From Borough Poly to a Biscuit Tin: Queer Art at Tate Britain

The exhibition “Queer British Art” at Tate Britain highlights the many different ways LGBT people have made art, and made liveable lives for themselves 
(until 1 October, details here)

At the point when I came across Noel Coward’s dressing gown in a glass case, I had my doubts about Queer British Art. I’d already seen sentimental Victorian versions of ancient Greece, portraits of famous forebears and now a famous thespian’s clothing. Had the curators just gathered together any old thing related to LGBT people and put it on show? And there may be some element of that. But there’s still something important and deeply moving about this somewhat random collection of artworks and mementos.

The first room you see at Tate Britain, for example, focuses on the way Victorian artists used references to ancient Greece and Rome to legitimise portrayals of ambivalent gender and same-sex desire, otherwise unmentionable. Simeon Solomon, one of the main artists on display, had a successful career until his early 30s, when he was arrested for having sex in a public urinal: his work was never exhibited again and he died in the workhouse.

Radclyffe Hall by Charles Buchel

Then you move on to portraits of significant figures like Edward Carpenter, the Sheffield socialist and open lover of men in the early twentieth century, painted in what he called his “anarchist overcoat”. Radclyffe Hall was the author of The Well of Loneliness, a grim novel about love between women banned in the 1920s – her friends called her John, and her portrait here shows her with a monocle and wearing a cravat, items associated with men.

A full-length portrait of Oscar Wilde, made just as he was becoming famous, hangs next to the door of his cell at the prison in Reading, where he served much of his sentence of two years’ hard labour in the 1890s. Next to the cell door you read a phrase from a letter Wilde wrote from prison to his friend Robert Ross – “I know that on the day of my release I will merely be moving from one prison into another” – and, in exile and his health broken, Wilde did indeed live only a few years after serving his sentence.

Vesta Tilley
Vesta Tilley

A third room then includes materials from theatre and performance – the plays of Tennessee Williams, with their tortured emotions and references to same sex desire, and the long tradition of “female impersonators”, and indeed of “male impersonators” such as Vesta Tilley. Tilley was a music hall star who performed in a range of male personas, and who took part in recruitment drives for the British Army in the First World War. And it’s here that you come across the dressing gown.

All this makes clear the level of oppression so many people faced. Wilde’s imprisonment, Solomon’s reduction to poverty and the censorship of Hall’s novel all contributed to a much wider silencing of people who desired their own sex, or who didn’t fit neatly into the categories male or female. In that situation people improvised – to come to an understanding of themselves, and to make a life, they drew on whatever was available, from Solomon’s version of ancient Greece to the bohemian life of the theatre. I suspect it’s something all LGBT people do – when you’re young you pick up references in books and TV programmes and start to understand yourself through them.

Examination of the Herald
The Examination of the Herald from Illustrations for Lysistrata by Aubrey Beardsley

The exhibition makes clear that this process changes over time. There isn’t a fixed version of LGBT life or identity, and these things are what academics call “socially constructed”. For example, many people today use terms like LGBT, which distinguish lesbian, gay and bi from trans. That distinction doesn’t apply to many of the exhibits at the Tate. For Radclyffe Hall, for example, using the name John and wearing “male” clothes were inseparable from having relationships with women. The people we see here might have thought of themselves as inverts, uranians, drag queens, homosexuals or advocates for homogenic love. The fact that there is such a wide range of lives and identities here is one reason why it’s appropriate to use the word “queer” in the show’s title. It remains a divisive term – in a display of responses to the exhibition at the end some people say they dislike the word. But it does cover a range of different lives and artworks in a way that LGBT – very much an official acronym tied to the last ten years, and not something you can chant on a demo – really doesn’t. And it can include materials – like the obscene drawings of Victorian artist Aubrey Beardsley – which aren’t specifically LGBT, but certainly go against accepted norms around sex.

Composition in Yellow, Black and White by Marlow Moss

Queer British Art repeatedly also highlights just how restrictive the norms about how you can represent gender and bodies actually are – it makes you realise these are things you’ve taken for granted. For example, there is a long tradition in western art of painting naked women – “the nude” is an accepted artistic genre like “the still life”. There is no tradition of painting naked men – as the feminist novelist and critic Angela Carter commented, most of the exposed male bodies you see in art galleries are being tortured to death on a cross, not inviting you to sensual pleasure. Any other depiction of naked men was associated with queer desire – as the painter Keith Vaughan, in a quote in the exhibition, puts it in 1961, “the continual use of the male figure… retains always the stain of a homosexual connection.” Thus Duncan Grant’s painting “Bathing” (shown at the head of this post) was condemned as unsuitable for the dining room of Borough Polytechnic, since its depiction of naked men might have a “degenerative” effect on the working-class students there.

Self Portrait by Laura Knight
Self Portrait by Laura Knight

It’s not just men painting men here that offers an alternative to accepted ideas of gender. Laura Knight’s Self Portrait, in which she takes on the role normally occupied by men and herself paints a naked woman, made critics at the time uneasy. Cecile Walton’s painting Romance doesn’t show a loving couple, but a woman with a new-born baby, as well as a nurse and her other child – yet does so in a way quite different from the usual stereotypes of maternity. Other artworks are less successful at breaking with conventional ideas about sex. Black men in particular are exoticised – Edward Wolfe’s Portrait of Pat Nelson makes his subject into a glamorous sex object.

Perhaps the best thing about this exhibition is its inspiring sense that, despite the oppression people experienced between 1861 and 1967, they still made lives for themselves, and indeed expanded the range of human possibilities in a way we can still learn from now. That happened in all kinds of ways. It’s fascinating to discover, for example, the painter Marlow Moss, who was raised as a girl called Marjorie but presented themselves as ambivalent when it came to gender – as they put it, “I destroyed my old personality and created a new one”. On the other hand, there’s the story of the illustrator Richard Chopping, who was in a relationship with Denis Wirth-Miller for over 70 years, from 1937 until he died in 2008. But this wasn’t a completely orthodox romance – they lived near an army base, and would collect uniform buttons from the soldiers after their sexual encounters with them. Eventually they had over 200 metal buttons, which mementoes they kept in an old biscuit tin, on display at the Tate. From ancient Greece to a dressing gown, from Borough Poly to a biscuit tin, Queer British Art is a testament to struggles against the odds to create not only art, but lives worth living.

Romance by Cecile Walton