I already blogged about the fantastic Object Stories gay and lesbian trail but I wanted to write a quick hat-tip to my favourite story I learnt from Kelly Boddington and Robert White on that guided tour – and mention these two very different paintings, by the same artist, displayed in different corners of Brighton Museum, that it connected together (for me at least) for the first time.
I’m talking about Glyn Philpot, the south London-born, Kent-raised painter (born 1884, died 1937) who developed a very successful career as a portrait artist and was widely respected in his field. Philpot was gay and also a devout Catholic, yet his work as he became well-known was resolutely ‘establishment’ and to this day his best known works are from this period, including a portrait of Siegfried Sassoon.
Here are the two paintings:
Even to my untrained eyes, the differences in style are overwhelming – you could very easily look at these two works and never imagine they’re by the same guy, because at some point, having firmly established himself, he suddenly upped sticks and moved to Paris. And at the same time, he managed to completely unhook himself from the conventions with which he’d made his name. The two gymnasts pictured on the right are so vital, so visceral, compared to the formal family portrait on the left.
It’s not that Philpot ‘discovered’ he was gay – or even ‘came out’ (whatever that may have meant 130 years ago) – at this time. In fact Philpot had been as close as possible to ‘out’ even during his early career. It was just at this point that he took the conscious decision to experiment with his art and allow that side of his character to become visible in the work. Presumably he’d made enough of a fortune by then to take the risk.
I love artists (in all fields and disciplines) who travel in this direction: have enough craft and skill in their discipline to make a success of their work early on, in order to make enough money to then cut loose and make what they really want to make. Maybe it’s deliberate and planned, maybe a more instinctive life journey. Either way I definitely prefer that direction of travel, to the artists who start off with the appearance of being subversive, edgy and wayward, then gradually move towards the core of the establishment (Tracey Emin, Sir Mick Jagger, Ben Elton, euch!)
It has been, for example, Brian Eno’s career path; liberating himself using Roxy Music’s huge pop success to create whatever he needs to create. It requires a decent portion of basic craft (and good management and a pile of luck of course) to make a success of that initial, constructed, populist thing, before setting out on the purer path.
It’s also interesting – and a bit sad, given how much more wonderful the later stuff is – that even after all this time Philpot’s earlier, more mainstream works are the ones best remembered. To me it’s crystal clear that his painting improved and had a vast amount more to say, once he’d shrugged off the shackles of his career. You can see his self-portrait on his (rather brief) Wikipedia page which 100 years later, only mentions the mid-career reinvention for its controversy.
Chris T-T, Blogger in Residence