Robin Philipson Centenary Exhibition, The Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh

Publication: The Times.  
March 2016

Robin Philipson, who died in 1992 aged 76, was a prolific painter, print-maker and muralist who studied and later taught at Edinburgh College of Art. Originally from Broughton-in-Furness, Cumbria, Philipson was a contemporary of James Cumming and a near contemporary of William Gillies, John Maxwell and Anne Redpath and came to be associated with the “Edinburgh school”.

On the surface Philipson appears to be a rather conservative figure. However, rather than taking a lead from the French idea of La Belle Peinture, like some of his Edinburgh colleagues, Philipson came under the influence of artists such as Oskar Kokoschka and Willem de Kooning, and he travelled widely.

Philipson was one of the generation of artists who resumed their studies after the Second World War. A fine self-portrait in pencil, from 1940, demonstrates a promising talent.

Philipson met the exiled Austrian artist, Oskar Kokoschka, in 1947, just when he was beginning his studies. A portrait of Philipson’s first wife, Brenda Mark, completed four years later, already shows the Austrian artist’s influence in its use of swirling, expressionistic paint and its deep, heavy oils. Landscape with Two Seagulls, painted a few years later, still demonstrates Kokoschka’s influence.

It was not until the late 1950s that the style and subject matter with which Philipson became associated emerged. Nude in Mirror, completed between 1960 and 1965, is an example of his more mature style and begins to develop material that absorbed Philipson throughout the rest of his career.

As in many of his works, there is a compositional divide. On the left side, the female figure (his nudes were always women) appears in lighter yellows and ochres; on the right, there are darker browns and reds showing shadows and unresolved forms.

But Philipson was much more than a decorative painter — his work often had a moral or political edge, as in Nevermind II, which was inspired by Joseph Losey’s film about the court martial and execution of a British soldier in the First World War. This is a fairly large, narrative piece that is typical of Philipson’s later works. The canvas is sectioned into three main elements, each with an attendant palette and style.

Philipson famously painted church interiors, fighting cockerels, crucifixions and still lives, as well as his nude sequences, some of which owe much to the brothel images of Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec. Yet it is in his large set pieces that Philipson particularly excels. The monumental triptych, Threnody for Our Time (1971), shows Philipson combining many of his concerns and techniques — for this is part still-life, part social commentary and part painterly exploration. It forms the centre-piece of this show, prompting the idea that a larger exhibition, exploring Philipson’s talents, is long overdue.

To March 30: