Queer British Art, 1861-1967

Tate Britain, London

At the risk of sounding like a homophobic teenage boy, Tate is, like, so gay right now. After all, 2017 has witnessed Wolfgang Tillmans and Robert Rauschenberg exhibitions at Tate Modern, and crowds are currently flocking to the major David Hockney retrospective at Tate Britain, which is also debuting Queer British Art, 1861-1967; the subject of this review.

Oomersee Mawjee: Statuette of Dionysus (c. 1890). Silver. 362 x 161.9 x 149.2 mm. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Adolph D. and Wilkins C. Williams Fund. Photo: Travis Fullerton. © Viriginia Museum of Fine Arts
Oomersee Mawjee: Statuette of Dionysus (c. 1890). Silver. 362 x 161.9 x 149.2 mm. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Adolph D. and Wilkins C. Williams Fund. Photo: Travis Fullerton. © Viriginia Museum of Fine Arts

The exhibition, one of the last initiated under Tate Britain’s daring former director Penelope Curtis, celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of the passing of the Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalized sex between consenting adult men in England and Wales; and the ‘Foreword’ to the catalogue accompanying the exhibition begins, bravely, with a coming out story of Tate’s chairman, Lord Browne of Madingley.1 Tate’s current director, Alex Farquharson, then briefly explains the adjective at the heart of the show, queer, suggesting that, whilst it risks anachronism, it signals and celebrates the “diversity and ambiguity” of the show’s “artist-protaganists”.2 Queer is an umbrella term further explored by curator Clare Barlow’s introduction, which explains how the show focuses on a wide range of “same-sex or gender-variant desires, lives, cultures, identities” and “perspectives”, ranging across the “‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, ‘bisexual’, ‘trans’ and ‘asexual’”, as well as on experiences and abstract, non-figurative representations beyond the explicitly “sexual” and “erotic”, such as “friendship and kinship”, and, in the case of its asexual and grey-sexual subjects, “outside the framework of sexuality” altogether.3

To make that possible, Queer British Art focuses on a wide range of canonical and marginal queer artists, designers, sitters and collectors, as well as queer aesthetic categories, including the camp and kitsch, the flamboyant and balletic, the androgynous and explicit, and the theatrical and masquerade, in essays and catalogue entries sometimes addressed, more generally, at “our audience” and sometimes, more happily, at “our number” “as queer people”.4 But how queer is queer British art in the period between the abolition of the death penalty for sodomy in 1861 and the partial decriminalization of sex between men in 1967?

In a now canonical, Fall-Winter 2005 special issue of the journal Social Text, David L. Eng, Jack Halberstam, and José Esteban Muñoz collectively pondered: what’s queer about queer studies now? And, in many ways, I’m inclined to agree with their answer: certainly not being white, cis-male, and gay, at least in the eyes of a secular, liberal mainstream, if there’s now any such thing in this moment of renewed religious fundamentalisms of various stripes. After all, we live in a pornotopian age in which pretty much every possible queer sexual perversion is available online at the click of a button, and, as we learn from the catalogue timeline, in which more homonormative gay people have been able to get married since the passing of the 2013 Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act, and civilly partnered following the earlier, 2004 Civil Partnership Act.5 In addition, trans folk have been able to request new birth certificates specifying their preferred gender since the 2004 Gender Recognition Act. Queer employees have been able to take their prejudiced bosses to court thanks to 2003 Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) legislation. Teachers and local authorities have been able to ‘promote’ homosexuality since the repeal of Section 28 in England, Scotland, and Wales in 2003. Same sex couples have been able to apply to become adoptive parents since 2002, and to serve in the armed forces since 2000. And willing participants, over the age of sixteen, have been able to have sex, and indeed group sex, since the passing of the Sexual Offences Amendment Act of 2000, just like their straight peers, of the same age. And the list could go on.

As a result of legislation of this kind, according to Eng, Halberstam, and Muñoz, LGBTI identity is now best understood as a “mass-mediated consumer lifestyle” that forms a part of a broader “queer liberalism”; and, rather than continuing with a queer theory that sounded suspiciously like a “metanarrative about the domestic” and extra-marital “affairs of white homosexuals”, we would do better, as potential political radicals, to focus our attentions on the “triumph of neoliberalism and the collapse of the welfare state”, on “public debates about the meaning of democracy and freedom”, on questions of “citizenship and immigration”, and of the human and non-human “in all their national and global manifestations”. After all, Muñoz, Halberstam, and Eng contended, “queer studies” has to be “more than a history of gay men, a sociology of gay male sex clubs, an anthropology of gay male tourism”, and a “survey of gay male aesthetics”.6

So, with Halberstam, Eng, and Muñoz’s critique in mind, what might it mean, queer and now, to think queer theoretically about British art in the wake of the Brexit decision, and queer British art in the weeks after the triggering of Article 50? After all, if queer theory was, at its origins, about asserting our perverse, often apparently self-defeating difference from the consensual, liberal mainstream, what could be more queer, in both the minoritising and perverse, potentially self-defeating sense, than the desire of the so-called United Kingdom to differentiate itself from a liberal European legal and cultural mainstream?

But, say, for the sake of argument, that we remain interested in the possibilities of queer sexuality, in the sense of a variety of eroticisms that a neo-liberal mainstream still find perverse and potentially intolerable? Where would we look for those in the queer British art in the period from 1861 to 1967?7 And what might happen if we return to the term queer some of its more illiberal and uncivil former bite, as an adjective and an accusation that, for example, used to frighten even someone whose work was as sexually daring as film-maker Derek Jarman,8 rather than joining in the project of what queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick called, as early as 2003, the “strategic banalisation”, not to mention, marketization, of “gay and lesbian politics”;9 and rather than using the adjective queer, as the curators of the exhibition do, as a “fluid term for people of different sexualities and gender identities”.10 Which is to say, what might it mean if I, in the rest of this article, refuse more recent uses of the term queer as a way of presenting mostly white homonormative homosexuality to a mainstream liberal audience in an acceptable guise, with just a frisson of historical radicalism left within the term to season up its fifty shades of gay?11

With that in mind, and following Sedgwick’s 1993 suggestion, we might start by looking at something that barely figures in the exhibition: at the British empire, or at the “broader map of queer British art history”, with all of its “exoticism”, “imperialism”, and “colonialism”; as the catalogue briefly puts it.12 Or, as Sedgwick herself put it, at “the ways that race, ethnicity, [and] postcolonial nationality criss-cross” with questions of gender and sexuality “and other identity-constituting, identity-fracturing discourses”; “using the leverage of ‘queer’ to do a new kind of justice to the fractal intricacies of language, skin, migration” and “state”, through which the “gravity” as well as the “gravitas”, which is to say, the meaning, but also the center of gravity” of the term queer “deepens and shifts”.13

Here we might think about a little-known ‘Victorian’, if that’s the right word, Indian silversmith, Oomersee Mawjee, whose work is not included in the show, and his c.1890, 14-inch-high silver statuette, Narcissus, in particular, which was based on an antique 1st Century BCE to 1st Century CE prototype in bronze, first unearthed in Pompeii in 1862.14 From a European queer perspective, we might think about Mawjee’s mythological figure as a profitable speculation capitalizing on the emergence of competing models of male same-sex erotic identity in the late nineteenth century; a statuette addressing a long-familiar, antique Greek model of sexuality based upon beautiful-boy love; and a newly emergent homosexual identity based on a love of the same, the homo in homosexuality, wonderfully emblematized by Narcissus’ masturbatory self-rapture. (We might also read Simeon Solomon’s late, similar, difficult-to-gender heads, which are in the show, in the same light, as a new conceptual preoccupation with the ‘homo’ politics of sameness).15

But what of Mawjee’s location in the late-nineteenth-century Anglo-Indian province of Kutch? This suggests a different history, of the arrival of Alexander in South Asia around 326 BCE, and of the emergence of Classico-Buddhist Gandharan sculpture as a result. With this in mind, we might think about Mawjee as an example of the empire sculpting back, as well as making a pink pound from the imperial and queer metropole; as a sculptor emphasizing that anything that European sculptors in bronze could do, South Asian sculptors could do better, in silver; and suggesting that rather than male Indian subjects being the effete ones, a period stereotype, it was the classically educated Europeans who were the benders.16

In thinking about the possible queer vanguards of British art history in the period from 1861 to 1967, however, the most obvious place, perhaps, to start looking would be in at least the Victorian period’s notorious child love. Here, I think, we might recall the aesthetics of a Lewis Carroll, a Julia Margaret Cameron, an Edward Onslow Ford, and a John Everett Millais, who are absent from the show, as well as a Henry Scott Tuke and a Wilhelm von Gloeden, who are present in it. After all, these artists all produced images which today look inescapably pedophilic to just about everyone, but which function as a kind of open secret of Victorian art history; which is to say, images which everybody knows about, but hardly anyone, but Carol Mavor and James Kincaid, are brave enough to talk about; a product perhaps of the modern category of homosexuality seeking to differentiate itself from the ancient exemplar of ancient boy love.17

A third place we might look for something ongoingly queer in the British art of the period from 1861-1967 is in the area of consensual, queer, by which I mean same-sex, and so, therefore, unlikely to be reproductive, adult incest. Here, a notorious late-nineteenth-century aunt and niece couple, or queer authorial individual going by the pseudonym Michael Field, alluded to in the exhibition, obviously come to mind; a couple one legal category too queer for the already quite liberal British law that says you can have consensual sex with your first cousins, should you want to.

But even Michael Field looks comparatively exogamous when you take seriously the queer possibilities hidden in the plain sight of a canonical artist surprisingly absent from the show, Clementina Lady Hawarden, whose entire oeuvre, almost, represents a wonderful advert for consensual, butch-femme, or femme-femme, love between not just women, but sisters, as photographed by their mother; queer possibilities that might make anyone but a stone butch blush.18

Simeon Solomon: Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene (1864). Watercolour on paper. 330 x 381 mm. Photograph © Tate.
Simeon Solomon: Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene (1864). Watercolour on paper. 330 x 381 mm. Photograph © Tate.

For me, however, perhaps the most interesting queer category suggested, but not quite presented, by the show is the question of bestiality. With bestiality in mind, it is immediately noticeable how few animals appear in the exhibition.19 There are a few pet pussy cats and the odd horse, but there’s precious little other life on earth to be seen. Of course, just about everyone is wearing some kind of animal product, with some delighting in an ostrich feather boa, others in the sensation of a pearl necklace. But there’s not a seagull in sight, even in the coastal scenes of Tuke, or a fish swimming by, in Duncan Grant’s depictions of bathing in the Serpentine. Indeed, at a glance, I counted just three significant exceptions to this anthropocentric rule: Walter Crane’s canvas, The Birth of Venus (1877), with her flock of doves; Edmund Dulac’s wonderfully perverse joint 1920 portrait of Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon, complete with peacock feather, partridge, bat, bunny, and kingfisher; and, always the most sexually radical example, Simeon Solomon’s 1864 Sappho and Erinna. Here we find, under the deliciously masturbatory gaze of a female statue, our female friends accompanied by a lone deer, the colour of Sappho’s dress, peering out of the picture; a pair of lovebirds closely paralleling the position of our Sapphic lady poets; and a black crow, the colour of Sappho’s hair, squawking merrily away behind her; and thus an image daringly identifying Sappho and Erinna with nature, and not so much, I think, to suggest, in the words of Lady Gaga, that they were just born that way.

Now, the absence, from the exhibition, of nearly all life on the planet, apart from the human, should give us ecological and ethical pause, given our context of unprecedented species extinction, and given the literally billions of animals that disappear each year in the service of the meat- and dairy-industrial complex. But the scarcity of non-human animals from the exhibition makes a certain conceptual and historical sense in a period which saw, in Foucault’s words, the disappearance of the sodomite, who had always been understood as a “temporary aberration”, and the emergence of the homosexual who was “now a species”; a species significantly differentiated by species, from the earlier Judaeo-Christian category of sodomy, which also included bestiality, which might explain why two of the other potential identity categories emergent in the same period as homosexuality – the last quarter of the nineteenth century – “zoophiles and zooerasts” again failed to catch on.20

But what would it mean if we now reimagined our sexual identities being additionally predicated on a species? And what would rethinking the category of bestiality from a queer theoretical perspective, and vice versa, offer us and our fellow mammals? After all, you don’t have to be a vegan to recognize that lots of us are, if not actually fucking animals, then at least having animals fucked for us, at one remove, all the time, in terms of the forced insemination – and rape is the word we normally use for this – of literally millions of mammals every year in the service of the meat- and dairy-industrial complex. And what is the difference between having another animal ejaculate on or in you and swallowing down, again without its consent, I hasten to add, another mammal’s rump, breast, or milk, which requires animal murder on a daily genocidal scale? In short, and to follow the work of feminist-vegan theorist, Carol J. Adams, what are the queer sexual politics of meat, fish and dairy, and what are the vegan politics of homosexuality?21 And what might ridding even queer human sexuality of its anthropocentrism do to change this? My quick answer to that question is twofold: animals might become more vulnerable to even more kinds of unconsenting sexual assault, or they might be newly recognized as the victims of a whole range of more crimes against their consent.

But, in saying all of this, we need to be careful. After all, if, according to Sedgwick, “one of the things that queer can refer to” is the moments of meaning when the “constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically”; and if queer may refer to the “very many of us who may at times be moved to describe ourselves as (among many other possibilities) pushy femmes, radical faeries, fantasists, drags, clones, [p/]leatherfolk, ladies in tuxedoes, feminist women or feminist men, masturbators, bulldaggers, divas, Snap! Queens, butch bottoms, storytellers, transexuals, aunties, wannabes, lesbian-identified man or lesbians who sleep with men, or … people able to relish, learn from, or identify with such”;22 it is also significant that “there are important senses in which ‘queer’ can signify only when attached to the first person”; indeed “that what it takes – all it takes – to make the description ‘queer’ a true one is the impulsion to use it in the first place”.23

And that might give us pause for thought. As a result, we shouldn’t imagine, in advance, that we’ll have much of a clue about who, or what, we might find ourselves lined up with under the banner of queer in the future, especially since the Anglo-American axis of evil, stretching from Trump to May, and beyond, has everywhere employed, with remarkable success, a rhetoric of queer tolerance to justify its own imperial and neoliberal projects. Recall, for example, the Conservative Party’s brilliant ‘liberal’ advocacy of gay marriage as a way of distracting us from its neoliberal policy of destroying the welfare state; and of the American right’s invocation of women’s and queer rights to justify its bombing campaigns in the Middle East and Afghanistan in the name of fossil fuel extraction and consumption.

Viscountess Clementina Hawarden: Isabella Grace and Florence Elizabeth Maude, 5 Princes Gardens (c. 1863-1864). Albumen print from wet collodion negative. Victoria and Albert Museum. Given by Lady Clementina Tottenham
Viscountess Clementina Hawarden: Isabella Grace and Florence Elizabeth Maude, 5 Princes Gardens (c. 1863-1864). Albumen print from wet collodion negative. Victoria and Albert Museum. Given by Lady Clementina Tottenham

What’s queer about queer British art now? Answers on a postcard please.

Queer British Art, 1861-1967 was on view at Tate Britain until 1 October 2017.

1. Clare Barlow, ed. Queer British Art, 1861-1967 (London: Tate, 2017), 6.
2. Barlow, Queer British Art, 7.
3. Barlow, Queer British Art, 11-12, 15, 96, 121.
4. Barlow, Queer British Art, 6, 69.
5. In 2003, Lisa Duggan described “the new homonormativity” as a “politics that does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions, but upholds and sustains them, while promising the possibility of a demobilized gay constituency and a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption”. For more, see Lisa Duggan, The Twilight of Equality: Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy (Boston: Beacon, 2003), 50.
6. David L. Eng, Judith Halberstam, and José Esteban Muñoz, ‘Introduction’, Social Text 23.3-4 (Fall-Winter 2005), 1-18. But caution may be required here, since gay male cultural and historical studies had barely got going before it was claimed to be anachronistic. I am grateful to Heather Love and Ben Nichols for encouraging me to think more carefully about this.
7. In this, I follow Laura Doan’s provocation, in the catalogue, that “we shortchange ourselves if we do not approach queerness in visual representation as an opportunity to enter another sexual universe”, “unlike the present” and “radically unlike our own” (Barlow, Queer British Art, 50, 53).
8. Barlow, Queer British Art, 97.
9. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Performativity, Pedagogy (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 13.
10. Claire Barlow, ‘Why is the word ‘queer’ in the exhibition title?’,
11. I am grateful to Melissa Gustin for putting me on to the phrase fifty shades of gay. For a variety of more aggressive versions of what queer might be, see Michael Warner, ed. Fear of A Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993). But in making such a rhetorical move, we need, again, to take note that what might be rhetorically at stake in 2017, during the Trump presidency, is almost certainly not the same as what was at stake in the early 1990s. Then, at least in the US, queer acting up occurred in relation to the desire to provoke morally a conservative, religious-right majority. In 2017, by contrast, it is the President of the United States himself who now most often employs an erotically-challenging, moral-majority-baiting rhetoric. I am grateful to the editors of the journal for calling my attention to this unwanted, but suggestive parallel.
12. Barlow, Queer British Art, 97. 13.
13. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Tendencies (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 9.
14. Whilst the statuette was widely recognised as Narcissus in the nineteenth century, it has since been reclassified as a Dionysus.
15. For more on the way in which male homosexuality in Europe remains riven with competing models, see Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).
16. The emphasis on white, middle- and upper-class artists or subjects and the absence of empire in the show is, perhaps, the result of the fact that Queer British Art followed quickly on Tate’s landmark 2015 Artist and Empire exhibition. For examples of potentially queer imperial art in that catalogue, see Alison Smith, David Blayney Brown and Carol Jacobi, eds, Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past (London: Tate, 2015), 141, 147, 197. For more on queer (white) liberalism and the politics of race across the four continents of Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas, see David L. Eng, The Feeling of Kinship: Queer Liberalism and the Racialisation of Intimacy (Durham: Duke, 2010).
17. For more, see Carol Mavor, Pleasures Taken: Performances of Sexuality and Loss in Victorian Photographs (Durham: Duke, 1995), and James Kincaid, The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture (New York: Routledge, 1994).
18. For more see, Carol Mavor, Becoming: The Photographs of Clementina, Viscountess Hawarden (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999). For more on the ways in which female eroticism is not very hidden in plain sight in the nineteenth century, see Sharon Marcus, Between Women: Friendship, Desire and Marriage in Victorian England (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).

Henry Scott Tuke: A Bathing Group (1914). Oil on canvas. 90 x 60 cm. Photo: RA/John Hammond © Royal Academy of Arts, London.
Henry Scott Tuke: A Bathing Group (1914). Oil on canvas. 90 x 60 cm. Photo: RA/John Hammond © Royal Academy of Arts, London.

19. The catalogue does, briefly, consider a number of “queer relations to nature”. For example, see Halberstam’s discussion of “flowers and landscapes” and “vegetation and the unnatural”. Halberstam is also critical of “the human” as a default category of analysis (19-20, 23). Linsey Young quickly discusses the “interaction between the body and the natural world, the beach, rockpools and the garden”; whilst Andrew Stephenson is interested in “Mediterranean and Aegean landscapes” and “the coastal landscapes of Brittany and Cornwall”, in “open air queer cultures” as well as lives “close to Nature” amongst “queer ‘back to Nature’ enthusiasts”, as well as the potential pastoral pleasures of “goats”, “lemons”, “oranges”, “corn”, and “fig-leaves” (130, 132-133, 135, 142). The aptly named Francis Bacon, finally, emerges as someone interested in the ways in which the “male body is both venerated and reduced to the status of animal”, and who was invited to live “in a corner” of his lover Peter Lacy’s cottage “on straw” where he “could sleep and shit” (161, 164).
20. Michael Foucault, The History of Sexuality Vol. 1 (New York: Random, 1980), 42-44. For more on the inter-relation of homosexuality and bestiality in this period, see Jens Rydstrom, Sinners and Citizens: Bestiality and Homosexuality in Sweden, 1880-1950 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003). For more on sodomy as a category, see Jonathan Goldberg, Reclaiming Sodom (New York: Routledge, 1994).
21. Carol J. Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory (New York: Continuum, 1990). See also Annie Potts and Jovian Parry, ‘Vegan Sexuality: Challenging Heteronormative Masculinity Through Meat-Free Sex’, Feminism and Psychology 20.1 (2010), 53-72.
22. Sedgwick, Tendencies, 8.
23. Sedgwick, Tendencies, 9.