Two pieces of legislation set the timespan for this exhibition. One is the abolition of the death penalty for sodomy in 1861; the other is the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967. And it’s the shadow of illegality and widespread prejudice that’s cast over everything on display in this rich and fascinating survey of queer art.
Concealment is, without a doubt, the show’s biggest theme. Pre-Raphaelite painter Simeon Solomon used classical imagery as a veiled means of expressing desire, as seen in his sultry drawing of a Babylonian prince and his androgynous courtesan. Several decades later, Keith Vaughan was using abstraction to the same ends. (Solomon’s career never recovered after he was arrested for attempted sodomy in 1873; Vaughan took his own life in 1977.)
Often, it’s as much about the subject matter as it is the artist: there are several pictures of notable LGBT+ figures, including Oscar Wilde, whose portrait by Robert Harper Pennington hangs beside the cell door from Reading Gaol, where he was sent for gross indecency in 1895. The accompanying quote is characteristically pithy: ‘When I am released, I shall only trade one prison for another.’
Not that joy and exuberance are completely absent. It was on the stage, rather than the canvas, that queerness found its least stifled home. Performers like drag queen Jimmy Slater – look out for his wig, earrings and tiara – were seen as nothing more than camp by naïve audiences. That’s another big theme: hiding in plain sight. Henry Scott Tuke’s paintings of sun-dappled bathers, for instance, are only homoerotic to contemporary eyes.
Being as much about social history as art, this is one of those rare exhibitions where each text panel is actually worth a proper read: in them, you’ll find endless stories of unrequited love, secret affairs, nurtured guilt, scandals and vilification. What’s important to remember is that prevalent attitudes didn’t change overnight in 1967: fifty years later, LGBT+ rights are still being fought for. Alongside each step of progress, queer art will doubtlessly continue to evolve and flourish.