Queer British Art 1861–1967 explores connections between art and a wide range of sexualities and gender identities in a period of dynamic change. The exhibition begins in 1861 when the death penalty for sodomy was abolished and ends in 1967 with the partial decriminalisation of sex between men. Legal persecution affected many, yet for some, this was a time of liberation – of people finding themselves, identifying each other and building communities.
Terms such as ‘lesbian’, ‘gay’, ‘bisexual’ and ‘trans’ were not widely recognised for much of this period and would have been unknown to many of the artists and audiences whose perspectives we explore. Often their approaches do not fall easily into these categories. We have used the broader term ‘queer’ to avoid imposing more specific identity labels.
Much material has been lost or destroyed – this is a history punctuated by bonfires and dustbins. Queer experience is diverse and there are some perspectives for which we have found little surviving material. This is not a definitive selection of queer British artworks. Rather, we hope this exhibition will be part of a bigger conversation that will encourage more material, more stories and more lives to be discovered.
In spite of the Victorian era’s prudish reputation, there are many possible traces of transgressive desire in its art – in Frederic Leighton’s sensuous male nudes, for instance, or Evelyn De Morgan’s depictions of Jane Hales. Simeon Solomon attracted sustained criticisms of ‘unwholesomeness’ or ‘effeminacy’ – terms which suggest disapproval of alternative forms of masculinity as much as same sex desire. Yet other works which might look queer to us passed without comment.
The death penalty for sodomy was abolished in 1861 but it was still punishable with imprisonment. Sex between women was not illegal and society sometimes tolerated such relationships. Yet for most people, there seems to have been little sense that certain sexual practices or forms of gender expression reflected a core aspect of the self. Instead, this was a world of fluid possibilities.
These ambiguities offered scope for artists to produce work that was open to homoerotic interpretation. Queer subcultures developed: new scholarship on same-sex desire in Renaissance Italy and ancient Greece allowed artists to use these civilisations as reference points, while the beautiful youths in Wilhelm von Gloeden’s photographs attracted communities of collectors. As long as there was no public suggestion that artists had acted on their desires, there was much that could be explored and expressed.
This room looks at ways in which sexuality and gender identity did – and did not – go public, from the 1880s to the 1920s. Public debate over sexuality and gender identity was stirred up by scandals, campaigns and scientific studies. The trials of Oscar Wilde in 1895 for gross indecency and Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness in 1928 for supposed obscenity put a spotlight on same-sex desire. In the field of science, the project of classifying sexual practices and forms of gender presentation into distinct identities, which had been begun by German psychiatrists such as Richard von Krafft-Ebing, reached Britain through the work of Havelock Ellis who co-authored his book Sexual Inversion 1896 with John Addington Symonds. However, change was slow, and many people remained unaware of new terminologies and approaches to the self that this new science offered.
Bloomsbury and Beyond
The Bloomsbury Group of artists and writers famously ‘lived in squares and loved in triangles’. Dora Carrington had relationships with men and women but loved and was loved by Lytton Strachey, who was attracted to men. Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell lived together in Charleston Farmhouse in East Sussex. A chosen few of Duncan Grant’s male lovers made visits but Paul Roche was forced to camp on the South Downs as he did not meet with Bell’s approval. Bell’s husband Clive lived apart from her but they remained happily married. While sexual intimacy was valued by the Group, it was not the most important bond tying the members together. Their network was a profoundly queer experiment in modern living founded on radical honesty and mutual support.
Bloomsbury’s matter-of-fact acceptance of same-sex desire was unusual but not unique. The objects in this room show a variety of different perspectives, from the quiet homeliness of Ethel Sands’s Tea with Sickert, to Gluck’s defiant self-portrait. Together, they reveal a generation of artists and sitters exploring, confronting and coming to terms with themselves and their desires.
This room shows how artists and writers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century challenged gender norms. Some, such as Laura Knight, laid claim to traditionally masculine sources of artistic authority by depicting themselves in the act of painting nude female models. Others, such as Vita Sackville-West, had open marriages and same-sex relationships, or, like Claude Cahun, questioned the very concept of gender binaries. This was a period of radical social change. Women took on new roles during the First and Second World Wars, and gained the vote in 1918. Sackville-West worked with the Land Girls. Cahun resisted the Nazis on Jersey and was sentenced to death, imprisoned for a year and only freed by the end of the war. New fashions developed. For women, wearing trousers in public became stylishly avant-garde. Expectations were changing. Public discussion about female same-sex desire offered ways of viewing the self, but it also brought problems. Lives that had previously passed without comment might now be labelled transgressive. But for some, this was a time of liberating possibilities.
Arcadia and Soho
London was a magnet for queer artists. In the 1950s and 1960s, Soho was the epicentre of queer culture, described by Francis Bacon as ‘the sexual gymnasium of the city’. Many of the artists shown in this room were friends, often living in London, sometimes sharing studios. Several were encouraged by the patron and collector Peter Watson, founder of the influential literary magazine Horizon and co-founder of the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Their work was often inspired by travel: to the Mediterranean, to costal Brittany, or to the seedy American bars that inspired works such as Edward Burra’s Izzy Orts. John Craxton, John Minton and Keith Vaughan have been described as ‘neo-romantics’. Craxton, however, preferred the term ‘Arcadian’, referencing a classical utopian vision of a harmonious wilderness, populated by innocent shepherds. Yet, while it is idealised, depictions of Arcadia still sometimes include references to death and its peace can be disrupted by undercurrents of desire.
This room explores the contradictions of queer life in the 1950s and 1960s. Before the partial decriminalisation of sex between men in 1967, the boundaries between public and private were acutely important to couples in same-sex relationships. Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell had separate beds in their tiny flat to maintain the pretence that they weren’t a couple. Such caution was justified. Peter Wildeblood, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and Michael Pitt-Rivers were sent to jail in a case that became a rallying point for calls to change the law, which was increasingly attacked as a ‘blackmailer’s charter’. Lesbianism was not illegal, but women faced prejudice. Avant-garde photographer Barbara Ker-Seymer was thrown out of her room after she left a copy of Radclyffe Hall’s banned book The Well of Loneliness out in plain sight.
Yet despite the threat of exposure, couples lived happily together, community flourished, and a few even became queer celebrities.
Francis Bacon and David Hockney
The most fearless depictions of male same-sex desire in the years before 1967 are in the work of Francis Bacon and David Hockney. Bacon told how as a teenager his parents threw him out of their home for trying on his mother’s underwear. He gravitated to London, where he began his visceral exploration of the human figure. Hockney arrived in London in 1959 to study at the Royal College of Art. He was deeply impressed by Bacon’s 1960 exhibition at the Marlborough Gallery, commenting ‘you can smell the balls’, but his own style was more playful, experimenting with abstraction and graffiti.
Hockney and Bacon both drew heavily on the visual culture that surrounded them, from well-established artistic sources such as Eadweard Muybridge’s innovative photographs of wrestlers to cheap bodybuilding magazines. They were not alone in spotting the homoerotic potential of this material – artists such as Christopher Wood had already used the trope of wrestlers to hint at queer intimacy. Yet Hockney and Bacon went further, fearlessly stripping away ambiguities.
Their work was controversial. Bacon’s 1955 exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts was investigated by the police for obscenity while Hockney once described his early paintings as ‘homosexual propaganda’. They both continued to push the boundaries of what could be depicted in art, breaking new ground.