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Glyn Philpot: Artist at the Crossroads

Part 1: Sex and Religion

At first glance, the painter Glyn Philpot (1884-1937), offers a complete contrast to his contemporary, Eric Gill. One of the leading portraitists of his day, he became an establishment artist, made wealthy through lucrative commissions, and was elected to the Royal Academy of Arts in 1923. This Portrait of Lady Witt demonstrates the accomplished finish of his work. Yet when, ten years after his election, the Academy rejected his painting The Great God Pan because of its explicit sexual content, Philpot’s artistic character changed dramatically. Tensions between his public life of strict Christian observance and academic painting, and his private homosexuality, and desire for artistic experiment, precipitated a crisis in his career that, despite his relative obscurity, invites comparison with Gill.

Both fervent converts to Catholicism, they created a Christian oeuvre that went against the secular grain of early twentieth-century art. At the same time, they struggled to reconcile their sexual practices with their religion. Like Gill, Philpot was, primarily, an observer of the human form, and risked public censure by depicting sexuality. Gill’s much-rehearsed protestations of unity find an unlikely parallel in Philpot’s schismatic rejection of convention, in that both imply the coexistence of incompatible values. Like Gill, Philpot played out the major controversies of his day, producing a varied body of work which challenges established categories.

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