The year 2016 marks the centenary of the birth of Sir Robin Philipson (1916-1992), one of Scotland’s most celebrated and distinguished artists. Between 1965 and 1996 the National Fund for Acquisitions supported the purchase of artworks by Philipson for eight Scottish collections. They range in date from 1958 to 1987 and include oil paintings, a gouache design for a poster for the Edinburgh International Festival and a design for a tapestry.
Born in Broughton-in-Furness, Cumbria, Philipson moved to Scotland with his family in 1930 at the age of 14, settling in Gretna and becoming a pupil at Dumfries Academy. He went on to study at Edinburgh College of Art from 1936 to 1940. By the time he graduated Britain was at war and Philipson joined the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, seeing action in India and Burma. Philipson’s wartime experience had a profound influence on his art and two of the paintings acquired with NFA support explore this theme.
In 1965 Philipson wrote to the curator of Kirkcaldy Art Gallery, William Hood, with a fascinating account of the inspiration behind The Attack. He described the execution as both difficult and exciting because he was ‘discovering the expressive possibilities of a new way of painting’. He went on to explain how he found inspiration in the tone and colour of photographs and how he contrasted the powerful image of the dead soldier in the foreground with the vignette in the upper right corner of the canvas which depicts ‘a battle scene as portrayed in the grand manner by a 19th century French painter’. Philipson’s message was essentially pacifist; the key to reading the painting lies in the contrast between these images. ‘I had hoped’, he wrote, ‘the observer would be able to read simultaneously the irreconcilability of the glorious vision and the terrible reality’. (Letter from Philipson to William Hood, dated 16 November 1965, Fife Cultural Trust Collection).
After the war Philipson returned to Edinburgh where he undertook a teacher training course at Moray House. He joined the staff of Edinburgh College of Art in 1947, first as a librarian then lecturer, eventually succeeding William Gillies (1898-1973) as Head of School of Drawing and Painting in 1960, a post he held until he retired in 1982. Philipson belonged to the Edinburgh School, a loose grouping of artists many of whom had studied and/or taught at Edinburgh College of Art. They included Gillies, John Maxwell (1905-1962) and Anne Redpath (1895-1965).
The earliest of the artworks acquired with NFA support was a design for a poster for the Edinburgh International Festival.
Although the composition, featuring the Scott Monument and a drummer, was used for Philipson’s poster for the 1958 Festival, he changed the date to 1959, perhaps suggesting that he considered reusing the design the following year. Certain themes emerged in Philipson’s work: war, cockfighting, church interiors, a series of paintings depicting the Crucifixion. An example of the latter, in the unusual medium of oil, tempera and gesso on canvas, was acquired by Dundee City Council with NFA support in 1980.
Although Philipson originally painted Crucifixion in 1966, he worked on it again in 1980, changing the blue palette of the original by adding yellow sections to either side of the rose window and darkening the ground behind Christ to shades of grey and brown. Crucifixion was intended to be hung above eye level, forcing the viewer to look up at the tortured figure of Christ, emphasising the suffering conveyed in the splayed fingers, stretched arms and tormented face. The painting also conveys Philipson’s interest in ecclesiastical architecture which he explored in a series of church and cathedral interiors. These are often characterised by a bold use of colour and heavy impasto. The NFA supported the acquisition of an example from this series, Iconostasis, for the collection of Lillie Art Gallery.
Titles occur and recur in Philipson’s work. The word ‘threnody’, which refers to a poem, song or speech of lamentation, is included in the titles of a number of paintings including Threnody Meeting which was acquired with NFA support by the Andrew Carnegie Birthplace Museum in 1970.
In spite of Philipson’s teaching commitments and his public roles – he was President of the Royal Scottish Academy from 1973 to 1983 and was knighted for service to the arts in Scotland in 1976 – he was a prolific artist who constantly explored the boundaries of his art, pushing himself to achieve better expression and greater technical mastery. He believed that to be an outstanding teacher it was essential to be a practising artist, fully engaged with his art.
In 1983, just after Philipson retired from Edinburgh College of Art and stepped down from his role as President of the Royal Scottish Academy, his role in Edinburgh’s artistic life was recognised by the acquisition of a painting for the city collection.
The painting marked a new departure in Philipson’s work, captured in a statement prepared for the Jean F Watson committee in support of the acquisition:
A new departure in the last year has been the artist’s interest in pictures within paintings. Zebra is the first in this series, uniting elements such as an animal painting with the accoutrements of a studio, allowing a combination of details which would otherwise be unusual. Levels of reality suddenly appear and coexist in the tradition of baroque painting.
The subject was inspired by a travelling scholarship which Philipson undertook to South Africa and Kenya in 1976. The zebra was to appear again in a tapestry woven by the Edinburgh Tapestry Company after a painting in Philipson’s Humankind series.
Philipson wrote of the title that it ‘needs to stir a train of thought by its sound as much as its sense. The name ‘Human Kind’ – all kind involving humankind – was proposed by George Bruce, hoping, as he says, that a word will take the viewer into the painting’s heart’ (Robin Philipson Retrospective, Edinburgh College of Art exhibition catalogue, 1989). The specific theme of this painting is apartheid, set within the landscape of South Africa and showing the love of a white boy for a black girl.
The tapestry was woven by master weavers of the Edinburgh Tapestry Company, David Cochrane, Shirley Gatt, Harry Wright and Johnny Wright. Professor James More, Managing Director of the Edinburgh Tapestry Company from 1987-1993, described the dynamic and creative relationship which grew between weavers and artist and it’s worth quoting in full for the insight it gives into this distinct creative process:
The quality of this wonderful tapestry arises from the robust and enthusiastic relationship that developed then, between the master weavers and Sir Robin, and their shared commitment to producing a vibrant work in tapestry that responded to the nature and the passion of the painting, the ideas it represented and the way in which they were portrayed. The tapestry took on a life of its own. It began and continued to develop through rich and detailed discussions between the artist and the weavers about the abounding, opulent diversity of colour, shape and texture; the psychology of seeing, sensitivity and understanding; the perceptions of cultural sensibilities; and the politics of art. Yarn and woven sample trials were produced and, while the original painting was available for a very short time, work progressed in relation to exceptionally good slides and Sir Robin’s frequent visits.
(From Elizabeth Cumming (ed), The Art of Modern Tapestry, Dovecot Studios Since 1912. London: Lund Humphries Ltd, 2012.)
The subject of the painting expresses the humanity evident in Philipson’s work throughout each phase of his long and successful career as both a teacher and artist. It is worth noting that Glasgow City Council chose this work from its collection to send to the G8 Summit at Gleneagles in July 2005 as an expression of support for the aims of the 31st summit which focused on debt relief and aid for Africa.
Dr Hazel Williamson
National Fund for Acquisitions Manager
National Museums Scotland
With thanks to Lady Diana Philipson for permission to reproduce the artworks.
The painting Fallen Soldier will be included in the exhibition Gesture – Expression in Modern Art at Paisley Museum, 16 July – 1 November 2016. http://www.renfrewshireleisure.com/paisleymuseum/