Art & Identity

Dr. Francesca Vanke, Chief Curator and Keeper of Fine & Decorative Art

In the western world the idea of homosexuality as an identity is only around a century old. Further back in history, it was defined by activity rather than identity. Today we are increasingly aware of the breadth of the spectrum of human sexual and gender identities. We coin a variety of terms by which people may choose to define themselves, even while acknowledging that for any individual, existing terms may be only partially relevant, or not applicable at all. However, in the past, definitions were very different, or non-existent.

This is a selection of ten works of fine and decorative art in the collections of Norwich Castle. Most are by artists who may be referred to as LGBTQ+, some are works which depict people from LGBTQ+ communities. They date from the beginning of the twentieth century to the present. The knowledge of an artist’s sexuality provides an angle of understanding which might have remained unknown, taboo, or ignored. For LGBTQ+ History Month, I wanted to look at these works through this lens, to provide a fuller appreciation of them, and enrich our understanding of their historical context.

C.R. Ashbee, Silver Bowl c. 1901

C.R. Ashbee, Silver Bowl, c.1910 (NWHCM : 1981.203.1) © Norfolk Museums

Charles Ashbee (1863-1942) was an architect and designer. His work, as exemplified by this graceful silver bowl, had both Art Nouveau and medieval influences. Ashbee is best known for his involvement with the Arts and Crafts Movement, and setting up the Guild of Handicraft. This organisation aimed to support the crafts and raise the status of craftsmen, based on the principles and socialist politics of William Morris. Ashbee was gay, and was inspired to set up the Guild not only by his admiration for Morris but also by the progressive thinking of gay socialist, philosopher and poet Edward Carpenter (1844-1929). Carpenter’s ideas, revolutionary for their time, saw loving relationships and friendships between men as part of a means to improve society, and to achieve greater equality between classes.

The Arts and Crafts movement, in its varying manifestations in both Britain and America at the turn of the twentieth century, was important in fostering innovative views on both art and society, and to dignify work made by men and women equally. Guilds operating at the time, like Ashbee’s, included individuals working creatively within same-sex groups, even if sexual preferences were not mentioned. As one might expect for the time, Ashbee did not advocate homosexual relationships. His ideals for his Guild framed Carpenter’s principles in terms of comradeship, support and a shared love of crafts, between all classes, to achieve artistic and social improvement and harmony.

This crucial time period, the early twentieth century, saw the beginnings of more open questioning of established morality and social norms. Even though male homosexual acts were forbidden by law, and had been given an unwelcome notoriety during the trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895, there were artistic and literary groups who experimented with different ways of living, with open or ‘triangular’ relationships. The homosexuality or bisexuality of individuals could be well-known within these circles, even if not broadcast to society at large.  

Charles Ricketts, Costume Design for Balthasar, 1918

Charles Ricketts, costume design for Balthasar in The Merchant of Venice, watercolour on paper, 1918 (NWHCM : 1933.94) © Norfolk Museums

Charles Ricketts (1866-1931) and Charles Shannon (1863-1937) fulfilled ideals of both love and comradeship, as they lived and worked happily together for fifty years. Lifelong friends of Oscar Wilde, they designed and illustrated many of his books and plays. Ricketts’ and Shannon’s work was primarily in the late Pre-Raphaelite or Aesthetic style, including slender, attenuated figures of indeterminate gender. Such androgynous figures often featured in late nineteenth century Aesthetic art and design. They were a significant visual means by which to portray ambiguous sexual identities and desires which might encompass either or both genders. Androgyny, in art or also frequently in dress, at the time was a vital means of self-expression.

Ricketts also designed for the theatre, and in 1918 he created costumes for Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. The Art Fund, which acquired Ricketts’ designs after his death, donated this drawing to Norfolk Museums Service. The style of his theatre costumes closely resembles the work of Leon Bakst (1866-1924), who designed for Sergei Diaghilev’s famous Ballets Russes in Paris. Gay impresario Diaghilev (1872-1929) made the ballet a focus for a more publicly homosexual identity. His ballets celebrated beauty, strength, grace and physique in both male and female dancers, thus blurring traditional gender roles. Some of his best-known dancers, like Vaslav Nijinsky and Ida Rubinstein, were openly bisexual. Ricketts probably saw the Ballets Russes in person, and was inspired by Bakst, as one of the most influential and ground-breaking costume designers in Europe.

Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie, Bowl, c.1930s

Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie (1895-1985) Bowl, stoneware,c.1930s (NWHCM : 2008.437) © Norfolk Museums

Men and women had different issues to contend with concerning sexuality. Female homosexual practice was not illegal because assumptions of the past tended to consider women’s sexuality as far less significant than that of men, if not non-existent entirely. At the same time, legislators in the early 1920s hesitated to create a law against lesbianism in case it introduced women to practices they would not have heard about otherwise!

This elegant stoneware bowl by Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie (1895-1985)is part of Norfolk Museums’ collection of studio ceramics. Bouverie was an early pupil of Bernard Leach and her work, like his, is largely influenced by Chinese and Japanese shapes and glazes. She never married and, during the 1920s, shared her life with another woman, fellow potter Norah Braden (1901-2001). We do not know the exact nature of their relationship and evidence is not available.

The patronising labels of ‘spinster’ or ‘old maid’, with their asexual overtones, could ironically sometimes work to womens’ advantage. They could go ‘under the radar’ and, whatever the nature of their relationships, get quietly on with their lives more easily than two men might manage.

On the other hand, women living together could sometimes be as much ‘homo-social’ as homosexual in the modern sense. It had practical advantages, particularly for women artists. At a time when getting access to artistic training was difficult for women, and achieving recognition for their work even more so, the status of artist was hard-won. Marriage to a man very often meant the end of a woman’s creative career. Even if a marital relationship was an open, liberal one, as occurred, for example, in circles such as the Bloomsbury group, as soon as a woman had children, it became far more difficult for her to pursue her art. Whatever their sexual identities, Pleydell-Bouverie and Braden, like many other women artists, may have chosen to conduct a relationship which combined companionship with mutual support for their creative vocations as potters.

Marie Laurencin, Girl with a Guitar, undated

Marie Laurencin, Girl with a Guitar, watercolour and ink on paper, undated (NWHCM : L1993.3.6) © Foundation Foujita / ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2020

There were some contexts in the first decades of the twentieth century in which women did not need to rely on discreet silence. There were artistic communities in both Rome and Paris where women both worked and lived together. In Paris, women’s role in the arts was encouraged and supported at the influential salons led by prominent lesbian figures such as Gertrude Stein (1874-1946), Natalie Clifford Barney (1876-1972) and the Princesse de Polignac (1865-1943).

Gertrude Stein was the first patron of bisexual artist Marie Laurencin (1885-1956). She is best known for her haunting images of women, like Girl with a Guitar which is one of a group of artworks bequeathed to the East Anglia Art Fund in 1993 by Lady Jane Adeane, now on permanent loan to Norwich Castle. Today, Laurencin’s ethereal portrayals of women in soft pastel colours may seem conventionally ‘feminine’, perhaps the opposite of what we might think of as ‘feminist’. However, her sustained preference for painting women, often grouped affectionately together, was Laurencin’s statement of her independence. Briefly married, she divorced in 1920 and remained single, focusing on her art and conducting relationships with both men and women for the rest of her life.

Cedric Morris, Male Nude (1925) and Portrait of Mary Butts (1924)

The subject of this portrait by Cedric Morris, the today little-known bisexual novelist Mary Butts (1890-1937) was, like Laurencin, also part of the avant-garde group of artists and writers congregating in Paris during the 1920s-30s, many of whom came from Britain. Butts met Morris and his lifelong partner Arthur Lett-Haines (1894-1978) in Paris, where this portrait was probably painted, in 1924.

Morris’ work comprised many genres over his long career, encompassing portraits, landscapes, plants and wildlife. This drawing of a male nude is one of a series in Norwich Castle’s collection, executed, like the portrait of Mary, during the 1920s. This unnamed model, with his muscular physique, conforms to classical ideals of male athleticism.  In its linear, free-flowing style it closely resembles the work of gay artist, film-maker and writer Jean Cocteau (1889-1963), another of Morris’ friends in Paris. Cocteau was a key figure in the development of Surrealism, but also produced homoerotic drawings, although he never published these during his lifetime. Unlike Cocteau’s work, Morris’ drawings are not explicit, but still focus clearly on the beauty of the male body, presenting it as a potential object of desire.

Maggi Hambling, The Brigadier, 2019

Maggi Hambling, (b. 1945) The Brigadier, oil on canvas, 2019 (NWHCM : 2019.280); © The Artist

Morris and Lett-Haines settled in Suffolk, where they set up the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing. Suffolk-born Maggi Hambling was one of their most well-known students.

By the mid-twentieth century the climate was changing for gay people. 1967’s Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalised homosexual acts between men, if over 21 and in private, marked a watershed. Nonetheless, it was only a starting point: prejudice and discrimination were still rife and ‘coming out’ still risky and difficult. At this time, the word ‘queer’ was a common insult, and the term ‘gay’ was beginning to be advocated as a more neutral term for homosexuality. Today, the term ‘queer’ has been reclaimed by many. Hambling, clear in her lesbian identity from a young age, has particular reasons for preferring ‘queer’ to ‘gay’. She promised her friend, film-maker Derek Jarman (1942-1994), that she would use the former term, because “It was very much in the time of Margaret Thatcher and Clause 28… Derek felt very much that this word gay was too genteel. At that time, [in the 1980s] if you were queer, you were still treated as a sort of outcast and so the word queer said what the situation was in a far stronger way than the word gay.”

There are several works by Hambling in Norwich Castle’s collection. This, a portrait of an old friend, artist, collector and co-founder of Norfolk Contemporary Art Society Penny Allen (1937-2018) is our most recent acquisition, donated by the artist. She frequently paints portraits of deceased friends as affectionate memorials, some, like this one, drawn from memory. Allen’s face appears among sunlit clouds, smiling. It is not solemn but a happy image, inviting the viewer to smile back.

Hambling’s startlingly varied and original portraits are some of her best-known works. Apart from the ‘death-bed’ pictures, which include non-LGBTQ+ friends like our portrait of Penny Allen, many portraits commemorate notable figures from the LGBTQ+ community, past and present. These include Jarman himself, Oscar Wilde, Benjamin Britten, George Melly, Edward Carpenter, Stephen Fry, as well as Morris and Lett-Haines.

Emmanuel Cooper, Jug, 1990s

Emmanuel Cooper (1938-2012) Jug, stoneware, 1990s (NWHCM : 2015.51.9); © The Artist’s Estate

Emmanuel Cooper was a multi-talented artist highly influential upon both ceramics and LGBTQ+ history. A noted potter and teacher, he also wrote prolifically, producing many important books on ceramics, including an acclaimed biography of Viennese émigré potter Lucie Rie (1902-1995), who was an important influence upon his work.

Rie inspired Cooper to develop the richly textured ‘volcanic’ glaze which covers the surface of this jug. The effect results from chemical reactions between different minerals, creating randomly-sized bubbles which burst during firing. Like Rie he specialised in vessels which were functional, simple in shape, but also attractive. This jug is typical of his work in both form and surface decoration.

Cooper combined his artistic career with lifelong political activism. As a working-class man he wrote about issues of art and class, while his sexuality also informed his political consciousness. In the years following the 1967 Act, the newly articulated movement for Gay Liberation sought equal rights. People were no longer willing to have their sexual identities dismissed as sources of shame and stigma. The term ‘gay pride’ was first coined. In the early 1970s Cooper, combining his commitments to Gay Liberation and to left-wing politics, joined the Gay Left collective, writing articles and co-editing their journal alongside the other members. He later also established a gay artists’ group, and a gay history group.

It was in Gay Left that Cooper began his career-defining analysis of ‘gay art’ – work that directly fed into his pioneering book The Sexual Perspective, first published in 1984. Perhaps today, a survey of artists and homosexuality might not seem such a radical concept, but the importance of this work cannot be underestimated. For the very first time, a wide selection of LGBTQ+ artists, of Britain and America, were discussed in their historical and political context. Such a work made it possible to study the subject, and made it clear it was a subject. The 1996 second edition took the book up-to-date, with urgent current issues. Cooper demonstrated how the AIDS crisis in particular showed the inextricable connections between contemporary politics and art. In UK, numerous gay artists were involved with groups such as ACT-UP or OutRage, producing artwork to raise awareness and counter increasing homophobia.

Lucian Freud, Large Head, 1993

Lucian Freud (1922-2011) Large Head, etching on paper, 1993 (NWHCM : 1995.187); © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgman Images

Performance artist Leigh Bowery (1961-1994) was a key figure in another side of 1980s-90s gay culture. This print is one of Freud’s several portraits of Bowery, well-known for his surreal costumes and outrageous performances, especially at the famous London nightclub Taboo. A friend and inspiration to Boy George for Culture Club’s colourful, gender-bending style, he was also one of Lucian Freud’s favourite models. The artist was fascinated by Bowery’s skill at treating his own body as a work of art. Bowery died of AIDS, although in common with many, chose to conceal his illness until just before his death.

Discussions around gender fluidity may have been less developed in the 80s/early 90s than they are now, but Bowery embraced what he called ‘polysexualism’, determined simply to be himself, and to transgress the boundaries of gender representation and definition, which he saw as not doing justice to who he was. He said “If you label me, you negate me.”

Aliza Nisenbaum, Susan, Aarti, Keerthana and Princess, Sunday in Brooklyn, 2018

Aliza Nisenbaum Susan, Aarti, Keerthana and Princess, Sunday in Brooklyn, oil on canvas, 2018 (NWHCM : 2018.39);
Commissioned by the Contemporary Art Society for Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery through the Valeria Napoleone XX Contemporary Art Society initiative. Image courtesy the artist and Anton Kern Gallery, New York / © Aliza Nisenbaum

Another aspect of 1980s-90s non-heterosexual life involved dealing with homophobia enshrined in law by the infamous Clause 28. This Clause of the Local Government Act was in force in the UK between 1988-2003. While it was operating it would have been difficult for this painting of a mixed-race family of two mothers and two adopted daughters to be displayed at Norwich Castle. As a local authority museum, we would not even have been allowed legally to acquire the work. The notorious Clause forbade local government-run organisations, which included councils, schools, colleges and other similar bodies to ‘intentionally promote homosexuality’ or ‘promote the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretend family relationship’.

Artworks apart, this legislation demonised families like the one portrayed here. Lesbian mothers were hit hard. The prejudice sanctioned by the Clause both made it more difficult for non-heterosexual parents to keep custody of their children, and almost impossible for them to adopt.

For Mexican-American Jewish artist Nisenbaum, it is her multi-cultural background which informs her artistic approach. She deliberately chooses to foreground people not traditionally the subjects of portraits: people of colour, gay people, refugees and immigrants. However, in a British context, we are lucky now that we can enjoy this painting for what it is: a warm, joyous celebration of family life.

This month at Norfolk Museums we can celebrate the work of a broad spectrum of artists. There may be other artworks in the collection by those from further in the past whose sexual identities may emerge in the future. Thanks to those like Emmanuel Cooper who have written scholarly histories of LGBTQ+ art and artists, creating a narrative which puts them into a full context, we have a chance of looking at our collections afresh, and enjoying them in a more complete way.

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