Weaving between history and gossip, private lives and public declarations, repression and celebration, the exhibition Queer British Art recounts a complicated story of sexuality and desire through work that is as often as coded and veiled as it is candid and outspoken.
From pre-Raphaelite London to 1920s Bloomsbury, from Edward Burra’s raunchy sailors in Boston bars to a poster for the wildly successful 1945 Soldiers in Skirts variety revue, this is an exhibition about stories and lives, and conflicting social mores, as much as of images and objects. Here is Man Ray’s 1934 photographic portrait of Virginia Woolf, there William Strang’s 1918 painting of Vita Sackville-West, self-assured in a red hat. Lovings and pairings across the years, paintings and photographs, intimate sketches, letters, masks, Noël Coward’s dressing gown: what a compelling show this is, filled with surprises that are as much human as artistic.
Here are a selection of the library books Kenneth Halliwell and playwright Joe Orton borrowed, collaged and returned to Islington library in London between the late 1950s and early 60s. A play by Emlyn Williams is retitled Fucked By Monty. Phyllis Hambledon’s romantic novel Queen’s Favourite has a pair of men about to have sex collaged on to the cover. Orton and Halliwell, pursued by librarians, went down for six months, less for their crime of collage, and being irreverent and funny, than for being queer.