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Quentin Crisp: the naked civil servant

Past display archive
7 July 2009 - 10 January 2010

Room 31 case display


Quentin Crisp
by Marguerite Evans
circa 1943
NPG 5824

Renowned for the exhibitionism, writer, actor and artist’s model, Quentin Crisp (1908-1999) made his homosexuality a cause and his effeminacy the means by which to proclaim it.  In his early twenties he took to dyeing his hair and wearing make-up, often in the face of prejudice and hostility.

Crisp studied journalism at King’s College, London, but left without a diploma and stumbled briefly into the world of male prostitution on the streets around Piccadilly Circus and Soho.  He attended art classes at Battersea Polytechnic and in High Wycombe and found work, without compromising his appearance or manner, as a commercial artist.  Exempted from conscription on the grounds of his sexuality in 1940, he found employment as an artist’s model.

With hennaed hair, nail varnish on both his finger and toe nails and a repertoire of dramatic poses, he made a memorable subject for students in the art colleges around London and the home counties where he worked.  Crisp’s poses were so extreme they could not be held long enough for painting and so he worked chiefly in drawing classes, where students had to produce quick sketches.

Acclaim came to Crisp with the publication in 1968 of his autobiography The Naked Civil Servant, which was made into a film starring John Hurt in 1975.  A witty and often profound speaker, he became a public figure and was much in demand for interviews and one-man shows.  He moved to New York in 1981 and in 1993 he appeared as Queen Elizabeth I in Sally Potter’s film Orlando.  He died at the age of ninety in Manchester in 1999.

Crisp once said he did not hold with exhibitions unless they were of himself and this wall-case display, fittingly, shows him early in his career as ‘the naked civil servant’ in a small group of recently acquired life drawings by former art student Barbara Morris.  Capturing Crisp while modelling at the Slade School of Fine Art, they comprise a head study and two full length drawings.