Robin Philipson – Elizabeth Cumming

This is the first of my ‘what I got for Christmas’ posts and this book was a wonderful surprise from some very good friends. I first saw Robin’s art at their home and loved it straight away so that I have bought several pieces over the ensuing years, some of which I am using to illustrate this essay rather than images from the book itself.

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Sir Robin Philipson RA RSA FRSE RSW to give him his proper title was a major name in Scottish art through the second half of the 20th century; not only as a creator of beautiful works but as a teacher for many decades at the Edinburgh College of Art. There have been a couple of biographies before, along with pamphlets to accompany exhibitions, but this is easily the most comprehensive biography so far. Cummings has spoken to lots of members of Robin’s family including his widow Diana and also his nephew who gave me this lovely book.

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As this was a Christmas present it is appropriate to start with a couple of Robin’s Christmas cards on my walls. What can be immediately seen is his bold use of colour, as Dr Cumming says in her book.

…colour was always a principle tool in Robin’s art, and it evolved throughout his career; he was one of Scotland’s major colourists. It was this as much as technical experiment which drove all his work; whether easel painting, printmaking or his involvement in textile enterprises…

Robin produced a Christmas card every year from the late 1960’s, not only painting the original but also printing the cards, en masse they look fantastic, I only have three but hope to add others to my collection as time goes on.

The book’s cover picture is entitled Brenda Spring Portrait, she was his first wife, they married in 1949 a couple of years after he took up his first role as lecturer at the Edinburgh College, and he painted her several times. The Summer and Winter portraits are also included in the book along with a very interesting study for the Spring portrait. One of the joys of this volume is the inclusion of studies for works along with pictures of Robin in his studio which gives an opportunity to see how he went about some of his pieces.

The book is split into several sections, part one looks at his early life and how he came to be in Scotland in the first place; he was born in Cumbria in 1916. Part two is the longest and takes us from starting teaching and his marriage to Brenda, to his discovery of the joys of print making and the introduction of three of his main themes, cock fighting, kings and cathedrals.

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My largest piece and one that hangs above my desk can be seen above, limited to 50 and signed by Robin it is also my favourite in it’s bold use of colour and dynamism of the subject.

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The book is copiously illustrated and includes a significant number of works that are held in private collections so not generally seen, it also gives me a chance to roughly date the art I have collected as style and themes develop through the book as we move through Robin’s career.

He designed the posters and programme covers for the Edinburgh Festival in both 1958 and 1959, the book includes examples of both programmes and in my collection I have an original (and highly fragile) poster for 1959 which is a really good example of his style at the end of the 1950’s.

Part three takes us from the early death of Brenda from a brain tumour in 1960 which led to a period where very few works were produced and those that did appear are dark and angry in tone to meeting Thora Clyne who was to become his second wife in 1962. This seems to have led to a blossoming of Robin’s art and he also took up the appointment of head of Drawing and Painting in the early 1960’s so became very busy.

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I have a couple of versions of Peasant, which dates from 1958 and are different sizes, only one of which is signed, I really like this happy character and he also hangs above my desk where I am writing this.

He did manage to fit in a trip to Colorado in the summer of 1963 as a visiting Professor of Art in Colorado. During this time he became influenced by native paintings and also Mexican churches, there is a truly beautiful painting of a yellow altar towards the end of that section.

The fourth section of the books sees another theme emerging in Robin’s art as we complete the 1960’s and that is depictions of crucifixion. This is a logical extension of his works depicting church interiors , specifically rose windows, and the altars he had started painting in the early part of the decade. Again Cummings takes us through the change in his art against the changes happening in his life and explains how they fit together.

The fifth part covers most of the 1970’s, from his surgery for colonic cancer whilst on a trip to France to study tapestries through his divorce from Thora and marriage to Diana. This was a period not only of great creativity and more new themes to his work such as ‘human kind’ which depict inter-racial couples in various settings to his numerous paintings of ‘women of pleasure’; but also of much greater recognition in the world outside of the Scottish Art scene. He became president of the Royal Scottish Academy, a post he held for a decade and from that a fellow of the Royal Academy in London. In 1976 he was knighted for services to art and all whilst heading up the Drawing and Painting department at the Edinburgh College of Art. He would continue to have bouts of illness throughout this period but his workload and artistic output hardly seemed to let up.

The final section deals with the last fourteen years of Robin’s life up to his death in 1992, this was still a highly busy and productive time with yet another theme to his art appearing, the wonderfully delicate poppy still life paintings.

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I have a couple of these prints, both signed, as my representations of this period and there are three originals reproduced in the book with various backgrounds which demonstrate his total mastery of colour. Sadly the cancer first detected in the 1970’s was to claim him just when it looked like he was reaching another peak in his creativity. I have more pictures by him than I have used in this short review and am always looking for more to add to my small collection especially now I have seen some of the works in this beautifully illustrated book.

All in all this is a major retrospective of the life and work of a man who became very important figure in Scottish art for several decades and hopefully it will help raise his profile again twenty five years after his death. The main body of the book (excluding chronology, notes and index) is 138 pages long, sixty nine of which are made up of full page (and indeed double page) illustrations and a large proportion of the text pages also have a picture or two on them, this really is a magnificent review of Robin’s works and for the most part is extremely readable. My one criticism is the impression you get that Cummings wants to prove she has done her research which leads to whole paragraphs which seem to consist of nothing but lists of names and dates which you hit like boulders in the stream of an otherwise flowing tale. Having said that I very much enjoyed the book and will finish this overview with my only Philipson original, a small pastel still life.

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One thought on “Robin Philipson – Elizabeth Cumming

  1. Pingback: It’s been a year – Ramblings on my bookshelves

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