop the imagined continuation of the walls of the Sistine Chapel and frame the outer edges of the ceiling. As nudes they must be in a state of grace (Adam and Eve only started wearing clothes after the fall), and I’ve always assumed they are Michelangelo’s representation of angels. Philpot – and the student Bernard Rice – would both have been interested in the work of the great Renaissance master, but maybe, as curator Simon Martin suggests on the exhibition label, it was also ‘a covert expression of [Philpot’s] interest in the male nude’. Even if this is the case, does that say anything about Bernard Rice? To be honest, it doesn’t really have to, given that this is not a portrait, but a character study, and doesn’t seem to have left Philpot’s possession during his lifetime. However, as Martin points out in the book, this particular ignudo also appears in the background of the Portrait of Montague Rendall, Headmaster of Winchester College – admittedly in an incredibly shadowy form.
The painting to our left of Rendall is far clearer – the prophet Daniel, also from the Sistine, who just happens to be seated above the head of our ignudo, if on the other side of the chapel (which is not far…). Given that Rendall was, presumably, a far more ‘public’ figure than Rice, it seems surprising to me that Philpot might risk expressing his own personal interests in the male form – strictly illegal if acted upon, of course – in this portrait. This in itself might explain why the representation of the ignudo is so unclear. But why choose it in the first place? There are plenty of bold, female figures to choose from: the five Sybils who alternate with the prophets, for example. It would help to know more about Rendall – or Rice, for that matter – and I’m afraid I’m still writing these posts on an extremely ad hoc basis, gradually building up endless possibilities for future research. However, I have tracked down what I believe to be an entry from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which was included on a web entry of imprecise nature. Here are just a few details. Having been awarded a first class degree in Classics at Cambridge in 1887, two years later Rendall ‘…made the first of many journeys abroad to study the masterpieces of continental art, and laid the foundations of his lifelong enthusiasm for medieval and Renaissance Italian painting. In the same year he was appointed to the staff of Winchester College.’ This could, of course, explain everything. A ‘lifelong enthusiasm for… Renaissance Italian painting’ would more than justify the inclusion of two details from the Sistine Chapel. However, the biography also makes reference to ‘his sensitive taste’, and states that he was ‘Almost resolutely unmarried’. I could be wrong to focus in on these phrases, but, as far as I’m aware, sensitivity was not a quality greatly prized in men outside of the 18th and 21st centuries, and for many years, when sexual acts between men were illegal (and for a couple of decades after they weren’t) the term ‘confirmed bachelor’ in obituaries would have been interpreted by anyone even slightly in the know as a euphemism for ‘homosexual’. It’s not as if Philpot’s own tastes were unknown. He was a member of the Official War Artists Scheme during the First World War, when he asked if could paint soldiers bathing – as Michelangelo had intended to – but his request was denied. ‘I will bet anything that Philpot suggested it because it gave him the opportunity of painting the nude,’ according to one official. There are other references in Rendall’s biography which I find intriguing, but my reasons for choosing them could all too easily be misinterpreted by the ill-disposed. Of course, I could be imagining things. It could simply be a love of the work of Michelangelo that Philpot shared with Rendall… but why include the ignudo in the first place, and then go on to disguise it? And why choose Daniel, rather than any other prophet or sybil? I’m not sure there’s any way of answering the latter question. All I know about Daniel (without re-reading the book) is that he was protected by God, and good at languages. The first could possibly be said of Rendall, and the second was certainly true. In later life he was a trustee of the BBC, and devised its motto ‘Nation shall speak peace unto Nation’, for example. Daniel was also a just judge, which would be perfect for applying discipline in a school. As the biography states, ‘In college Rendall upheld high moral standards but softened any severity by his natural sympathy for boys.’ It was Daniel who cleared Susannah of the accusations of the elders, after they had spied on her while she was bathing naked. But we must be wary of drawing too many conclusions about someone who condemned looking on naked women: we could so easily be led up the wrong garden path.
Whatever the reasons for including Daniel, or this particular ignudo, Philpot really did understand Michelangelo’s work. I remain entirely convinced that I recognise the pose of Bernard Rice. Indeed, I’ve been trying to pin it down, to see if it has an exact source, but as far as I can see it doesn’t.
Overall it is remarkably similar to the Delphic Sibyl, who also has her knees to our left, whilst looking over her left shoulder to our right. The arms are in a different position, perhaps, but if you were to lift her right arm and lower the left, they wouldn’t be far off.
I suspect I might have recognised the inflection of Rice’s right wrist from Adam’s – or Rice’s right arm as a whole from Adam’s left, stretched out towards God the Father. But then, it’s not that different from the left arm of the ignudo above, either. There is no exact source for this pose (although I am increasingly convinced that the Delphic Sibyl is a good fit), but the position of the body as a whole and the articulation of every single joint speaks of a thorough understanding of Michelangelo’s work, which has been seen, studied, appreciated, absorbed, digested, and then remade in a new way. The only real difference is in the palette – nothing like the lucid and luminous colouring of Michelangelo. But even here Philpot is being remarkably sophisticated, and subtle, I think. Michelangelo is represented in Rice’s book by a black and white engraving. Modelled on elements derived from similar reproductions, the student appears to us in all his full, three-dimensional, monochrome splendour, every bit a sculptural as a Michelangelo painting, but with the tones of the print. This is Michelangelo remade for the neo-classicism of the 1920s, a trend which has been widely ignored, unless espoused by an acknowledged master such as Picasso – until recently, that is, and with Pallant House at the forefront of its rehabilitation. However, a decade after Bernard Rice was painted, Philpot would have his own ‘Picasso’ moment. He changed direction completely, and started to embrace modernism in his own, remarkable, idiosyncratic way. But to learn more about that you would need to see the exhibition, read the book, or come to my talk on Monday! Keep looking for those sources…