New exhibition paints a picture of British queer life

London Letter: Tate Britain’s landmark show tells a story of courage, shame and sex

A woman poses with  ‘Life Painting for a Diploma’ (1962), by British artist David Hockney, at the ‘Queer British Art 1861-1967’ exhibition at the Tate Britain in London, England. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

A woman poses with ‘Life Painting for a Diploma’ (1962), by British artist David Hockney, at the ‘Queer British Art 1861-1967’ exhibition at the Tate Britain in London, England. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

 

The actor Marie Conmee and her partner Mary Brady had a penchant for beating up barmen, and occasionally even policemen.

The trouble usually began when they were sitting in one of the Dublin pubs they were not yet barred from, and a man would start chatting up Conmee.

Brady, who had short cropped hair and wore a thick Crombie coat like one of the Kray twins, would watch the scene quietly before suddenly punching the interloper in the face.

If a barman intervened, the two women would join forces and batter him until he retreated behind the counter to call the police.

If Conmee and Brady were sometimes violent, they could also be kind and generous. If you were on the right side of them, they were excellent company.

For them, the gay experience was as much about friendship as it was about sex

One summer’s afternoon in the early 1980s, I found them in Grogan’s on South William Street among a group of 10 to 15 mostly middle-aged women.

Most of the women were married with children and this monthly gathering organised by Conmee and Brady was their only opportunity to meet other women who were gay.

“We don’t do anything,” a farmer’s wife told me, but, for an hour or two every month, they could chat and laugh and tell the truth and be themselves.

For them, the gay experience was as much about friendship as it was about sex.

I was reminded of these women this week, while visiting Tate Britain’s new exhibition Queer British Art 1861–1967, which runs until October 1st.

The first major show of its kind, it examines the years between the abolition of the death penalty for sodomy in 1861 and the decriminalisation of homosexual acts in Britain in 1967.

As much about social history as art, the exhibition tells a story of friendship and courage, as well as of sex, shame and tragedy, beginning with the coded yearnings of Victorian painters like Simeon Solomon and ending with the joyous candour of David Hockney.

Solomon’s career collapsed in 1873 when he was caught cruising in a public toilet.

Many of the artists and subjects featured in the exhibition shared a similar fate.

In Robert Goodloe Harper Pennington’s full-length portrait, on loan from Los Angeles, Oscar Wilde is 27, healthy and confident, and on the cusp of fame.

Positioned next to the portrait is the battered, cream-coloured door of Wilde’s cell at Reading Gaol, where he served two years’ hard labour for gross indecency.

Pennington’s portrait hung in Wilde’s drawing room until his fall. It then passed into the ownership of his friend and former lover Robert Ross.

Bloomsbury Group

The distinction between friends and lovers was all but imperceptible among members of the Bloomsbury Group, who formed a network bound together by creativity, sex and an experimental approach to relationships.

Money and class afforded them a freedom unknown to other queer people of their era, something that is reflected in the open eroticism of Duncan Grant’s depictions of young men, which are represented in the exhibition.

Grant, who lived with the painter Vanessa Bell – Virginia Woolf’s sister – was described by Bell’s daughter Angelica as “a homosexual with bisexual leanings”.

Despite the danger of exposure and possible ruin, some life-long gay relationships flourished during this period, among them that of the artists Denis Wirth-Miller and Richard Chopping, who met in 1937 and became civil partners in 2005.

Devoted to one another, they were also keen on the soldiers stationed near their home, as evidenced by their biscuit tin holding more than 200 guardsmen’s jacket buttons, each one a memento of a sexual liaison.

The exhibition also shows how some gay men created a persona through which they could live more faithfully to themselves, among them Noël Coward, whose red, silk dressing gown is included.

Coward forbade his biographer from mentioning his sexuality, saying: 'There are still a few old ladies in Worthing who don’t know'

Others like Danny La Rue, born Danny Carroll in Cork, underwent a different transformation, becoming female impersonators.

A photograph of La Rue in 1968 by Angus McBean shows him in his magnificent, sequined prime.

La Rue opened each show with a gruff, gravelly “watcher mates!” and described his act as “playing a woman knowing that everybody knows it’s a fella’”.

He had a 40-year relationship with Jack Hanson, who was also his manager, but it was not until his later years that he spoke in public about being gay.

This reticence was shared, somewhat improbably, by Coward, who forbade his biographer Sheridan Morley from mentioning his homosexuality, saying: “There are still a few old ladies in Worthing who don’t know.”

The exhibition at the Tate is one of many events in Britain marking the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act, 1967, which decriminalised homosexuality.

The Republic had to wait a further quarter of a century before decriminalisation, but Conmee survived to see this first step towards equality, before her death in 1994.

When Brady died the following year, the death notice in The Irish Times described her simply as the “dear friend of Marie Conmee”.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.