Explore some of the ways sexualities and gender identities have been thought about and depicted in British art

To mark the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of sex between men in 1967, we look at artworks and reflect on attitudes from the 16th to the 20th century, inviting you to think about how ideas around gender identity and sexuality have changed, and are still changing. 

Many of the following artworks can be seen for free as part of the Walk Through British Art display at Tate Britain. 

Steven van der Meulen, Steven van Herwijck, Portrait of Elizabeth I c.1563

Steven van der Meulen, Steven van Herwijck

Portrait of Elizabeth I


© Philip Mould & Company

Portrait of Elizabeth I c.1563

Here is Elizabeth I as a prospective royal bride. The fruits and flowers behind her symbolise fertility and loyalty. This portrait was made while diplomats from her court were brokering potential engagements with suitors from across Europe. But Elizabeth would never marry. This meant she kept her role as ruler, and to be a head of state in 16th-century Europe meant being a King.

Throughout her reign Elizabeth presented her gender – in word and image – to suit her political ends. As the Virgin Queen, she was a feminine embodiment of the impenetrable borders of her kingdom. But she repeatedly referred to herself as a prince, and when rallying her troops in 1588 famously claimed:

I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a King of England too

Under Elizabeth, English drama flourished and often reflected this idea of gender as a role to be performed. According to the conventions of the time, in the theatre all parts were played by men, but this very restriction prompted playwrights – most notably Shakespeare – to create plots in which boys play girls who play boys to win boys.

  • Display Room: 1540
Balthazar Nebot, ‘Covent Garden Market’ 1737
Balthazar Nebot
Covent Garden Market 1737

Covent Garden Market 1737 

Covent Garden in the early 18th century was not only a lively commercial centre, it was also a by-word for illicit sexual activity, so much so that ‘The Covent Garden Ague’ became slang for sexually transmitted disease. The arcades at the edge of the market place, shown on the right of this painting, were known cruising areas and the area boasted several ‘molly houses’ – taverns or coffee houses where men could meet for sex.

Around the time Balthazar Nebot made this work, London’s queer subculture was under attack from The Society for the Reformation of Manners, which used spies and agents provocateurs to entrap men, who would then be arrested and tried for ‘sodomy’ or ‘assault with sodomitical intent’. Historians have noted that by publishing the locations of popular cruising grounds, the Society inadvertently advertised their existence to interested readers and helped foster the culture it was trying to wipe out. 

Richard Westmacott  Jupiter and Ganymede 1811 The Royal Academy of Arts, London  © Royal Academy of Art, London

Richard Westmacott 

Jupiter and Ganymede 1811

The Royal Academy of Arts, London 

© Royal Academy of Art, London

Jupiter and Ganymede 1811

In classical mythology, Ganymede was a beautiful young man beloved of the god Jupiter who transformed himself into an eagle in order to carry the youth off to Mount Olympus, home of the gods. The mythic couple became a model for erotic relationships between an older and a younger man, which were commonplace and socially accepted in ancient Greece and Rome.

Here Westmacott borrows both subject and style from the classical world. Neoclassical art flourished in late 18th and early 19th century, nourished by archaeological discoveries at Pompeii and the scholarship of art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann. Winckelmann’s writings are full of powerful sensual descriptions in which aesthetic and erotic appreciation of classical artefacts merge. 

I find nothing that can compare with this face; so much voluptuousness blossoms forth from it that his whole life seems to be solely one kiss
Johann Joachim Winckelmann on a painting of Ganymede

  • Display Room: 1780
Simeon Solomon, ‘A Youth Relating Tales to Ladies’ 1870
Simeon Solomon
A Youth Relating Tales to Ladies 1870

A Youth Relating Tales to Ladies 1870

Part of the Aesthetic movement, which championed the visual effect of art over narrative or moral content, Solomon created compositions of beautiful figures in historical or mythological settings. The intimately posed couples in this painting might today suggest same-sex erotic relationships, but this was not a reading made by art critics in 1870, and Solomon’s work was widely acclaimed. It was not the content, but the languorous style of Solomon’s paintings that raised questions about their ‘wholesomeness’. One review of this work suggested that the artist was in need of a medicinal tonic to invigorate his ‘constitution and composition’.

Three years after he painted this, Solomon was arrested and convicted of attempted sodomy. From then on he and his work were associated with same-sex desire and he was ostracised by many of his art world associates. He continued to paint, however, and his work formed an important part of the emerging queer visual culture of the late 19th century.

Jessica Dismorr, ‘Related Forms’ 1937
Jessica Dismorr
Related Forms 1937

Related Forms 1937

Queerness has come to mean ambiguity and play, slipping between categories, questioning and playing with them, resisting stable definitions. Much queer art history has focused on figurative art: representations of desire and identity, veiled or otherwise. But abstract works, such as Dismorr’s Related Forms, invite another kind of queer interpretation. ‘I seek the profoundest teachings of the inanimate. I feel the emotion of related shapes’, Dismorr wrote, decades before painting this work.

The shapes laid out on the canvas can’t be pinned down to any real world reference – object, body, emotional state – but all those possibilities are in play. They don’t touch, but their ‘related’ forms allow us to imagine infinite different ways they could be combined or adjoined. Sigmund Freud coined the phrase ‘polymorphously perverse’ to describe the ability to find erotic pleasure from any part of the body; perhaps this could also describe a way of looking queerly at Related Forms

Sylvia Sleigh, ‘The Bride (Lawrence Alloway)’ 1949
Sylvia Sleigh
The Bride (Lawrence Alloway) 1949
© Tate

The Bride (Lawrence Alloway) 1949

Here Sleigh paints her lover and future husband, art critic Lawrence Alloway, as his alter-ego, ‘Hetty’, who Sleigh described as ‘a mythological character in our love game’. Throughout her career, Sleigh would rework art historical precedents, reversing conventional gender roles – painting male nudes reclining seductively as ‘odalisques’, for example.

In this early work, Alloway’s high forehead, pose and costume recall depictions of Queen Elizabeth I. This love portrait is much more intimate than Portrait of Elizabeth I, but equally powerful in destabilising the notion of fixed and innate masculinity and femininity. Judith Butler, an influential writer of queer theory, highlights the radical implications of cross dressing:

In imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself … Gender is an impersonation … becoming gendered involves impersonating an ideal that nobody actually inhabits.

It exposes the fact that we all perform our gender identity (mostly unconsciously) in our language, action and dress, playing roles that are constructed and enforced by societal norms. 

  • Display Room: 1940
Sunil Gupta  Ian and Julian, from the series Ten Years On 1986, printed 2010 Tate

Sunil Gupta 

Ian and Julian, from the series Ten Years On 1986, printed 2010


© Sunil Gupta

Ian and Julian, from the series Ten Years On 1986

Recovering from a relationship break-up, Gupta set about meeting ‘as many gay couples as possible’ and made a series of around thirty photographic portraits ‘in an effort to get to know what made them tick’. Ian and Julian is one of the intimate but dignified portrayals of long-term couples at home that resulted.

Sex between men had been legal for two decades by this time, but queer people were still stigmatised in the media and through government policy. Two years after this photograph was taken, the infamous Section 28 legislation banned state schools from promoting ‘the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’. It was repealed in 2003 (2000 in Scotland), and the Civil Partnerships Act, which gave same-sex unions legal status, came into effect in 2004. Same-sex marriage was introduced in England, Scotland and Wales in 2014, but is not legal in Northern Ireland. Recent marriage reform has been heralded by many as a triumph for equality, but some commentators are wary of making ‘the norms of straight culture into the standards by which queer life should be measured’.

Rotimi Fani-Kayode  Bronze Head 1987, printed c.1987–8 Tate

Rotimi Fani-Kayode 

Bronze Head 1987, printed c.1987–8


Bronze Head 1987

Rotimi Fani-Kayode – who was born in Nigeria, moved to Britain as a child and studied in the United States – described himself as an outsider three times over:

on matters of sexuality; in terms of geographical and cultural dislocation; and in the sense of not having become the sort of respectably married professional my parents might have hoped for.

The artist is the figure in this image, straddling a religious Yoruba sculpture from his country of birth in a composition that can be interpreted as a sexual act or a scene of childbirth. Crucially, Fani-Kayode – as both artist and sitter – is the one who controls and frames this complex representation of his own identity. 

See the BP Walk Through British Art display at Tate Britain

Related exhibitions and displays


Queer British Art 1861–1967

5 Apr – 1 Oct 2017

Presenting the first exhibition dedicated to queer British art


Walk Through British Art

Walk through time and explore artworks from 1545 to the present day

Free entry

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