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
Please be aware that this walk through includes explicit language.
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
Mrs Johnstone and her son (?) 1775–80
The question mark pulls us up. Is the gender of this wide-eyed child in doubt? In fact, the identity being queried is that of ‘Mrs Johnstone’. (The painting’s traditional title may disguise an extramarital liaison in the Johnstone family tree.)
The ambiguity of infants in eighteenth-century pictures offers a challenge to modern norms. The clothes and hairstyles we see now on toddlers tend to ensure their assigned genders are instantly legible. In Romney’s day, unisex frocks were standard for children under five. That historical, all-gender wardrobe is a startling reminder that surface details such as ringlets, low-cut bodices, frills and pink bows have no natural link with gender.
Interpretation by Alex Pilcher
Sketch for 'hadleigh castle' 1828–29
I visited Hadleigh Castle recently with my husband of 30 years, Glenn, our dear friend Patrick, and our cute dog Eli. Hadleigh Castle is near Southend, Essex. The ruins seem to have diminished only slightly in the 200 years since Constable’s sketch. With views as expansive as in Constable’s day, Hadleigh Castle is a place for fun, adventure, togetherness, solitude, contemplation. For me, the work evokes life’s storms, the sunshine after, the wider perspectives we often need to clear our minds, hearts, spirits.
Interpretation by Bernard Horrocks
Dirt poor but dignified and from next to nowhere, Thomas was told from an early age by his two female parents that his imagination could take him anywhere. As a child he haunted churches and graveyards acquiring props to build the scenery for a life he imagined for himself as a Gothic boy poet.
Dressed in velvet capes and knickerbockers made from antique church fabrics, he constructed for himself a fantasy world from his tiny attic room in London, with its baleful view over the rooftops to Saint Paul’s Cathedral. This painting imagines the moment of his death when he finally achieved his immortality.
Interpretation by Marcus Dicky Horley
A Black Model c.1830–1840
My identity as a mixed race queer man is scattered in select pieces of work. A Black Model reflects some of myself but also stares back at me and offers me a sense of peace. It depicts a man of colour dressed in items of luxury. Often such depictions of black folk were a way of showing a white (more often than not) man’s wealth. What strikes me most is the surety in the subject’s eyes, the protective hand on the dagger and the somewhat contradictory mismatch of clothing. There is a confidence and pride about the man’s relaxed posture and a strength in his gripping of the dagger. The Albanian jacket and North-African turban and trousers make no historical sense, but in some strange way they work.
He represents two parts of myself – me as a queer man and me as a person of colour. The intersectionality of this image is inherent to my connection with it. Contradiction and absolute harmony strut around in this painting. My eyes follow, albeit with difficulty at times as it’s positioned high enough on the gallery wall for only Shaqueel O’Neil and such like to see. Perhaps I should have brought my heels ...
Interpretation by Rudi Minto de-Wijis
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
Nude Girl 1909–10
Although famously August Rodin’s lover, Gwen John was bisexual and had relationships with women. John draws attention to the sitter’s nude body by using a limited palette and minimal setting but while the work is erotically charged, one of the reasons I love Nude Girl is because she is still supported in her independence and femininity. To me, this is a quintessential portrait of a woman by a woman. As she sits upright in the chair and looks directly at the viewer, she is not submissive yet there is still a vulnerability to her. In presenting this dual, modern female identity, John bestows her with humanity. She is a complex individual and not purely a sensual decoration, unlike similar portraits by male artists.
Interpretation by Daisy Gould
In the world we live in, being queer will most likely impact your mental health. Having a strong resilience to be your queer self in a world that values conformity is hard. Every day that I leave my house and present myself in the outside world, I feel like this figure in Bathing, jumping into the depths of the water and swimming to find surface again. Unlike the privileged, we do not have the luxury of being able to travel in the boat without getting wet.
And then I think of how this act of bathing is one of deep cleansing. Plunging into the water and exposing one’s self to the elements is frightening, but an act far more liberating and exciting than simply looking at the water from the vantage point of the boat. While as queer people we risk our lives to be who we identify as, those who simply stay in the boat, don’t have the experience we do. As I come to terms with the anxiety and depression I have, I think of this act of swimming. Having the strength to swim through the water, rather than drown in its dangerous current, is what I am proud of. Maybe I have read something far more violent into Grant’s work. Maybe this is a man going for a joyful swim. But maybe I see what I see because I have felt the water and that’s changed my perceptions entirely.
Interpretation by Nick Virk
Farm at Watendlath 1921
Dora Carrington defied early 20th century conventions. Known as ‘Dumpty’ or ‘Carrington’ while attending The Slade School of Art in London, the latter name stuck for the rest of her career. She wore her hair short before it was in fashion, and in her life was in love with a man who loved men, was married to another man and loved several women. Carrington drew and painted unclothed life models when many considered this inappropriate for women to do. In photos, she appears neither feminine or masculine.
Typical historical accounts state that Carrington was in ‘turmoil of her sexuality’, displayed ‘a sense of intimidation by her own womanhood’ and had been ‘troubled by her sexuality’. We must also consider that none of these are true, and that she knew exactly who she was and what she wanted. Being bisexual does not automatically imply indecisiveness or unrest; it simply means someone is attracted to more than one gender. Carrington wrote to her partner Lytton Strachey that Henrietta Bingham ‘made such wonderful cocktails that I became completely drunk and almost made love to her in public’. This is hardly a tormented thought, but rather completely and wonderfully human.
Interpretation by Lindsay O'Leary
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 1990s whose slick style she shares, her cold, penetrating gaze to me connotes unspoken desire. Or bemused contempt.
Interpretation by Sadie Lee
Leaping Figure 1951
I was first introduced to Keith Vaughan’s work during the exhibition Queer British Art 1861-1967. As a self-taught painter Vaughan focussed much of his study on the male form. They often pushed the boundaries of what the art world thought of as acceptable, by depicting men in engaging in various sexual acts. Vaughan also kept a very candid and raw journal that told a story many gay men faced at the time. He also published those journals, sharing his sexual identity with the world in a time when it was dangerous to do so and would soon become illegal:
‘It is difficult to bear in mind that with all one’s honours, distinctions, successes etc, one remains a member of the criminal class.'
For me his work and his words are a reminder that our histories should never be forgotten and that while the weight of hate on queer people is perhaps slowly getting lighter there is forever more to do.
Interpretation by James Brandon
Composition in Yellow, Black and White 1949
Marlow Moss created enigmatic, ground-breaking paintings like this one in a studio in the Cornish fishing village of Lamorna. Doing away with the given name 'Marjorie', Moss set up home there with lifelong partner Nettie Nijhoff. The artist must have made an impression on the locals, seen often in jodhpurs, silk cravat and a crew cut. I know how tough it can be living as a queer person away from the anonymity of a big city. You feel visible, and with that, vulnerable. Nevertheless queer artists in Britain have often been drawn to the countryside, especially the coast. There's Derek Jarman planting poppies in his garden in Dungeness, or Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore walking cats on leads along the beaches of Jersey. When society takes an unhealthy interest in your personal life, it’s tempting to go off grid, turn to quiet corners, to live and breathe at the edge of things.
Interpretation by Scott Morris
Man in Shower in Beverly Hills 1964
A print of this work hung from the bathroom wall in the house where I grew up. Every morning, I used to stare at it from the shower. When I first saw the painting at Tate many years later, it immediately brought back memories of home. Hockney painted it in the year he first visited Los Angeles, known for its flourishing gay community. 'Beverly Hills houses seemed full of showers of all shapes and sizes … ' he later said. The sense of physical space is voyeuristically captured, and the geometric grid of the tiles lure the viewer in. The dark-leaved plant in the foreground only conceals the lower legs of the figure, knowingly exposing the rest of his body. A table with cups is seen in the background. I remember wondering whether the guests had already left or might still be lingering around.
Interpretation by Mels Evers
One Minute of Water 1999
In One Minute of Water, Hilary Lloyd draws attention to the surface of rippling water dappled with sunlight. The looped one-minute video transforms a familiar sight into a painterly abstraction that makes me think of camouflage, computer graphics, and psychedelic light shows. It makes me think about how identity is so often concerned with surfaces and how queerness provides a space for fluidity. But it also suggests that while such surfaces may shimmer and attract our eye, they are only part of the story. Presented on small monitor, Lloyd reminds us of how images are constructed and framed by technology that often relies upon fixed boundaries. In contrast the water continues to undulate – the undulations of lived experience.
Interpretation by Fiontán Moran
The Generosity 2010
white sports socks are so gay to me. my gender as queer as femme as boy as princess as faggot footballing dancer as dyke ballerina boxer is all there in those white sports socks. when i was little i was my most gay my most queer very often happy playing football or doing gymnastics. moving through spaces that were a little more blurred than they were fixed, somehow. Yiadom-Boakye paints through the imaginary, she ‘works it out in paint’. it is this imaginary that makes her work so queer for me, so generous. the work has a sense of self, it centres black people of colour. i want to uphold & uplift this centring. for me, centring in this way is queer politics. to quote Audre Lorde: ‘I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own’.
Interpretation by Jessie McLaughlin
Karl Lagerfeld Bean Counter 2012
When I first saw this piece, it screamed queer to me. Initially I didn’t realise that this was a young Karl Lagerfield, someone I never thought I’d identify with.
Instead, I saw a gender non-conforming person posing seductively in an outfit I’d kill for and with legs as hairy as mine. It oozed confidence in its othering. And the beans and spuds? Well they felt as queer to me as image itself. No need to explain why they’re there they just are.
Perhaps I was projecting in the hope of finding a piece that made me feel seen, but either way, Hamilton’s work makes me want to find some new bathers, proudly put my queerness on show and seductively pose amongst some spuds with the confidence that Lagerfield displays here.
Interpretation by La Kingsbeer
Alex Pilcher is Senior Web Developer and the author of A Queer Little History of Art and Love – both available from Tate Publishing.
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.
Bernard Horrocks is Tate’s Intellectual Property Manager and a proud member of its LGBTQ+ Network.
Daisy Gould is an Assistant in the Tate Britain Curatorial department.
E-J Scott is a queer cultural producer, a dress historian, DUCKIE's archival researcher and curator of the Museum of Transology.
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.
Jessie McLaughlin is an amateur artist, curator and researcher. They make artwork from a queer, brown (sometimes sad) perspective, and enjoy playing football, boxing and dancing.
La Kingsbeer is the Marketing Manager for Tate Britain and co-chair of Tate’s LGBTQ+ network. They are an illustrator whose work explores gender, sexuality, identity and generally navigating life as a queer person today. La also illustrated the banner of this page.
Lindsay ‘Miki’ O’Leary is Tate’s Digital Marketing Manager and is a co-chair of the LGBTQ+ Network.
Marcus Dickey Horley is Curator of Public Programmes, standing back and watching how the greatest lives were lived.
Mels Evers is Tate’s Assistant Curator, Displays and an active member of its LGBTQ+ Network Group. Mels works on the rehang of Tate Britain’s collection and co-directs the independent queer residency programme 11:11.
Nick Virk is a writer, wannabe Bollywood director, Assistant Producer and co-chair of the LGBTQ+ and BAME Networks at Tate.
Rudi Minto de Wijis is a proudly queer and proudly PoC member of the Tate team. He is active in trying to diversify and progress Tate’s inclusivity vision through internal and external endeavours.
Sadie Lee is an award-winning figurative painter and since 2007 has hosted the quarterly event Queer Perspectives at the National Portrait Gallery.
Scott Morris is Senior Producer in Tate’s Digital Content team.