Monday Book: A charmed life tinged with pain

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The Independent Culture
THE ARTIST Glyn Philpot (1884-1937) endeared himself to all he met: "generous, gentle, shy, enthusiastic, quick, with a great charm of manner, and a delicious sense of fun and of the ridiculous" claims his entry in the Dictionary of National Biography. His artistic life too seemed to be charmed. After attending Lambeth School of Art, and winning prizes, he was just 19 when he had a picture accepted in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and held his first one-man show.

Thereafter, almost effortlessly, he began to earn his living as a painter, chiefly of portraits, and to grow in repute. Although stylistically conservative, often in the grand manner of Sargent, his pictures of English and American society figures and big guns such as Siegfried Sassoon, Sir Oswald Mosley and Stanley Baldwin were universally acclaimed. They commanded huge sums - over pounds 1,000 in the 1920s - and their bravura skill and dramatic intensity still impress.

More unorthodox was Philpot's homosexuality, although even here his sunny nature, financial freedom and his devoted sister Daisy (letters to whom form the basis of much of this book) kept complications and subterfuge to a minimum. It manifested itself in public in ravishing drawings and paintings of good-looking young men - friends, lovers, models, black servants and entertainers - which to a less innocent age seem transparently gay. Increasingly, too, he turned to the male nude.

Philpot was ridiculously kind and generous; he gave advice, support and money to a number of young artists, from Wilfred Owen's brother Harold to Oliver Messel, but also to a succession of lame ducks. These included Henry Thomas, the best-known of his several black models, who worked for some years as his rather hopeless but endearing manservant. When Philpot died, Thomas laid a wreath on his grave with this note: "For memory to my dear master as well as my father and brother to me. God blessed him and forgive him for his kind heart and human nature from his poor servant Henry."

More seriously, Philpot was driven almost to distraction by one Vivian Forbes, whom he met while serving in the First World War, and who clung to him tenaciously until his death, often in a parlous emotional state. In the past, Forbes has been described as Philpot's "life-long partner", but this, Delaney discovered, was not the true nature of their relationship at all. Instead, an early close friendship with a shared passion for art degenerated into dependency as Forbes became increasingly demanding and unstable.

Philpot supported him in dubious projects - for example, his attempts to adopt young boys - and helped him win painting commissions, including one for a mural in St Stephen's Hall at the Houses of Parliament. (He completed most of it himself after Forbes had a nervous breakdown.) Forbes's misery was perfectly real, however: soon after Philpot's death, he took a fatal dose of sleeping tablets in the room where his friend had died.

Throughout the 1920s Philpot travelled widely, working in the US, Europe and North Africa in a spirit of exhilaration and restlessness. He tackled religious and history painting (he had converted to Catholicism as a young man), and increasingly themes which "allowed" the inclusion of male nudes. At the young age of 38, he was elected a Royal Academician.

Then in 1930, in his late forties, Philpot suddenly and very seriously went modern. He had been unmoved by the avant-garde, but now felt an urgent desire to develop a new style. He lightened his palette, abandoned rich paint surfaces, simplified and stylised his compositions.

Critics berated him and portrait commissions dried up. His The Great Pan was sensationally rejected by the Royal Academy in 1933. He clung on tenaciously, worked feverishly and gradually won back public opinion. In his last five years he held four one-man shows, compared with just two in the previous 22 years. But the battle took its toll on his health. After his death in 1937 at 53, Philpot's reputation dwindled. Daisy continued to champion his work, and when she died in the 1950s that role was assumed by his niece. In 1985, the National Portrait Gallery staged a major retrospective. His superb portraits were freshly acclaimed, but it was the later stylised work that stood out.

Philpot's often painful progress is sympathetically detailed by J G P Delaney, a professor of English in New Brunswick, Canada. He evokes a warm and civilised milieu (dubbed "superbly artificial" by Sassoon) which, while not Bohemian ,was hardly conventional. Delaney sensitively charts Philpot's numerous friendships, and teases out the meaning of his pictures while - without overstating the case - he considers how "they probably show the gradual process of Glyn coming to terms with his own sexuality". Like his art, Philpot himself remains likeable and singular.

Annabel Freyberg