What makes Queer British Art (1861-1967) fascinating is that it is a collection of stories, rather than an art exhibition in the most traditional sense of the word. Its scope is wide, with long arms stretching to many corners of the creative field. Curated by Clare Barlow for Tate Britain, the show lets us get acquainted with a carefully selected assortment of items that are, by their very nature, intimately integrated with the tales of their creators and their private lives. The show features pieces from the year 1861, when sodomy was no longer punishable by death in the United Kingdom, to 1967 when consensual sexual acts between men were decriminalised in England and Wales, following a lengthy investigation by the Wolfenden Committee. The committee itself was founded in 1954, which also happens to mark the year of the harrowing death and alleged suicide of ground-breaking computer scientist and mathematician Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, after which he was forced to undergo hormonal treatment specifically tailored to reducing his libido.
Evidently, the threat of prosecution for even hinting at your homosexuality was terrifyingly real during the century the exhibition is covering. For this reason, it is interesting to see that the paintings, photographs and drawings lining the walls of the galleries are full of as many subtle hints and skilfully hidden messages, as they are underlined by gossip and gloriously over-the-top detailing. We get everything from Pre-Raphaelite classics to cross-dressing variety show posters and works by the Bloomsbury group, to Claude Cahun’s beautiful photography about gender and identity, to early Hockney. Side by side we can find the Victorian sense of the macabre contrasted with overt odes to the nude, prominently male, body. Accompanying the art are cabinets of both seemingly mundane trinkets and objects that are anything but ordinary. There are letters, personal artefacts, the dressing gown of Noël Coward, a selection of novels borrowed (stolen) from Islington library by Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell, the lockets shared by Edith Cooper and Katherine Bradley under their collective name Michael Field, collections of jovial photographs of both lovers and friends, and so on ad infinitum. One of the more sinister objects of the collection is a cell door collected from Reading prison, behind which Irish author and playwright Oscar Wilde spent a substantial amount of time following a conviction for gross indecency, after he had been relentlessly hounded through three widely published trials. It is made clear that the stories here are of as much love as they are of fear, of fabulous frivolity and the deepest despair. This constant layering of emotion gives the show an undeniable humanity, that rarely gets to penetrate our formal art galleries of this grandeur.
One could argue that the exhibition is curated in a way that mainly caters, like most art shows do, to the male gaze. However, in this context, more than others, this does make sense on at least one level. As the rule of the crown dictated during this century, only sexual acts between men were deemed illegal. Similar acts between women were generally seen as more superficial and therefore easier to control, making them less of a threat to the makeup of society, whereas a man having sexual relations with another man could be regarded as a violation of the very virility of the nation. As much as a woman’s sexuality was under constant regulation and control, it was insignificant in the light of the man’s, as he held the ultimate power over the family and by extension, its entire constitution. I do wish that the exhibition would have touched more upon the roles and lives of women living outside of their society’s set framework, but perhaps this is a subject so vast that calls for a separate show in itself. I have no doubt that Barlow would present a very interesting take on that theme.
Likewise, one could definitely take issue with the context in which some of the pieces are presented. For example, in one of the galleries, we see a portrait of Havelock Ellis, a scientist prominent in early research into homo- and transsexuality. His work was in many ways ground-breaking, but it also had a darker side. Like many scientists of his time, Ellis was a fierce supporter of eugenics, starkly illustrated by quotes such as: “The superficially sympathetic man flings a coin to the beggar; the more deeply sympathetic man builds an almshouse for him so that he need no longer beg; but perhaps the most radically sympathetic of all is the man who arranges that the beggar shall not be born.” This is something that is not really mentioned in relation to the painting which is – if not deeply questionable – a missed opportunity of opening up an interesting debate on the relationship between the scientist, their empirical work and their views, good and bad.
Despite some potential shortcomings, I would argue that anyone interested in glimpsing parts of a largely neglected part of British history to go to this show. Rarely has so many pieces of this level been seen next to each other, tackling such a paramount subject matter. I do wish that certain pieces that are not as well suited for the narrative of the exhibition would have been adapted to fit the bill better, with more in-depth blurbs or a clearer definition of their part of the puzzle and potential controversies surrounding them. Nevertheless, this does not take away from the value of Clare Barlow and Tate Britain bringing these works together, celebrating the sacrifices, the closeness and the shared pain of this extraordinary group of artists. Go see this show before October, it will make you better at the delicate art of inhabiting this world in the shape of a decent human being.
Queer British Art 1861-1967
London, SW1P 4RG
Until 1 October
Image: Duncan Grant, “Bathing”, 1911, Oil on canvas, Purchased 1931© Tate