As a proud gay man, as well as artophile and former history student, it was impossible for me to resist the heady combination of the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition. And there was plenty to pique my interest, from more familiar names such as Simeon Solomon, Duncan Grant and Francis Bacon, to those less familiar, such as Barbara Ker-Seymer and Keith Vaughan. But as I explored I couldn’t help but reflect on myself and my own experiences. Viewing the works of an earlier generation, expressing their sexuality in a time of censure, reminded me of my own struggles. Their battles were the battles of every queer person, both now and then.
Oscar Wilde’s portrait is there, of course. He is after all the archetype of all bitchy queens. Painted in 1884, artist Harper Pennington shows us a proud Wilde, almost aristocratic in his morning coat, the white cane in his hand bestowing further gravitas. Bordering on arrogance, his stance and expression present a man of confidence, and at the time it was painted he was indeed a rising star in London literary society. But next to it is a very different
artefact. Wilde’s cell door from Reading Gaol, behind which he was incarcerated for three months. It was there that he wrote ‘I know that on the day of my release I will merely be moving from one prison into another, and there are times when the whole world seems to be no larger than my cell, and as full of terror for me’. These words, from his De Profundis, will resonate with every queer person. Because the condemnation which the world can strike us with is only half of our suffering. The other half comes from within ourselves. Our own self-reproach and denial. That is what transforms the wide world into a prison cell. Looking at Wilde’s cell door didn’t just remind me of society’s condemnation in times past. It also reminded me of my own self-persecution, of all the years that I turned my life into a prison. But when you finally accept your sexuality, that’s when the prison door unlocks. And when you finally come out and announce who you are to the world, that’s when the cell-door flies open, and the daunting walls which have enclosed you for so many years melt away. But the struggle to reach that moment of liberation is a long and a lonely one. Knowing that there are others like you, who have fought the same battles, gives you comfort as well as the resilience to carry on. So with both reverence and gratitude do I contemplate those pioneers of the past, our ‘queer ancestors’ so to speak. Those individuals who led the way in showing society that alternatives do exist, that heterosexuality and gender norms aren’t the only options available to us.
So many of the works in this exhibition reminded me of my own experiences. Discovering my sexuality, denying it and finally embracing it. Like all aspects of life, there have been ups and downs. These contrasts are reflected in the exhibition, and as curator Clare Barlow explained, ‘there’s real tragedy but also real joy, failure but also phenomenal success’. But for so many of us queer people, joy will only come after misery. Even if we do escape the prejudice of others, that doesn’t mean we can escape our own prejudice. For myself, having been raised in a traditional nuclear family where heterosexuality was taken for granted, it was something of a shock to discover my desire for men at the age of eleven. But then I swiftly entered a phase of denial. I desperately wanted to be straight, to be ‘normal’, to lead a cliched existence of wife, children, suburban house, etc. At that age it was only the existence I knew of, it never occurred to me that there could be alternatives. As I learnt more about homosexuals and the plethora of stereotypes surrounding them, I started to monitor myself. I was never much of a ‘butch’ man, I hated sport and the only time I thought about cars was when I trying not to be run over by one. My interests were more ‘feminine’. I loved fashion, especially of the past, and for one school project on the Australian Gold Rush I presented a frontier town populated with crinoline-clad women, bonnets and all. I was once given a doll for Christmas. Not even the odd looks from my step-grandfather could spoil my joy.
But as I entered my teenage years I realised that I needed to be vigilant. Or else my unspeakable shame would become public knowledge. I couldn’t bring myself to think about playing sport, but dolls were now out of the question. Robert Colquhoun’s Actors on a Stage (1945) goes far beyond theatre. Though the figures in it are ambiguous, we are informed that they are in fact two men, embracing. But every queer person who has hidden their sexuality or identity will understand acting. It’s something most of us have done, or did, all of our lives. For us, all the world really is a stage. I remember anxiously watching my behaviour, my gestures, terrified that even the slightest whiff of effeminacy would betray me. Sometimes I even pretended to have a crush on some poor girl in my class, hoping that I could convince everyone else that I really did lust after her and not the boy who sat beside her. It’s exhausting though, you can never truly relax except when you’re alone. Even with your own family, you can’t let your guard down, though they’ve usually figured out the truth long before you do. It isn’t surprising that nearly half of all LGBT youth have considered suicide at some point. On display is a letter from Barbara Ker-Seymer to Edward Burra, written in 1928. She tells him that her own mother has ordered her to leave the house, having discovered Barbara’s copy of The Well of Loneliness, Radclyffe Hall’s scandalous lesbian novel. This was the fate that I feared, though not involving a Radclyffe Hall book. In hindsight I know that my family would never have cast me out. But that didn’t stop me fearing the worst.
Being in the closet means living a lie. And lying about such an essential part of yourself suffocates you. You slowly drown in the fear, the anxiety and the shame. Which is why coming out is such a joyful experience. As the lies which have bound you for all those years fall away, you feel free. Simon Callow first saw Hockney’s paintings in the 60’s. He said that not only did they bring ‘homosexuality into the light for me and my generation’, but that they made him ‘happy to be homo, perhaps, cheerfully queer’. Looking at the photo of legendary drag queen Danny La Rue, poised, make-up immaculate, wig soaring high, she seems like a manifestation of your pride. You don’t want to inform the world that you’re gay, you want to proclaim it, shout it, sing it. Having spent so long denying who you are there’s an urgent need to make up lost time. So you reinvent yourself as flamboyantly as possible. Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell’s infamously vandalised (or improved you might argue) library books are on display too, including a copy of Queen’s Favourite with the addition of two homoerotic wrestlers. Halliwell and Orton were later jailed for malicious damage, which Orton claimed was ‘because we’re queers’. Though I personally don’t condone damaging library books, I certainly understand their zeal. After you come out you want to be as outrageous as possible. And God help anyone who sneers at you for being queer.
One of my favourite pieces in the collection would be Duncan Grant’s Paul Roche Reclining (1945). Grant and Roche were lovers for decades, despite both having wives. And just in case there were any doubts about their relationship, this picture removes those immediately. Roche lies back sensuously, clad only in silken green boxers and a dressing gown, opened to reveal his smooth chest. His body is on display, and just like so many odalisques and nudes before him, he is an object of desire. There is no ambiguity about his relationship with Grant, his coy grin divulging the sexual connection between the two. It’s a picture suffused with intimacy, and beautiful in the subtle confidence with which it presents the sexuality of artist and subject. There is no shame here. We assume that this type of self-expression was impossible in the past. But how refreshing it is to see evidence to the contrary. Yet nearby in the same room is a cabinet with Grant’s private erotic drawings. We see muscular figures tumbling around with each other, some of them clearly having sex. These are far more explicit than Paul Roche reclining in his dressing gown. Grant never revealed these drawings to the public. It’s a stark reminder that there still is a difference between our era and his, that even a man in an open homosexual relationship had to censor himself.
But as fascinating as this exhibition is, it does have some weak points. Some of the paintings seem to possess only a tenuous connection with the theme, such as that of John Gielgud’s room by Clare Atwood. It’s a luxurious interior but whether some flowers and a dressing screen were intended to reflect the actor’s identity and sexuality is another question. Likewise, in a room dedicated to artists who ‘challenged gender norms’ we find Cecile Walton’s Romance (1920). This self-portrait, depicting the artist holding her baby immediately after birth, apparently challenges her own gender status as she ‘views her son with cool appraisal’. I find it hard to believe though that a picture of a woman having just become a mother can be viewed as radical, merely because she doesn’t coo over her child. If anything, this is a depiction of post-partum depression, not gender subversion.
One of the less conspicuous, yet equally lovely, works is an ink drawing by Simeon Solomon. A member of the Pre-Raphaelites, he was arrested in 1873 in a London urinal and charged with attempting to commit sodomy, for which he was fined 100 pounds. Several other of his works have found their way into Queer British Art, such as a tenderly erotic Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene, which we are informed was never displayed in Solomon’s lifetime. The ink drawing dates from 1865. It is entitled The Bride, Bridegroom and Sad Love. The groom clasps the bride to his side, while she tousles his hair, both of them transcendently beautiful in the way that only Victorian personifications can be. But standing just behind the groom is another figure, his eyes huge with grief, his mouth ever so slightly downturned. He represents sad love, and the groom clasps his hand even while caressing his bride. We wonder if this hints at Solomon’s own life. If so, this sublime little picture tells us so much about the emotional sacrifices made by men like him. We like to think that LGBT people of today no longer have to hide, but with news coming out of the atrocities in Chechnya is that really true?