Introduction to Heard's "Memoir of Glyn Philpot"

by Professor J. G. P. Delaney, Ph.D.

This hitherto unknown and unpublished memoir of the English artist Glyn Philpot (1884-1937) by the philosopher and mystic Gerald Heard (1889-1971) gives a vivid and eloquent description of both the man and the artist. [1] Philpot’s tact, his personal charm and his engaging conversation are depicted as well as his great gifts as an artist, his manual dexterity and his concern with both meaning and with surface quality in painting. However, it was Philpot’s personality, which according to Heard was greater than the artist, that made him one of the most remarkable people that Heard had ever known. His account gives us a sensitive and well-rounded view of Philpot’s character.

Yet, Heard is also careful to place Philpot within the artistic movements of the day. His description of him as ‘the young hope of the old side’ aptly describes the great éclat with which he arrived on London’s artistic scene, famous by his mid-twenties as a brilliant young artist devoted to traditional values in painting, rather than to the revolutionary credos usually associated with the young. A contemporary review described his ‘Diabolical Cleverness.’ [2] His first and very successful one-man show of portraits and his unashamedly literary subjects painted in glazes like the Old Masters was held in 1910, the year that the famous first Post-Impressionist Exhibition in London announced the arrival of new values in art. He seemed the traditionalists’ answer to the Modern Movement.

This was to change radically in the early 1930s, when Philpot shocked the public and many of his patrons by adopting some modern techniques and principles. Heard perceptively notes the beginnings, and even the causes, of the change. Philpot eventually became tired of portraiture, though it had brought him fame and a large income. Such murals as the ‘Oedipus and the Sphinx’ and the ‘Leda and the Swan’, which were painted on silver foil (a very up-to-date technique) for the dining room at Mulbery House in what Heard called his moonlight tone of ‘silvers, greens, and blues’, gave him a sense of freedom and challenge that he no longer experienced in his portraits or subject paintings. In this, Heard rightly sees ‘the beginning of the next effort — the attempt he made to achieve a kind of bridge between the classic tradition which he loved and the new thought in art.’ Philpot had always striven to acquire new techniques and to attempt new challenges within the classical tradition. Now, he came to feel that ‘new modes of expression are continually necessary if the artist is to add to the sum of beauty in the world, and not merely to echo, or to express some admiration for, some beauty already crystallized in a recognized form.’ [3] Philpot’s new style, first seen in the Royal Academy summer show in 1932, tried to combine modern elements such as expressive drawing, flat colours and simplified forms with the figurative subjects he had always loved. It led to hostile reviews in the press, to a drastic drop in income and to his having to sell his country house, Baynards, so vividly described by Heard.

When they met, Philpot at only 30 years old was already a famous artist, while Heard, five years his junior almost to the day, [4] was a young man who had only recently left university. Both men were deeply interested in religion, but their religious journeys grew divergent. Both rejected the religion of their upbringing. Again, Philpot was the conservative. Having been raised a Baptist, he converted to Roman Catholicism, following in the tradition of many British artists and intellectuals who had ‘gone over to Rome’ since the Oxford Movement in the 19th century. Even though his homosexual relationships later put him at odds with the church’s teachings and though he expressed some doubts on one occasion, he generally remained, as Heard declares, ‘wholly satisfied’ with the Catholicism he had embraced. Heard, on the other hand, had been raised an Anglican, and had even thought of taking Anglican orders, like his grandfather, his father and his older brother. [5] However, his adventurous mind and his nervous breakdown in 1916, no doubt the result of conflicts caused by his strict upbringing under a stern father and an oppressive version of Christianity that emphasized hell and his own damnation, set him off on an entirely different route. In their early discussions, they had still had enough in common for Philpot to encourage his friend to become a Catholic. However, Heard had already moved so far from his early beliefs as to characterize these conversations as analogous to those between ‘a bird and a fish’.

By the time that his friendship with Philpot came to an end in about 1935, he had moved on from a short period as a secular humanist, who accepted the moral but not the theological tenets of Christianity, to Buddhism, pacifism, and the practice of yoga and personal asceticism. In his turn, he had also become quite famous as a scientific commentator on the BBC, and his lectures, published weekly in The Listener, were published in book form in 1932, 1935 and 1936. In 1924, he had published his first book Narcissus, followed in 1929 by The Ascent of Humanity, which earned him the Henrietta Hertz prize from The British Academy. In this, he interprets history, not as the traditional ‘drum and trumpet’ account of wars and battles, but rather as ‘the shadow cast by the evolving consciousness of man.’ Humanity had already evolved through various stages of consciousness, but the process was continuing and now humans, having mastered the outside world, must turn their attention inward and gain the self-knowledge and self-control that will enable them to identify again with the Life Force that pervades and contains the universe.

The disagreement between Philpot and Heard — ‘not so much on theology as on the issues from which theology rises and the acute problems of actual conduct’, as Heard put it, seems to have stemmed from the former’s perception of religion as a codified set of beliefs and ethical principles derived from Revelation in the Bible, and the latter’s rejection of formal religion in favour of a concentration on the evolution of man’s own consciousness and on an omnipresent, non-personal Life-force. Philpot’s intuitive love of metaphor made him prefer the rather objective, narrative and personal drama of Christianity, while Heard’s more transcendent and psychological approach eventually found its home in Indian mysticism. By the mid 1930s, their views had diverged to the point when discussion between them had become awkward, and even friendship, strained. This led to a separation of the ways.

Eventually with Aldous Huxley and his friend Christopher Wood, Heard left for the USA in 1937.[6] In California, he met Swami Prabhavananda and became involved in the study and practice of the Vedanta, the ancient Hindu scriptures.[7] It was through Heard’s influence that such intellectuals and writers as Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood became involved in the Vedanta movement.[8] Philpot, on the other hand, remained a Catholic to the end, his sudden death occurring at age 53 in December 1937.

This memoir is undated, and in it Heard only once mentions a precise year, 1923. However, internal evidence suggests that he must have met Philpot late in 1915. Heard says they met shortly after he settled in London, which probably occurred in that year. After leaving Oxford in 1913, he had spent two years working in Sussex. A few weeks after their meeting, he had been introduced to Vivian Forbes, whom Philpot had met in August 1915. Heard also indicates that he and Philpot met before his nervous breakdown in 1916. The last dateable incident in the memoir is Philpot’s decorating the dining room at Mulberry House in 1930. After this, they met a few times, but their final meeting must have occurred around 1935, as Heard states, thirty years after their first meeting. The description in the memoir of Philpot’s dreary, temporary rooms in London accords well with that date, since he was selling Baynards and looking for accommodation in London at that time. Since Heard also states it had been a decade since he had last seen Philpot, the memoir must have been written around 1945.

Editor's note: I have silently corrected obvious spelling and typographical errors, expanded a few contractions and tidied up the punctuation, so as to facilitate reading.

J. G. P. Delaney

[1] I am deeply indebted to John Roger Barrie for kindly bringing this memoir to my attention, for allowing me to edit it, for his careful proof-reading of the text and for his unfailing patience and generosity in answering my many queries. Much of the biographical material regarding Heard comes either directly from him, or from the excellent biographical account of Heard by his late father, Jay Michael Barrie, as posted on The Gerald Heard Official Website.

[2] The Evening News, London, England (11 Feb 1910).

[3] ‘The Making of a Picture,’ Apollo (June 1933), pp 286-7.

[4] Philpot was born on the 5th, and Heard on the 6th, of October.

[5] Heard’s father was the Rev. Henry James Heard (1856-1931); his grandfather, Rev. John Bickford Heard; and his elder brother, Rev. Alexander St John Heard.

[6] Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) English novelist and essayist; Christopher Wood (d 1976), a pianist and close friend of Heard’s.

[7] Swami Prabhavananda (1893-1976), founder of the Vedanta Society of Southern California.

[8] Christopher Isherwood (1904-1986), English-born American novelist, whose book A Meeting by the River is dedicated to Heard.

"Philpot’s intuitive love of metaphor made him prefer the rather objective, narrative and personal drama of Christianity, while Heard’s more transcendent and psychological approach eventually found its home in Indian mysticism."