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Glyn Philpot: Catholicism, Convention and Modernity
[ Artist in Focus )
Dr. Thomas Bromwell explores the fascinating themes in Glyn Philpot’s body of work, in particular the tensions between his Catholic and queer identities.
Few British artists can claim to exemplify the tension between tradition and modernity quite so vividly as Glyn Philpot. Born in 1884, he would train at the Lambeth School of Art and the Académie Julian, before making his way from Edwardian aestheticism towards his own radical modernism. At the same time his work was underpinned by his navigation of intersecting religious and queer identities. Of these two identities, only Philpot’s Catholic identity could be represented publicly, yet even this risked prejudice. What was the wider context for his conversion and life within the Catholic Church? What role did it play as Philpot negotiated his different identities and aesthetic agendas? The result of Philpot’s complicated experience is an oeuvre that speaks vividly to us in 2022. This can be seen in the examples from his extraordinary body of work, currently on show at the Pallant House Gallery in a crucial retrospective.
Philpot had trained at the Lambeth School of Art between 1900 and 1903. He associated with Edwardian artists and aesthetes such as Philip Connard, by whom he was taught, and fellow student Eric Kennington. A little later, Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon were also contemporaries.
In the early part of the twentieth century, he was seen as the successor to the most successful portrait painter of the day, John Singer Sargent. Philpot achieved early prominence in Britain after having his first painting accepted by the Royal Academy in 1904. He subsequently studied in Paris at the Académie Julian in 1905. Having proven himself as a precocious establishment artist and financially successful society portraitist working in the ‘Grand Manner’, he became an Associate Member of the Royal Academy in 1915. He was elected to full Royal Academician status in 1923 at the age of 38, and in 1927 became a trustee of the Tate Gallery. On the basis of this he would outwardly appear an exemplar of tradition and the status quo.
In 1906 Philpot converted to Roman Catholicism. His decision was in part motivated by his excursions around mainland Europe whilst studying in Paris. Despite retaining its place as the national religion in France, the time-honoured faith was still unconventional within wider contemporary British society. Philpot had been raised within the Baptist denomination, and the decision to convert was much to the dismay of his devout Baptist family. From the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, a succession of English-speaking intellectuals converted to Catholicism. As such, in his conversion Philpot was following the well-trodden path of many British artists and intellectuals who had ‘gone over to Rome’ since the Oxford Movement in the nineteenth century.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the estimated Catholic population was near 1.5 million, or 4.6% of the general population of England and Wales. The faith had a certain vogueishness in British culture. Cultural figures associated with the decadent movement of the late-nineteenth century, such as John Gray, Lionel Johnson, Ernest Dowson, and Aubrey Beardsley, had found creative inspiration and a vernacular for artistic and sexual expression within the Church. Many converted to Catholicism on the basis that it was a profoundly aesthetic experience.
It can appear puzzling that fin de siècle aesthetes who sought to liberate art from any moral or religious purpose might then so readily embrace the Catholic faith. However, the decadent movement often explored the hybridity of cultural traditions. They had inherited from Walter Pater the idea of Christianity as a source of beauty and were drawn to the ritualism and aesthetic of Catholicism. From their Pre-Raphaelite predecessors they acquired the cult of art and beauty, a reverence for the Middle Ages and the Italian Renaissance, and a defiant stance towards contemporary artistic, literary, and moral conventions. Throughout the nineteenth-century anti-Catholic rhetoric would re-state Reformation allegations of idolatry in Catholic visual culture. At the turn of the century, it was not unknown for the religious painting and sculpture of the Italian Renaissance to be described as “Catholic art”. This label distanced the artworks from the Protestant heritage of the overwhelming majority of the British public. Yet for an artist such as Philpot, this overt association of formal and aesthetic qualities with Catholicism had a different effect. Instead it affirmed the apparent visual sophistication that went along with the faith. And as the ‘old faith’ was still suspect and recognised as ‘other’ by much of English society, it could appear deeply attractive to those who already felt as though they were already outsiders one way or another.
For Philpot, as for many converts from other Christian denominations, there was the sense that Catholicism was both different from their former faiths and yet acutely similar. The outward similarity has resulted in the suggestion that conversion to Catholicism was a conservative form of rebellion. Yet what were the real stakes for someone who sought conversion to the faith? For Philpot, as with his contemporaries, such as the artist-writer David Jones (also from a nonconformist heritage), conversion could be fraught process. It could lead to castigation from families who believed that the process of conversion was itself an act of betrayal. In wider British society, Catholic culture was often identified with otherness. It was the subject of prejudice and suspicion, with many in Britain considering the faith subversive and fundamentally anti-British. From the outside, Catholic identity and culture was considered staunch, introverted, and insular. Catholics were dissuaded from marrying outside the faith and possessing their own schools and social organisations.
In 1929 Philpot was appointed as President of the newly formed Guild of Catholic Artists and Craftsmen. The organisation had been established as part of the centenary celebrations of Catholic Emancipation in Britain, and soon it would count other notable artists in its membership. Frank Brangwyn joined in 1929, and among the one-hundred and fifty-one members elected in 1930 were Graham Sutherland (who converted in 1926) and the sculptor Arthur Pollen.
With his appointment Philpot was motivated to produce several traditionally painted spiritual works for churches and Guild exhibitions. This turn towards convention did not impact on all his artistic output. He simultaneously engaged in his celebrated society portraiture and continued developing his often sensuous and erotically charged male nudes and portraits of young men. Philpot’s deep faith and his queerness had been a point of tension; however, his work records the gradual acceptance and expression of his own queer identity. In subject paintings such as Repose on the Flight into Egypt (1922), and Angel of the Annunciation (1925), he found a way to unite his devout Catholicism with his sexuality in plain sight. Boyishly attractive protagonists occupied later works such as in the stylised grandiosity of Saint Michael (1929), Resurgam (1929), and the erotically charged penetrations by arrows of St Sebastian (1932).
Despite his successes, there was a tension between his reputation for academic painting, his desire for artistic experimentation and his public life of faithful Catholic adherence, with his private queer identity. This triggered a watershed in his career and a modernist turn. In 1930 he was invited to sit upon the Award Jury of the Carnegie International exhibition. Henri Matisse was also a juror and Pablo Picasso was awarded a gold medal. This experience encouraged Philpot to start experimenting with modern European aesthetics. Philpot relocated to Paris that same year. Travelling around continental Europe exposed him to new forms of artistic expression and afforded him the opportunity to explore the bohemian jazz culture of Paris and Berlin.
The stylistic shift provoked widespread hostility back in Britain. At the 1932 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and in Philpot’s solo exhibition Recent Paintings and Sculpture by Glyn Philpot RA at the Leicester Galleries, London, in June 1932, Philpot exhibited works that were self-assuredly modern in their imagery. The angular forms and flattened planes of colour in, for example, Ascending Angel (1931) broke with the aesthetic traditions that he was known for. Critics and the popular press decried that Glyn Philpot had gone modern. News Chronicle dismissed his “weird pictures”. He justified the modernist turn, explaining that “new modes of expression are continually necessary if the artist is to add to the sum of beauty in the world. In my own case the change has been towards a simplification of technique, a simplification of form.” The controversy was exacerbated the following year when The Great God Pan was rejected by the Royal Academy in 1933. This was just ten years on from his election to the Academy. The potent combination of overt modernism and sexuality in the painting proved too much for the staid institution.
Philpot deviated from the cultural standards of a contemporary Protestant patriarchal society. As a queer Catholic artist, Philpot embodied two identities that were at odds with the dominant social context as well as being often at odds with one another. Yet as the literature and religion scholar Mark Knight noted, “the work of reimagining belief has long been part of the life of faith”. As with the decadents before him, Philpot was engaged in seeking a more capacious understanding of what religious belief might entail for him. This was a process played out in public via his painting and sculpture.
Dr. Thomas Bromwell is an art historian specialising in British art and religion. He is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.
You can see Glyn Philpot: Flesh and Spirit until 23rd October 2022.