Lot Content

Global notice COVID-19 Important notice
Glyn Warren Philpot, R.A. (1884-1937)
Glyn Warren Philpot, R.A. (1884-1937)

Glen Byam Shaw as 'Laertes'

Glyn Warren Philpot, R.A. (1884-1937)
Glen Byam Shaw as 'Laertes'
oil on canvas
30 x 25 in. (76.2 x 63.5 cm.)
Painted in 1934-1935.
A gift from the artist's sisters to the sitter Glen Byam Shaw in 1947, and by descent to his son George Byam Shaw in 1963.
Acquired from the above by the sitter’s grandson in 2006.
D. Philpot, Manuscript Catalogue of Paintings by Glyn Philpot, c. 1938-57, p. 80.
Exhibition catalogue, The Royal Academy Illustrated, London, Royal Academy, 1935, p. 22, no. 262, illustrated.
Exhibition catalogue, The 1935 International Exhibition of Paintings, Pittsburgh, Carnegie Institute, 1938, exhibition not numbered, pl. 46.
R. Gibson, exhibition catalogue, Glyn Philpot 1884-1937: Edwardian Aesthete to Thirties Modernist, 1984, p. 86, no. 58, illustrated.
Royal Shakespeare Theatre Picture Gallery Catalogue of Pictures and Sculptures, Stratford Upon Avon, 1970.
C. Barlow (ed.), Queer British Art 1891-1967, London, Tate Gallery, 2017, pp. 78-79, 179, exhibition not numbered, illustrated.
London, Royal Academy, August 1935, no. 262.
Pittsburgh, Carnegie Institute, The 1935 International Exhibition of Paintings, October - December 1935, exhibition not numbered.
London, National Portrait Gallery, Glyn Philpot 1884-1937: Edwardian Aesthete to Thirties Modernist, November 1984 - February 1985, no. 58.
Stratford Upon Avon, Royal Shakespeare Gallery, on loan, circa 1970.
London, Tate Gallery, Queer British Art 1891-1967, April - October 2017, exhibition not numbered.
Sale room notice
This work has been requested by Pallant House Gallery in Chichester UK for their Glyn Philpot exhibition in summer 2020 and subsequent tour, and inclusion in the accompanying monograph written by the Gallery’s Director Simon Martin.

Brought to you by

William Porter
William Porter

Lot Essay

‘You spoke and looked and moved with what I considered exactly the right weight – a beautifully poised effect’ (G. Philpot, private correspondence to Glen Byam Shaw after his performance as Laertes in Hamlet).

Recently exhibited at the Tate's Queer British Art show, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the partial repeal of anti-gay legislation, Philpot’s portrait of Glen Byam Shaw as Laertes is an iconic depiction of the rich theatrical culture on the early 20th Century stage. The emphasised jaw line and arched eyebrows of the sitter, paired with the dramatic make up and exuberant costume, breathe presence into the portrait. It is as if Byam Shaw is gazing into the darkened stalls poised to begin a monologue. In the portrait, his imperious expression is certainly even more powerful – no doubt the bright lights of the stage would have drawn out his heavily made up appearance.

Born in 1904, Glen Byam Shaw is best known for his directorship of both the Old Vic and the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon during the 1940s and 50s. During his twenties and thirties, he was a renowned actor featuring in many productions, but none as celebrated as the 1934-1935 production of Hamlet at the Old Vic. Hamlet was played by his friend John Gielgud, the thespian icon of the era, for who the role was the turning point of his career. Gieguld reportedly went on to play the part over five hundred times between 1930 and 1945. The play was (unusually for the time) unabridged and ran for nearly five hours, nonetheless it was a triumph.

‘I never hoped to see Hamlet played as in one's dreams ... I've had an evening of being swept right off my feet into another life – far more real than the life I live in, and moved, moved beyond words’ (Dame Agnes Sybil Thorndike, describing the production in J. Croall, Gielgud – A Theatrical Life, 1904-2000, London, 2000, pp. 126-127).

The present work was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1935 as a three-quarter length portrait. Philpot later cut the canvas down to its present size thus focusing the attention on Glen Byam’s elegant ashen face, kohl’d eyes and pursed lips. From the shoulders down the work is a celebration of the fabulous nature of theatre costume, and Philpot’s portraiture shows his intrigue in the sensuous surface qualities and pomp of such clothing. The poet Siegfried Sassoon would later recall of him ‘his own existence was one that consisted largely in an ultra-refined appreciation of beautiful objects. He had what might be called a still-life temperament; his eyes delighted not so much in the living realities of nature as in the richness and elegance of things contrived by human handiwork’ (S. Sassoon, Siegfried’s Journey 1916-1920, London, 1945, p. 49).

Here the starched white and brocade collar contrasts with the heaviness of the structured jerkin whilst the ruched sleeves cascade from the shoulders, brought to life with streaks of white and blue. Byam Shaw emerges from the orgy of textures staring assuredly outward but Philpot was clearly just as interested in the costume as the sitter. In a letter to Byam Shaw he wrote ‘Last night I came back here and worked out two designs for your picture, and I find the costume makes the better one after all. Sorry for the extra trouble this will be! … I feel sick with excitement over the picture. I believe it is going to be good’.

The original painting included a large cloak and a dandyish handkerchief in Byam Shaw’s left hand further adding to the effect of ‘high camp.’ The costumes in the production were designed by Motley (formed of the sisters Elizabeth Montgomery, Margaret Percy and Sophie Harris). The recurring theme in their design for the play were the flamboyantly ruched jerkins and heavy chains, here pictured securing Laertes’ expertly rendered fur cape. Motley would go on to become the most renowned costume designers of the period and were closely related to the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon during Byam Shaw’s directorship.

Philpot’s letters to Byam Shaw provide brilliant insight into both the present work and the artistic circles that they moved in. Philpot may have been introduced to Byam Shaw by the poet Siegfried Sassoon or by Harold Owen, the brother of Sassoon’s close friend, possible lover and wartime poet, Wilfred Owen. Sassoon had met Philpot in 1917 and later introduced him to Harold in the 1920s, when the latter was also a painter. Harold later wrote revealing accounts of his relations with both men in his biography. Sassoon in turn had almost certainly been the lover of Byam Shaw. This complex web of painters, poets and actors is indicative of the homosexual subculture of the time – practicing but out of sight. As such, Byam Shaw’s co-actor Gieguld’s career nearly came to an end after he was infamously arrested for a homosexual offence in 1953. This, among other high-profile cases, was an impetus for the decriminalisation of male homosexuality over a decade later.

Bolstered by the strong reviews of his 1934 Leicester Galleries exhibition, Philpot entered the present work as one of five pictures in the Royal Academy 1935 show. He was at the peak of his career and here his early talent for capturing the debonair upper classes and his bolder more modern application of oil pair seamlessly. The result is an extremely commanding and intimate portrait of a close friend and theatrical character.

Related Articles

View all
Why Britain was first to go Po auction at Christies
A history of Gucci in 10 bags auction at Christies
What I’ve learned: Sarah Mansf auction at Christies

More from Modern British Art Evening Sale

View All
View All