Glyn Philpot at Pallant House

Glyn Philpot – Portrait of Henry Thomas in Profile, 1934-5, oil on canvas © Pallant House Gallery, Chichester

Pallant House Gallery’s summer show Glyn Philpot: Flesh and Spirit is the first major survey of this artist’s work in almost 40 years. It explores questions of human identity and society in a series of more than 130 works from private and public collections.

Acrobats, working class and society figures hang alongside portraits of young black men in this rewarding and complex exhibition.

I meet up with Pallant House Gallery Director, Simon Martin, who has curated the exhibition. I comment on how Glyn Philpot RA (1884–1937) so often lights his subjects in a dramatic way reminiscent of the Spanish Old Master painter Diego Velazquez.

Simon replies “Unusually there is a tremendous shift from incredibly traditional painting at the beginning which is very much inspired by the Old Masters through to a shift in about 1930 to a much more radical modernist style of work. All these different tensions – his interest in religion, he was a Catholic with a deeply held Catholic faith, but also classical mythology, and queer identity. You might see all of these things as being in tension but actually he seemed to find a way to sometimes express these different things in the same work which is fascinating. And the interplay between society figures like Loelia, Duchess of Westminster, but also working class models as well…fascinating contrasts really.”
Philpot’s personal passions – the male body and portraits of black men are central to this reappraisal of an artist who had fallen from view.

Glyn Philpot – Resting Acrobats, 1924, oil on canvas © Leeds Museums and Galleries UK/Bridgeman Images

These themes are keenly expressed in the dramatic portrait of Henry Thomas, and the earlier Resting Acrobats. Both paintings provide sharp windows into his sitters. The nobility of Thomas, an extraordinary depiction for its time, is in contrast to the weary, resigned expressions of the acrobats once the veneer of the stage has been removed.

Simon explains how Philpot’s formal training in London and Paris underpins his work “He had this very accomplished way of working so when he actually changed to a much more modern style…underpinning that was this incredible draughtsmanship. These things are rooted in his ability to capture expression in the figure. He was fundamentally a figurative painter. Almost every single picture is based around the figure in some way. The themes in his work are increasingly relevant today I think in terms of identity.”

This rewarding and complex exhibition provides an eloquent rediscovery of the work of Glyn Philpot with a ravishing array of work and runs at Pallant House Gallery until 23rd October.

Gilbert White and the Artists at the 2022 Steyning Festival

Author and Pallant House Gallery Director, Simon Martin

As I meet with author and Pallant House Gallery Director, Simon Martin, preparations are well underway for the 2022 Steyning Festival which opens on May 27th. Simon is amongst the headline speakers and will be talking about his recently published book Drawn to Nature: Gilbert White and the Artists.

Since its publication in 1789, Gilbert White’s Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne has inspired generations of artists, writers and naturalists.

Simon Martin says “Gilbert White’s quiet observations, which individually can be quite poetic, taken together have a resonance which have inspired other writers and artists.”

The importance of White’s observations is echoed in Sir David Attenborough’s introduction to this processional book where he writes ‘It would be difficult to find a less eventful life, in a worldly sense. But his days, for him, were packed with incident. Nothing was too small or humble to escape his investigations.’

Drawn to Nature, Gilbert White and the Artists

Gilbert White would live at Selbourne for most of his life and his work is a reminder that we can journey far by remaining in the same place.

Simon continues “As a man of the cloth one of the things that comes across is White’s reverence for nature and the natural world.”

In the poem an invitation to Selbourne, Gilbert White wrote:
‘See, Selbourne spreads her boldest beauties round
The varied valley, and the mountain ground,
Wildly majestic!’

Simon explains that he went to Selbourne some three years ago “Gilbert White’s house has such a wonderful atmosphere, particularly with the garden and the walk up to the hanger. But my route into Gilbert White was through the Modern British artists, people like Eric Ravilious, Clare Leighton and others. I’d seen prints and illustrations by these artists whilst working on them for individual exhibitions and projects. I realised so many artists have been influenced by, and illustrated White’s work. Sitting quietly behind some of our greatest cultural achievements is the observation of nature.” This lavishly illustrated book presents a series of essays, images and commentaries inspired by White’s writing including the contemporary cover illustration and end papers designed by Mark Hearld.

Simon describes how in of White’s writings his observations “occupy a place in the narrative structure … [with] a rare combination of scientific precision, poetic narrative and conversational anecdote.”

These words might also describe Simon Martin’s own approach to this beautiful, insightful and delightful book which is available from Pallant House Gallery and the Steyning Bookshop.

To find out more about what’s on at the 2022 Steyning Festival and to book tickets visit www.steyningfestival.co.uk.

Hockney to Himid – Common Stories Told in Print

Lubaina Himid, Birdsong Held us Together, 2020, lithograph © the artist

The current exhibition at Pallant House Gallery, Hockney to Himid – 60 years of British Printmaking, is drawn from the gallery’s remarkable collection of prints gifted by the teachers Dr Mark Holder and Brian Thompson over twenty years.
Across the centuries the world’s greatest artists have been drawn to the mediums of print. This exhibition focuses on the modern British artists of the 20th century including artists like Frank Auerbach, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, David Hockney, Richard Hamilton, Graham Sutherland and Lucian Freud. And from the 21st century contemporary artists like Paula Rego, Bridget Riley and Lubaina Himid.

This processional exhibition highlights the extraordinary breadth of expression of experiences in print.

During the 2020 lockdown Hepworth Wakefield commissioned a group of artists to create works to engage primary school children. Amongst these artists was Lubaina Himid who produced the lithograph Bird Song Held us Together. Commenting on the project she stated “It is vital that our young people can feel that they are important to us and begin to understand that we are all committed to investing in every way we can to help them expand and extend their potential.”

Over the last decade, Himid has earned international recognition for her figurative work. Her background in theatre design is often apparent. Her art and life is currently the subject of a major exhibition at Tate Modern. Described as ‘a cultural activist’ she explores Black experience and women’s creativity.
Himid often commentates on overlooked and invisible aspects of history and the experience of contemporary everyday life as in the lithograph on paper, Birdsong Held us Together. It is an expression and commentary on how important nature became to the national experience during the early months of lockdown. I am moved to remember how bird song rose like an anthem in the silence that accompanied the absence of cars and planes. The lithograph provides a powerful expression of a shared narrative. Common stories which bind us together as communities.

Lucian Freud, Kai, 1992, etching © The Lucian Freud Archive/Bridgeman Images

Lucien Freud’s highly personal study of his stepson, Kai, captures not only the physical but the emotional state of the sitter. Freud was close to almost all the people he portrayed. The studies were born out of lengthy, intense sessions which would last for hours over days or weeks.

Here, Kai is shown casually dressed against a stark background. The setting contrasts with the detailed depiction of his facial features. Although he had exacting standards for his etchings, Freud embraced unintentional marks transferred from plate to print and faint lines that came from modifications to the composition.

This generous exhibition born out of the gift of two teachers over decades is a delight to the eye and imagination. Hockney to Himid – 60 years of British Printmaking runs at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester until the 24th of April 2022.

Old Masters and the Modern Art Show

Jean Antoine Watteau, Etude de Quatres Personnages, avec Deux Femmes Assises, c.1708, Sanguine chalk on paper © Pallant House Gallery

This week I am returning to Pallant House Gallery in Chichester to see Old Masters, Modern Masters, Drawings from the Hussey Bequest.
This small, jewel like exhibition showcases some of the most beautiful and significant objects in the gallery’s collection. The selection of old master drawings, ballet prints and British landscape watercolours are taken from The Very Reverend Dean Walter Hussey’s collection.

In the exhibition’s accompanying essay Simon Martin, Director of Pallant House Gallery, explains that by their very nature drawings are vulnerable to light and can only be exhibited very occasionally. He describes them as ‘hidden secrets’. So it is a great treat to see so many on display at one time.

Walter Hussey’s collection of artworks became the founding collection of Pallant House Gallery some 40 years ago.

Hussey held the conviction that so long as the quality was right there was no barrier to placing art of different periods side-by-side, a principle he applied to his commissions of Modern British Art at Chichester Cathedral during his time there as Dean.

Hussey often selected works on the advice of the modern British artist who he worked with. The beautiful sanguine chalk drawing of a group of figures by the French rococo artist Jean Antoine Watteau from 1708 is a good example of this. He purchased the drawing on the advice of the sculptor Henry Moore. The accomplished depiction of the drapery of the ladies’ dresses gives them form. Henry Moore often incorporated figure groups into his own work.

Henry Moore, Two Sleepers, 1941 Crayon, chalk and wash on paper © Pallant House Gallery

This is apparent in the study Two Apprehensive Shelterers from 1942. Henry Moore’s depiction of these two vulnerable figures has a poignancy which speaks into our own times with the experience of the people of Ukraine. It is one of a body of work known as his Shelter Drawings which Moore produced as a war artist during the Blitz. Returning to his studio, the Shelter Drawings were often made from his memory of the experience of people sheltering underground as the bombs fell on London and elsewhere. The figures are depicted with dignity recording feelings of confinement and claustrophobia. Whilst the figures are anonymous the relationships between them is clear.

Other drawings on show include Hussey’s passion for Old Masters and the British landscape with watercolours by Giulio Romano, Thomas Gainsborough, John Robert Cozens, Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland and others.

Old Masters, Modern Masters, Drawings from the Hussey Bequest, provides an insight into the tastes, influences and thinking of one of the 20th century’s most important patrons of art. It runs until 10th April 2022.

Ben Nicholson: From the Studio

John Webb, Ben Nicholson’s Studio, London, 1982 © The Late John Webb FRPS

This week I am in the company of Pallant House Gallery Director Simon Martin exploring the gallery’s latest exhibition Ben Nicholson: From the Studio.

I ask Simon about the central themes of the exhibition, he replies “During a career spanning six decades Ben Nicholson used the humble still life as a vehicle for experimentation. It’s interesting how antique objects inspired one of our most famous modernists. There is a real sense of his pleasure in objects in his work.”

The exhibition looks at the inspiration of objects whilst telling the story of the relationships in Ben Nicholson’s life. In particular his artistic and romantic relationships with his wife Winifred Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth.

In a letter to a friend, Nicholson acknowledged ‘I owe a lot to my father…not only from what he made as a painter, but from the very beautiful striped and spotted jugs and mugs and goblets, and octagonal and hexagonal glass objects he collected. Having those things in the house was an unforgettable early experience for me.’

This creative exhibition explores the importance of still life and the studio within Nicholson’s art from his early, highly finished realist paintings to the abstract reliefs that secured his international reputation. Distinctive striped jugs, mochaware mugs and glassware are displayed alongside the paintings, carved reliefs and works on paper which they inspired. The photograph of Nicholson’s studio shows it filled with objects.

Nicholson would move from painting in a realist way to a faux-naïve manner, and then to abstraction with the development of an interplay between space and depth in his famous carved relief panels which explore the same interests but with a new vocabulary.

Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth were influenced by their time in Paris where they spent time with Constantin Brȃncusi, Hans Arp, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, all of whom had explored cubism and abstraction through objects.

Ben Nicholson, June 16- 47 (still life), Oil and pencil on board, Private Collection, © Angela Verren Taunt. All rights reserved, DACS 2021

The abstract June 16 – 47 (Still Life) expresses the joy and stability in being accompanied in life by beautiful objects be they humble ceramics, glass, or paintings and sculptures by one of the most important artists of the 20th century.

The wholeness of the art and objects exhibited together reminds me of the aesthetic of Jim Ede’s home Kettles Yard in Cambridge. Jim Ede would acknowledged the influence of Ben and Winifred Nicholson on him.

Simon Martin concludes “These objects were a vital presence in the numerous studios Nicholson inhabited during his life and were of central importance in his still life paintings.”

The beautiful works on show, the very personal narrative provided by the objects and the focus on Nicholson’s relationships gives this refreshing exhibition a rich textural quality – modern but not minimalist.

Ben Nicholson: From the Studio runs at the Pallant House Gallery, Chichester until the 24th October 2021.