A fashionable and highly successful society portrait painter working in a somewhat decorative Post-Impressionist manner, Glyn Philpot shocked London’s art establishment by unveiling a dramatic new change in style at his one-man exhibition at the Leicester Galleries in June 1932. Writing in Apollo in July 1932, Herbert Furst lamented that ‘He has gone modern, he who was once upon a time regarded by the “moderns” as the very type and symbol of the traditionalist’.
Philpot’s shift to a palette of lilacs and blues, and to semi-abstracted compositions unified by elegant silhouettes, was presaged in the murals he had undertaken for Lady Melchett’s drawing room at Mulberry House in Westminster in late 1930. Painted on silver foil in shades of grey, pink, pale blue and black, these magnificent decorations (destroyed during the German bombing of London in World War II, but recorded in photographs) depicted the loves of Jupiter, as well as the famous allegory of Oedipus and the Riddle of the Sphinx, set against a smouldering Art Deco New York skyline.
After their completion Philpot moved to Paris for a year, undertaking experimental paintings and absorbing the progressive work of Picasso and other modernist artists. A trip to Berlin in the autumn of 1931, where Philpot confronted both the shocking rise of Nazism and a sexual profligacy that encouraged him to be less secretive about his own homosexuality, further contributed to his belief in the need for change and a new openness in his art. His 1932 exhibition contained transparently homoerotic portraits of Karl Heinz Müller, a young German man who had been Philpot’s companion in Berlin, and Julien Zaïre, a Parisian cabaret artist. This mood is echoed in Oedipus, where Müller’s handsome features grace the face of the Greek hero.
Oedipus was purchased for the National Gallery of Victoria on 8 June 1932 from the Leicester Galleries by the gallery’s Felton Bequest adviser Randall Davies, who noted that ‘I bought this picture as marking the extraordinary change in the artist’s outlook’ (letter to the Felton Bequests’ Committee and NGV, 28 July, 1932). At this time Philpot wrote to Randall Davies:
I hope you won’t lose faith in me as so many other people are doing at the moment! I know I am on the way to doing something better, in the only possible direction which is now genuine and real and true to me. (Transcribed by Davies in his letter to NGV, op. cit.)
In the years following 1932, however, the artist’s portrait commissions gradually dwindled, and by the mid 1930s Philpot was facing financial crisis.
Text by Dr Ted Gott from 20th century painting and sculpture in the international collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003, p. 41.