Memoir of Glyn Philpot (c. 1945)

by Gerald Heard

It is now just thirty years since I first met him and it is a decade since I last saw him. Since then one has met a number of people who are considered famous and certainly are remarkable, but I am not sure that any of them have given me quite the sense of uniqueness that Glyn did. I had just come to live in London and of course had heard about him, for he was what one might call the young hope of the old side - there had suddenly appeared a young man of brilliant powers who nevertheless was a traditionalist from the start and not a revolutionary. That made him a figure of controversy at once, and of course his great power as a striking portraitist gave him another public beside the intellectuals. I had been taken to see some of his pictures already and certainly such studies as the ‘Breton fishing boy’ and the ‘head of the Negro’ were of direct appeal; they held even the most casual sight-seer.[1] I was invited to meet him at the Randall Davies house.[2] There were no other guests and, as soon as we were dining, one forgot he was a very successful artist for of course he was as brilliant a talker as he was a painter — indeed he was essentially a personality — one whom if he had had no specific art people would have said of him that his character, his style was far more remarkable than anything he did. And that was true. That Glyn cared for his painting immensely, no one could doubt, but though he was a great worker and a fertile inventor, his art never actually consumed him - he was indeed more remarkable than it. We were once discussing Van Gogh and he remarked with something almost of impatience, ‘I could see a chair as he saw that chair he painted but I should have to be more than half mad to do so.’[3] It was like all those judgements of his a shrewd one. He knew well of what lay beyond paint, to which paint is only a curtain, but he wanted to be complete; he dreaded deformity, disbalance, ill-taste.

We stayed talking at the Davies’s house till late and then he asked me to walk back to his studio flat in Tite Street.[4] The moment one entered it one saw how perfectly he could make every thing he touched reflect him. It was a difficult place to make look comfortable, still more gracious, but he had given it some real beauty. Indeed as one learnt, it amused him to take ugliness and, with a brilliant economy of material, to turn the dull thing into an object of peculiar distinctive quality. I stayed with him till one or past and we met very often after that. He started three paintings for which I served as model, and few things have interested me more than when - and this of course was rare - he would let one watch him actually working on them.[5] The speed of his brushwork was uncanny; you felt he was, in the famous simile, simply wiping off a grey film and exposing underneath a finished brilliant picture. He had been taught at the Beaux Arts and so he had this strange flair for rapid work, seemingly able to strike out brilliant likenesses without any sketch, study or correction.[6] To the lay-man it was a wonderful exhibition of sheer dexterity. Then one day he turned with his usual smile, ‘The trouble with your face,’ he said, ‘Is that at first glance it all seems on a big scale and the more one looks at it, the more one sees that in point of fact everything is really quite small.’ From that day one’s use as a model was over but we found somehow a lot of thing in common, tho it still puzzles me what he found in one’s own shape of mind. Very soon one was able to discuss with him that other great interest of his life — religion. But there, again, one came across his vastly intuitive attitude toward it. He had become, not long before, a Catholic and was, and always remained, wholly satisfied.[7]

I had been trained as an historian and a little as a theologian so my approach was very different.[8] It did not make him wary or intolerant, and I was deeply interested to learn from him all I could of his approach and contact. He used to ask, “Why don’t you become a Catholic?” and we would then enter on those discussions which resemble, one always imagines, the kind of exchanges that would take place between a fish and a bird if they agreed to discuss the advantages and necessities of their respective positions in the world of life. Through him I met a number of people who were actually artists or connoisseurs, and so began to see something of that world which is essential[ly] non-historical because interested in immediate presentation. I had not seen anything of this world before nor understood its standpoint, and I owe to him the fact that I met the intellectual world, much of which naturally was much more extreme than his own position. One saw also his peculiar tact — part of his art of living — with personal relations. There was nothing finer in all his skills than his charm with people, and it was at its best with those people he was most with — unfortunately an uncommon progression. In a few weeks, I had met Vivian Forbes, who was to illustrate so much that was best in Glyn.[9] Glyn saw in this remarkable young man a gift that was chaffing the whole body and mind to find its expression. He said to me of him, “Through Vivian I can do something in art which I couldn’t do myself”. That may well have been true: what was undoubtedly true was the fact that by his care of Vivian Forbes he brought out of himself something that was perhaps more greatly creative than any of his art work. It was not that he had in him any of the rather unresilient character of the philanthropist. It was I believe his love for getting the best out of anyone’s problems with the lightest touch and skill, to release what he could see was there - just in the same amused way, he would suddenly set about rearranging with lack of bustle but with amazing speed, someone’s uglyly arranged room, their garden, or even rescue from a clotted collapse a dinner that someone had been trying to serve from good materials but with little mastery. He could cook when he liked, as he could do anything else, as far as I know. Clothes, too, about them he had his own notions and gifts. He was always dressed perfectly but that did not make him submit to any idea that a tailor might have of smartness - I remember his emphasis on the fact that white evening waistcoats just must not be as tho they were made of ironed white paper. The texture of the cloth must show, the roll of the lapels must be natural and able to be given a just touch as you put them on, like an early 19th century cravat — the made-up in that genre filled him with horror.[10]

Philpot crop 2.JPG

"Gerald Heard II" by Glyn Philpot.


Oil on canvas, c. 1915.

Not many months later I was ill, and he came down into the country to stay with me, where I had been lent a cottage.[11] This was the first time that one had actually shared house with him. One saw the steady plan he had of his life — he read with the same delight and the same selection as he did everything else. He was then absorbed by Huysmans.[12] The mixture of deep Catholic piety and detailed power of noticing the irrelevant and the macabre, fascinated him. After it was to be Proust.[13] I was young and crude enough to ask why these authors absorbed him. Sometimes my questions would make him impatient, but most of the time he would be gentle and try to make me appreciate their curious richness, their appositeness to their time. Finally he said, I remember, ‘We differ about the way to take things: I’m only interested in metaphor..’; and then with a laugh, ‘and I really only like it when it’s fully mixed’. There was a lot of truth in his joke. He was involved in a double problem — he was both dramatic and also presentational — the story, the climax in things interested him, but also the beauty of actual texture. I think that made him loyal to Venice and made his art, not merely of painting but of living, so largely a recall of the late Renaissance. Those striking pictures - the ‘Statue under the Sea’, ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’, the ‘Three Kings’, they were dramatic but they were also arresting studies in sheer appearances.[14] I often wonder what would have happened had he not had a disappointment in the great religious picture — the ‘Christus’ he painted for Scotland.[15] He told me that it was felt to be in some way inhuman and wrong. Afterwards he returned to this central problem which because it is larger than even great art may be touched on by one [who] is not an artist. He attempted that big work, the three great striding figures, and one felt that Michelangelo had come to Venice, and Rome had asked the Sea-Kings artist guest whether he might not come to the religious capital and there work at themes in which sumptuousness was lost in sublimity.[16] He could have, but again the problem arises, can a man be fullyrounded and one-pointed. He had so many gifts that had he chosen one, the others must have been sacrificed.

A few months after, he had just been made an R.A., we were down staying with him at a millhouse on the north downs and again one saw his skill in living which appeared so casual but was always distinctively selective.[17] He disliked scholarship, yet his information on any subject he actually wished to use was always adequate. There was nothing that would escape his attention and touch in a house — from the daily paper he would make a scrap-book of odd snapshots and paragraphs which[18] made a kind of jumble glass picture of the human kaleidoscope. When we went for a walk and he found the path dull, he would set us designing menus. Tea, one remembers, must never have sweet things but various frail toasts and sandwiches cemented with various pâtés.[19]

When next back in London he had moved to a house in Knightsbridge, and again he made it almost too perfect by the skill with which he arranged things nice enough in themselves but owing their charm to their detailed composition.[20] Lunching there one day one met at last one of the figures which he loved to embroider — a great art critic who had always defended Glyn’s work from the moderns and who Glyn loved.[21] The man was also a bon viveur, and as he was then old — he died a couple of years later — he had become very round. ‘He’s like an enormously ripe plum,’ Glyn remarked, ‘One keeps one wondering what would happen if he caught on a thorn’. That did not mean that he had anything but respect for[22] the superplum’s judgement. ‘I don’t care what the other critics say. They don’t know what I’m trying to do. But when he said, “This last work of Philpot’s is a little disappointing”, I felt I must have been careless’.

He loved music, I think, as much as painting. The opera would have kept him alone from ever being content with the country. The ballet, though, I think, meant most to him. He greatly valued a painting which he made of Nijinsky as Oedipus confronting the Sphinx.[23] It had about it a quality which may mean nothing to artists but which was present in so many of his paintings and which gave them a quality which balanced that sense of sumptuousness which I have called Venetian — instead of the rich golden lights there was the cold of the moon over it all. The music he composed was, however, without this quality. It brought out still another side of his nature — His ‘Little Lamb who made Thee’ was one felt a perfect setting for Blake’s poem, which moves as all Blake’s work does move on that edge which can either lapse into Pathos or go over — as Wordsworth lost the power to go — out into a world of awe and even terror.[24] There he showed, and in one or two other snatches, a perfect simplicity and directness, that innocency which isn’t stupidity or inexperience but the incapacity to be nocuous, mean or frightened. Once discussing Opera with an enthusiast he said, ‘“The Magic Flute” is of course the best because the music and the theme can go together for there is no attempt at realism.’[25] Yet he would never reject Wagner and indeed all his life he was determined that fantasy and sanity, beautifully ordered common sense and this-world plenty should go with the transcendent.[26] It was clear, one almost says inevitable, that he could have been a writer. I often asked him to do so. He always said that to do it as he would, would take too much of his time. I think, tho, the reason was that narrative and picture are in contrast to each other, one must choose one way or the other, if not of looking at life at least of rendering one’s impression of it. And all his life he was skilfully, quietly, but none the less unrestingly working, one might almost say wrestling with that problem of decoration, design and significance, story, description. In the end, I think portraits really had come to tire him. The great Salisbury is a command piece.[27] The picture of old Bishop Gore suddenly seemed to recall him to his interest in a set subject and indeed the old theologian’s sad face I think stirred real sympathy in the artist.[28]

One hot night in ‘23 we were all asked to go to the new studio flat in Holland Park.[29] Here at last Glyn seemed to have a place which was not a problem asking for the assistance of a genius but a house which lent itself to his skill. He made it a wonderful place, and I always felt it suited him better than any other. Every object, that book, this picture, the arrangement of flowers, was of interest. But he was not quite happy with it and began to want the country. Then he had his most entertaining adventure with a house.[30] One recalls coming in to see him and he looking up to say, ‘Here’s a place which they are advertising as suitable for an institution — they mean for a quiet secluded mental-home.’ It certainly was forbidding enough, and never did he make a more brilliant facelifting operation on a poor collapsed piece of mid-XIX pretension. It was the last house I knew him in. Our friendship had gaps — there were spaces when I was away, he away and others when we were taken up with issues in which the other had nothing to give. But we would meet again and his vividness would start us off where we had begun years back.

The last time, the last stretch was when coming down from Cambridge where I’d been staying with Lowes Dickenson — Cambridge and Bloomsbury had made a kind of alliance against the Royal Academy Chelsea and the traditionalists, and I was then once again much with Cambridge.[31] I had got into the carriage, which was full when, as the train began to start, a man hurried up, entered and then saw no place to put his suitcase and little to sit. Looking up, I saw it was Glyn, asked him to put his suitcase under my seat and to sit beside me. He was as gay as ever, came to see where I was then living with Christopher Wood, and, they too liking each other, we saw once again one another frequently. The last spell together was when Wood and I picked him up at Chartres and Christopher drove him and me through the west of France down to Carcasonne — that fantastic reconstructed medieval fortress town which stands like a frontier castle between the Atlantic side of France and the Mediterranean.[32] We arrived at night and in a storm of rain and Glyn, as we found rooms in the hotel, had a telegram from Paris asking him to come as soon as possible. It was from Vivian Forbes, and so my last tour with him closed — as had the one before I had taken with him to Italy with his hurrying off that he might be of use to a friend.[33] Actually my last sight of him was a number of years after. He would send for me now and then suddenly — once when he had, as it were, gone to ground in a strange house in that strange desert of houses to the west of Vauxhall Bridge Road. It was a place almost sinister, for it had no windows — only skylights and was filled with rather dusty divans and old rugs on the lightless walls. He hadn’t troubled to alter it — he was simply resting for a little. Again he called for me to come to him when he had taken a brief refuge by going to bed in one of those huge hotels that tower up at the south west end of Kensington gardens.[34] It was winter and he had drawn the curtains and was reading by a shaded light. I asked him what was wrong. He smiled away the enquiry and I never suspected that he might actually be seriously exhausted. I never heard him complain of his health or anything else, tho often about other things he would have sudden keen moments of protest, which generally broke down into laughter. The last time I spent an unbroken hour or two with him alone was, I think, when he as usual suddenly rang up and asked if I would come down and sit with him while he worked — I was to go to a lovely house in one of the small squares not far from Westminster Abbey.[35] On arriving, I found he had the house to himself and was shown up to a very fine dining room. He was decorating it for a friend — all in that what I have called his moonlight tone — silvers, greens and blues. One saw in the big designs he was sketching on the walls with that wonderful readiness of technique which he commanded, the beginning of his next effort — the attempt he made to achieve a kind of bridge between the classic tradition which he loved and the new thought in art. He did not, I knew, think he had succeeded, but nevertheless he felt that the effort was worth while. After all nothing is more remarkable — it has been pointed out by all great historians of art — than the fact that often from those who cling longest to a style which most practitioners of their age have abandoned, comes — as with Bach for instance, a final flowering of the old stock which produces a yield which in its way can never be surpassed.[36]

His taste was certainly catholic. In Chinese work he had a special pleasure, always picking up small pieces of carving which had given him pleasure. Once when I was ill in bed, he called and put beside me a Chinese carving of a duck, done in some smoky crystal, with a spray of lotus in its mouth. “I’m going to leave that with you while you are in bed, it will cheer you up. Don’t you see, it’s so like the delicate way that Daisy eats a piece of spaghetti.”[37] He could be biting too in a humorous way. He knew I had a young critic friend who had said hard things about his art, a man who too was of no little elegance and with something of Glyn’s love of textures — “Do you know what I think of, when I think of him?” he asked me (They had incidentally never met) “I think of a piece of rather worn velvet lying in the corner of a dusty drawer.”[38]

Toward the end of my time in England, I saw him just once or twice. Then I heard from a friend we had in common that his doctor was really alarmed about him and had ordered him complete rest.[39] I wanted to go and see him but he did not wish to be visited. My friend Christopher Wood, however, did get permission to see him. He recovered from that attack and then I saw him for the last time. He came in for a moment unexpectedly to see Christopher. We talked for a little and, as far as I remember, Christopher had to go out. The talk turned to religion. It grew grave: we came to a deadlock — not so much on theology as on the issues from which theology rises and the acute problems of actual conduct. I felt a great sense of sadness come over me for then though I did not know that I was leaving London for years, I did feel that somehow our friendship had reached its close. I went with him to the lift. As he stepped in, he turned round, broke into his laugh, smiled and waved his hand. I know that he knew better than I that something had come to an end but he would not let it close in anything as heavy as gloom. He was right, for differences are not the fundamental things of life - agreements are more powerful, and as one looks back, it is in his charm and generosity, his gifts and power of happiness that one finds that he is living.

J. G. P. Delaney obtained his Ph.D. at Edinburgh University. He is currently Professor of English Language and Literature at Université de Moncton, Moncton, N.B., Canada. Professor Delaney is author of Charles Ricketts, A Biography (Oxford, 1990) and Glyn Philpot, His Life and Art (London, 1999), as well as numerous articles and pamphlets.

The Barrie Family Trust is most grateful to Professor J. G. P. Delaney for his kind permission to republish his article, "Gerald Heard's Memoir of Glyn Philpot (c 1945)" and its accompanying portrait, which originally appeared The British Art Journal, Vol. IV, No. 2, Summer 2003. Introduction, textual emendations, and footnotes are Copyright © 2003 by Professor J. G. P. Delaney, All Rights Reserved. Text of Memoir of Glyn Philpot is Copyright © 2003 by The Barrie Family Trust, All Rights Reserved. Image of Gerald Heard I is Copyright by The Glyn Philpot Estate. Image of Gerald Heard II is Copyright by The Barrie Family Trust.


[1] In 1914, Philpot did two paintings for which a French soldier modelled. One, entitled A Young Breton, or A Breton Boy (Tate Gallery, was exhibited at the RA in 1917, while the other, entitled Guillaume Rolland, a Young Breton, or Apache (Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto), was shown at the International Society Exhibition in 1914 and the Venice Biennale in 1922. The powerful Head of a Negro (1912-13), first exhibited as ‘Billy’ at the Modern Society of Portrait Painters in 1913, was the first of a long series of paintings of black men by Philpot.

[2] Randall Davies (1866-1946), writer and collector, whom Philpot first met in July 1910 and whose portrait he painted c 1912.

[3] Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), whose famous painting Van Gogh’s Chair (National Gallery, London) was done in 1888.

[4] Philpot’s studio was at 33 Tite Street from 1912 to 1923.

[5] Philpot did two head sketches of Heard, painted by artificial light one evening after dinner, probably in 1915. When Heard left England for the USA, he gave them to a friend of his and Philpot’s, the painter Eliot Hodgkin (1905-1987). He in turn gave one to Heard’s secretary and executor Jay Michael Barrie (1912-2001), while the other was sold by a London dealer.

[6] In Paris in 1905, Philpot actually studied at the Académie Julian, rather than at the Beaux Arts, but his teacher, Jean Paul Laurens (1838-1921), taught (and probably used the same techniques) at both institutions.

[7] According to his niece, Gabrielle Cross, Philpot became a Catholic shortly after he turned twenty-one in Oct 1905, but no supporting evidence for this date has been found.

[8] Heard had studied history at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge from 1908 to 1911, and stayed on there until 1913 to study theology on a college scholarship given to those preparing to take Anglican Orders.

[9] Vivian Forbes (1891-1937), artist who did drawings and watercolours of distinction. Having met Philpot in the army in August 1915, he became increasingly dependant both financially and emotionally on Philpot, and committed suicide shortly after Philpot’s funeral.

[10] Heard is probably referring to Philpot’s distaste for ready-made ties, as opposed to those hand tied by the wearer himself.

[11] The cottage is unidentified, as is the date of this visit.

[12] Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907), whose best-known novel À Rebours (1884) became the ‘breviary of the Decadents’ and influenced Oscar Wilde and others. Huysmans’ partly autobiographical works reflect many of the intellectual movements of the late 19th century and eventually describe his return to the Catholic Church.

[13] Marcel Proust (1871-1922) whose autobiographical masterpiece À la recherche du temps perdu, an attempt to recover a lost past by stimulating unconscious memory, was published between 1913 and 1927.

[14] Under the Sea (1914-18), exhibited International Society, 1916; Belshazzar’s Feast (1913), exhibited International Society, 1913; Adoration of the Three Kings (1918) (Baltimore Museum of Fine Arts), exhibited Royal Academy, 1918.

[15] The Sacred Heart Altarpiece was painted in 1922 for St Peter’s Catholic church, Edinburgh, where Father John Gray, poet and friend of Oscar Wilde as well as of Philpot, was pastor. Due to a misunderstanding, the same subject had already been painted for the church by the Scottish painter, Malcolm Drummond, so Philpot’s painting was not needed. After Philpot’s death, it was given to a monastery near Margate, where it was destroyed in the collapse of the building where it was being stored.

[16] In The Journey of the Spirit (1921), which shows three nude male figures striding across a strange, barren, landscape, Philpot tries to represent more generalized, cosmic, ideas in a Symbolist style, rather than the specific biblical references of his earlier paintings. Critics rightly saw the influence of Michelangelo in these muscular figures. Heard’s point is that this monumental quality, so evident in Michelangelo’s sculpture and his great works like the Sistine Chapel in Rome, is combined with the earlier influence on Philpot of Venetian art, with its love of colour, of gorgeous fabrics and of surface quality in general.

[17] Philpot was elected ARA in 1915 and RA in 1923. The cottage on the north downs has not been identified.

[18] The word ‘with’ in the text has been emended to ‘which’.

[19] For afternoon tea, Philpot would have pâté de foie gras, and on one occasion during the war when he invited six soldiers, he had caviare and cake.

[20] 5 Park Row, Knightsbridge, where Philpot lived from 1919 to 1923.

[21] The ‘great art critic’ was probably Paul G. Konody (1872-1933), who published an appreciative article, “The Art of Glyn Philpot,” Drawing and Design, 3 new series 41 (Sept 1923) 577-9, 588-97, as well as numerous perceptive and favourable reviews of his exhibited work. The ‘disappointing’ painting has not been identified. As Philpot became an R.A. in April 1923, and left Knightsbridge for his new flat in Holland Park in late May 1923, this dinner seems to have taken place in late April/early May 1923, possibly when Konody was researching his article on Philpot. Konody actually lived another ten years.

[22] The word ‘from’ in the text has been emended to ‘for’.

[23] Philpot did several portraits of the great ballet dancer, Vaclav Nijinski (1890-1950), which were exhibited at the Fine Art Society, London, in March 1914. A great lover of classical ballet and especially the Ballets Russes, he also painted a number of other dancers.

[24] Philpot set this and other poems by William Blake (1757-1827) to music. In his Intimations of Immortality (published in 1807), William Wordsworth (1770-1850) explores the meaning of his early intense experiences of childhood and their gradual fading as he grew older.

[25] The Magic flute by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91) has an entirely fantastic fairy-tale plot with light, comic elements.

[26] The music of Richard Wagner (1813-83) is based on a heavier machinery of Teutonic mythology. Heard’s point seems to be that Philpot’s tastes in music, as in other things, were very catholic, and not dogmatic.

[27] Philpot’s large state portrait of the 4th Marquess of Salisbury (1917), was received with acclamation by the critics and the public when exhibited at the RA in that year.

[28] Philpot’s portrait (1920) of Rt Hon. Charles Gore, D.D., Bishop of Oxford, was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1921.

[29] Philpot and Forbes took over the flat in Lansdowne House, Lansdowne Rd in May 1923. It was built as flats for artists with large north-facing studios and had been formerly occupied by the artists Charles Ricketts (1866-1931) and Charles Shannon (1863-1937), who had both influenced Philpot’s early work.

[30] In 1927, Philpot bought Baynards Manor, a large brick mock-Tudor house, which had been divided into 3 cottages and which he restored to its original state. Because of the financial difficulties that followed his change of style, he was obliged to sell it in 1935.

[31] Goldsworthy Lowes Dickenson (1862-1932), Cambridge don, historian and humanitarian, who promoted the establishment of the League of Nations (whose name he may have invented) and who wrote the Introduction to Heard’s The Ascent of Humanity. His biography was written by E. M. Forster (1934).

[32] This trip from Chartres to Carcasonne probably took place in 1931-2, while Philpot was living in Paris.

[33] This trip to Baveno and Gardone on the Italian lakes took place in May 1925, and from there Philpot and Heard then visited Bologna together.

[34] The strange house and the hotels are unidentified, but the former sojourn may have occurred in 1935 when Philpot was selling Baynards and looking for a flat in London.

[35] In 1930, Philpot decorated the dining room of Mulberry House, Smith Square, Westminster, London, which belonged to his friends and patrons, the Lord and Lady Melchett. For this, he was paid 1200 pounds in November, 1930.

[36] Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), German baroque composer who clung to the Renaissance style of polyphony while his contemporaries had turned to chords and melody.

[37] In 1916, Heard had suffered a nervous breakdown and a long illness afterwards. It was probably during this period that Glyn visited him. Daisy Philpot (1881-1957), Glyn’s devoted elder sister, who acted as his secretary and housekeeper.

[38] The young critic is unidentified.

[39] Philpot suffered from high blood pressure and a hectic schedule, and was several times ordered to rest in the latter part of his life.


"Gerald Heard I" by Glyn Philpot.

Oil on canvas, c. 1915.

"He used to ask, 'Why don’t you become a Catholic?' and we would then enter on those discussions which resemble, one always imagines, the kind of exchanges that would take place between a fish and a bird if they agreed to discuss the advantages and necessities of their respective positions in the world of life."