Sir Robin Philipson

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.

Fallen Soldier

Oil on canvas, Fallen Soldier, c1966, acquired by Paisley Museum in 1966 with a grant of £125 (NFA.2774). Picture credit: Paisley Museum, Renfrewshire Council. © The Artist’s Estate.

 

The Attack

Oil on canvas, The Attack, 1961, acquired by Fife Council in 1965 with a grant of £157.10s (NFA.1147). Picture credit: Fife Cultural Trust (Kirkcaldy Galleries) on behalf of Fife Council. © The Artist’s Estate.

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.

Design for a poster for the Edinburgh International Festival

Gouache on paper, Design for a Poster for the Edinburgh Festival, 1959, acquired by Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums in 1996 with an NFA grant of £1,100 (NFA.711). Picture credit: Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections. © The Artist’s Estate.

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.

Crucifixion

Oil, tempera and gesso on canvas, Crucifixion, 1960/80, acquired by Dundee City Council in 1980 with a grant of £625 (NFA.3011). Picture credit: Dundee City Council (Dundee’s Art Galleries and Museums). © The Artist’s Estate.

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.

Iconostasis

Oil on canvas, Iconostasis, c1973, acquired by East Dunbartonshire Council in 1974 with a grant of £450 (NFA.1714). Picture credit: Lillie Art Gallery, Milngavie, East Dunbartonshire Leisure & Culture Trust. © The Artist’s Estate

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.

Threnody Meeting (detail)

Detail of oil on canvas, Threnody Meeting, acquired by the Andrew Carnegie Birthplace Museum in 1970 with an NFA grant of £190 (NFA.1391). Picture credit: The Andrew Carnegie Birthplace Museum. © The Artist’s Estate.

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.

Zebra

Oil on canvas, Zebra, acquired by City of Edinburgh Museums and Galleries in 1983 with a grant of £975 (NFA.4077). Picture credit: City Art Centre, Edinburgh Museums and Galleries. © The Artist’s Estate.

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.

Humankind

Cotton warp and wool tapestry, Humankind, 1988, interpretation of an original design by Sir Robin Philipson, woven by the Edinburgh Tapestry Company. Acquired by Glasgow Museums in 1992 with a grant of £8,312 (NFA.3843). Picture credit: CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection. © Dovecot Tapestry Studio.

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/

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http://www.edinburghmuseums.org.uk/

http://www.edlc.co.uk/arts/lillie_art_gallery.aspx

https://www.onfife.com/

http://www.glasgowlife.org.uk/museums/Pages/home.aspx

http://www.leisureandculturedundee.com/

 

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60 Years Old and Still Going Strong…

John Blyth Collection of 116 paintings, acquired in 1963 with an NFA grant of £2,000; oil painting, Attack by Sir Robin Philipson, acquired in 1965 with a grant of £157.10s; oil painting, Hillside, Auchtertool, 1969, by Ian Lawson, acquired in 1969 with a grant of £17.10s; oil painting, The Birthplace of Dr Thomas Chalmers, Anstruther, 1834, by A McDougall, acquired in 1973 with a grant of £29; three oil paintings, Interieur Noir, 1950, by William Gear, Still Life with Goblet by Elizabeth Blackadder and Satan Watching the Sleep of Christ, 1874, by Sir Joseph Noel Paton, acquired in 1974 with grants of £137.50, £102.50 and £850 respectively; oil painting, Apocalypse II, c1982, by Neil Dallas Brown, acquired in 1982 with a grant of £700; oil painting, Rain Clouds Over the Forth, 1984-6, by John Houston, acquired  in 1988 with a grant of £1,350; and oil painting, Fent, 2010, by Alison Watt, acquired in 2012 with a grant of £7,000.

The 60th anniversary of the National Fund for Acquisitions has provided the perfect opportunity to display some of the artworks Fife Council Museums has bought with the NFA’s help. Kirkcaldy Galleries is currently displaying nine of these paintings by artists such as Sir Robin Philipson, John Houston, Elizabeth Blackadder and Neil Dallas Brown.

The re-hanging of one painting in particular has delighted the front of house staff – Satan Watching the Sleep of Christ. Painted by Sir Joseph Noel Paton in 1874, it depicts a brooding and somewhat menacing Satan sitting above a sleeping Christ. Christ, dressed in a gown and robes, is painted with his face swathed in light, appearing peaceful and serene. Satan, wearing a crown of fire, is perched on rocks as he glares at Christ beneath him.

Oil painting, 'Satan Watching the Sleep of Christ' by Sir Joseph Noel Paton

Oil painting, ‘Satan Watching the Sleep of Christ’ by Sir Joseph Noel Paton

 

Paintings on display at the Kirkcaldy Galleries

Paintings on display at the Kirkcaldy Galleries

The NFA has helped us acquire objects for our collections since 1962. One of the biggest and most influential purchases made with the assistance of the Fund was the John Blyth Collection. Blyth was a Kirkcaldy linen manufacturer and an avid collector of art, particularly the works of William McTaggart and S J Peploe. He also collected works by the Glasgow Boys, the Camden Town Group, William Gillies and even L S Lowry. Over the years Blyth lent paintings to the Art Gallery (partly because he ran out of space at home!) and when he died in 1963 over half his collection was hanging in the Gallery. After some negotiation it was agreed that Kirkcaldy Town Council would buy 116 paintings from the family for the town. The NFA and the Art Fund helped Kirkcaldy to acquire the works. Without this acquisition, Kirkcaldy Galleries would not have the fantastic art collection it has today. Some of the paintings from the Blyth Collection are included in the permanent displays at Kirkcaldy Galleries.

S J Peploe, 'Flowers and Fruit' from the J W Blyth Collection

S J Peploe, ‘Flowers and Fruit’ from the John Blyth Collection

 

Joseph Crawhall, 'Swans' from the J W Blyth Collection

Joseph Crawhall, ‘Swans’ from the John Blyth Collection

 

William McTaggart, 'Away to the West' from the John Blyth Collection

William McTaggart, ‘Away to the West’ from the John Blyth Collection

Fortunately, with the NFA’s help we can continue to collect significant works with connections to Fife and enhance our collection. The exhibition of nine artworks bought with assistance from the NFA continues until 17th November 2014.

Jane Freel
Museums Curator
Fife Cultural Trust

http://www.onfife.com/