A portrait of actor, singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson painted in 1930 by British artist Glyn Philpot has been rediscovered through painstaking research, having been sold nearly 80 years ago as Head of to Negro.
The painting, one of Philpot’s many depictions of people of color, will go on public display in Chichester, West Sussex, from May 14, in the first exhibition of the artist’s work for nearly 40 years .
Philpot’s portrait depicts Robeson playing Othello at the Savoy in London in 1930, the first time in a century that a black actor had been cast in the title role of Shakespeare’s tragedy, and a milestone in the history of the theatre. In 1833, Ira Aldridge had been racially abused while appearing in London as Moor of Venice.
Robeson’s co-star Peggy Ashcroft, who played Desdemona, was repeatedly asked by interviewers if she minded being kissed by “a colored man”. His response was robust. “Of course, I don’t mind. I see no difference between being kissed by Paul Robeson and being kissed by another man,” she told the Daily Sketch in May 1930.
Although the production received mixed reviews, Robeson’s performance was acclaimed, with audiences demanding repeated encores. Philpot took his niece to see the play, then invited Robeson and his wife to dinner.
The biography of Philpot, a successful society portrait painter who was elected to the Royal Academy at the age of 38, notes that Robeson posed for him but the painting was long considered lost. Simon Martin, director of the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, which is organizing the exhibition of Philpot’s work, set out to find him.
Sifting through images in archives and auction databases, he paired a portrait with a photograph of Robeson in Othello’s costume. Philpot’s family had sold the painting in 1944, a few years after the artist’s death, under the anachronistic title Tête de nègre. Later resold and now in a private collection, the painting was found with the help of auction house Christie’s.
“It was an exciting discovery,” Martin said. “I had a hunch that this painting was Robeson, but I had to match it with press photographs of him playing Othello and then trace the work.”
The portrait has “a nobility,” he added. Othello was “the defining role of Robeson’s career – a seminal performance in theater history.” Philpot obviously recognized that it needed to be recorded.
As well as being an actor, Robeson – the son of a runaway slave, born 124 years ago on April 9 – was an athlete, lawyer, singer and political activist. He has performed on Broadway and on stages around the world, and his bass-baritone voice has made him a recording star.
He spoke out against fascism, colonialism and racism. During the McCarthy era of the 1950s, his American passport was revoked and 85 scheduled concerts cancelled. Robeson was brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee and asked to identify Communist party members and admit his own membership. Invoking the Fifth Amendment, Robeson told the committee, “You are the unpatriots, and you are the un-Americans, and you should be ashamed of yourselves.
Philpot’s subjects included poet Siegfried Sassoon and Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, as well as ballet dancers, opera singers, and actors. Unusually in the early decades of the 20th century, he also created sensitive portraits of people of color. Among them, a Jamaican, Henry Thomas, who was the subject of several portraits in the 1930s; African-American tenor Roland Hayes; a Martinican cabaret artist known as Tom Whiskey and an African-American boxer named Joe.
Glyn Philpot: Flesh and Spirit opens at Maison Pallant Gallery in Chichester on May 14