Billy, the forgotten model of a forgotten artist
One of the most sought-after portrait painters of his generation, Glyn Philpot (1884–1937) modernized the genre through his choice of subjects and through an open expression of his homosexuality in his work. The focus of a recent retrospective and reappraisal, Philpot has re-emerged as a leading British Modernist, whose work from a century ago addresses topics of critical importance today: the representation of the Black body and the representation of homosexuality in art. A recent acquisition, Philpot’s striking early study of a man named Billy – the first of the artist’s known Black male models – was made in preparation for a monumental but little-known painting of the sitter that has been in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada for more than a century.
Last shown in the 1963 exhibition ironically titled Seldom Seen: Paintings from the Collection of the National Gallery of Canada, the painting had been acquired in 1913, the year it was made. The 29-year-old Philpot had already risen to prominence as a society portraitist by then and had won the Carnegie Art Prize in Pittsburgh that year. This was a pivotal moment for the artist, as it also marked the start of his collaboration with Black male models, for which he is recognized today and which was a pioneering practice for the period. “Unlike the majority of his 18th- and 19th-century artistic predecessors, Philpot did not depict his Black sitters as servants, slaves or workers, nor as stereotypes. Rather than being pushed to the margins, as secondary figures in subordinate roles … they are entirely the focus and subject of the work, rendered with dignity and individuality,” writes Simon Martin, curator of Glyn Philpot: Flesh and Spirit, the first major exhibition dedicated to the artist in almost forty years, held at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, U.K., in 2022.
Although commissioned portraits were Philpot’s main source of income, the artist’s more personal works – featuring male models, and in particular Black models – came to define his œuvre for posterity. The Gallery’s painting and drawing of Billy are particularly significant, as they are among the first of Philpot’s known depictions of Black men. Moreover, the reappearance of the drawing on the art market has allowed us to identify the sitter in the painting, who had until now been unidentified. Relatively little is known about Billy, compared to some of Philpot’s subsequent recurrent models, such as the Jamaican Henry Thomas (1900–c.1957). Billy worked as the major-domo or steward in the Philpot household around the time these works were made in the early 1910s. Notwithstanding the socio-economic asymmetry between the artist and some of his models, art historian Kobena Mercer argues in his essay “Blackness in Bloomsbury” in Queer British Art 1861–1967 that “the way in which [Philpot], as an artist, returned to his favourite model suggests that Thomas’ beauty gave him, as a servant, a degree of power too. Was there something in this interplay across racial lines that eluded capture, thus sparking off the artist’s quest to depict him again and again?”
The refined and accomplished portrait study of Billy illustrates Philpot’s gift for sensitive and deft renderings of faces. Although the canvas displays qualities of a work painted from life, it seems clear that the drawing was a preparatory sketch, given the position of the head, seen in profile and facing left in both works. The more freely executed painting immediately garnered attention. The Chicago Sunday Tribune columnist Caroline Kirkland, aka Madame X, wrote in her column of 21 September 1913: “The most striking thing at last spring’s Academy in London was a painting of [Philpot’s] of an Ethiopian in a gorgeous coat that came out of Sargent’s studio.” Martin argues that Madame X must have confused the venue of the exhibition, for there is no evidence that Philpot's work was included in the Royal Academy Summer exhibition in 1913. It is likely, however, that the ikat chapan [coat] worn by Billy in the painting came from John Singer Sargent’s (1856–1925) studio, as Sargent and Philpot had adjacent studios on Tite Street in Chelsea.
The representational shift Philpot was bringing about was noted at the National Gallery of Canada, as the painting, titled Morning Prayer, was promptly purchased. Then-Director Eric Brown wrote in July 1914 that the work “has a breadth and dignity of effect approaching grandeur. A solitary figure wrapped in a shimmering snakeskin robe stands monumentally upon the roof against the first breaking of the dawn across the velvet eastern night. Impressively conceived and simply executed, this painting is greatly effective and altogether sincere.” Over the past century since its acquisition by the Gallery, the painting has been given different titles – The Prayer on the Roof, The Watcher on the Roof and latterly Morning Prayer – a testament to its ambiguous subject matter.
The drawing of Billy also has a noteworthy provenance. The artist gave it to the sisters Jessica and Dorothy Leeson sometime before his death in 1937. When it was put up for auction in 1994, Gabrielle Cross (1910–97) – Philpot’s niece, who had inherited the majority of her uncle’s paintings and sculptures some 57 years earlier – purchased it. Cross and her sister Rosemary were among the artist’s favourite models. At her passing, the works were offered for sale by the Fine Art Society in London. The study was then owned by American collector Duane Wilder (1929–2017), who with his life partner Robert Akira Endo (1948–94) amassed an art collection that now resides in part in the Princeton University Art Museum. Fortunately, it has been possible for the Gallery to acquire the sketch and reunite this important charcoal portrait of Billy with its related painting.
In 1923, Philpot was elected a Royal Academician at the relatively young age of 38 and began a relationship with long-time partner painter Vivian Forbes (1891–1937). Philpot’s work as a society portraitist provided a large income and, consequentially, the luxury of being able to paint subjects that were closer to his heart. In 1930, he enjoyed a solo exhibition at the Venice Biennale, whereas in 1933 one of his works was withdrawn from the Royal Academy for its controversial homosexual imagery. This led to a sudden loss of popularity, financial hardship and, eventually, to health issues. Philpot died from a stroke at the age of 53 in December 1937 and Forbes committed suicide the day after Philpot’s funeral. The following year, in 1938, the Gallery acquired a vibrant watercolour by Forbes, dating to March 1937, a few months before the artists’ untimely deaths.
Philpot’s representations of Black men were unusual for their time, and today they help us piece together Black narratives. Recent research on Billy, as well as on the performing artists who were painted by the artist, such as African American tenor and composer Roland Wiltse Hayes (1887–1977), African American actor and rights activist Paul Leroy Robeson (1898–1976) and Julien Zaïre, who performed in Parisian cabarets under the stage name Tom Whiskey, has brought these forgotten figures back to life.
The Gallery’s new sketch shines a light on the scarcely documented participation of Black sitters in the artistic life of early 20th-century London. It also deepens our understanding of Glyn Philpot’s practice, providing a powerful example of his superb draughtsmanship, and bearing witness to the burgeoning of what became a life-long collaboration with Black male models.
The drawing Portrait of a Man Named Billy is currently on view in the exhibition Paul P. : Amor et Mors at the National Gallery of Canada until June 11, 2023. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.