Queer British Art 1861-1967 review: indifferent shades of gay
Daedalus is helping Icarus into his wings for the fateful flight……
‘Encouraging speculation’: Henry Scott Tuke’s The Critics, 1927.Photograph: Warwick District Council (Leamington Spa, UK)
Daedalus is helping Icarus into his wings for the fateful flight. The father is a wizened brown husk compared to his beautiful son, nude except for a wisp of silk barely covering his genitals. Not that there are any genitals to cover, it seems, for the groin is just a euphemised blank. And when Lord Leighton’s painting appeared at the Royal Academy in 1869, what’s more, the Times noticed another anomaly. Icarus had “the soft rounded contours of a feminine breast” in his depilated chest. Could Lord Leighton be gay?
Consider his famous bronze statue The Sluggard, which reprises Michelangelo’s dying slave as an athletic nude stretching to shrug off sleep. The curators of this show take the “homoerotic pleasures of viewing the figure” for granted, and make much of Michelangelo’s homosexuality. But this proves nothing about Lord Leighton, who appears to have had a long-term partner in the working-class actress Dorothy Dene; although of course he may have been bisexual.
Simeon Solomon’s Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene, 1864. Photograph: Tate
Queer British Art 1861-1967 encourages speculation of precisely this kind. Is the artist gay, is the art gay, does it have a gay sensibility? Or is it all in the eye of the beholder? Certainly Victorian-era audiences could spot all sorts of coded messages. The first gallery at Tate Britain is one enormous pre-Raphaelite swoon of bee-stung lips, bare breasts, togas slipping discreetly from shoulders and eyes half-closed in ecstasy. By invoking the classical tradition of same-sex love, artists could paint Sappho embracing Erinna and David strumming Jonathan’s harp and speak surreptitiously to particular viewers.
Henry Scott Tuke, for instance, painted naked boys swimming or sunbathing on the Cornish coast to popular success for decades. His sitters included Italian models and English rugby players in the pose of Greek gods, and he has become something of a gay hero. But clearly (as inscribed on the painting’s gilded frame) one Alderman Alfred Holt would hardly have presented The Critics, Tuke’s painting of two lads watching (eyeing up?) a third in the water – to Leamington Spa art gallery if he had the slightest sense that it had been made by what the sexologist Havelock Ellis termed an invert.
Keith Vaughan’s Drawing of two men kissing. Photograph: © DACS, The Estate of Keith Vaughan
There is a portrait of Ellis in the show’s second gallery, which is where everything starts going awry. Ellis was a eugenicist, but his study of gay and transgender sex trumps his desire to weed out the weak, which goes unmentioned. Likewise, Wilhelm von Gloeden’s famous photographs of Sicilian boys naked and posing as classical athletes appear without any word of his relationship with under-age boys. The show tries to accomplish far too much – balancing private lives with social history, sexual identity with mainstream politics, anecdotes and relics with poor old art, which frequently loses out.
The show spans the period from 1861, when sodomy was no longer punishable by death in England and Wales, to the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, decriminalising consensual sex between men. There are many portraits of heroes along the way: the socialist activist Edward Carpenter, who lived openly with his lover, the labourer George Miller. Oscar Wilde, whose middling likeness by the American artist Robert Pennington had to be sold during Wilde’s bankruptcy (its new owner’s husband still wouldn’t allow it on the drawing-room walls). The painter Simeon Solomon, whose drawing The Bridge, the Bridegroom and Sad Love shows a man holding his wife’s hand but reaching back to the body of a disconsolate-looking Cupid.
At the height of his Royal Academy success, Solomon was arrested for soliciting in a public lavatory, and later charged with attempted buggery. His career collapsed and even his friends abandoned him. Art and life turned out to be entirely separate.
Objects carry history as much as images. Here is the door of Wilde’s cell at Reading prison and the Marquess of Queensberry’s fateful calling card addressed to “Oscar Wilde, posing as Somdomite” (sic) at the Albemarle Club. Here is Noel Coward’s monogrammed dressing gown and the pink wig worn by the female impersonator Jimmy Slater in the 1930s. There are photographs of Vesta Tilley as a man, of Dan Leno and Danny La Rue in drag. But photographs are insufficient; their art was in the performance, not in posed studio shots.
Self portrait and Nude by Laura Knight, 1913. Photograph: National Portrait Gallery
Angus McBean made surreal photo-collages of his many gay friends from the 30s, including Robert Helpmann, Binkie Beaumont and Beatrix Lehmann. Lehmann had a five-year relationship with the socialite Henrietta Bingham, we’re told, who had previously had an affair with Dora Carrington. The collages are ingenious, but too often the captions amount to elevated gossip.
The Bloomsburys are, of course, here in the paintings of Carrington and Duncan Grant, whose male nudes are significantly faceless every time. From here on in, the art is bafflingly variable. Ethel Sands’s terrible chintzy studies of Belgravia salons are only here, one feels, because she lived with her female lover. (Although the curators attempt to persuade us that her “unashamed interest in domesticity” was “a celebration of the … site of female experience”; by which token Barbara Cartland was a radical feminist).
John Craxton’s Head of a Greek Sailor, 1940. Photograph: © Estate of John Craxton. All rights reserved, DACS 2016. Photo credit: London Borough of Camden
Which could truly be said of Laura Knight, the first female RA, whose fierce self-portrait is one of this show’s high points. Here stands Knight in her working clothes, brush in hand, with her back to the viewer, just as the nude female model she is painting turns away from us. The picture was made in 1913, when suffragettes were struggling to get the vote and art college life classes were still segregated. It feels like history in the making, so sharply of its moment. Yet it seems to qualify for this show instead because of the “erotic potential” of the model’s “rosy bottom”.
Even when the artists are gay (Knight wasn’t) the work is strangely selected. There are some searingly beautiful pencil drawings of the love that dare not speak its name by Keith Vaughan and a wonderful sequence of sailors and guardsmen by different painters, including John Minton, Edward Burra and John Craxton. But Derek Jarman is omitted and so is Howard Hodgkin (perhaps on the grounds that he was still married in 1967?). Claude Cahun is severely stinted, and so are David Hockney and Francis Bacon. Surely Hockney’s great We Two Boys Together Clinging should be here: the boys in question, inchoate, half-scrawled on a wall, somewhere between ancient and modern, between cave painting and pop art, remains one of his most moving works. But it is currently in the Hockney retrospective upstairs.
Hockney, Bacon, Hodgkin, Cahun: all are having major exhibitions right now. And no doubt some will argue that they hardly need to be defined or anthologised by their sexuality. But it’s easy to imagine a show of all these artists and more, in which the works would enrich each other while carrying the narrative of gay British history down the decades. But this confused, uninspiring and peculiarly sedate survey is not it.