Your place to explore new perspectives on British art from 1900 to now. Through interviews, films, image galleries and essays, we uncover the creative lives of the people behind the art on our walls.
Glyn Philpot: A Family Man
[ Artist in Focus, Stories )
We interviewed Charlotte Doherty, Glyn Philpot’s great-great-niece, and asked her about her family and the painting she generously loaned us, Sisters of the Artist.
Can you tell us a bit about the family background to ‘Sisters of the Artist’?
I feel a very special connection with this painting because of what its subjects – the artist’s sisters – meant to my mother.
Gertrude Cross (née Philpot), in the black dress with the little white ruff, was her maternal grandmother and so Daisy Philpot (on the right) was my mother’s great-aunt.
Gertrude’s daughter, Rosemary – who we all knew as ‘Rhodie’ – had my mother from her first marriage. It was short-lived and my grandfather (who I never met) brought a great deal of havoc into the family.
For instance, he took my mother away for a weekend when she was a little girl and did not return her for six months – nobody knew their exact whereabouts. When she was subsequently made a ward of court, Daisy went into battle for her. From all accounts, Daisy was enchanting and gentle – but that didn’t stop her from taking issue with something the judge said and almost being held in contempt of court! While Daisy was never to be a mother herself, she undoubtedly had that disposition – as can be seen in The Little Dancer (in the exhibition’s next section) for which she and her other niece, Gabrielle (‘Gaby’, as we knew her, was Gertrude’s elder daughter) are the models.
My mother and Rhodie were very similar in style to each other; they were both extremely glamorous, elegant, loving and captivating – they had a close relationship. However, I do believe that my mother’s essence, character and approach to life were very much shaped by her grandmother, Gertrude. Letters written by both to their respective daughters reveal ‘voices’ sounding almost the same. A lot of the content and sentiment in those letters is incredibly similar too – despite being written some 50 years apart.
Despite the chaos she’d had to endure in her early childhood, my mother (Helen) was extremely well-grounded, secure in herself and utterly selfless. She had a composure and a sense of calm similar to that seen in ‘Sisters of the Artist’ – and in ‘Mrs Clement Cross’ (a later portrait of Gertrude that also appears in the exhibition.)
Once when we touched on the challenges of her early childhood, I remarked that it was amazing she had grown up to be so well-balanced and stable. ‘You could so easily have gone completely off the rails!’ My mother replied, ‘Well, really it’s very much down to Granny and Daisy. They were greatly involved in my upbringing; they were strict but I always knew I was loved’.
Gertrude and Daisy come alive for me in this painting, thanks to how my mother – and others in the family – talked about them. I had a really easy-going relationship with my mother and I do feel I owe Gertrude and Daisy a great debt of gratitude for having played the role they did in shaping the mother I was so blessed to have.
A hundred years on from when ‘Sisters of the Artist’ was painted, the family story that has since played out makes it a portrait that, for me, is very much one about mothers and daughters…and how an aunt/great-aunt, as Daisy was, can also mother.
So it was quite an open, loving family?
Yes, they really were – and their elder brother Leonard (who outlived all his siblings) comes within that equation too. In fact, I learned somewhere that after the collapse of my grandfather’s next marriage his second wife – having heard what an understanding family his previous in-laws had been – turned up on their doorstep. They took her in, perhaps only for a day or so, but that was the sort of thing that was natural to them.
Similarly, Glyn Philpot was very much known to support his friends and family – emotionally and financially. Vivian Forbes, was somebody who he really propped up and Henry Thomas too, among others. He paid for his nieces – Gabrielle and Rosemary – to be educated in Switzerland for a period of time. And years later, when the massive gambling debts racked up by my grandfather were revealed, Glyn sold Baynards Manor (his country house) – and the furniture too – to help avoid his elder sister’s family being financially ruined.
How did the family feel about Philpot’s legacy after his death?
Oh, they were passionate about it. His sister, Daisy, to begin with especially. She had very much been his right-hand woman, keeping records of paintings, handling his accounts and so forth. After Glyn died (in 1937), she was the one initially lending paintings out, involved with exhibitions and an all-round source of knowledge. She was the one who made sure his flame was kept alive initially and then their niece, Gaby very much took on that baton from her. Daisy died in 1957 (as did Gertrude) and Gaby in 1997 – after a 60-year span of staunchly promoting his work, following his death.. After Gaby (my great aunt) died, all her paintings came up for auction – and an exhibition at the Fine Arts Society – at one go. Her intention was for Glyn Philpot’s name and body of work to come under the spotlight once more. Her posthumous mission was her final act of love for her uncle.
Daisy and Gaby had both undertaken a crusade. And that’s why I think that this exhibition would be just beyond their wildest dreams – as it is claiming the attention for Glyn Philpot that they strongly believed he deserved, particularly after he had fallen from favour in the 30s. Also, it is introducing him to a whole new audience who can appreciate what he was all about and in a contemporary context too.
My grandmother, Rhodie also played her role in making sure Glyn was not forgotten. I know she was a great source of background for Simon (Simon Martin, Pallant House Gallery director), talking to him about Glyn and her recollections on many occasions. Gaby had died by this stage otherwise she too would have much enjoyed time spent with Simon discussing her uncle.
Of the two sisters, Gaby was the one who was more immersed in the art world and in Glyn’s legacy. It became her life. There’s a lovely picture in Simon’s new book ‘Glyn Philpot’ (to coincide with the exhibition), where Glyn holds up a tennis racket in front of his face, and she’s looking up at him adoringly. He must have been more than your average uncle; it seems they shared such a deep uncle-niece relationship.
Sadly, Glyn died suddenly only a month after my mother was born. He was busy with an exhibition at the time so I don’t think he’d had the chance to see her. I wish he had lived to an old age as I am sure each would have delighted in the other – and any painting he would have done of her would, I know, have been glorious.
How does it feel to see your painting in the exhibition?
I don’t think that my mother ever knew that ‘Sisters of the Artist’ was meant to come her way one day. Very sadly she died 10 years before her mother (Rhodie) and so my grandmother very generously left the painting to me instead after she died in 2004. Originally it was on display in the Brighton and Hove Museum – and more recently it’s been safely in storage at Bonhams. It’s a large picture and sadly I don’t have a suitable area for it. Also, what if there was a flood, a fire? All of that…the responsibility for protecting a picture such as this weighs heavily. Also, it really should be on view and being appreciated.
Although, I have now owned ‘Sisters of the Artist’ for coming up to 20 years, I have never really felt that I possess it. However, included in the exhibition, and my living within half an hour of Pallant House, at last I feel that I really do! I’m a Pallant House ‘Friend’ so whenever I’m in Chichester, I make sure to pop in to visit it; to commune a bit more with it each time. In a funny way, it’s because I have lent it out I really feel it belongs to me at last. I consider Pallant House as the generous one – lending the wall space to me for my painting and my greater appreciation of it.
It was hailed as ‘a work of genius’ when it was painted in 1922 but it’s been hidden away for some 15 years until now. I’m just so delighted that it’s on public view once more. That’s what my great aunt Gaby wanted for it. I feel that I’m now honouring her wish.
Another source of delight for me is that this picture – among such a varied body of work and with such personal family resonance – has its part to play in bringing Glyn Philpot to the fore once again, explaining what he was all about, how he can be understood in today’s world and winning over a whole new audience for him.
With all the attention the exhibition’s been gathering, I have naturally been feeling prouder than ever of my connection with the artist and his family. Yet at the same, and particularly on the evening of the private view, it was sad that other members of the family could not be there too. At the 1984 exhibition (at the National Portrait Gallery, marking the centenary of Philpot’s birth), Gaby, Rhodie and my parents were all still alive and we were celebrating him together. I wish they were all still around to be enjoying this as I am – particularly those family members who knew him and worked so tirelessly to ensure he wouldn’t be forgotten. That said, I like to think they are all looking down and aware of what has now unfolded – and I am simply lapping it up on their behalf.
A large theme of the exhibition is Philpot’s sexuality and use of queer imagery. Philpot lived in a very different society to today. Was his sexuality something that the family were aware of?
I remember once asking my grandmother, ‘Did you know that Glyn was gay?’
He and his siblings were extremely close and it struck me it would have been so hard not to share with them his loves, passions and any heartbreaks; if there were things he felt he had to keep secret from them and if he couldn’t have opened up as he might wish to do.
Rhodie replied, ‘You didn’t think about people’s love lives – about others’ sex lives – at the time. We just took it that he was never going to be married or have children.’ She added, ‘Daisy was so innocent; I think she hardly even knew about the birds and the bees!’
Yet, if you read the text alongside ‘The Man in Black’ and how he describes Robert Allerton in a letter to Daisy, it would seem to make things pretty clear! Maybe Daisy was not as naïve as my grandmother – her niece – might have assumed her to be…or maybe she was and she took her brother’s comments to be simply based on artistic appreciation!
Perhaps there had been tensions initially of which I am unaware but I don’t get that feeling. Whatever, there was clearly acceptance. In a letter to her teenage daughter, Gaby, in the 1920s, my great-grandmother mentions that ‘Uncle Glyn and Uncle Vivian’ were coming to visit shortly.
Gaby to the end of her days was very at ease within the artistic circles to which she’d been introduced by Glyn. That said, at the time of the 1984 exhibition she was ill at ease with the press comment that touched on his sexuality. ‘I don’t see why they have to mention that….’ Yet of course it was key to an appreciation of his work and deep down she must have understood that. In the age in which she grew up one had to be so circumspect. She was very self-contained and such discussion would have been tricky for her. I am quite sure that if she were around today she would be grateful that the narrative has opened up as it has.
I understand that it was religion that caused the family more anxiety at the time. They were devout Baptists and Glyn’s conversion to Catholicism didn’t go down at all well. I seem to remember my mother saying the family were terribly worried that he was going to corrupt Daisy and try to convert her. When my mother married my Catholic father – and my brother and I were then brought up as Catholics – the family weren’t troubled by this at all. Times and attitudes evolve and alter, thankfully.
Can you tell us about your painting, ‘Sisters of the Artist? What do you like about it?
If you look at Gertrude in this painting, she has a book at her side. Which book might it have been? Might I have it? (I have a number of books handed down within the family). I take it as being more than a prop for the painting. (When looking through her letters I found one telling her daughters that she was due to see a performance of ‘The Three Sisters’. ‘Chekhov – pronounced Chek of – is a very wonderful Russian writer. When you are both older you will read his books; now you would not understand the beauty of them.’) It looks as though she might have just had her nose buried in the book and has had to put it down while she’s now being asked to look up, look ahead. It’s those little details and clues about the people behind the subjects of a portrait that fascinate me.
My mother said that she remembers her grandmother resting her hands on her lap just as she’s doing here. She also remembered the little hand mirror – or maybe it was a compact? – that Daisy’s holding.
Items that will have been in the studio or at home appear in other paintings of the family. I have a photo of my mother aged about six, sitting on the same zebra print cushion that appears in the portrait of Gertrude as ‘Mrs Clement Cross’. I have two vases at home which appear in ‘Flowers Against a Window’.
And also when I look at the painting, I wonder what conversation was being had. Maybe a good general catch-up; telling Glyn the latest news of Gabrielle and Rosemary? ‘What are the dresses going to be like that we’re supposed to be wearing?’ (The dresses were invented by Glyn for the painting. What might the sisters have actually been wearing as they sat?) It must have covered a very different course to the ones he would have had with the likes of Siegfried Sassoon and the Duchess of Westminster. Also, I imagine any silences were companionable and not awkward; perhaps then broken by a certain thought or observation with a verbal shorthand that’s typical of close family.
Apart from ‘Sisters of the Artist’, do you have a favourite work in the exhibition?
Well, that’s like saying do you have a best friend? Which child do you like the most? What’s your favorite meal? It’s so hard to decide. There’s so much to say it would be the ‘Sisters of the Artist’, but equally it’s ‘Mrs. Clement Cross’, because there’s a composure and a sort of serenity that reminds me of my mother. I remember it hanging one side of my great aunt, Gaby’s fireplace – with ‘Guendolen Cleaver’ on the other side. After Gaby died, it became Rhodie’s and it hung at the end of the entrance corridor in her flat. It does stir the memory wonderfully to see ‘Mrs. Clement Cross’ and ‘Guendolen Cleaver’ alongside each other once again. They are such stylish companion pieces. Again, ‘Gabrielle and Rosemary’, because those are the two people I actually did know – here they are as teenagers but I saw them live well into old age.
Then there’s ‘Profile of a Man with Hibiscus Flower (Felix)’. There’s something rather playful about that flower in particular tucked behind his ear. When I was a child we lived in the Bahamas for a time and I remember being so captivated when I first spotted a hibiscus – every time I see one I am taken straight back to that very happy and carefree time. (I think I have a photo of my mother in the early 70s with a hibiscus behind her ear ….I must look it out). And the colour combinations drink you in too.
I think I am just going to have to select a separate favourite picture every time I visit. I am heading back to the exhibition this weekend with a friend who’s keen to see it – I think this will be the sixth visit…and counting! Which picture will grab me in a new way then?
I was quite overwhelmed when I first visited the exhibition. There’s just so much to take in. Although since childhood I have been very aware of Glyn Philpot’s range of work, suddenly seeing the selected exhibits (and there’s lots more stunning pieces that weren’t able to be included) showcased as they are took my breath away and made me properly realise what an incredible artist this legend in our family was.
Charlotte Doherty is Glyn Philpot’s great-great-niece and has generously loaned Philpot’s ‘Sisters of the Artist’ to our exhibition Glyn Philpot: Flesh and Spirit. You can see it up close together with the rest of the exhibition until 23rd October 2022.