Queer British Art 1861-1967

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Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene (1864) by Simeon Solomon

Tate Britain’s first ever LGBT+-related exhibition explores connections between art and a diverse range of sexualities and gender identities. It covers the period between the abolition of the death penalty for sodomy in 1861 and the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 which partially decriminalised consensual sex between men over 21 (both legal changes affected England and Wales only). This is a historic exhibition then, inventive, fascinating, surprising and affecting. Nevertheless there are some interesting contradictions at play.

Unusually for an art exhibition, there is a positive and conscious attempt to document the social history of an oppressed minority. Again unusually, literature and poetry are included in the exhibition, through portraiture, but also through some striking and unexpected exhibits.

The art world tends to be bourgeois and upper-class, but LGBT+ people come from all walks of life and oppression is experienced in different ways. Although this is only somewhat acknowledged in the show, a sense of endless untold stories hidden beneath the actual content of the exhibition is very intriguing. I was inspired to go and find out more about the pictures and artefacts on display.

Today we use labels like “queer” and “LGBT+” for a range of identities, perspectives and issues. But it wasn’t until the late 19th century that the new science of sexology pinned down transness and homosexuality as characteristics of a specific minority, rather than fluid human behaviours. Subsequently, identities have developed through many stages and continue to do so. The exhibition’s curator, Clare Barlow, acknowledges that this is problematic, and she has chosen the broader term “queer”, “to avoid imposing more specific identity labels”.

The exhibition inhabits eight consecutive rooms which draw the visitor on a chronological journey through a fast-moving period of dynamic social and cultural change. Early paintings and photographs reflect the rise of archaeology and interest in ancient civilisations. This offered artists exploring homoeroticism a cover — pictures of same-sex desire could be explained as part of a cultural response to contemporary scholarship on ancient Greek and Renaissance Italian art, where themes of same-sex desire were common.

The passionate kiss depicted in Simeon Solomon’s Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene (1864) today promotes poet Sappho as a lesbian icon. However, artists had to ensure there was no public suggestion that they had acted on the desires they expressed. Solomon was arrested twice and imprisoned for the crime of “intention to commit sodomy”. He was deserted by his friends who were terrified of the association, he became ill with alcoholism, stopped painting, and although had been born into a wealthy family, ended his days in a workhouse.

What the exhibition doesn’t explain is that the workhouse was a constant possibility for the poor during Victorian times. To capitalism the family was a social and economic necessity to maintain the supply of labour to the new mills and factories. Rigid gender roles were normalised while desire and sexuality were harshly policed with any deviation harshly punished.

The second room, “Public Indecency”, is a powerful testament to the lengths to which the British state would go to instil fear and shame. The period from the 1880s to the 1920s was one of intense interest in sexuality and gender identity, with scandals, campaigns and scientific studies. Shockingly, the prison door, behind which Oscar Wilde wrote De Profundis (From the Depths) at Reading Gaol in 1897, is mounted on the wall like a painting, and I found it hard to recover from the feelings of wild sorrow and outrage that it provoked and simply move on through the gallery.

Writers such as John Addington Symonds, Havelock Ellis and Edward Carpenter, were bringing queer lives out into the open during this period. The caption next to a delicate portrait of Radclyffe Hall by Charles Buchel reminds us that there was strong opposition to progress from conservative forces. In 1928 following a campaign by the editor of the Sunday Express, the publisher of Hall’s lesbian-themed novel The Well of Loneliness was prosecuted for obscenity.

Henry Tuke’s idealised, sunlit paintings of athletic young men indicate the power relations and inter-class dynamics between moneyed artists and their eroticised young models. However, there are also many instances of the artists referring to and depicting one another, in an interplay of friendship and connections.

My favourite thread began with a tender and hilarious painting by Edmund Dulac of the goldsmith Charles Ricketts and his partner Charles Shannon as medieval saints. This was accompanied by a vitrine of intricate gold jewellery made by Ricketts 20 years earlier for Michael Field (no relation). Michael Field was the pseudonym under which Katherine Harris Bradley and her niece Edith Emma Cooper — who lived together in a romantic relationship — wrote successful plays and published poetry.

Friendships are also evident in the section on the Bloomsbury group. Rich artist Vanessa Bell and her mainly homosexual partner Duncan Grant opened their large house in Sussex to artists and paid-for male models. This shows how time, money and space are so essential for artists to practise and grow. Bell was the sister of Virginia Woolf — who nailed this truth in her essay A Room of One’s Own. Woolf’s trans-themed novel Orlando is also displayed here.

There was more scope for working-class artists to be visible through the innuendo-filled, saucy, female and male “impersonation” acts in the music hall. Same sex lovers often used “passing” as female or male in order to live together as apparently heterosexual couples. Throughout the exhibition contemporary LGBT+ artists and writers have been invited to comment on the material. The popular novelist Sarah Waters explains how the male impersonator Vesta Tilley was an inspiration for her book Tipping the Velvet.

The exhibition mines special private collections, and puts unexpected objects on display. It reflects the rise of photography through Claude Cahun’s gender-defying tableaux, and finally erupts into Francis Bacon’s large-scale, terrifying “destroyed” paintings and the irony and playfulness of David Hockney.

Another highlight for me is the display of doctored Islington library books which playwright Joe Orton and his lover Kenneth Halliwell enhanced with suggestive montages and witty blurbs. They were sent to prison for their naughtiness (and for being “queers”, Orton believed), an experience which politicised Orton but from which Halliwell never recovered. Tragically he murdered Orton and killed himself in August 1967.

The threat of exposure, persecution, humiliation and punishment runs throughout the show. The struggle for the liberty to live and to express oneself is a battle which is now presumed to be over. The exhibition recognises the efforts of campaigners such as Peter Wildeblood, and celebrates the defiance of figures such as Quentin Crisp, but missing are the more politicised approaches of the 1960s.

This is where social history can part company with socialism, when the bigger picture and deeper analysis are sacrificed for an aesthetic or narrative which fits the status quo. It treats the past as another country. Although happy now to celebrate LGBT+ lives, the British establishment, which the Tate is part of, is the same one that saw fit to hang, hunt down, persecute and ostracise the queers of yesteryear.

The exhibition signals a new partnership between Tate Britain and the highly commercialised and publicly funded Pride in London consortium. The monumental gallery is to host Queer and Now — a free day of music, performances, talks and family activities on 24 June, to launch London’s two-week touristic Pride Festival.

The 50th anniversary of the 1967 act has inspired mainstream institutions to produce an array of high-profile LGBT+-focussed cultural events. The BBC has created a major oral history based documentary about “gay life” before 1967, and put together an online archive of its LGBT+ coverage over the decades (bbc.co.uk/archive/gay_rights/). The British Museum’s free exhibit Desire, Love, Identity: Exploring LGBTQ Histories, which covers ancient civilisations to the present day, opens this month.

The National Trust’s Prejudice and Pride events throughout 2017 highlight the former homes and haunts of “people who challenged societal norms” among their stately-property portfolio.

All this affirmation is to be welcomed. For those of us who remember the dark days of invisibility, police entrapment and arrests, persecution, sackings, sniggering, secrecy, evictions, loss of custody and ruined careers — the more insights, truths and commemorations, the better.

That transness and “the love that dare not speak its name” can now take centre stage in official British culture is a tribute to the persistence and courage of activists over the past 150 years. The state that kept us down now treats us as a jewel in its crown. It’s also a sign of the ability of capitalism to appropriate dissent and defuse it. LGBT is now a brand to be reckoned with, despite continuing oppression for the majority of LGBT+ people.

But still, don’t miss this exhibition.