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Henry Thomas: Muse to Glyn Philpot
[ Essay )
Alayo Akinkugbe takes a look at how Glyn Philpot portrayed his servant and companion, Henry Thomas.
Little is known about Henry Thomas beyond his name, nationality and that he was a muse for Glyn Philpot. This piece is a reflection on Thomas’ role as a model for Philpot and considers how his race affected the artist’s portrayals of him.
Henry Thomas was the Jamaican man who acted as both servant and companion to Glyn Philpot RA (1884-1937) until the artist’s death; the two met in 1929 when Thomas had missed his boat back home. Whilst working for Philpot, Thomas posed repeatedly as the protagonist in his paintings of Black men, the first appearance being in Balthazar(1929) the year that they met.
In most of Philpot’s paintings of him, Thomas assumes a role of some kind. In Balthazar, for instance, he embodies one of the three biblical Magi, the King of Macedonia who gave the gift of myrrh to Jesus at his birth, traditionally depicted in European Christian imagery as a Black man – the racial link, for Philpot, was likely a driving force behind creating this image of Thomas. In this first portrait, he is adorned with a silky gown that reflects the light coming from directly above the figure’s head.
In the archaically named paintings, The Sleeping Negro (1931) and Melancholy Negro (1936), Henry Thomas is presented as a nude object. The languid pose in the former, reclining in a chair with eyes shut and head tilted towards raised arms, evokes the homoeroticism of Classical and Renaissance sculptures of the male nude, such as Michelangelo’s Dying Slave (1513-1516).
These paintings of Thomas are, arguably, Philpot’s most experimental portraits. As a Black man, Thomas presented a suitable Other; he was exempt from the social restrictions of Philpot’s white subjects, many of whom were members of high society. The paintings of Thomas are the only known nude portraits that Philpot made, while some nude figures appear in a few of the artist’s biblical and mythological scenes such as Repose on the Flight into Egypt (1922) and Journey of the Spirit (1921).
Further evidence for Philpot’s view of Thomas as an Other is in the exoticisation of him in paintings such as Reclining Nude from c.1935, in which Thomas appears lying amongst tropical leaves, adorned with a headscarf and earrings, oblivious to the gaze of the viewer as he reaches for a flower dangling above him, as though to pull it away from the rest of the plant. The ambiguous and kitschy jungle-like setting and non-culturally specific clothing is clearly intended to evoke the mystery and distance of an “Oriental world”, which can also be observed in the much earlier painting Apres-Midi Tunisien, c. 1922.
Many of the depictions of Henry Thomas by Glyn Philpot, through either their titles that identify the sitter only by his race (e.g. Sleeping Negro and Melancholy Negro), or their subject matters (e.g. Balthazar and Reclining Nude) which involve an exoticisation of him through setting and clothing, reveal that his Blackness was the primary aspect of Thomas’ identity that dictated the artist’s perception and presentation of him.
This is not to say that Philpot was entirely unable to view Thomas beyond his Blackness, though. There are portraits of Thomas that, even if not reflected in their reductive titles, show a similar treatment of the figure to the portraits of white subjects. One example is in the similarity between Head of a Negro (Henry Thomas), c. 1935 and the earlier Frank Coombs, c.1930, quarter-length portraits in which the figures, Black male and white male, both wearing blue collared shirts, gaze beyond the respective compositions to give the effect that each is lost in his thoughts.
It seems, in most cases, that Philpot’s portrayals of Thomas did depend heavily on his race, whether for the purpose of creating works that were too unorthodox for his socialite white subjects to pose, particularly in terms of nudity and homoeroticism, or for presenting stereotypically exotic scenes in which Thomas’ skin colour supposedly added to the sense of distance and mystery.
Alayo Akinkugbe is from Lagos, Nigeria, and is currently studying for a BA degree in History of Art at the University of Cambridge in the UK. She is the founder of the Instagram account @ablackhistoryofart, which aims to highlight the overlooked black artists, sitters, curators and thinkers from Art History and from the present day. The account was set up in February 2020 and has quickly grown to nearly 50,000 followers. Her mission is to continually platform emerging and forgotten black artists from all over the world, working towards a diversification of the way art is taught and presented in the West, encouraging a more global and inclusive approach to art and art history.
Read our blog, Manet’s Olympia: Laure and Victorine and discover the story of Laure, the model who posed as the maid in Manet’s most famous work.
View more of Glyn Philpot’s work on Art UK.