The Temptation of St. Anthony is one of Vaughan’s boldest early works. It dates from the mid to late 1930s and already reveals many of the pictorial qualities that he was to explore in his later paintings, namely the male nude, a grouping of figures and their association with a surrounding landscape.
Vaughan’s narrative conception runs counter to the traditional depiction of the saintly hermit beset by female nudes, demons and exotically deformed animal beings. Unusually he explores the relatively neglected moment of St. Anthony’s desert encounter with a satyr – the mythical beast associated with the pursuit of carnal pleasure. The older, horned seducer confronts the youth who, unable to resist his seduction, seems to collapse with the pressure of the enticement.
Like many of the artist’s earliest work, such as Antonio and Sebastian, 1938, this painting is concerned with autobiographical qualities. Vaughan grew up as a gay man at a time when homosexuality was not only socially unacceptable, but also a criminal offence. A year or so after he painted The Temptation of Saint Anthony he began his now well-known journal in which he revealed his fears, loneliness and intermittent shame over the nature of his sexuality. Life was a constant moral and psychological struggle for the young Vaughan who was also building up the courage to leave his secure design job at Lintas Advertising Agency to devote his life to painting. On several levels, notions of temptation and enticement beset him. While coming to terms with his transgressive nature, he increasingly recognised that his innate naivety also marginalised him still further. Writing many years later he spoke of his early work:
'I would offer [these] for admiration to my mother and her lady friends without the least hesitation. Art justified all. And indeed I was perfectly right. Nothing could have been more innocent. It was much later that I came to see the erotic appeal these had' (K. Vaughan, Memoire, Unpublished, February 1965).
We are very grateful to Gerard Hastings, author of Drawing to a Close: The Final Journals of Keith Vaughan (Pagham Press) and Keith Vaughan: The Photographs (Pagham Press), for preparing this catalogue entry. His latest book, Paradise Found and Lost: Keith Vaughan in Essex, is published by Pagham Press.