Saturday, August 24, 2013

Glyn Warren Philpot - Portrait of Ellen Borden Stevenson

Glyn Warren Philpot, R.A. (1884-1937)
Portrait of Ellen Borden Stevenson
signed 'Glyn Philpot' (lower left)
oil on canvas
32 x 24 in. (81.3 x 60.9 cm.) 

In the mid-1920s Glyn Philpot was at the height of his prestige. He had been elected Royal Academician in 1923, had staged a successful solo exhibition at the Grosvenor Galleries and been given a 'diplomatically sensitive' commission to paint the portrait of King Fouad I of Egypt (R. Gibson, 'Introduction', Glyn Philpot, 1884-1937, Edwardian Aesthete to Thirties Modernist, 1984 (exh. cat., National Portrait Gallery, London), pp. 23-4). Other important commissions followed, including a portrait of the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, however it was in his more informal portraits that Philpot excelled, and the painter was extolled for his ability to interpret a personality. Contemporaries regarded him as a 'master craftsman' and as the early dependence on Charles Ricketts faded, it was, '...the influence of the great Spaniards...that has been more enduring, and...his work, especially in portraiture, has shown us how deep an impression his... studies of Spanish painting have made on his imagination and receptive mind' (G. Sheringham, 'Glyn Philpot: Master Craftsman', The Studio, LXXXVIII, 1924, p. 4).

Faced with the young American girl, Ellen Borden, clad in pale lemon trimmed with gauze, it was not surprising to find Philpot producing a modern 'infanta'. Her regal bearing declares the daughter of a prominent pioneer family in Chicago. Born in 1908, she was educated in England and at an East Coast finishing school, by which time she was an accomplished pianist and a trained mezzo-soprano. Her prominence was confirmed when was presented to King George V and Queen Mary at Buckingham Palace in 1926 and two years later, at the age of 20, she married an ambitious young lawyer, Adlai Stevenson II (1900-1965). He later became a government attorney and governor and during the thirties and forties they had homes in Washington and Chicago. However the strain on their marriage led to divorce in 1949 as Stevenson rose within the Democratic Party. In 1952, he secured the party's nomination for the presidential election of 1952, but lost to General Eisenhower. Although she congratulated him on his achievement, Ellen apparently voted Republican. In later years she maintained her profile in Chicago, setting up an arts centre in her home. She died in 1972.

Philpot's portrait shows Ellen prior to her marriage. Although she declared herself never in style, a newspaper reporter claimed that she might have been a fashion plate. It was this elegant young woman in her late teens who came to Philpot to be painted at a moment when following the death of Sargent, wealthy Americans were looking elsewhere in London to place their commissions. At this point, prior to his 'going modern', his star was in the ascendant. What he produced was nevertheless a study of commanding character that fully justified Sheringham's belief that Philpot's work was 'instinct with dignity: a product of his own mentality and attitude to life, and not, I believe, studied or sought'.


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