Alex Farquharson, Director of the Tate, introduced the Queer British Art seminar on 10th April 2017. He affirmed the premise behind the exhibition was the fifty year anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality (the ‘Sexual Offences Act 1967’). The exhibition, entitled Queer British Art, has been curated by Clare Barlow who the Tate website describes thus:
Assistant Curator, British Art 1750–1830 Clare Barlow is part of the pre-1800 team of Curators and Assistant Curators who are responsible for developing and researching Tate’s collection of artworks from the sixteenth to the early nineteenth centuries.
The exhibition timeline then is outside of Barlow’s ‘normal’ range of interests but it relates to her ongoing research interests. Farquharson pointed out it is an event as well as an exhibition and he was extremely proud of Barlow’s achievement in presenting ‘diverse and unfamiliar voices’. As an event, the theme naturally lent itself to a scholarly seminar and Farquharson was delighted to welcome, amongst others, Matt Smith, an artist who had “queered the collections” of the V&A and BMAG, however, it was Barlow’s talk which really gave weight and substance to the thinking behind the show which is the focus of the rest of this article.
Barlow proceeded to explain the thinking and to provide context for some of the chosen exhibition pieces. She described the exhibition as a “Historic show that looks at things of identity” but crucially, was a show that raises problems. The histories displayed are only just being accepted as interesting and important, and as such it is not a closed canon of work, but part of a (ongoing) conversation.
The show opens with a room of beautifully displayed Pre-Raphaelite works, including, of course, those by the scandalously ruined figure, Simeon Solomon. His beautifully divine Bacchus (1867, BMAG) appears, obviously, as does Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene (1877, Tate). Solomon’s drawing The Bride, Bridegroom and Sad Love (1865, V&A) sees the bridegroom embrace his wife, as he surreptitiously touches the hand of his presumably now grieving lover whilst his hand is placed to physically cover up the very focus of their sexual non-hetero-normative attraction, the conflict caused by his queer attraction is further amplified in another mythological work with a Latin inscription that translates as ‘the corruption of the best is the worst thing of all’.
As one of the most tragic of stories referred to in the show, it is a shame that Solomon is not given more wall space: despite there being seven pieces unfortunately, there are no larger pieces by Solomon and it is a real shame. After all, Solomon’s story is both the start and the end of the exhibition. It was in 1873, long before Wilde, that Solomon was caught cottaging, and that his life went into an irrecoverable downward spiral. Deserted by most of his friends, Solomon became an alcoholic and although he attempted to continue with his art, he spent the last twenty years of his life in and out of St. Giles workhouse before his alcoholism finally killed him in 1905.
Barlow opened her talk though with reference to John Minton’s Horseguards in their Dressing Rooms at Whitehall (1953, Tate) as an example of the type of “flexibility” she wanted viewers of the show to consider in relation to examples of Queer art (and presumably, of ‘Queerness’ both as a term, a choice, a sexuality, a code, a definition, and a lifestyle). The works can be fluid in their offerings, and us fluid in our readings: Minton’s Horseguards offers one type of coding that can be unravelled with time and attention given, but speaks to an interpreter of a Queer code, or a reader with context. Another example being the Box of Buttons, a metal box of over two hundred buttons cut from the jackets of guardsmen by the artists Denis Wirth-Miller and Richard Chopping. (I recall a friend of mine whose one night stand with a squaddie resulted in her being a bra short the following morning. So it’s obviously a military / conquest thing, and not just a queer thing. It appears times change little). For Barlow, such items “add texture to the narrative” and indeed they do, for when you look at Minton’s work it suddenly appears more fetishistic.
Barlow wanted us to ask questions in interesting ways, and throughout curating, hoped she had done the same of interesting paintings and objects, and what were “invariably tragic stories”. Minton was one such tragedy, for he killed himself aged only 39 in 1957.
Inevitably, some of the stories are unclear, ambiguous, covert, perhaps even secretive. Evelyn De Morgan’s relationship with her model Jane is one example. Jane appears in Aurora Triumphans (1873, Russell Cotes)
Barlow: “She painted Jane (the figure on the right) over and over. She is often nude. Was this an erotic relationship? This show opens up questions, but it also shows past possibilities”. Jane is buried in the family tomb and was obviously an important relationship for De Morgan, but how comfortable are we with this layering of unknowns, of potentials, of rewriting possibly even inventing? Caroline Gonda, who was also at the seminar, explained that many works about women had “a sense of the hidden, the possible and the just-out-of-sight, whether in the realm of the visible/hidden body or the more distant realm of unseen desires, identities and relationships”.
Is the premise of the show to peel back layers to things that aren’t there, to ask us to consider potentials that may not be relevant to the art or the artist? Or is this a useful means of asking us to ask what we have missed? I am undecided. In context, it works well. But let’s not seek things that we can’t prove, or we may be at risk of undermining our own curatorial premise. Aren’t we?
The Telegraph provides caution whilst also legitimizing a way we can enjoy Queerness: ‘At that time, and possibly still today, you didn’t have to be queer to produce art with a queer sensibility, just as you could and can be homosexual and produce art that has nothing to do with “queerness”’. Interestingly, The Telegraph reports Aurora Triumphans as a being a ‘preposterous essay in androgynous Pre-Raphaelitism’ but the exhibition chooses not to examine androgyny, preferring instead to linger on the sexual proclivities, known or surmised, of the artists displayed. One work which does refer to androgyny is Walter Crane’s The Renaissance of Venus (1877, Tate). Frederic Leighton remarked ‘that’s not Aphrodite it’s Alexandro’, further commenting that ‘she was a fine slip of a boy and in the Italian sun she passed well enough as a girl’.
Seeking for eroticism where there is some is as liable to criticism as seeking eroticism where there is none, which Barlow demonstrated when quoting The Telegraph’s complaint that some of the works included ‘aren’t erotic at all’. This snipe was triggered by Ethel Sands Tea with Sickert (1911-1912, Tate) and is part of a general criticism by The Telegraph of the exhibition’s reluctance and overall ‘politeness’. They have a point, but you can’t present what isn’t there and there are many shapes and sizes of sexuality, queer or otherwise. And this is the point of the show, there are relationships that are non-normative, or at least non-heteronormative, and have nuances which need to be given space in order to be listened too. Relationships are key to this show. Sands painting is described by the Tate as revealing ‘the dynamic of Sickert’s relationship with Sands and Hudson; the two women admired the elder painter without allowing him to dominate their personal artistic vision’. This it does, but without the in-depth knowledge of the Camden Art Group, you are unlikely to discern the nuances of the group’s sexual rules and their individual relationships such as are buried within this particularly painting. Another comparable work is Gluck’s (note the mononym) Lilac and Guelder Rose (c.1932-1937, Manchester), an elegant and lively floral study in whites and pale greens, which was inspired by the artist’s relationship with the celebrated florist Constance Spry.
Barlow also noted how The Daily Mail on the other hand got “excited” by her catalogue entry for Edmund Dulac’s Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon as Medieval Saints (1920, Fitzwilliam) which they saw as an opportunity to launch into the “coded homosexuality of monks”. What the small and rather awkward looking painting does recall is a wonderful anecdote of curiosity, taboo, nosiness and even puerility when Symonds asked Ricketts:
But you are, aren’t you?
But you do, don’t you?
Shannon and Ricketts are another tragic story. Shannon fell off a ladder in 1929 and suffered brain damage, requiring extensive nursing. Ricketts tried to sell a Van Eyck portrait of Archbishop Laud which they had bought in 1920 (the work had been mistakenly indicated as being of the ‘studio of Van Dyck’). No buyer was found and with the financial stress and, for all intents and purposes, the loss of Shannon, Ricketts died of a heart attack in 1931.
But Barlow reminded us, the fact Symonds repeated such a question (to which Ricketts offered no reply) suggests that homosexuality was not so closeted as we like to think. This does or could be seen to slightly undo the ambiguity of Barlow’s reading of Aurora Triumphans, although we should remind ourselves of Gonda’s message of the ‘just out-of-sight’. The symbols included in various paintings, including the peacock feather being held in Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon as Medieval Saints are part of the hidden codes. A gay semiotic. Peacock feathers traditionally represent the resurrection, but their queer coding makes them an interesting choice of symbol. Doves which also appear as code sometimes, are another religious symbol which has been subjected to a process of being ‘queered’.
A work which Barlow didn’t mention but is one of my favourites in the show is Jacques-Emile Blanche’s Aubrey Beardsley (1895, NPG). This work shows Beardsley sporting a pink flower, a show of solidarity for Wilde who was on trial at the time. Wilde also features in the exhibition, through a rarely seen portrait by Robert Goodloe Pennington’s, the original cell door of C.3.3. (which appears to be doing the rounds having recently been at Reading’s Art Angel exhibition) and the original ‘posing as a somdomite’ card.
Whilst we know Wilde’s sexuality, torrid as it was, Beardsley’s is unknown. The inclusion of his portrait therefore is perhaps another layering or ambiguous reading but it is a means of extending the range of the show. It allows some of Beardsley’s fantastically outrageous designs for Lysistrata and shows off his complete mastery of line, but likewise through the notion of costume, it introduces the pinky-red dressing gown of Noel Coward and the wig of a drag queen which appear in a later room.
I did enjoy the fact The Telegraph referred to Pennington’s Oscar Wilde (1881, University of California) as ‘frankly boring’ and yes, it isn’t overly provocative, but was it meant to be? It was painted just as Wilde’s star was on the assent, before his fully fledged dandyism, just after his American tour, and long before his scandal and downfall. Being its first foray over here for an exhibition, it is a pleasure to actually see the painting, particularly when we layer the context and history upon it; during his years of success Wilde displayed the portrait above the family’s fireplace but upon Wilde’s trial and subsequent downfall, the painting was auctioned off along with lots of Wilde’s possessions. Displaying the ‘before’ (the portrait) and the ‘after’ (the cell door) alongside each other is powerful. It is particularly interesting to see the door displayed as a piece of art, as a painting hanging on a wall. But we shouldn’t forget the human story behind these objects.
Barlow’s detailed thinking is what makes the exhibition thought provoking. It is her capacity not to shock or be impolite, but to be sensitive and considered when considering the prejudice, the double lives and double meanings which these stories hide, shield, and sometimes thrust upon you. The inclusion of ‘Michael Field’ is another story of double meanings, a story of two people with one identity.
Michael Field was a pseudonym used by the poets Katharine Bradley and her lover, niece and ward Edith Cooper. As Michael Field they wrote around forty works together, and a journal called Works and Days. As Aestheticists, they were influenced by the work of Walter Pater and they were friends with Ricketts and Shannon, and Wilde, so their place in the show is fitting. Their extensive diaries are stored in the British Library, and have been digitised by the Victorian Lives and Letters Consortium.
The couple intended to keep their pen-name secret, but it eventually became public knowledge (apparently not long after they had confided in their close friend Robert Browning – draw your own conclusions there). ‘Michael Field’ had no norms. The name was used interchangeably between the two women, sometimes one was Michael, sometimes both, sometimes one was Field, sometimes both. Their friends referred to them as ‘The Michael Fields’ and they would swap between a single male pronoun and female pronouns. Their story isn’t tragic, it is rather mundane actually, but as a pair they were devoted to each other and latterly to Catholicism (as were Wilde and Beardsley in their final days).
The exhibition includes a beautiful fan and a wonderful piece of jewellery which was part of Michael Field, but its inclusion is more important for the show’s exploration of blurred identities and genders, both public and private. Michael Field is presumably the prompt for Barlow’s decision to avoid using any identifying pronouns in the labels (or perhaps Gluck). Likewise Barlow has avoided using terms like gay, trans, lesbian etc., unless they were owned by the people in question: it is important not to transpose terms back onto the artists if they would not have been recognised by those concerned. And let us remember that it is only in the last ten years or so that we have gone from Queer being an insult to being a word ‘owned’ by those who are. Matt Smith quoted a story that demonstrated this change: “I’m not gay” corrected a man. “I’m queer”.
The exhibition teases out these societal changes and shows Barlow’s desire not “to present straight forward lines”. Other examples of these changing lines are:
Glyn Warren Philpot’s Henry Thomas (1934–1935, Chichester) refers to another complex story. Thomas was Philpot’s manservant and at his funeral Thomas memorialised their relationship with the words: ‘The best master, father and brother’, a strange mix of roles.
Duncan Grant’s portrait of Police Constable Harry Daley (1931, Guildhall) recalls the complexities of a public life and a private sexuality. Daley later wrote about his divided life in This Small Cloud (1986).
Another of Grant’s work Bathing (1911, Tate) also appears in the show, but the classicized bodies were a surprising let down, as was his evident inability to deliver supremacy of line (particularly when appearing in a show with Beardsley). Barlow noted how Grant’s work was initially reviewed as being “corrupting and degenerate” but here it appears anything but.
The exhibition also teases out agency between people, and legal changes / challenges to certain relationships. How would we view the relationship of an aunt and niece now (Michael Field)? How does age or status of those involved effect their ability to consent (Wilde)? How would we respond to the celebration or predation of a lover’s body (e.g. the pairing of Montague Glover as consumer of his lover Ralph Hall’s physicality)? Context is key. In the case of Glover’s photography we know he documented many images of ‘rough trade’ (prostitutes) and military figures but his images of Hall are a fascinating document of the private and now very public, relationship he had with him for over fifty years.
The inclusion of Laura Knight’s Self Portrait aka The Model (1913, NPG) has caused some prattle. However, Barlow reported the LGBQT community have been pleased to see Knight included because it is an example of a women painting a woman. Certainly in art historical terms this is rare, but does this qualify its inclusion enough though?
There are many other works, so many, small, large, photographic, sculpted, handwritten, collaged, all of which will require your time and attention if you visit. There is as much on the labels, aside from identifying pronouns, which requires your consideration. There are Prince Charming’s who look like Beata Beatrix, and ladies who look like men, and men who look like ladies. Barlow has striven for inclusivity, so much so that she includes the voices of high profile figures of the LGBQT and their comments (alongside). I rather baulked at this actually, not because of what they said but because it laboured the agenda. It felt a little exclusive. Of course, saying that will no doubt cause the ire of some. But why? Why, for example, does Barlow get asked about her sexuality when doing press interviews for the show? Is it necessary for validation? Do people have to be queer to ‘get’ it?
We definitely don’t have to be queer to see the circular nature of the exhibition. Having started with Solomon, who lived within the secretive, criminal underbelly of London homosexuality, we arrive at Hockney and Bacon, artists who were eventually able to be overtly, outwardly and, most importantly, legally gay. Bacon’s whole persona was centred around his sexuality, and his social and artistic circle included traversing Soho, which he called the ‘sexual gymnasium of the city’, and socialising with the likes of the button collecting Wirth-Miller and Chopping. Bacon’s art, as always, provokes and disgusts. His figures shag (they definitely do not make love) within a blurry field of visceral violence. Hockney on the other hand offers us a rather poor piece of ‘beefcake’, a more Californian magazine lifestyle version of queerness.
Barlow insisted she didn’t want the show to be a ‘greatest hits’ event, she wanted all relationships to be shown: friendships, romantic, textual, literary, artistic etc. But choosing both of these ‘Queer’ modern art giants as the finale seem rather obvious, particularly as the Tate is simultaneously putting on a Hockney retrospective. Bacon and Hockney’s inclusion raises the one niggling issue I have with the exhibition: is Queer a reductive category?
Queer British Art 1861-1967 is on view at Tate Britain, from the 5th April until October 1st.
See more about each room here.
Images via: Wikipedia, Tate, Art UK
 In 1873, Solomon was fined £100 for his first ‘offence’ (attempting to commit sodomy) and when caught in Paris, in 1874, he was sentenced to three months in prison.