Jamaican Man in Profile (Henry Thomas), Glyn Philpot
The sitter in this portrait, Henry Thomas, had been a stoker on a merchant vessel before he missed his boat home to Jamaica. Whilst wandering around the National Gallery, Thomas met Glyn Philpot’s godson, the theatre designer Oliver Messel, who introduced him to the artist – presumably because of his good looks, rather than his reliability and domestic skills which were, by all accounts, limited. Henry Thomas was the principal model for Philpot’s depictions of Black men in the late 1920s and 1930s. As well as modelling for Philpot, Thomas worked as a domestic servant for him.
Although eye-contact is not made with Henry Thomas in this painting, the format of this portrait is associated with power and representations of imperial leaders. This side view of Thomas’ head against a vibrant batik background recalls the tradition of representing kings, queens, and emperors in profile on coins and medals, and the profile portrait in Quattrocento painting in Florence by artists such as Sandro Botticelli and Domenico Ghirlandaio. Philpot was a huge admirer of Italian Renaissance art and here it informs his creation of an entirely modern image.
During the 1920s Philpot was a highly successful figure in the British art establishment, celebrated for his portraits of society figures that included the Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, the Duchess of Westminster, the opera singer Dame Nellie Melba, the ballet dancers Vaslav Nijinsky and Lydia Lopokova and the author Siegfried Sassoon. Philpot became known for his paintings of Black men, particularly after 1930 when he took a studio in Montparnasse, Paris and changed to a much more modern style of painting. His dramatic change caused headlines such as ‘Glyn Philpot Goes Picasso!’ This portrait embodies the stylised and flatter style of Philpot’s work in the thirties, which is often regarded as representative of the Art Deco style.
After Philpot died in 1937 from a cerebral haemorrhage there was a grand funeral in Westminster Cathedral. However, at his burial only the artist’s family, his friend Lord Balniel, and Henry Thomas were in attendance. In a poignant note left with a bouquet on the artist’s grave, which was kept by the family, Thomas wrote: ‘for memory to my dear master as well as my Father and brother to me. God blessed [sic] him and forgive him for his kind heart and human nature from his poor servant Henry.’