Queer British Art 1861 – 1967 at Tate Britain – a new show of ambivalent art has just opened in London

This new show, Queer British Art 1861 – 1967 at Tate Britain contains artworks which convey a whole range of emotions – wistfulness, joy in the human form, humour and suffering.   It’s a fascinating compilation of works on canvas, paper, photography and sculpture.  The unifying element is the sensuality between same sex affection or simply a voyeuristic celebration of the human form with a strong dose of lust thrown in.

So many fascinating characters feature in this show. Quite rightly we have Oscar Wilde, Quentin Crisp, Radclyffe Hall, Cecil Beaton… well known names.  And of course so many of our greatest artists have been, and are, gay.  It’s good to have a show which celebrates their contribution and their sacrifice.

It’s always hard to pick out favourites from such a large and diverse show, and there are some ‘old friends’ too such as Dame Laura Knight‘s wonderful self portrait with the full length female nude which we can usually see at the National Portrait Gallery.

I was particularly struck by the playful and subversive collages made by Joe Orton, the playwright, and his boyfriend Kenneth Halliwell.  I rather like the story that the pair used to borrow and steal books from libraries around Islington and cut out some of the illustrations which they used to decorate the walls of their flat in collage form.  Then they started ‘adding’ to book covers, introducing collage elements from other sources and completely redefining the design.   They were eventually caught and jailed for six months for ‘malicious damage’.

The end of the story is not happy. The prison experience ruined Halliwell and contributed to his alcoholism and he murdered Joe Orton.

And I’ve already spotted a gratuitous link between a very fine bronze figure by Hamo Thornycroft, made between 1888-90 and that very famous photograph of Aidan Turner as the sun-bronzed Poldark in the TV series as he prepared to do a bit of scything!

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