Introduction

The works in this queer walk through Tate Britain’s free displays have been chosen by artists, curators, cultural producers and filmmakers from the UK’s LGBTQ+ creative communities, the Tate’s own vibrant LGBTQ+ staff network and young people exploring their gender and sexual identities. This spectrum of voices recognises the complexity and diversity of experiences that exist under this community banner and within the gallery walls. It also reflects the way in which art talks to everyone.

The works have been chosen by different people for different reasons. Some explore desire, longing and love. Others find queerness within them. Some were made by LGBTQ+ artists. Together, they illustrate how despite much of queer British history having been hidden for several centuries, it did not stop it being made – society frequently turns to its artists to explore what cannot be said in words.

By marrying artistic expression with heartfelt interpretation, this queer walk through British art creates a visible and intimate layer of queer experience within the gallery that is open for all to share.

– E-J Scott, Curator, Museum of Transology

1540 Gallery

British School 17th century, ‘The Cholmondeley Ladies’ c.1600–10
British School 17th century
The Cholmondeley Ladies c.1600–10
Tate

The Cholmondeley Ladies c.1600-10
British School 17th Century

Introducing the early 17th century's Gilbert & George. Everything about these two is queer, including their delightfully disconcerting little differences. Perversely as cryptic as they are exquisitely detailed, they defy expectations and explanation - the identities of the sitters, the babies and the painter remain unknown. Even the babies' red Christening swaddling resists modern gender assumptions, illustrating how the history of dress reveals gendered colour stereotypes to be both constructed and performative.

Interpretation by E-J Scott
Find out more about the 1540 gallery

1840 Gallery

John William Waterhouse, ‘The Lady of Shalott’ 1888
John William Waterhouse
The Lady of Shalott 1888
Tate

The Lady of Shalott 1888
John William Waterhouse

I first saw this work as a student in the first week of college. Until that point my only contact with Western art had been in the bookstores of New Delhi. It had an instant impact upon me: I thought to myself, ‘so this is what painting can be’.

As the years go by I find myself drawn to the curse in Tennyson’s poem, that kept the Lady confined in a castle, viewing the outside world only in her mirror, weaving images onto a tapestry. This mediation of reality through images speaks to the unstable relationship between consciousness, language and image. Perhaps these spaces where identity and difference are held together and possibility kept open, is where great art resides.

Interpretation by Raqib Shaw

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘The Beloved (‘The Bride’)’ 1865–6
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
The Beloved (‘The Bride’) 1865–6
Tate

The beloved ('the bride') 1865-6
Dante Gabriel Rossetti

It’s incredible to see a Black boy presented as a beautiful counterpart to the whitest of white brides. He has a central position just like the Bride. His presence is effervescent because he appears to be ambiguous in gender. Black masculinity is often sexualised and exotised as it is here but he wouldn’t be out of place in a New York vogue ball today. He’s Black Gay Slay way before there was such a thing.

Interpretation by Topher Campbell

Frederic, Lord Leighton, ‘An Athlete Wrestling with a Python’ 1877
Frederic, Lord Leighton
An Athlete Wrestling with a Python 1877
Tate

An Athlete wrestling with a python 1877
Lord frederic leighton

There’s something tantalising about this sculpture in the way the light bounces off the bronze, highlighting the athlete’s rippling muscles and the python’s elastic skin. Leighton’s sexuality has been disputed, but queer or not, his celebration of the classical male form seems homoerotic to me. Looking at his rendering of a European, white, ‘masc’ physique, I think about how this body continues to be idealised by many gay men today.

Interpretation by Andrew Cummings

Find out more about the 1840 gallery

1900 Gallery

John Singer Sargent, ‘Ena and Betty, Daughters of Asher and Mrs Wertheimer’ 1901
John Singer Sargent
Ena and Betty, Daughters of Asher and Mrs Wertheimer 1901
Tate

Ena and Betty: Daughters of Asher and Mrs Wertheimer 1901
John Singer Sargent

Without proof of sexual orientation, confirmed bachelor Sargent’s sensual studies of male bodies suggest queer/other-ness. I had this postcard on my wall for years. I knew that they were sisters, a florid display of privileged extravagance, but I cherished it as a portrayal of female physical intimacy. Like many queer people, in the absence of representation, I subverted and claimed images for which I was never the target audience.

Interpretation by Sadie Lee

Mabel Nicholson, ‘The Harlequin’ c.1910
Mabel Nicholson
The Harlequin c.1910
Tate

The Harlequin 1910
Mabel Nicholson

in this picture the subject (the artist’s child) is 11 years old. when i was 11 i was called jessie, or tom, or barney, or tiger, or jesse. i had short hair, brightly coloured shorts, a flat chest. i would have looked great in this outfit. i climbed trees, i was good at football. i was shoo-ed out of swimming pool changing rooms by grown women. i was laughed at in school. i fancied a girl. looking back, i reckon she fancied me too.

Interpretation by Jessie McLaughin

Find out more about the 1900 gallery

1910 Gallery

Glyn Warren Philpot, ‘Repose on the Flight into Egypt’ 1922
Glyn Warren Philpot
Repose on the Flight into Egypt 1922
Tate

Respose on the Flight into Egypt 1922
Glyn Warren Philpot

Philpot's desire for Black men is obvious here. That the demons and large reclining figure are Black both offends and intrigues because it places the Black body in the white male gaze as fetishised and forbidden. This is something that plays out in today’s world. The idea that Black sexuality is dangerous and the Black body is desired, used, abused and depersonalised is something that Black Queer men experience.

Interpretation by Topher Campbell

Find out more about the 1910 gallery

1930 Gallery

Gerald Leslie Brockhurst, ‘Portrait of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll’ c.1931
Gerald Leslie Brockhurst
Portrait of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll c.1931
Tate
© Richard Woodward

Portait of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll 1931
Gerald Leslie Brockhurst

In her scandalous divorce from the Duke of Argyll, the Judge berated notoriously promiscuous Margaret for having performed ‘disgusting sexual activities to gratify a debased sexual appetite’. I have no evidence that lesbianism was one of them, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t. Regardless, like the inscrutable ‘lipstick lesbians’ of the early ’90’s whose slick style she shares, her cold, penetrating gaze to me connotes unspoken desire. Or bemused contempt.

Interpretation by Sadie Lee

Find out more about the 1930 gallery

1940 Gallery

Sir Cedric Morris, Bt, ‘Lucian Freud’ 1941
Sir Cedric Morris, Bt
Lucian Freud 1941
Tate
© The estate of Sir Cedric Morris

Lucian Freud 1941
Sir Cedric Morris, Bt

The mid-twentieth century art world offered a queer haven from the rough seas of Britain’s homophobia. At the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing – a rural retreat founded by life partners Cedric Morris and Arthur Lett-Haines – 'everyone was homosexual or lesbian … or so it seemed' (recalled one ex-student). Here, staring curiously grey-eyed at his mentor is teenage school resident Lucian Freud. Freud mingled freely with gay and bisexual men in this decade, including his first studio partner John Craxton (whose Cretan Portrait hangs alongside this painting in the gallery).

Interpretation by Alex Pilcher

Dame Elisabeth Frink, ‘Dead Hen’ 1957
Dame Elisabeth Frink
Dead Hen 1957
Tate
© Frink Estate

Dead Hen 1957
Dame Elisabeth Frink

this animal figure keeling over like this reminds me. some days are just a bit much. exhaustion brings u to the floor, i lie down looking upwards, nerves in shreds and tears running from my wet eyes. to be queer, to be gay, to be brown, to be dyke, to be faggot can be tough, often.

Interpretation by Jessie McLaughlin

Find out more about the 1940 gallery

1960 Gallery

David Hockney, ‘A Bigger Splash’ 1967
David Hockney
A Bigger Splash 1967
Tate
© David Hockney

A Bigger Splash 1967
David Hockney

Perhaps more so than many other artist, David Hockney’s paintings have been a window onto his own particular view of the world. While a number of his early works feature naked or partially clothed men, A Bigger Splash is no less sensual for the absence of human flesh. Fascinated by the challenge of representing a splash, an ephemeral moment that cannot be easily seen, the work throws into question what recognisable visibility might mean, and leaves us to enjoy this artfully constructed fantasy that can never be truly known.

Interpretation by Fiontán Moran

Find out more about the 1960 gallery

Sixty Years of British Art

Sunil Gupta Untitled from the series Reflections of the Black Experience 1986, printed 2010

Sunil Gupta
Untitled from the series Reflections of the Black Experience 1986, printed 2010

Untitled from the series Reflections on the Black Experience 1986, printed 2010
Sunil Gupta

I wish I’d seen Gupta’s photographs when I was younger. Their portrayal of intimacy between men is markedly different from the representation of queer people in the mainstream media as a source of entertainment or derision during my teens.

This photo was taken in 1986—the year Wham! broke up. Looking at Gupta and his lover, I think of the late George Michael, who rightly never apologised for his relationships.

Interpretation by Andrew Cummings

Bronze Head by Rotimi Fani-Koyode

Bronze Head 1987, printed c.1987–8

Rotimi Fani-Koyode

courtesy Autograph ABP

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

This work encapsulates all my feelings about being a young artist and filmmaker in the 1980s.

We took the name of our film workshop Sankofa from the Ashanti mythical bird with its head turned backwards while its feet face forward – a brilliant African anticipation of Walter Benjamin’s Last Angel of History – his face turned to the past as the wind of history blows him to the present. This opposition of the contemporary and the historical forms the core of Rotimi’s work. A black man giving birth, so to speak, to a historical artefact.

The face we see is the face of the past. The very physical man is simply the vehicle for this ancient knowledge. Each generation has to engage with the present but pass on the knowledge of the past.

Interpretation by Isaac Julien

Wolfgang Tillmans, ‘Concorde Grid’ 1997
Wolfgang Tillmans
Concorde Grid 1997
Tate
© Wolfgang Tillmans, courtesy Maureen Paley, London

Concordore Grid 1997
Wolfgang Tillmans

In this piece, gay artist Wolfgang Tillmans obsesses with his subject. His fixation on capturing Concorde’s beauty, scarcity, and other-worldliness leads him to locations that are lonely-in-plain-sight. The resulting photos evoke discovery of one’s sexuality – something hidden coming into sight, the extraordinary in the everyday, beauty in light, a powerful and irresistible force, a palpable, gut-flinching presence, the poignant sting of departure, a thing that stops you in your tracks.

Interpretation by Bernard Horrocks

Chris Ofili, ‘Blue Devils’ 2014
Chris Ofili
Blue Devils 2014
Tate
© Chris Ofili; courtesy the Artist and Tate, London

Blue Devils 2014
Chirs Ofili

things are not always what they seem. a canvas that at first
appears solid blue is actually more complicated than that: layers
of detailed figures hide, shift, run, hurt. trauma is held deep
within the flesh and bones, overpowering yet invisible to the
public eye, just as misconduct is institutionalised, made benign
by those who are supposed to prevent the pain, not cause it. so
much of lgbtqi+ existence is fraught with violence yet our voices
are not allowed to be heard, crushed by a silence so aggressive
it hurts. in this piece of art there is racism, marginalisation,
danger, the oppression that society refuses to see even when it
is in plain sight. trauma is held in the body, but cruelty is held in
the system. ignoring something doesn't make it go away.

Interpretation by Project Indigo

Marlene Dumas, ‘Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie)’ 2016
Marlene Dumas
Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie) 2016
Tate
© Marlene Dumas

Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie) 2016
Marlene Dumas

In 1895 the writer and cultural figure Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) was convicted of gross indecency as a result of his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas (1870-1945), also known as Bosie, and sentenced to two years of hard labour in Reading Gaol. In this painting, Marlene Dumas attempts to replicate the intimacy and emotion of human relationships, where the simple act of looking acquires a political significance when desire is legislated.

Interpretation by Fiontán Moran

Find out more about the Sixty Years gallery

The Blake Room

William Blake, ‘Satan Smiting Job with Sore Boils’ c.1826
William Blake
Satan Smiting Job with Sore Boils c.1826
Tate

Satan Smiting Job with Sore Boils 1826
William Blake

Thank you for the use of colour in unexpected ways. Your work makes me want to redefine what it means to be LGBTQ+. In this I see myself trying to ignore the criticism from society and the LGBTQ+ community. I wish you had seen how much better it is and how much work there is still left to do. My future could be more motivated to create similar paintings. Because of you we can begin to understand that things are not always as we perceive them to be.

Interpretation by Project Indigo

Find out more about The Blake Room

Contributors

Project Indigo is an LGBTQ+ Youth Group based in Hackney working with artist and writer Ama Josephine Budge and Tate Early Years and Families

Andrew Cummings is a PhD candidate at the Courtauld Institute of Art in collaboration with Tate Research Centre: Asia, focusing on contemporary video and performance art from East and Southeast Asia.

Sadie Lee is an award-winning figurative painter and since 2007 has hosted the quarterly event Queer Perspectives at the National Portrait Gallery.

Topher Campbell is a filmaker, theatre maker and writer and co-founder of the the rukus! Archive; which is the UK's first and only archive of Black LGBTQ history and culture.

Fiontán Moran is an Assistant Curator at Tate Modern. He is the editor of the zine Death Becomes Herr and part of the Queer CAMPerVAN collective.

E-J Scott is a queer cultural producer, a dress historian, DUCKIE's archival researcher and curator of the Museum of Transology.

Raqib Shaw was born in Calcutta, raised in Kashmir, lives and works in London.

Bernard Horrocks is Tate’s Intellectual Property Manager and a proud member of its LGBTQ+ Network.

Jessie McLaughlin is Curator of Early Years & Families at Tate. They are an amateur artist & footballer (no sporting ambition beyond kick-ups in the park). They work from a queer brown (sometimes sad) perspective, foregrounding emotional experiences & proposing these as valid methods of research.

Alex Pilcher is Tate's Senior Web Developer and the author of A Queer Little History of Art (Tate Publishing, 2017).

Isaac Julien CBE RA is a Turner prize nominated installation artist and filmmaker, living and working in London.

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