27 April 2017

Queer British Art, 1861-1967

Tate Britain (5 April – 1 October)

Reviewed by William Morton

‘Lady With A Red Hat’ by William Strang (Glasgow Life / Glasgow Museums)

The stated aim of this exhibition is to explore connections between art and a wide range of sexualities and gender identities from the time that the death penalty for sodomy was abolished until the partial decriminalisation of sex between men.  It is perhaps slightly surprising that the same venue is concurrently staging a major exhibition of David Hockney, much of whose work has a homosexual content or context.  Indeed, he is represented in this exhibition by a flamboyant early painting combining a young man in a jock strap with a detailed study of anatomy.

The exhibition starts with late Victorian era ‘suppressed’ pictures of naked boys bathing and girls who look like adolescent boys, moves on to the ill-starred affair of Oscar Wilde and Bosie, and looks at cross-dressing in the theatre and theatrical gays (in a section which I did not find that interesting – it is difficult to get excited about a monogrammed dressing gown of Noel Coward).  The Bloomsbury Group section features a number of strong paintings by Duncan Grant which leave no room for doubt as to his inclination, including a portrait of a policeman (in full uniform) who was part of the gay literary scene.  A striking room contains a collection of female pictures, the well-known austere ‘Lady with a Red Hat’ (aka Vita Sackville West) by William Strang, and Laura Knight’s ‘ Self Portrait’, the intriguing ‘Romance’ by Cecile Walton in which she looks quizzically at her new baby as if asking ‘What have I done?’, and ‘ Rest Time in the Life Class’ by Walton’s friend, Dorothy Johnstone, in which the young model remains the centre of discreet attention.

Later rooms cover artists such as John Craxton and Keith Vaughan and Hockney and Francis Bacon. There is a display of some of the public library books humorously defaced by Joe Orton and Keith Halliwell which led to them being jailed.  One bizarre exhibit is a tin box containing buttons snipped by two cohabiting artists from uniforms as a memento of their sexual encounters with soldiers based near to their house – 200 of them.

All in all, an interesting exhibition worth visiting with a well-judged mix between pictures concerned with the physical side of queer love (largely bottoms) and those of people involved in the gay world such as the portraits of Sackville West and Oscar Wilde and a decorous view of somebody entertaining Walter Sickert to tea.

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