Queer British Art: a very British exhibition

Tate Britain’s exhibition of Queer British Art runs from 1861 to 1967 because it was in 1861 when the death penalty for sodomy was abolished and 1967 when male homosexuality was partially legalised. Lesbianism was never illegal, mythically because it was unimaginable to Queen Victoria. The exhibition uses the word “queer” to cover every kind of non-heterosexual identity. (A short film at the end shows a person saying “I’ve been every one of LGBTQ.”)

As I look at the pictures, I think of the tremendous suppression of sexual desire there must have been during those years. Estimates of the proportion of the population who are homosexual or bisexual varies between 1% and 5% for each, and as sexual habits liberalise much higher proportions of young people describe themselves are bisexual. So there must have been millions having to suppress their desires, and one outlet was to express themselves in art.

The exhibition begins with a series of mostly Victorian paintings and sculpture where, the curators argue, desire was coded. Most people in those days had no notion of homosexuality, although the upper classes educated in the classics knew exactly what it was. One of the things that struck me in Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, “the Lesbian Bible,” which I much enjoyed, was that she had no way to understand or think about what she was. Eventually, courtesy of Havelock-Ellis, she thought of herself as an “invert.” At least she knew she wasn’t the only one even if she was abnormal. So many people looking at pictures that to us now seem filled with homosexual desire–Frederick Leighton’s statue of a naked young man and painting of a delicious Icarus, Simeon Solomon’s picture of two women hesitantly kissing–would not have seen the desire.

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene 1864 by Simeon Solomon 1840-1905

I particularly liked Henry Scott Tuke’s pictures of naked boys on Cornwall beaches–a sort of homosexual Famous Five where I wanted to jump into the water.

henry_scott_tuke_-_the_critics 1927

The next room featured picture of Radclyffe Hall, now comfortable in her male costume, and Oscar Wilde. These were the people who gave a name to “the love that dare not speak its name.” We saw a card Lord Queensberry, who sued Wilde for sexual contact with his son, left for Wilde calling him a “posing sodomite.” Radclyffe Hall’s book was banned into this century.

A euphemism for homosexuals was “theatrical types,” although I remember (I think in one of Nancy Mitford’s books) references to “Venetian tendencies.” The third room showed pictures from the theatre, and the fourth room had pictures from the Bloomsbury Group, who, as Dora Carrington said, “lived in squares but loved in triangles.” Every so often the pictures of Duncan Grant, who lived with and had a child by Vanessa Bell (who was married to somebody else and had affairs with others) but had many affairs with men, rise to something agreeable, but many of them–and all of the in this exhibition–are poor. I liked the picture of Vita Sackville-West.


The fifth room was entitled Defying Convention, and it seems to us extraordinary now that Britain should be shocked by Laura Knight painting a nude woman. Her picture is now one of the most popular in the Tate collection, and she became the first woman academician.

Laura Knight

Some of the finest pictures in the exhibition were by Keith Vaughan, who felt able in the 50s and 60s to paint pictures that were clearly homosexual but was not able to exhibit less abstract and more explicit drawings that do feature in this exhibition.


The Wolfenden Report of 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of male homosexuality, but it was 10 years before the law changed. Growing up in London in the 50s and 60s I didn’t know anybody was openly gay until I went to university in 1970. But things had changed enough in the early 60s for Francis Bacon and David Hockney, two of Britain’s finest painters, to celebrate their homosexuality. The last room with some of their pictures was one of the best.


This was mostly not an exhibition of excellent art but rather an exhibition that tells a story that needs to be told. As we drove home I thought that there would never be an exhibition like this in France or Italy, countries much more tolerant of varying forms of sexuality, but in Germany homosexuals were put into gas ovens and across much of Africa are severely threatened, even with execution.





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