Glyn Philpot 1884-1937

Provenance

Leonard Philpot
Mrs Clement Cross 
Private Collection UK

Exhibitions

1940, London, National Gallery, British Painting Since Whistler
1959, London, Art Exhibitions Bureau, Glyn Philpot
1962, Worthing, Sussex, Glyn Philpot R.A., 

Literature

A.C. Sewter, Glyn Philpot, 1884-1937 (London: B.T. Batsford, 1951) p.8-9 reprod. col. pl.8
Robin Gibson, Glyn Philpot: Edwardian Aesthete to Thirties Modernist, exh. cat. National Portrait Gallery (London: 1984) see p.114, closely related watercolour of the same title. 
Glyn Philpot was born in London in 1884, and at the age of fifteen began his studies at the Lambeth School of Art under Philip Conrad, where he was influenced by the romantic artist, sculptor and illustrator Charles Ricketts. In 1903 Philpot embarked upon his first visit to France, where he studied at the Académie Julian from 1904. In 1909, he was elected a member of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters, becoming an honorary member in 1925. Hugely significant to various institutions of modern British art, Philpot was a founder member of the National Portrait Society, in 1911, of the International Society of Painters and Sculptors, in 1913, and of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, in 1925. In 1915, he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy and in 1923 he became a Royal Academician, also representing British at the Venice Biennale in 1930. He died suddenly from heart failure in 1937.

The final years of Philpot’s life were extremely productive. Some of the artist’s finest work was produced during this period, making his sudden death all the more tragic. Following trips to the Mediterranean and Morocco in 1935 in 1936, he began using watercolour which in turn reinvigorated his approach to oils. A.C. Sewter, writing in an important early monograph on Philpot, explained how, "The work of these final years is of an astonishing variety, and it is difficult to realise how much he produced in three or four years. Of a series of mythological canvases concerned with Fates and Muses, 'Two Muses at the Tomb of a Poet', and Sir Oswald Birley's 'Three Muses', both painted in 1937, are perhaps the best. With their harmony of pale blue, terra-cotta, grey, chocolate-brown and pale pink, they have a mystical calm (slightly reminiscent of Burne-Jones) [...] No doubt their colour scheme owed something to the suggestion of water-colour medium which Philpot had been using with great skill since his holiday in Morocco" (A.C. Sewter, Glyn Philpot, 1884-1937 (London: B.T. Batsford, 1951) p.8-9).

More recent scholarship has shown how several of these paintings do indeed have related watercolours that were either used as preparatory studies or were works in the own right, as variations on themes that were important to Philpot. As Robin Gibson writes of the present work, in contrast to its related watercolour, “The oil, on the other hand, is generally accepted as the most powerful of the late symbolic works: solemn and mysterious, with an atmosphere of frozen silence created by the breadth of rather unreal space surrounding the hieratic figures. The colour of the painting is if anything thinner and flatter, creating an almost abstract effect of great purity”. (Robin Gibson, Glyn Philpot: Edwardian Aesthete to Thirties Modernist, exh. cat. National Portrait Gallery (London: 1984), p.114)

Although a sense of mystery dominates ‘Two Muses at the Tomb of a Poet’, a specific location that inspired it can be traced due to the similar landscape and architectural elements in Philpot’s drawing of Le Trayas (NPG exh. cat. no.105), the Riviera resort near Cannes in the south of France. Le Trayas is also known for its rugged rust-coloured coastline, a colour similar to the red tone Philpot uses for the muses’ backdrop. He shows a masterful ability to imbue this scene with an almost mystical significance without it appearing whimsical or absurd. The classicised faces of the muses are meticulously drawn and stand in contrast to scant detail of minimal lines articulating their bodies and structuring Philpot’s harmonic blocks of colour. These colours sit lightly over the gesso priming of the canvas, harnessing its bright white light and instilling areas of the figure’s faces bodies and background with an ethereal glow. The overall effect is one of quiet magnificence, a subdued monumentality which confronts ideas around death, remembrance and grief with an eloquence unrivalled in Philpot’s oeuvre.

Closing his overview of Philpot's life and work, Sewter concluded that "To the last days of his life Glyn Philpot was developing. Ceaselessly striving in new directions, his work not only retained a high level of technical excellence, but steadily grew in depth, intensity and balance. His sudden death of heart failure on 16th December 1937, cut short a career as remarkable for its variety as for its success, and still full of promise for the future [...] To those familiar with them, it is clear that the best of Glyn Philopt's paintings, drawings, and sculptures possess the characteristic qualities of original creative art: sound technical constitution, satisfying formal design, and a weight of deeply felt human meaning. If anything is yet required to secure him his rightful place among the great and respected names of British Art, it is a more widespread and intimate knowledge of his works." (A.C. Sewter, Glyn Philpot, 1884-1937 (London: B.T. Batsford, 1951) p.10) ‘Two Muses at the Tomb of a Poet’ is an indispensable centre-piece to any such knowledge of Philpot’s work. Amongst the most important, enigmatic, esteemed and characteristic paintings he produced, it stands at the
apex of his artistic achievement.