Queer British Art

Queer British Art


A few of years ago, I saw Tim Minchin live at the Secret Garden Party, and he sang a song he’d written called Prejudice. Most of the audience was in the brace position when he started singing,

Just six seemingly harmless letters

Arranged in a way that will form a word

With more power than the pieces of metal

That are forged to make swords

A couple of Gs, an R and an E, an I and an N

Just six little letters all jumbled together

And then he launched into the reprise

Only a ginger can call another ginger ‘ginger’

Only a ginga can call another ginga ‘ginga’

There was a massive, and collective, sigh of relief, although it probably caused offence to some. I thought the word ‘queer’ was a derogatory term when I was at school, but apparently it has been reclaimed by the LBGT community, if not used in a perjorative way, but many ‘gay’ people think it does not unite, but divides. African-Americans reclaimed the n word, but, as a white, Anglo-saxon, middle-class male, I would be ill-advised to use it in public. The Huffington Post recently changed the name of one of its ‘Voices’ sites from Gay Voices to Queer Voices, presumably to be ‘cool’ and à la mode.

This ambitious show marks the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales. The penalty for sodomy before 1861 was the death penalty, and up until 1967, the penalty was imprisonment. At the turn of the last century, and into the twentieth, lesbianism was not illegal, and was tolerated within literary, theatrical and artistic circles; ‘theatrical’ being another word for queer.

Same-sex female engagements were pictured by Simeon Soloman, a homosexual Jew, who was caught ‘cottaging’ in a public toilet off Oxford Street, and fined £100 for unlawfully committing ‘the abominable crime of buggery.’ He was arrested again in 1874 in Paris for the same sort of thing, after which he was sentenced to spend three months in prison. His Pre-Raphaelite Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene is a gentle depiction of lesbian love, but The Bride, Bridegroom and Sad Love, shows a man holding his new wife’s hand, but also reaching back to grope the genitals of the naked Cupid behind him. Many painters of that era used Greco-Roman myths and legends to depict, not only nudity, but thinly-disguised representations of same-sex love. William Blake Richmond’s neo-classical Bowlers shows a gaggle of nude and half-clad male figures on one side of the picture, and languid girls in billowing Botticelli-esque robes on the other, with a provocative lady in diaphanous garb in the middle, leaning against a wall with a ‘putto’, all studiously ignoring the game of bowls. Some observers note that the postures adopted by some of the youths are those of classical Greek sculpture, such as the discobolus, while others see them as overt sexual stances.

Walter Crane’s Renaissance of Venus has all the hallmarks of a male fantasy, with the goddess and her three Graces on the bank, all naked, but the main figure does have a certain androgynous quality, and it transpires that the model was actually Andressando de Marco, an ex-organ grinder, because Crane’s prudish wife would not let him use female models. Upon seeing the painting for the first time, Lord Leighton was heard to say, ‘My dear fellow, that is not Aphrodite; that’s Alessandro!’ Hope Comforting Love in Bondage by Sidney Harold Meteyard is haut-kitsch, even by Victorian standards, and depicts a sympathetic and dejected female comforting a forlorn Cupid, tied up in silver ribbons. Frederic Lord Leighton is a bit of a sexual enigma, with many rumours circulating that he was a homosexual, but recent evidence has shown that he had a very close relationship with one of his favourite models, Dorothy Dene, whom he paraded at the Royal Academy, and encouraged other artists, like John Everett Millais and George Frederic Watts, to use as a model whilst promoting her acting career. Daedalus and Icarus, however, celebrates the male figure in spades, as does the sensual bronze of a stretching nude, The Sluggard, complete with fig-leaf. Certainly, Leighton appreciated both male and female beauty, and was able to transfer both sexes to canvas with colossal dexterity.

As Dorothy Parker remarked about the Bloomsbury Group, ‘they lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles,’ and many were, indeed, ‘friends of Dorothy’, the most prominent of them all was Duncan Grant. He is represented by two large oils, Bathing and Bathers by the Pond, the latter an erotically-charged vignette of young males in various poses, as well as two portraits, one of a policeman, PC Harry Daley, and the other of a louche Paul Roche Reclining, and some drawings of men in erotic embraces, on loan from the Charleston Trust. In the same gallery hangs Dora Carrington’s’ Lytton Strachey, whom she worshipped before having same-sex and heterosexual relationships with a number of Bloomsburys. Hannah Gluckstein, known as Gluck, the heir to catering company J Lyons, ensured there was more than a whiff of scandal up and down Tite Street in Chelsea. Romaine Brooks’ portrait of Gluck entitled Peter, A Young English Girl, hanging in the Smithsonian, depicts a fine-boned person with cropped hair of indeterminate gender (Gluck), but she scorned Brooks’s social circle as a ‘pretentious lesbian haute-monde’, as Devon Cox states in his book The Street of Wonderful Possibilities. Her self-portrait from the NPG has a defiant, almost haughty, look, and is being used by Tate in all its publicity.

Henry Tuke made numerous studies of naked boys swimming, sailing or just lounging about on the shore, with three examples on display. His most famous painting August Blue, is on show elsewhere in Tate Britain, but there are three others, The Critics, A Bathing Group and July Sun, all most proficient, impressionistic oils, with a heady mélange of summer sunshine and sea-water glinting off lithe young bodies.

After loitering in the presence of Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley, the visitors pass through other galleries, one named ‘Theatrical Types’, which features photographs and memorabilia from exactly that. ‘Defying Convention’, showing Dame Laura Knight’s famous selfie, Dora Carrington’s sensuous female nude and John Singer Sargent’s gloriously free portrait of Vernon Lee, the pseudonym of the writer Violet Paget. ‘Arcadia and Soho’ contains some fine work by Edward Burra, Kit Wood and, particularly, Keith Vaughan, who has a number of drawings of a ‘queer’ nature. This spills over into John Minton and John Deakin in ‘Public/Private Lives’, and devotes some space to Joe Orton and his murderer Kenneth Halliwell, along with various letters and examples of their defaced library books.

One is beginning to suffer from ‘queer fatigue’ by the time one hits the last gallery, called ‘Hockney/Bacon’, with other contributions by Vaughan, Wood and Eadweard Muybridge, and a vitrine positively bulging with male physique magazines from the 1950s and 1960s. There’s nowt so queer as queers.


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