Two paintings and a love story
In the Rashtrapati Bhavan library sits an unlikely art work that tells the tale of an artist in conflict, in hiding, in love.Updated: Jul 26, 2020 08:06 IST
Most workplaces are inherently dull and utilitarian. Working from home translates mostly into a search for the grayest and most staid spaces to serve as backgrounds for video meetings. Rarely does a workplace take you back in time and reveal hidden connections. But Rashtrapati Bhavan, the official residence of the President of India, provides this unique opportunity.
Tucked away in a corner of the imposing main building is a library. In a building full of rooms that serve multiple purposes and are forever changing their function, where ballrooms are used for officious conferences and dining rooms double as meeting halls, this library has remained, for almost a century, a space for silent contemplation. That alone is remarkable.
Inside are some old secrets hidden in plain sight. Over a fireplace hangs a painting titled The Creation of Man. It’s a naked male figure in repose,with two hands reaching down from the heavens towards his head, and fire engulfing him from above. It’s a distinctly odd choice for a Presidential library, especially considering that the painter, Glyn Warren Philpot (1884-1937) was an acclaimed portrait painter.
Even more intriguing is that fact that, unlike most of the other art at Rashtrapati Bhavan, the paintings in the Library were commissioned for the building, when it was still being constructed. So, this painting was commissioned specifically by Edwin Lutyens himself, for this space.
I did a little digging and discovered that, before embarking on the Rashtrapati Bhavan project, Lutyens worked on Mulberry House in Westminster, London. He collaborated with two artists on works for the drawing room of that residence — Charles Sargeant Jagger, who created a bronze sculpture titled Scandal, featuring a naked couple amid outraged onlookers; and Glyn Philpot, who created murals on silver foil titled The Loves of Jupiter.
Jagger would later design the elephant-shaped pillars that still greet visitors to Rashtrapati Bhavan. For the library, Lutyens envisioned a masterpiece along the lines of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. Philpot, with his finely detailed portraits and religious leanings, seemed a perfect choice for that work.
What Lutyens couldn’t have known was that Philpot was changing. He was becoming more open about his homosexuality. And, since homosexuality was still a crime in England, he was expressing a lot of his conflict, longing and angst through paintings of the naked male form.
The Creation of Man, then, combines new artistic influences from Philpot’s travels around the world, and reflects his own struggles. And so we have at Rashtrapati Bhavan a rapturous creation born of internal conflict.
Quite unexpectedly, Philpot’s story continues in another painting in the library. This one is titled The Invention of the Printing Press, and it is not so much the art as the artist that is pertinent. Vivian Forbes (1891-1937) first met Philpot while serving in World War 1. They had a long and intimate relationship from 1923 to 1935, intermittently sharing a home and studio in London. Forbes had been a businessman in Egypt but, encouraged by Philpot, became an artist. It is likely that Philpot urged Lutyens to commission a work by Forbes for the library too.
Six years after work on Rashtrapati Bhavan was completed, in 1937, Philpot died from a brain haemorrhage in England. Heartbroken, Forbes took an overdose of sleeping pills and died by suicide, in the same room, the following day.
The really evocative bit? In the Rashtrapati Bhavan library, in a country neither ever visited, Forbes and Philpot’s two paintings still face each other, tracing a story you can only see if you know where to look. Who says workplaces can’t be interesting?
Praveen Siddharth is Private Secretary to the President of India at Rashtrapati Bhavan