Queer British Art 1861-1967

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Tate Britain until 1 October 2017


A copy of Against the Law was on display in the Tate Britain exhibition, Queer British Art 1861-1967. Why ‘queer’? and why is a book by a man who was not an artist in a show about paintings and sculpture? The curator explains ‘Queer’ is used because according to the late Derek Jarman, the word ‘is a liberation’, claimed back from being an insult and encompassing ‘a spectrum of identities and approaches that are not straight’. As for what she chose to be in the show: ‘You may feel that in some cases the possible queerness has been overstated or alternatively you may come up with your own innovative and queer interpretations that go beyond anything that has previously been imagined’. The result is an enjoyable if somewhat confused show. The rooms are divided by themes such as Theatrical Types, Defying Convention and Arcadia and Soho.

Visitors are presented with a display combining both works of art and other objects considered of significance, eg Noel Coward’s dressing gown and Oscar Wilde’s cell door from Reading Gaol. Some pictures manifestly have homosexual overtones but others are included because they happen to be works by artists who were gay or portraits of people who were gay or both. The portraits if not of artists are of writers such as Vita Sackville-West or the lovers of writers (the policeman who was E M Forster’s lover). The objects relate to a theme in themselves, namely, gay lives. The trials of Wildeblood and of Wilde come in here, as do books from the Islington public library whose dust covers Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell ‘re-designed’ to be sexually explicit. The time period chosen begins with the abolition of the death penalty for sodomy and ends with the partial legalisation of male homosexual behaviour between consenting male adults in private. The cover image of the book that accompanies the show is a self-portrait by Gluck (aka Hannah Gluckstein) looking anguished (see p 37).

Works of art with homoerotic overtones were not themselves unlawful and many contemporaries will not have had the same perception of them as we do today. On entering the exhibition one is immediately confronted with a life-size statue of a naked man stretching sensuously: Lord Leighton’s The Sluggard. Further on there are Tuke’s scenes of golden, nude boys bathing in the sunshine; Duncan Grant’s portrait of his lover Paul Roche reclining (no less erotic than a female nude by Dora Carrington); and seven pictures by Simeon Solomon including Sad Love where a husband is kissing his wife while reaching out towards a male ‘angel’. Nudity, however, is also there for other reasons. What is not erotic, the catalogue tells us, is Rest Time in the Life Class by Dorothy Johnstone (who had an ‘intense relationship’ with a fellow student and her husband) which depicts a female student sketching a female nude while another female student looks on. It is there because it suggests ‘utopian possibilities’ and ‘proclaims the value of female community and the right to look at and depict the female body’. Similarly, Laura Knight’s self-portrait while painting a female nude is there to show that women artists had to fight for the right to do life classes. Both are wonderful pictures, but how are they queer art?

One woman who got round the life class prohibition was Evelyn de Morgan, wife of the well-known ceramic artist, who often used her sister’s nursemaid as a nude model as a result of which we see Aurora Triumphans hanging opposite The Sluggard. Walter Crane’s The Renaissance of Venus is on view because he used a youth as the model for Venus. The portrait of writer Vernon Lee is there because she is gay but not apparently because the artist, John Singer Sargent, may have been too. Sargent’s admiring studies of World War I soldiers is an odd omission. There is a treasure trove of homoerotic, heroic males as statues, memorials and decoration on buildings all over England – The Boy David, the Machine Gun Corps Memorial on Hyde Park Corner immediately comes to mind as one example of how homoeroticism can fit into the glorification of the male warrior. Of the many conflicts in which Britain took part between 1861 and 1967, the only one featured in the exhibition is World War II, apart from John Minton’s painting of a guardsman whose bed is strewn with useful objects which remind us of the role of guardsmen during National Service in the sexually furtive 1950s.

Subject matter and artist match up towards the end, with Edward Burra’s Sailors and Francis Bacon’s Figure in a Landscape and David Hockney’s Life Painting for a Diploma, of a body builder. Nearby the big show on Hockney, which drew far more visitors than Queer British Art on the day I attended, can also be seen as a demonstration that a homosexual artist could be open at last about himself and his subject matter. Was it a coincidence that the other ‘big’ shows on in London then were Howard Hodgkin at the National Portrait Gallery and Michelangelo at the National Gallery?

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David Wurtzel

David practised at the criminal Bar for 27 years and is a door tenant at 18 Red Lion Court. Prior to his retirement, he was a consultant in the CPD department at City Law School and consultant editor of Counsel. David is a member of the Counsel Editorial Board.