Neo-Romantic Book Illustration in Britain 1943-55 @ the Heath Robinson Museum

Although the Heath Robinson Museum is a relatively small gallery, this is a major exhibition. It is the first time a substantial collection of work by the Neo-Romantic book illustrators of the 1940s has been gathered together in one place. With nearly 50 prints, drawings, paintings and lithographs, and over 20 original book jackets from the period, this is a unique opportunity to sample a special and distinctive moment in English publishing and art history.

Neo-Romanticism in England

To paraphrase Wikipedia:

In British art history, the term ‘neo-romanticism’ is applied to a loosely affiliated school of landscape painting that emerged around 1930 and continued until the early 1950s. It was first labeled in March 1942 by the critic Raymond Mortimer in the New Statesman. These painters looked back to 19th-century artists such as William Blake and Samuel Palmer, but were also influenced by French cubist and post-cubist artists. The movement was part a response to the threat of invasion during World War II. Artists associated with the initiation of the movement include Paul Nash, John Piper, Henry Moore, Ivon Hitchens and especially Graham Sutherland. A younger generation followed in the same vein, including John Minton, Michael Ayrton, John Craxton, Keith Vaughan, Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde.

This new visual style was most obvious to the general public in the form of book and magazine illustrations, particularly during the Second World War. The spirit of romanticism – a focus on nature, emotion and individual expression – was in part a reaction against the gloom of the blackout and rationing (and, possibly, against the very urban and politicised art of the 1930s).

Neo-Romantic artists looked back to the tradition of English landscape painting, drawing inspiration partly from the mystical Kent countryside portrayed by Samuel Palmer, and from the heavily stylised illustrations of William Blake.

But it’s not that simple – they also subtly acknowledged the visual possibilities opened up by more recent European art movements such as cubism and surrealism.

Book illustration for 'Time Was Away' by John Minton (1947)

Book illustration for Time Was Away by John Minton (1947)

Government sponsorship

The war itself played a key role. It cut English artists off from all contact with European art for six long years. And it forced many artists and writers to reconsider what it meant to be English, across all the arts (for example, George Orwell’s long essay on the English character, The Lion and the Unicorn, published in 1941).

This impulse received official support when, in 1940, the British government commissioned artists including John Craxton, Leslie Hurry, David Jones, John Minton, Paul Nash and Ceri Richards, to document lives in towns and villages across the country for a project called ‘Recording Britain.’ It was intended to boost national morale during the Second World War by celebrating the nation’s landscape and architecture.

In other words, a large number of artists in the 1940s became aware, through friendships, their own experiences and official commissions, that they shared certain values and artistic approaches to romantic ideas of English landscape, English culture, English art and English writing.

Neo-Romantic book illustration

Book and magazine publishers weren’t slow to pick up on the new look, seeing an opportunity to commission illustrations from this new wave of exciting illustrators in order to make both classics and new books appear up-to-date. The result is a very distinctive style of book illustration which is immediately recognisable, and powerfully evocative of the period (say 1940 to 1955), but hard to put into words.

The style is definitely figurative, not abstract – but the figures, the landscapes and buildings, have been through the wringer of Modernism and have emerged leaner, tauter, more stylised and simplified.

Depth and perspective don’t have to be depicted with punctilious precision, as in Victorian or Edwardian illustration. Hatching and shading, colour and tinting don’t have to be perfect, but can hint and gesture towards the subject.

Cover design for Vicky Lancaster's novel Short Lease, by Eric Fraser (1950)

Cover design for Vicky Lancaster’s novel Short Lease, by Eric Fraser (1950)

There’s an article about Neo-Romanticism on the Tate website which uses the word ‘sombre’ and I think this opens up one way of thinking about the style. It is often mysterious, sometimes a bit threatening, often psychologically intense. There is a lot of black in many of the illustrations, often a hint of menace, of threat.

Possibly this derived from the six-year-long threat of Nazi invasion, but it was there in the 1930s work of Graham Sutherland, one of the godfathers of the new look – a darkness, a blotty inkiness,and it spills over as a vague and disturbing presence in many of the illustrations here.

Of course, this ability to convey menace and mystery was perfectly suited to many modern books, of both poetry and fiction, or travelogue – somehow conveying the troubled mood of mid-century life. And not only adult books – the ability to conjure a sense of danger is intrinsic to many children’s books, particularly adventure and mystery books.

The exhibition

The exhibition contains work by about twenty artists, to wit:

  • Keith Vaughan (12 b&w prints)
  • John Minton (8 colour, 4 b&w illustrations for Time Was Away, 3 other prints and book covers)
  • Michael Ayrton (3 illustrations to John Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller)
  • Eric Fraser (4 big colour illustrations)
  • John Piper (one dramatic ink and watercolour of an Oxfordshire tomb)
  • Edward Bawden (5 original artworks for book covers)
  • Barnett Freedman (4 colour lithographs)
  • Robin Jacques (three fine pen and ink illustrations, two for Don Quixote, in a very different style from most of the other artists)

These are the big names. They each get a substantial wall label detailing their biography, artistic career, describing their style and the books which they illustrated or provided cover art for, and so on.

Also featured, but with less commentary, are:

  • Julian Trevelyan (two Gothic illustrations for a work by poet Kathleen Raine)
  • John Elwyn (2 small drawings)
  • John Bantin (1 book cover)
  • Bryion Winter (1 drawing)
  • Rigby Graham (three or four illustrations)
  • Leonard Rosman (two small pen and ink drawings for the Radio Times)
  • Henry Moore (four studies for illustrations to a book by Edward Sackville-West titled The Rescue, as well as a copy of the book open so we can see some of Moore’s characteristically lacerated mannequins in situ)

Several additional illustrators feature in the three display cases, which present vintage books in order to show the Neo-Romantic style of their cover art. Among them is an early edition of Mani, the travel book by Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose jacket was done by his good friend John Craxton. (Leigh Fermor and Craxton are the subject of a fascinating exhibition currently running at the British Museum.)

Display case of Neo-Romantic book covers

Display case of Neo-Romantic book covers

John Minton (1917 – 57)

Minton emerges as the strongest presence and the exhibition features more examples of his work than anyone else. An entire wall is devoted to the colour illustrations he did for a travel book, Time Was Away, the result of a tour he made with the writer Alan Ross around Corsica in 1947.

Minton combines a kind of rough but keen descriptive line, which is then touched and dabbed by colour washes which:

a) are in a very distinctive and limited palette (mustard yellow, dull dark green, sky blue, orange-brown)
b) only partially colour the picture

The way his colour washes deliberately don’t fill the lines creates a sense of spontaneity and openness. ‘Scrappy’ isn’t the right word, but a sense of roughness. This deliberate lack of finish contrasts oddly with the actual lines of the drawing which are quite… stiff.

Both features are clear in the picture below. The drawing is highly figurative yet stylised, not quite ‘real’. The colour is a) deliberately unnaturalistic and b) only applied in patches or washes. And look at the pose of the boy – it isn’t fluent and graceful, it is somehow stiff and hieratic, almost clunky.

Illustration for 'Time Was Away' by John Minton (1947)

Illustration for Time Was Away by John Minton (1947)

Oh, and Minton likes to draw people with Roman noses, I noticed a number of classic silhouettes in his pictures. The result of all these effects is an odd sort of classicism, hard to describe but instantly recognisable.

Minton was prolific, which may explain why he is the most represented artist in the show, which itself reinforces the sense of his art being one of the most memorable. There’s a copy of the edition of Treasure Island which he illustrated, open to the dramatic, full-colour, double-page illustration on the end papers.

And it was Minton who did the jacket covers for Elizabeth David’s epoch-making cookery books, which brought recipes from the Mediterranean into middle-class households across Britain. These are always cited in social histories as defining cultural products of the age, reminding grimly snowed-in Brits of the delights of sunshine and fresh fruit in far-off, exotic locations, such as Greece. A whole generation learned to cook – or at least fantasise about cooking – Mediterranean food form David – and visualised these luxury landscapes via Minton’s depictions.

Jacket illustration for Elizabeth David's Book of Mediterranean Food by John Minton (1950)

Dust jacket illustration for Elizabeth David’s Book of Mediterranean Food by John Minton (1950)

Keith Vaughan (1912-77)

Next to the Minton is a set of black-and-white illustrations by Keith Vaughan for the children’s novel The Spirit of Jem by P.H. Newby. According to the fascinating wall label, Newby wrote 17 books, as well as being a full-time senior manager at the BBC, eventually rising to become Managing Director of BBC Radio. (He was also the recipient of the first ever Booker Prize, in 1969.)

'I wedged myself into a fork and waited' from The Spirit of Jem, illustration by Keith Vaughan (1947)

‘I wedged myself into a fork and waited’ from The Spirit of Jem, illustration by Keith Vaughan (1947)

The intense design of Vaughan’s drawings, like the one above – the wildness of the trees and the semi-abstract treatment of the leaves – remind me of Graham Sutherland’s intense landscapes, and reach back past him to Samuel Palmer.

You don’t necessarily need to know that Vaughan was gay and lived for some time with Minton, but it does shed light on the closeness of the artistic as well as personal relationships of the period.

Michael Ayrton (1921-75)

Speaking of close friendships, Michael Ayrton shared a studio in Paris with Minton in Paris just before the war. Ayrton went on to illustrate over 35 books as well and worked for leading magazines of the day such as the Listener, the Radio Times and Penguin New Writing.

He’s represented here by some of the illustrations he made for Thomas Nashe’s Elizabethan picaresque adventure, The Unfortunate Traveller and by some book covers, including the cover art he did for a book called The Problems of Lieutenant Knap by the Czech writer Jiri Mucha, which really caught my eye.

In this drawing the moon appearing in a kind of flame of cloud reminds me of Paul Nash or Sutherland and harks back to Samuel Palmer’s rural visions, but whatever visionary element there is in that symbolism is obviously and brutally contrasted with the random piece of military equipment leaning against the doorway and the casual bored posture of the smoking soldier.

Cover art for 'The problems of Lieutenant Knap' by Michael Ayrton (1945)

Cover art for The problems of Lieutenant Knap by Michael Ayrton (1945)

Barnett Freedman (1901-58)

The son of poor Jewish immigrants, Freedman developed a really distinctive variation on the Neo-Romantic look, a compositional style which features curled scrolls or decorative borders around his often cartoonish and childlike illustrations. Take an example of both in this fabulous poster promoting cheese which he made for the Milk Marketing Board. Look at the houses, the church spire. Childish innocence.

Real Farmhouse Cheese poster by Barnett Freedman

Real Farmhouse Cheese poster by Barnett Freedman

The scroll and especially the font whose letters contain shading and decoration put me in mind of the posters and promotional material for the Ealing Comedies of this period, and the wall label points out that Freedman did, indeed, help to create the Ealing Studios look and logo.

Freedman also created a host of eye-catching book covers during the period, the most distinctive example being the cover for a complete edition of the nonsense verse of Edward Lear.

Cover of the Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear designed by Barnett Freedman

Cover of The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear designed by Barnett Freedman

One Freedman piece which stood out for me was a wonderful colour illustration, apparently for a Christmas card. For its precision, its gentleness, its warm vision of the English scene, and for its use of the gentle, understated palette which so many of these pictures used (was it a limitation of the printing technology of the day?) I found myself returning to this particular picture again and again.

Christmas card by Barnett Newman

Christmas card by Barnett Newman

Edward Bawden (1903-89)

I’ll be writing at length about Edward Bawden when the retrospective exhibition devoted to him opens at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in May.

What the five book covers by him here bring out is something of the childishness of some of these covers. None of these illustrators were amateurs – the opposite, many of them made very successful careers as commercial artists. But many of the illustrations and covers deliberately accentuate a kind of hand-drawn, childish or naive style. This is one of the things that give them such a strong sense of nostalgic warmth and comfort – they are sub-consciously infantilising – you want to say ‘aaaah’ at so many of them. Atmosphere of the nursery. And the artlessness of the imagery deliberately connects them with an older tradition of English arts and crafts, foregrounding the hand-made and the hand-drawn.

Take this cover by Bawden for Richard Hughes’s novel A High Wind In Jamaica. Everything about it is deliberately hand made and naive – the very hand-drawn figures of the centaurs, the simplicity of the horizontal mustard-coloured bands representing the fields, but above all the highly decorative border round the main illustration, with its deliberately artless use of details i.e. sheafs of wheat or clumps of grapes woven into the composition.

Edward Bawden's cover art for A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes

Edward Bawden’s cover art for A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes

What came next

In the second half of the 1950s, a new look came in. Book covers and magazines began to reflect the influx of new consumer goods into Britain, and the rise of consumer culture. Harsher covers using the language of Abstract Expressionism became popular and, by the end of the 1950s, imagery inspired by the shiny high gloss look of American advertising and movies.

The world became modern, shiny and urban – the exact opposite of Neo-Romantic imagery showing an underpopulated countryside or Mediterranean harbours or childish, hand-drawn figures – a shininess which went on to be celebrated and/or mocked in the plastic brightness of Pop Art.

The Neo-Romantic look was old hat by 1955 and quickly disappeared, surviving as dog-eared copies of beautiful old editions in the kind of provincial library where I first came across them as a boy.

Conclusion

This exhibition chronicles a relatively brief period of highly distinctive book covers and illustrations which, looking back, now seems classic, warm and overdue for a revival.

It has clearly been a labour of love on the part of exhibition curator, Geoffrey Beare, to track down and retrieve many of the prints and paintings, drawings and lithographs from public and private collections around the country, and bring them all together for our enjoyment. And it’s been a very worthwhile effort.

This is a lovely exhibition, which inspires you to explore further, to find out more about Minton, Craxton, Vaughan, Freedman – about this whole generation of wonderful and under-appreciated illustrators.

The promotional video


Related links

NOTE ONE: there is currently an excellent exhibition about Craxton and Leigh Fermor which features many examples of Craxton’s art and illustrations from this period, at the British Museum.

NOTE TWO: A major retrospective of Edward Bawden opens at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in May this year.

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Heath Robinson Museum

Queer British Art 1861-1967 @ Tate Britain

Female Figure Lying on Her Back

Female Figure Lying on Her Back

Can you tell whether this painting was done by a man or a woman, lesbian or gay, bisexual or transsexual?

And does it matter?

If by a man, is it a horrible example of the Male Gaze, encouraging male ‘ownership’ and mastery of the female figure, encouraging lascivious thoughts in the male viewer, reducing women to sexualised objects, exploiting women for semi-pornographic purposes?

If by a woman, is it a joyously unashamed celebration of the female body, the lazy posture and yawning stretch of the subject marvellously capturing a moment of real, unvarnished intimacy?

Does knowledge of the painter’s gender or sexual orientation change your ‘reading’ of this picture, your enjoyment of it, your ‘understanding’ of it? And why?

These are just some of the questions raised by this fascinating and thought-provoking exhibition.

Declaration of interest

I was a member of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality back in the 1970s, going on marches, signing petitions, habituating Windsor’s only gay pub, campaigning for gay rights, the central one being getting the age of gay consent brought down in line with the age for straights. In the years since, I’ve supported gay marriage, gay and women priests, and so on. It’s always been obvious to me that LGBT people should be treated absolutely the same as anyone else, and benefit from exactly the same rights and life opportunities. I am not myself gay, but it’s always seemed obvious to me that a) no-one should judge any form of sexual practice among consenting adults b) no-one should be allowed to discriminate in any way against anyone on account of their sexual orientation or sexual practices.

The jargon of desire

In the late 1960s French structuralist literary criticism began to morph into post-structuralist criticism and theory. Reflecting the move from the politicised 1960s into the more narcissistic 1970s, and an ongoing obsession with Freudian psychoanalysis – and also being French and proud of it – a lot of this criticism became more personal, about identity, as constituted in texts and wider society, and a lot more about sex.

The works of literary critics like Roland Barthes (b.1915,  The Pleasure of the Text), the historian Michel Foucault (b.1926 A History of Sexuality), the philosopher Jacques Derrida (b.1930), the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (b.1901), feminist theorists like Hélène Cixous (b.1937) and Julia Kristeva (b.1941 Desire in language), and the pioneer of Queer Studies, Judith Butler (b.1956, Subjects of desireGender trouble, Undoing gender), plus many others have led to the vast proliferation of the ‘discourse of desire’, to countless books and articles and conferences and degree and postgraduate courses about gender and sexuality, demonstrating how this, that or the other work of art or fiction or film ‘subverts’ or ‘challenges’ or ‘confronts’ gender conventions and ‘transgresses’ gender stereotypes and ‘rewrites’ gender narratives.

With the collapse of communism in the early 1990s, young students wanting to prove how rebellious and subversive they were found themselves bereft of an ideological alternative to consumer capitalism, and so found themselves forced towards the only two games in town, anti-sexism and anti-racism, embodied in Women’s Studies/Gender Studies, and Post-Colonial Studies, respectively.

For at least thirty years humanities departments – literature, art, philosophy – have been teaching courses showing how all Western writing, art, philosophy was riddled with racist/sexist assumptions, and built on evil imperialism and slavery. Many graduates of these courses, imbued with this way of thinking, moved on into the media and press, into film and theatre and the art world, where in the pages of the Guardian or the Huffington Post or the Independent, and in galleries and theatres across the West, they can be seen every day writing scandalised articles, producing documentaries, putting on plays angry about the persistence of sexism and racism and homophobia.

But there are more women than immigrants in this country and, as a result, more Feminist Studies, Women’s Studies, Gender Studies courses than Post-Colonial courses – and so books and articles and films and documentaries about the multiple unfairnesses and injustices perpetrated on women throughout the ages by the ever-present Patriarchy, continue to thrive and proliferate.

On one level this exhibition represents a triumph of this kind of discourse, a discourse a) obsessed by sex, conceived of in a rather dry and boring theoretical way b) driven and animated by a fathomless sense of grievance and injustice. Exhibitions about any aspect of sexuality represent a perfect marriage of victim politics with the high-flown ‘discourse of desire’.

Why use the word ‘queer’?

To quote the curators:

Queer has a mixed history – from the 19th century onwards it has been used both as a term of abuse and as a term by LGBT people to refer to themselves. Our inspiration for using it came from Derek Jarman who said that it used to frighten him but now ‘for me to use the word queer is a liberation’. More recently, of course, it has become reclaimed as a fluid term for people of different sexualities and gender identities. Historians of sexuality have also argued that it is preferable to other terms for sexualities in the past as these often don’t map onto modern sexual identities. In addition to carrying out audience research, we took advice from Stonewall and other LGBT charities and held focus groups with LGBT people. The advice from all of these sources was overwhelmingly that we should use it. While we tried other titles, no other option captured the full diversity of sexualities and gender identities that are represented in the show.

What is a queer work of art?

Does it have to portray a homosexual or lesbian act i.e. be pornographic (as a small number of the works here do, some rude sketches by Keith Vaughan and the super well-known big phalluses of Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations to Lysistrata)?

Is queer art any  work by an overtly gay or lesbian or bi or trans artist? But how many Victorian and Edwardian and Georgian painters thought of themselves in those terms? Don’t the curators run the risk of – in fact aren’t they running headlong into – defining, naming and limiting people from the past a) by our own modern 2017 categories of sexuality (Yes); and b) of defining people entirely by their ‘sexuality’, whatever that is. I thought that was precisely what CHE and Gay Rights and their successors were trying to escape from: from being tied down, limited, constrained and defined solely in terms of your sexual preferences, as if that were the only important part of your life, as if society is correct to pigeonhole all of us on the basis of this one attribute.

And what if the queer artist’s subject matter is not only not particularly erotic, what if it’s not even of human body? For example, is this queer art?

Hannah Gluckstein, known as Gluck (1895 – 1978) was a lesbian painter. So is her painting of flowers a work of queer art?

Should queer art also include works which just look ‘sort of’ homoerotic or a bit lesbian, either a) in the eyes of contemporary viewers (in which case it might have caused a ‘scandal’ and ‘shocked Victorian society’), or b) in the eyes of modern curators trained to spot the slightest sign of gender stereotypes being ‘subverted’ and gender norms being ‘transgressed’ and narratives of heterosexuality being ‘questioned’ and ‘interrogated’?

Either way, categorising art in terms of the audience’s response to it, is dicey. What constitutes ‘art’ has changed out of all recognition the past 150 years. People’s responses to ‘art’ have become similarly complex and varied.

Tricky questions. In the event, this exhibition includes works chosen by all these criteria, and more.

The drawbacks of telling history through art

This decade Tate Britain has run a series of exhibitions based not around artists or movements, but on broad themes and topics. Thus they’ve staged exhibitions about: folk art, the aesthetic of ruins, the British Empire, Victorian sculpture, the destruction of art works, the depiction of war. Many of them had an amusingly random element, delicate watercolours of Tintern Abbey placed next to vast photos of Nazi war bunkers (Ruin Lust), or some maps of the Empire next to some flags of the Empire next to random artifacts from the Empire (Artist and Empire).

Although they put a brave face on it, the cumulative impression of visiting all these shows raises the suspicion that the curators are under orders to find pretexts to bring out the more obscure and neglected works languishing in Tate’s vast archives, and display them in exhibitions with eye-catching and ‘controversial’ themes.

While the aim of rotating their (doubtless huge) collection for us to view is laudable, the pretexts the curators come up with are sometimes ambitiously wide-ranging and grand-sounding, while the collection of artifacts actually on display often turns out to be rather patchy and random. The history of the British Empire is an enormous subject: the Tate exhibition about it amounted to a jumble sale of odds and sods from across the huge geographic reach and vast periods of time involved: the Empire used maps, here’s some maps; the Empire had flags, here’s half a dozen flags; the Empire allowed botanists and naturalists to travel the world and see exotic species so here’s a painting of tiger; here’s some native spears; and so on.

Although Tate calls in plentiful loans from other collections to create the exhibitions, the core of these shows tends to be focused on dusting off and displaying many of it hidden assets, themselves bought at various times for various reasons, hence the feeling they give of a patchwork quilt made from odds and ends. Sometimes it feels as if they’re trying do a vast jigsaw without most of the pieces.

Written histories can conjure up anything with words, creating continuities, linking themes and ideas at will: in words, anything is possible. Histories told through objects, however, immediately limit which areas can be covered, and which stories can be told, by virtue of what is available, what has survived. And histories told through works of ‘art’ are even more limited by the random nature of any particular art collection, as well as biases intrinsic in what kind of subjects get turned into ‘art’ and what don’t (the experiences of most ‘ordinary’ people, for example, or the entire world of work, especially housework).

All these limitations apply to this exhibition, with the additional challenge that sex, sexuality, gender, desire – call it what you will – is, by and large, quite a private part of most people’s lives. Artists and performers, by the nature of their work and output, are a kind of exception to the rule that most people keep their sex lives pretty private. And forms of sexuality which were banned by law and subject to harsh punishments are all the more likely to be hidden and suppressed, to not leave traces in the written – and especially the painted – record.

In other words, even more than Tate’s other wide-ranging historical exhibitions, this one feels haunted by gaps and absences.

The dates

In 1861 the death penalty for sodomy was abolished; in 1967 sex between men was (partially) decriminalised. These provide handy end dates.

The exhibition is in eight rooms

Coded desires covers the later Victorian period. This was dominated by the Aesthetic Movement and the group of painters known as the Olympians, who specialised in sensuous paintings of lightly-clad women lounging around in a dreamy ancient Roman baths or terraces. Just thinking about either of these interlinked movements brings to mind the extraordinary sensuality present in so much art of this period, along with a worship of the classical world, in pictures and in words, which stretched towards a feel for the same-sex relationships present in, especially, the writings of the Greeks, where a sexual relationship between an older man and a younger man or boy was socially acceptable. This may or may not be present in the works here, But the bigger story about most late Victorian art is the remarkable extent to which ‘desire’, physical sensuousness, in all shapes and forms, was more openly depicted than ever before in this period.

The exhibition has some striking works by the king of the Olympians, Frederick Leighton, on the basis that he sometimes depicted sensual male nudes – although many of his works are characterised by sensuality for men or women.

Leighton was rumoured to be gay, but then again it’s thought he had an affair with one of his female models. Tricky, therefore, to shoehorn him into modern categories of straight, gay, bi etc. One of the liberating things about studying history, past lives, is they did things differently, thought, wrote, spoke, painted, perceived, differently to us. Don’t fit into our modern categories.

The bulk of works in the room are by Simeon Solomon, who was unfortunate enough to be arrested in a public lavatory off Oxford Street, charged with attempting to commit sodomy and fined £100, then a year later arrested in Paris and sentenced to three months in prison. This makes him a bona fide gay hero. To the viewer, however, his works seem mostly sub-standard examples of the Olympian style done much more smoothly by the likes of Alma-Tadema or Albert Moore.

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene (1864) by Simeon Solomon (Watercolour) Tate

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene (1864) by Simeon Solomon (Watercolour) Tate

William Blake Richmond (1842-1921) is a painter you don’t hear about much. He also painted supremely sensual paintings on sunny classical themes, e.g. Hera in the House of Hephaistos or just sumptuous late-Victorian portraits e.g. Mrs Luke Ionides. Nothing particularly ‘transgressive’ about these, in the way our curators want to see ‘gender norms’ being ‘transgressed’, but they’ve included one big painting The Bowlers.

Apparently, this scandalised the Victorians (didn’t everything ‘scandalise’ the Victorians?) for its inclusion of naked women (you can see some breasts) and naked men in the same scene. And some of the men have their arms round each other. Shock horror. Richmond was married and wasn’t arrested in any toilets, so not a transgressive hero per se. After looking at it for a while I noticed the way a line drawn along the top of the heads of the figures on the right forms a diagonal going down towards the centre of the composition, while the heads of the women on the left line up as a mirror diagonal heading down towards the centre: at the very centre is a black vase against a thick central pillar, to the left of which is a woman in a see-through toga and on the right the zigzagging black trunk of a wisteria tree. Which means or symbolises? Who knows.

My favourite things in this room were the three paintings by the marvellous Henry Scott Tuke (1858-1929). Tuke was one of a group of artists who settled in Newlyn in Cornwall and painted en plein air. Almost all are of young men, nude or half-undressed, by the sparkling sea in the sunshine. In the permanent gallery upstairs they display August Blue (1893), a wonderful composition in terms of the draughtsmanship of the figures, also the figurative accuracy of the rowboat and the ships on the horizon, and also of course the wonderfully clear blues and greens – you can smell the sea, you can feel the sun on your skin. There are three of his paintings here alongside a cabinet showing some of the many photographs he took of gorgeous-looking young men.

The Critics (1927) by Henry Scott Tuke. Warwick District Council (Leamington Spa, UK)

The Critics (1927) by Henry Scott Tuke. Warwick District Council (Leamington Spa, UK)

Public indecency ‘looks at ways in which sexuality and gender identity did – and did not – go public from the 1880s to the 1920s.’

Thus we have the trial of Oscar Wilde (who has not heard of the trial of Oscar Wilde? How many films have been made of it?) the prosecution of Radclyffe Hall for her lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness (1928), and we get some of Aubrey Beardsley’s ‘scandalous’ illustrations for the Greek play Lysistrata thrown in.

This is the kind of thing you should learn in 6th form and certainly early in an English or humanities degree course, so that you can tut and fret and criticise horrible dead white men for repressing ‘transgressive’ sexualities. But it’s worth remembering that this period also saw the persecution of male heterosexual artists as well – James Joyce’s Ulysses went on trial in 1921 because of its description of a man masturbating, the police raided an exhibition of paintings by D.H. Lawrence and (admittedly not in England) the Austrian artist Egon Schiele was arrested and 100 of his art works were confiscated – one of them was burned by the judge in court in front of the artist -for their sexual explicitness.

It was an era when many artists of all persuasions were pushing at the boundaries of what society thought was acceptable depiction of sexuality, and many artists, gay, straight or what-have-you – fell foul of the authorities.

Alongside the Wilde and Beardsley are testaments to the work of the sexologists Richard von Krafft-Ebbing and Havelock Ellis, who collaborated with the gay writer John Addington Symonds on his book Sexual Inversion (1896). These ‘scientific’ works can either be seen (optimistically) as the start of a ‘modern’ liberal attitude to a wide range of sexual practices or (pessimistically) as ‘science’ and the State beginning to move into areas of private life, with a view to defining and categorising all possible practices (or perversions as they’d have been called) and the human ‘types’ which engage in them.

You don’t have to be Michel Foucault to suspect that the ‘liberating’ effects of writing about varieties of sexuality can be accompanied by new types of definition, surveillance and control.

Theatrical types The theatre and performing arts have long offered a refuge for exhibitionists, people who like to dress up, fantasise, play act and generally behave in ways which would not be acceptable in everyday life. So the theatre has long attracted gay men and this room features photos of famous performers who were gay, photographers who were gay, with a special case devoted to cross-dressing entertainers.

There’s a lot of photos by Angus McBean (1904-90) the fabulous b&w photographer, who did lots of semi-surreal fashion shots before the war (his ‘surrealised portraits’), was arrested in 1942 for homosexual acts and served two years in gaol, before emerging to resume his career post-war in a rather more traditional vision. But everything he did is touched by class and style. The show includes a typically weird portrait of the now-forgotten actor Robert Helpmann as Hamlet, though I know him for his appearances in Powell and Pressburger’s two extraordinary films, The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffmann.

The British have a problem with sex, full stop, whether straight or gay, and have long had a reputation for gross hypocrisy, with the ‘respectable’ classes enforcing repressive laws at home then vacationing in Paris where they could sleep with countless courtesans (as squeaky clean Charles Dickens was reputed to do and the heir to the throne, Prince Albert certainly did) or swanning off to North Africa, to Algeria or Morocco where there was an endless supply of boys for sex.

This nervousness, shame and embarrassment may be part of what lies behind the long tradition of men dressing up as women for vaudeville entertainment, a tradition which goes back a long way, but is certainly present in the Victorian music hall, through the pre-war years and was still going strong in my boyhood in figures like Danny La Rue, Dick Emery (‘Oh you are awful… but I like you!’), Kenny Everett (‘and then all my clothes fell off!’), Dame Edna Everage, Lily Savage. And that’s without mentioning the vast tradition of English pantomime with its Widow Twanky and Ugly Sisters, traditionally played by men and a huge opportunity for all kinds of blue, risqué and ‘transgender’ comedy.

A display case here presents a dozen or so photos and posters illustrating some of the cross-dressing stars of yore, most of which I’d never heard of simply because they were before the days of TV. Here, as elsewhere in the show (and as often in the Tate ‘history’ exhibitions) you feel this is an absolutely vast subject which has been only briefly sketched and hinted at, and possibly not one which is necessarily best approached through the medium of ‘art’ at all.

Douglas Byng (1934) by Paul Tanqueray. Vintage bromide print © Estate of Paul Tanqueray

Douglas Byng (1934) by Paul Tanqueray. Vintage bromide print © Estate of Paul Tanqueray

Bloomsbury and beyond I am prejudiced against Bloomsbury because of their snobbery and their smug, self-congratulatory elitism. They all slept with each other and described each other, in private letters and public reviews, as geniuses. What’s lasted has tended to be the writings of figures on the periphery – the economics of John Maynard Keynes, the novels of E.M. Forster, the novels of Virginia Woolf, though she was a core member. The art work of figures like Dora Carrington, Vanessa Bell (recently featured in a handsome exhibition at the Dulwich Picture House), Duncan Grant, Roger Fry, hasn’t really stood the test of time.

The catalogue says this room is meant to represent:

a generation of artists and sitters exploring, confronting and coming to terms with themselves and their desires.

Which makes it sound much more exciting and dynamic than most of their sleepy decorative pictures. Ethel Sands’s Tea with Sickert symbolises everything pretty, decorative and forgettable which I tend not to like about Bloomsbury art. Perhaps I just can’t slow myself down to this atmosphere of coma-like inaction. The commentary on the other hand, because Sands was in a queer relationship with fellow painter Nan Hudson, claims it is a ‘quietly subversive’ work, with ‘queer undercurrents’. Can you spot the queer undercurrents?

The commentary makes the case that, although not overtly sexual in the least, these tranquil interiors are a) painted by queer artists and b) if you look closely, very closely, you can see small hints and traces of ‘queer lives’ which ‘history has long neglected’. Maybe…

That said, I did find myself, on repeated viewings and to my surprise, warming to the selection of works by Duncan Grant on show here. These ranged from small, explicitly gay pornographic sketches to a vast mural, commissioned to decorate the dining room of the new Borough Polytechnic in 1911.

It’s a huge work – and the more I looked at it the more I admired the mix of abstract and figurative elements to achieve an overall decorative effect, and came to understand that it follows the action of a single diver from standing poised on the shore, at right, through diving in, and swimming to the boat which he clambers into at top left.

Bathing (1911) by Duncan Grant © Tate

Bathing (1911) by Duncan Grant © Tate

Similarly, I was impressed by the sheer size of the massive Excursion of Nausicaa by Dame Ethel Walker. It’s 18 metres wide by almost 4 high and makes a dramatic impact. It’s just as well a bench is provided for you to sit and take it all in. Although, when you look closer, it seems an uncomfortable mix of Gauguin-style primitivism with Art Deco style neo-classical figures, it is still at first sight, an enormous and confident composition.

There is a vibrant portrait by Glyn Warren Philpot (1884–1937) of his servant, Henry Thomas (1935). Note: his servant. In fact there were half a dozen Philpots scattered through the show, though this is the most vivid.

Similarly, the South African artist Edward Wolfe is represented by a portrait of Pat Nelson, his model and thought to be his gay lover.

The Bloomsburyites’ pursuit of ‘unconventional’ sexual arrangements (i.e. being bisexual, living with several lovers at once etc) through the Great War and into the twenties, led in to the cultural dominance of gay writers, poets and artists during the 1930s, given extra bite by the availability of the ‘decadent’ Weimar Republic in post-war Germany, whither trekked a generation of young gay men like Auden, Christopher Isherwood and so on.

Defying convention This room shows how early 20th century British artists ‘challenged gender norms’ i.e. by being lesbians, living with other women, having ‘open marriages’ and so on. For example, Laura Knight, the curators claim, in this picture is laying ‘claim to traditional masculine sources of artistic authority by depicting [herself] in the act of painting nude female models’. It’s another very big painting and very red.

Self portrait and Nude (1913) by Laura Knight. National Portrait Gallery

Self portrait and Nude (1913) by Laura Knight. National Portrait Gallery

There is a factual background to the image in that Knight was prevented from attending the life classes at Nottingham Art College because she was a woman; only when she moved to Newlyn was she able to hire life models, and so this composition is a sort of act of defiance. That changes our attitude to the image. Still, in and of itself, would you know that it lays claims to masculine sources of artistic authority, if it hadn’t been carefully explained. Maybe…

Anyway, on pretexts solid or flimsy, a number of big, colourful and attractive works are on show in this room, especially of the phenomenally posh women who populated early 20th century feminism.

  • Lady with a Red Hat (1918) by William Strang – the lady being the lesbian and gardening writer Vita Sackville-West, the Honourable Mrs Harold Nicholson, Companion of Honour, daughter of the third Baron Sackville. She is holding her recently published book of poems – Poems of West and East – showing the influence of Tennyson’s world-weariness, A.E. Housman’s lad poems, and the childlike orientalism of John Masefield and other Georgians.  They’re sweet and melancholy.
  • Dame Edith Sitwell (1916) by Alberto Guevara – daughter of Sir George Sitwell, 4th Baronet, of Renishaw Hall, and Lady Ida Emily Augusta (née Denison), a daughter of the Earl of Londesborough and a granddaughter of Henry Somerset, 7th Duke of Beaufort.
  • Romance (1920) by Cecile Walton – Walton doesn’t appear to have been gay, having had two marriages (to men) but this self-portrait is ‘challenging’ and ‘subverting’ ‘gender norms’ surrounding birth. Having been present at the birth of my daughter, I can testify that it certainly challenges the reality of childbirth which is a lot less calm and dignified than this static scenario.

Arcadia and Soho ‘London was a magnet for queer artists’.

The most striking works here are by the neglected surrealist artist Edward Burra (1905-76). According to a review of his biography, his sensibility was gay, and his closest friend was a male ballet dancer, ‘but they were never lovers’. Am I alone in finding this modern inquisitiveness about the exact nature of other people’s sexuality, and the precise borders of their sexual activity, prurient and controlling? Who cares? His art is weird and extra, a really stunning, outlandish vision.

  • Soldiers at Rye (1941) Burra incorporates masks from Venetian carnival, fabric from Spanish baroque, with a kind of sado-military hugeness to create this monstrous surreal panorama.
  • Izzy Orts (1937) Burra was introduced to the portside bars of Charleston, with their mix of jazz musicians, pimps and dealers, and sailors in tight-fitting uniforms. Perfect!

The opposite wall is devoted to a trio of gay artists – John Craxton, John Minton and Keith Vaughan – who were loosely described as ‘neo-romantics’ in the 1940s. They were certainly gay. There’s a display case of overtly gay and pornographic pencil sketches by Vaughan, as well as a handful of photos he took of gorgeous young men.

Drawing of two men kissing (1958–73) by Keith Vaughan © DACS, The Estate of Keith Vaughan

Drawing of two men kissing (1958–73) by Keith Vaughan © DACS, The Estate of Keith Vaughan

At an exhibition years ago I saw a whole stand of the b&w photos Vaughan took of beautiful young men lounging around classic 1930s lidos, at Hampstead Pools or the Serpentine, and have been haunted by them ever since.

Next to the figurative sketches are his much more abstract paintings:

In these Vaughan seems to me to have developed a new and exciting way of depicting the (mostly male) figure. Alongside Vaughan are some lighter, more ‘naive’ works by John Craxton.

Head of a Greek Sailor (1940) by John Craxton © Estate of John Craxton. All rights reserved, DACS 2016. Photo credit: London Borough of Camden

Head of a Greek Sailor (1940) by John Craxton © Estate of John Craxton. All rights reserved, DACS 2016. Photo credit: London Borough of Camden

Craxton, Minton and Vaughan are three interesting figures, maybe worthy of a joint exhibition some time.

Public/private lives In the decade leading up to the 1967 Sexual Offences Act gay men lived a strange twilight life. In many places gay relationships among the famous, especially the arty, were permitted – the eminent actor John Gielgud was arrested for indecency in a public toilet in 1953, was fined, released and was roundly applauded the next time he took to the stage. Maybe the most famous example was the close ‘friendship’ between England’s leading composer Benjamin Britten and the singer Peter Pears. The fuzz couldn’t go arresting the nation’s premier composer. But they did continue to arrest and imprison a steady stream of less well-known gay men, creating the trickle of protest which grew louder and more widespread for the law to be repealed or abolished.

This room goes heavy on the lurid relationship of gay playwright Joe Orton and his jealous lover Kenneth Halliwell, because it ended in a garish tragedy. But in the whole room the most powerful image for me was a still from the 1961 movie Victim, a genuinely taboo-breaking work starring Dirk Bogarde as an impeccably upper-middle class lawyer married to the fragrant Sylvia Sims, but who is photographed in a compromising situation with good-looking young Peter McEnery, and blackmailed. I saw this film as a boy and it left a lasting impression of the needless pain and suffering caused by bigots and criminals given license by a stupidly interfering state. It influenced me to join the Campaign for Homosexual Equality.

Francis Bacon and David Hockney I think we all know about these bad boys. This final room gives us the opportunity to marvel again at the bleak power of Bacon’s nihilistic paintings and the scratchy undergraduate humour of Hockney’s early Pop style.

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

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

Scholarship or prurient gossip?

As I progressed through the exhibition, reading every wall label carefully, a theme began to emerge (above and beyond the obvious ones about ‘gender fluidity’ and ‘same-sex desire’):

  • ‘De Morgan’s repeated images of Hales have encouraged speculation about the nature of their relationship…’
  • ‘There is some evidence that Henry Bishop was attracted to men…’
  • ‘Beardsley does not seem to have had relationships with men…’
  • ‘There has been much speculation about Tuke’s relationships with his Cornish models although nothing has been substantiated…’
  • ‘Little is known about Meteyard’s sexuality, other than the fact that he was married…’
  • ‘Leighton’s sexuality has been the subject of much speculation from his own times to the present, but he guarded his privacy closely…’
  • ‘Glen Byam Shaw had almost certainly been the lover of the poet Siegfried Sassoon…’
  • ‘The exact nature of Thomas and Philpot’s relationship is unknown…’
  • Duncan Grant’s ‘close friend and possible lover Paul Roche…’
  • ‘There has been a lot of speculation about the nature of Walker’s relationship with the painter Clara Christian with whom she lived and worked in the 1880s although little evidence survives…’
  • ‘The poet Edith Sitwell does not seem to have had sexual relationships…’

What does it matter to an appreciation of their work what an artist did or did not do with their penis or vagina, or to someone else’s penis or vagina? Why do scholars obsess about the sexual act being a vital threshold in a relationship? On one level, this breathless fascination with the precise nature of people’s relationships, and whether they ever did the deed together, is just a highbrow form of gutter gossip, an educated equivalent to who’s shagging who in The Only Way Is Essex or Celebrity Big Brother, little different to the tittle-tattle of the tabloid press.

On a more disturbing level, this intrusion of scholarly enquiry into the heart of people’s private lives is because modern art critics and curators need to know precisely who had sex with who and when, so that they can categorise and define artists, writers, poets, photographers, performers and so on according to their tidy definitions. So that artists can be neatly arranged into canons and genres and books and essays and exhibitions about straight or gay or queer or whatever art.

  • ‘[Dirk Bogarde] never publicly affirmed a sexual identity and his personal life has to be inferred from his long relationship with his manager Tony Forwood (1915-88) with whom he shared his home.’

Has to be? Who says it has to be? Why this compulsion? Why must everyone’s sexuality be nailed down and defined?

To be a bit fierce, you could say that modern art scholars and curators talk the talk about gender fluidity and multiple narratives and transgressing this, that or the other – but in practice, it is they more than any other group in British society who are obsessed with tracking down their subjects’ every sexual act and desire in order to categorise, limit, define and control both artists and their works.

I found the obsessive probing into these dead people’s private lives unpleasant and disturbing.

Conclusion

The repetition over and again, in the introductions to each room and on labels for individual works, of the phrases ‘same-sex desire’ and ‘gender norms’, all of which are ‘challenged’ and ‘confronted’ and ‘transgressed’, of artists ‘fearlessly stripping away’ convention and ‘pushing the boundaries’ – all this gets pretty monotonous after a while.

Luckily, the art itself is much more varied, stimulating and unexpected than the ideological monomania of the commentary would suggest. If the downside of these historically-themed Tate exhibitions is that they take on vast subjects which they then struggle to adequately cover, the upside is that they turn up all sorts of unexpected treasures by relatively unknown figures, and make you want to see more.

For example, I’d love to see an exhibition devoted to Craxton, Minton and Vaughan, exploring that strange sensibility of the 1940s, surely the most overlooked of 20th century decades. An exhibition devoted to the late Victorian ‘Olympian’ artists would not only be a feast of sensuality but could explore in more detail the complex areas of sexuality and sensuality which were so present in Victorian art, yet so repressed in Victorian life.

Edward Burra, can we have a show dedicated to him, please, his last retrospective was in 1973. How about a show devoted to Tuke and the Newlyn School, what a wonderful treat that would be for the dark English winter. The more I looked at the Angus McBean photos, the more wonderful they seemed – how about an exhibition of him – or a broader exhibition about Theatre and Photography? Or, as simple an idea as ‘Neglected Women Artists 1860-1960’, showcasing the work of less well-known women artists (Laura Knight, Cecile Walton, Ethel Walker) from this era, gay, straight or whatever.

In conclusion, I was irritated by the curator-speak but I thought it was a wonderful show, went back to see it twice, bought the catalogue, and am still being pleasantly beguiled by many of the wonderful paintings, large and small, brash or quiet. What an extraordinary, and huge, contribution gay/lesbian/queer artists have made to every aspect of British culture.


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Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Fighting History @ Tate Britain

The title is slightly misleading. It, and the poster of British redcoats in a battle, suggest the show will be about depictions of war (a thorough investigation of how artists have depicted war would have been very interesting) – but it isn’t. There are some depictions of war scenes and there’s an entire room dedicated to the so-called Battle of Orgreave during the 1984 Miners’ Strike, but there are as many or more depictions of non-war-related, if dramatic, scenes from history and literature, and an entire room dedicated to the Biblical flood – neither of them involving fighting or battles.

Like a lot of Tate shows in recent years, this show takes a provocatively eclectic, pick’n’mix approach to the subject which, ultimately, leaves the visitor more confused than when they arrived. There are good and interesting things in the jumble, but the visitor is left, again, with the strong impression that Tate has to find themes or topics to justify displaying lots of second-rate paintings (usually kept in its enormous archive) and livened up with a handful of greatest hits to pull the punters in.

Word of this must have got around: when I arrived (Friday 10.30) there was one other visitor in the whole show; when I left this had shot up to four visitors. People must have read the reviews (see below).

There are six rooms:

1. Radical history painting

The first room points out that history painting, considered the peak of artistic achievement in the 18th and 19th centuries, fell out of favour in the Modernist 20th century and became widely associated with conservative, old-fashioned, patriotic tendencies. But the exhibition seeks to show that artists can still ‘engage’ with historical subjects, with ‘anti-establishment’ events, demonstrating ‘resistance’ to established authority, in ‘radical’ ways. In other words -history painting can be cool.

  • Dexter Dalwood – The Poll Tax Riots (2005) I watched this riot on TV and was caught up in a poll tax riot in Brixton around this period. I see the cleverness of imposing the Berlin Wall on either side of Trafalgar Square and this painting is very big, but I don’t find very appealing, powerful or persuasive.
Dexter Dalwood, The Poll Tax Riots (2005) Private collection © The Artist and Simon Lee Gallery, London & Hong Kong

Dexter Dalwood, The Poll Tax Riots (2005)
Private collection
© The Artist and Simon Lee Gallery, London & Hong Kong

  • Jeremy Deller – The History of The World (1997-2004) Placed in the first room to maybe deliberately subvert the visitor’s expectations of a show about history painting, this instead confirms the visitor’s expectations that this will be another Tate show designed to display the curator’s eclectic vision and street-cool radicalism. Connected to the art work, Deller made recordings of a brass band playing acid house tracks, a fun idea though it seems a bit dated now.

2. 250 years of British history painting

History painting in the 18th century involved taking a pregnant or meaningful moment which demonstrated heroic virtues and patriotism, figures were grouped to create a dramatic tableau (and to highlight the artist’s knowledge of anatomy) with stylised and symbolic gestures, the whole thing often referencing classical predecessors to add artistic and cultural authority.

In fact remarkably few of the 12 paintings in this room reflected any of that, only the last three really fit the description.

  • Richard Hamilton – Kent State (1970) Image of one of the four students shot dead by State troopers taken, as was Hamilton’s Pop practice, from a TV still.
  • Walter Sickert – Miss Earhart’s Arrival (1932) I’ve never liked Sickert’s murky, muddy style.
  • Richard Eurich – D-Day Landing (1942) Superficially realistic, this painting apparently used diagrams, maps and charts of the landing to create a slightly more schematic image.
Richard Eurich, The Landing at Dieppe, 19th August 1942 1942-3 Oil paint on wood Tate

Richard Eurich, The Landing at Dieppe, 19th August 1942 (1942-3)
Oil paint on wood
Tate

  • Stanley Spencer – The Centurion’s Servant (1914) Early Spencer, an example of standard English anti-Romanticism/naive style. Not that attractive.
  • Sir John Everett Millais – The Boyhood of Raleigh (1870) A lollypop. A greatest hit. An Abba classic. Churlish not to love it.
  • Henry Wallis – The Room In Which Shakespeare Was Born (1853)
  • Steve McQueen – The Lynching Tree (2003) McQueen was scouting locations for his movie 12 Years A Slave and came across this still-surviving lynching tree, surrounded by graves of the black people murdered on it.
  • Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema – A Silent Greeting (1889) I like the ‘Olympians’, the group of late Victorian artists who painted scenes from the classical world. Alma-Tadema was often compared to the painters of the Dutch enlightenment eg Vermeer, for his attention to the detail of quiet domestic scenes.
  • Charles Holroyd – Death of Torrigiano (1886) The commentary points out that the death of Torrigiano was taken by Protestant Brits as an example of the repressiveness of Catholicism, which prompts the thought that this is a vast subject -you could probably fill an exhibition on the theme of the fighting Protestantism of British identity since the Reformation – which goes almost untouched in this exhibition about British history.
  • Johann Zoffany – The Death of Captain Cook (1798) Not a good painting, though demonstrating the arch and stylised gestures to be found in ‘history painting’.
  • Colin Morison – Andromache Offering Sacrifice to Hector’s Shade (1760) An episode from Virgil’s Aenieid, with badly-painted classical figures arranged artfully around the canvas engaging in stereotyped expressions of emotion.
  • Benjamin West – Cleombrotus Ordered into Banishment by Leonidas II, King of Sparta (1768) A stylised simplicity of gesture and lack of decoration which anticipates the French neo-classical painter, David.

3. Ancient history

Antiquarians and painters interested in history transferred the dignity of setting and classical attitudes to myths and legends of ancient Britain, lending the aura of classical authority to our island story.

  • Sir Edward Poynter – A Visit to Aesculapius (1880) Poynter was director of the National Gallery and an important theorist of late Victorian painting. The gestures of the women seems modelled on statues of the three graces, but are also saucy naked women which eminent Victorians could view without moral qualms.
  • Sir John Everett Millais – Speak! Speak! (1895) Millais was a painter of genius as various recent exhibitions of the pre-Raphaelites have highlighted. This appears to have been an entirely invented situation: the male figure reaching out is hand is corny, but the figure of the commanding woman in white is majestic and haunting when you see the actual painting, reminiscent of other late Victorian powerful women eg John Singer Sargent’s extraordinary painting of Ellen Terry playing Lady MacBeth.
  • James Barry – King Lear Weeping over the Dead Body of Cordelia (1786-8) Once taken deadly seriously, this looks like a cartoon now.
  • Gavin Hamilton – Agrippina Landing at Brindisium with the Ashes of Germanicus (1765) Another chaste, neo-classical canvas, the unrealistic figures displaying stylised gestures. I think the purpose is to emphasise wifely fidelity and humility, neither of which strike a chord in our times.
Gavin Hamilton, Agrippina Landing at Brindisium with the Ashes of Germanicus (1765-72) Tate

Gavin Hamilton, Agrippina Landing at Brindisium with the Ashes of Germanicus (1765-72)
Tate

4. British history

The trouble is there is a lot of British history, an enormous amount. This selection is so random, such a miscellany, that it’s hard to extract any meaning or ideas from it.

  • Allen Jones – The Battle of Hastings (1961) A bracing doodling semi-abstract, jokey 60s-style.
  • William Frederick Yeames – Amy Robsart (1877) Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, stood a strong chance of marrying Queen Elizabeth, the only problem being he was already married. He conveyed his wife, Amy Robsart, to a country house and there his servants asphyxiated her with a pillow then threw her down the stairs as if killed by an intruder. This painting shows the killer and other servants coming across her body. I like the simplicity of the painting and the simple but effective trick of having the innocent woman illuminated by a glow with the murderous servants in gloom at the top of the stairs.
  • Michael Fullerton – Loyalist Female (Katie Black) Glasgow, 3rd July 2010 (2010)
  • Richard Hamilton – The Citizen (1981) Taken, as was Hamilton’s practice, from a still of a TV documentary about the ‘dirty protesters’ in H block. A large, striking and, I think, very successful painting due to its composition, the balance of the two panels, the abstract swirls (made out of the inmate’s faces) and the haunting Jesus-like figure of the prisoner, Hugh Rooney.
Richard Hamilton, The citizen (1981-3) Oil paint on two canvases Tate © The estate of Richard Hamilton

Richard Hamilton, The citizen (1981-3)
Oil paint on two canvases
Tate
© The estate of Richard Hamilton

  • Sir Joshua Reynolds – Colonel Tarleton (1782) A wonderful composition showing what a genius Reynolds was as the posed portrait.
  • John Singleton Copley – The Collapse of the Earl of Chatham in the House of Lords, 7 July 1778 (1779) To be admired for the sweep and flow of the composition and the use of light to highlight the heroic figure of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, who made a great patriotic speech against granting America its independence, and promptly collapsed and died. Apparently, Copley exhibited the painting privately and charged visitors a shilling a view.
  • Philip James de Loutherbourg – The Battle of the Nile (1800) It was displayed with a key naming the ships depicted, which the guidebook to the exhibition usefully quotes.
  • Malcolm Morley – Trafalgar Waterloo (2013) Modern construction piggybacking on two famous portraits of Nelson and Wellington.
  • John Minton – The Death of Nelson (1952) Though obviously a modern recasting of the vent, it’s interesting to see how Minton uses the same highlight effect to focus on the hero as all his predecessors.
  • John Singleton Copley – The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781 (1783) French forces tried to invade Jersey. Peirson was in charge of the British defenders, refused to give way, and was shot dead by a sniper. It’s notable how contemporary many of these history paintings were, depicting events still fresh in the public memory.
John Singleton Copley, The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781 (1783) © Tate

John Singleton Copley, The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781 (1783)
© Tate

5. The Battle of Orgreave

An entire room dedicated to the 1984 miners’ strike, focusing on the so-called ‘Battle of Orgreave’ coal mine. Part of the room is showing on a permanent loop the 62-minute documentary reconstructing the battle with eyewitness accounts and interviews, produced by artist Jeremy Deller (and directed by Mike Figgis) in 2001. The shouting and the angry Northern accents are very penetrating and spill over into the surrounding rooms, distracting me from thinking about the Battle of the Nile or Trafalgar or any of the subjects in the preceding room.

I felt sorry for the poor security guards who must have to sit here and listen to the same angry Northern voices hour after hour, day after day. It must drive them mad.

For me the fact that every shot in the documentary was a reconstruction fatally undermined it, no matter that many of the re-enactors had been there. It’s 31 years ago now. A friend at school’s sister was going out with a policeman who told her how much fun they were having: spirited away from boring trudging the beat, to live in barracks, with exciting opportunities for fighting on a regular basis and getting paid triple time – perfect!

Next to the video is a room whose wall is covered with a comprehensive timeline of the miners’ strike, as well as display cases of journals, diaries, newspapers, a police shield, a big map of the UK with coal mines and power stations indicated, a TV showing a video of Confederate re-enactors in the US (?), a shelf of books about Thatcher and the strike.

If you want to relive those bitter days and the crushing sense of defeat many people felt at the eventual capitulation of the miners, it’s all here to wallow in.

Jeremy Deller, Jacket from The Battle of Orgreave Archive (An Injury to one is an Injury to All) (2001) Tate. Commissioned and produced by Artangel, film directed by Mike Figgis. Presented by Tate Members 2005. The Artangel Collection at Tate © Jeremy Deller

Jeremy Deller, Jacket from The Battle of Orgreave Archive (An Injury to one is an Injury to All) (2001)
Tate. Commissioned and produced by Artangel, film directed by Mike Figgis. Presented by Tate Members 2005. The Artangel Collection at Tate
© Jeremy Deller

6. The deluge

The final, very large, room is dedicated to the subject of the Deluge, the Biblical flood, nothing – you might think – to do with history or fighting. It was interesting to be told that, as a subject, it gained a new relevance in the mid-19th century with new discoveries in Geology which shed light on the deep history of the planet, with a school of scientists using the story of the Flood to explain the presence of fossils of seashells on the tops of mountains etc. All the paintings in this room were poor – big, yes, melodramatic, yes, and a bit silly.

  • William Westall – The Commencement of The Deluge (1848) Rough thick Constable-esque crests of white paint. Looked better from the other end of the room.
  • Francis Darby – The Deluge (1840) A powerful, smooth, heroically bad painting.
  • JMW Turner – The Deluge (1805) A bad Turner.
  • Dexter Dalwood – The Deluge (2006)
  • Winifred Knights – The Deluge (1920)
Winifred Knights, The Deluge (1920) Oil paint on canvas Tate © The estate of Winifred Knights

Winifred Knights, The Deluge (1920)
Oil paint on canvas
Tate
© The estate of Winifred Knights

The commentary gives the room a bit of factitious ‘relevance’ by claiming that, with scientists warning of sea level rises due to global warming, the subject may be taking on a new relevance.

Not really – warming won’t produce the flood which these paintings all depict, it will be slow if inexorable. If it happens at all. Rather than a sentence in the guide it would have been good to have an actual work making this connection. For example, one of Maggie Hambling’s sea-related works, the You are the sea installation or the Wall of water paintings which I reviewed in April.

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