Glyn Philpot made his debut at the Royal Academy, London, in 1904 but then took a more independent path, studying in Paris in 1905 and travelling in Spain the following year. Returning to London, he established a portrait practice and kept company with the more idiosyncratic of his contemporaries such as Charles Ricketts, Charles Shannon and Australian expatriate George Lambert. He had his first solo show with the London art dealer John Baillie in 1910, and it was from the exhibition organised by Baillie for New Zealand in 1912 that this painting was purchased. It seemed to represent the work of one of the most important younger artists of the day, begging comparison with paintings by Walter Sickert and William Orpen that challenged prevailing taste.
Girl at her toilet is typical in many respects of British painting in the years immediately preceding the First World War. It makes a deliberate contrast with John Singer Sargent’s notorious Madame X, 1884 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), as well as referring to the suggestive interior scenes of the Dutch tradition that set sexual innuendo in everyday environments. The plain looks of the model (the artist’s sister and devoted supporter, Daisy, who posed for him more than once) and the dark colouring of the setting fit well with the deglamourisation of the female figure that Philpot seems to have been aiming for. Though erotically suggestive in the Western tradition of half-dressed female figures in their private quarters, this woman’s pale and passive face, gauche stance and studied indifference make the intimacy that is forced on the viewer, positioned at close quarters with the subject in this limited space, very unsettling. The only decorative relief — the pattern on the dress, which hangs around the woman’s reluctantly displayed body — is played down, while the dark browns and greys emphasise the absence of cheer. These effects have probably been exaggerated with time, as contemporary reviewers noted the brilliance of the flesh tones, but the work offers a stark and bitter contrast with the much more stylish portraiture for which Philpot later became known. On his return from the First World War, he chose to establish himself in the mainstream, and exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy until his death in 1937.
This essay originally appeared in Art at Te Papa (Te Papa Press, 2009).