Wonderland.

Queer British Art 1861-1967

In conversation with curator Clare Barlow.

David Hockney Life Painting for a Diploma, 1962 (David Hockney), Yageo Foundation © Yageo Foundation

David Hockney Life Painting for a Diploma, 1962 (David Hockney), Yageo Foundation © Yageo Foundation

A first of its kind, Queer British Art 1861-1967 is a new exhibition opening this week at Tate Britain, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of male sexuality in England and Wales.

The exhibit will explore how artists of LGBTQ – lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer – identities expressed themselves through an era that begins with the abolition of the death penalty for sodomy and ends with the passing of the Sexual Offences Act. Showcasing how artists and audiences of the time challenged the established views of sexuality between these two legal landmarks, the show will be a celebration of diversity not to be missed.

Featuring major artists such as Francis Bacon, David Hockney, Keith Vaughan and Evelyn de Morgan, the exhibition will also feature deeply intimate queer ephemera, personal photographs, film and magazines. We spoke to curator Clare Barlow, to learn more about this unique showcase.

Gluck, 1942 (Hannah Gluckstein), Oil on canvas 306 x 254 mm © National Portrait Gallery

Gluck, 1942 (Hannah Gluckstein), Oil on canvas 306 x 254 mm © National Portrait Gallery

What was the preparation needed like for an exhibition such as Queer British Art 1861-1967?

This exhibition has been three years in the making and that is partly because this is an area on which extensive research had to be done on individual figures; nobody had attempted to weave them together in any kind of overarching narrative before. So, there are some figures in the exhibition that will be very familiar like Francis Bacon or David Hockney, but there are also figures who are far less known and to track down those objects and find information about them, we’ve gone the length and breadth of the country!

So, yes. It’s been quite a complex show to put together but an exciting one! There are some things that have never really been shown to the public. I think one of our most exciting discoveries was a tiara, earrings and wig from a female impersonation act in the 1920s. They are pretty rare because a lot of costumes from these sort of acts just went back in to theatrical stock.

With Oscar Wilde, we are showing this incredible portrait by [Robert Goodloe] Harper Pennington which has not be seen in Britain since Wilde went to jail and lost his possessions to bankruptcy, it’s never been publicly exhibited before. That’s coming over from the United States. It does feel like Christmas here with all of these parcels arriving!

Why does this exhibition look specifically at the years between 1861 and 1967?

Well, the 100 years that we are looking at are a really crucial moment in defining sexuality. There have been some really radical changes in how people see themselves and their identities. So, we are moving from a world in which there are very few words for same sex desire or gender fluidity, certainly very few positive words, into a world where some terms, that we would use today, are starting to come into use. What’s also really exciting is that it takes us through a period of beautiful art, fantastic paintings and fabulous sculptures.

Self portrait and Nude 1913 (Laura Knight), Oil on canvas152.4 x 127.6 cmNational Portrait Gallery (London, UK)

Self portrait and Nude 1913 (Laura Knight), Oil on canvas152.4 x 127.6 cmNational Portrait Gallery (London, UK)

What are your favourite pieces from the exhibition?

Oh, so many! It’s really interesting because I feel, partly because the show’s been in development for three years, that I’ve lived with these people for a while now. There are so many wonderful things. I’m really excited to have one of Sir Noël Coward’s dressing gowns, I think that for me was a really exciting moment. I am also really excited to be displaying one of Gluck’s self portraits. Gluck’s called Hannah Gluckstein but takes on the name Gluck as a suffix and has exhibitions by the fine arts societies that are attended by celebrities today. Gluck has become our poster image. It’s a really defiant self portrait, Gluck has this really strong sort of jutting chin that looks like – it’s almost like he’s ready to take on the world. So that’s always been one of my favourites.

I think sometimes we look at the past as being bleak and depressing and everyone lives terribly isolated lives and it’s all very tragic. The people in the show – some of them do have tragic events that happen in their lives, but they are also playing with it, having fun with it. They are finding each other, they are making jokes and they are flaunting it. They are finding ways of being themselves. I think that’s a really positive thing.

Finally, what do you hope people will take away from the exhibition?

I think that the past is far more diverse than you can possibly imagine. There are so many different figures in this exhibition, which you have really personal and new understandings of their identities. I think that was quite a surprise for me when I started working on this. You kind of feel that the past all falls into the same neat boxes – here are your lesbians, here are your gay men, your trans people and bisexuals – but actually, one of the things that is wonderful about the show is that we’re exploring life and identities in all their complexities, and that feels very liberating.

My favourite story there is the wonderful Michael Field, who is actually two people – Edith Cooper and Katharine Bradley. They developed this shared identity as Michael Field together, with their friends sometimes referring to them as ‘The Michael Fields’. One of them would sometimes take the name Michael, the other one would take the name Field. Sometimes they would decide to use a single male pronoun to refer to both of them or sometimes female pronouns! So you know, it was a really complicated identity. I really love that. I love the fact that you have people in the late 19th century, like Michael Field’s case, who are boldly finding ways to explore who they are and what that might mean.

Queer British Art 1861-1967 opens at Tate Britain, 5th April until 1st October.

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene, 1864 (Simeon Solomon), Watercolour on paper 330 x 381 mm Tate. Purchased 1980

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene, 1864 (Simeon Solomon), Watercolour on paper 330 x 381 mm Tate. Purchased 1980
Words
Louise Bonner
Queer British Art 1861-1967

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