Starting in 1861, with the abolition of the death penalty for sodomy, and ending in 1967, when the act between consenting men was decriminalised in England and Wales, the new exhibition Queer British Art at Tate Britain in London offers just over a century of works exploring fluid gender identities and same-sex desire.
You might expect the show to display a gradual opening up, with increasingly explicit or unabashed imagery. Not so: the work of one of the first artists featured, Simeon Solomon – part of the Aesthetic movement and a youthful figure on the fringes of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – potently telegraphs homosexual desire from as early as the mid-1800s.
Witness The Bride, The Bridegroom and Sad Love, a drawing from 1865. While the bride and bridegroom canoodle, the man’s hand reaches behind him to a winged male youth, looking sad indeed. The groom may be turning away from same-sex love in favour of a respectable, heterosexual marriage, but the men’s fingers intertwine intimately in front of a naked crotch… As an image of forbidden, thwarted love and lust, today it seems pretty explicit.
But was it so for 19th Century audiences? In the case of this particular drawing, it probably was – it’s from a private collection – but Simeon was a notably fashionable, mainstream artist too, who exhibited at the Royal Academy, the institution at the centre of the Victorian art establishment. Much of his public work also carried a surprisingly bold homoerotic charge. Homosexual desire is a coded presence in many of his paintings, which in portraying classical myths, usually feature effeminate or androgynous young male nudes.
He even painted overt depictions of lesbian love, as in his watercolour Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene, from 1864. “It’s a really explicit depiction of female same-sex desire,” says Tate curator Clare Barlow. “Not explicit as in pornographic, but the passionate kiss, the swooning, the flushed cheeks… it’s all there for the reading. I think he goes further than others at the time.”
Even if Solomon was celebrated by the Pre-Raphaelites and regularly exhibited in major galleries, critical responses were often uneasy. Barlow points out that reactions to the highly sensuous style of the Pre-Raphaelites and the Aesthetic movement – all those languorously draped youthful bodies and heavy-lidded, languid expressions – were always shot through with contemporary anxieties. While critics might not have been able to come out and frame or label these works as homoerotic or deviant, they nonetheless frequently got their knickers in a twist about them.
As long as there was a degree of ambiguity, 19th Century society was prepared to turn a blind eye
“Words like decadent or feminine or sickly often come up – there are lots of suspicions,” says Barlow, speaking of not only Solomon but also artists like Frederic Leighton (who remained unmarried and whose sexuality was a subject of much speculation) and Edward Burne-Jones (who appears to have been primarily heterosexual). In 1865, the Pall Mall Gazette saw in Burne-Jones’s style “something seductive but it is not masculine”; the Spectator sniffed at a “repulsive sentiment which too frequently marks Mr Solomon’s compositions”. Of Leighton’s Daedalus and Icarus, the Times fretted that the nude Icarus had the air of “a maiden rather than a youth”, noting anxiously the “soft rounded contour of a feminine breast” in his plump pecs.
But as long as there was a degree of ambiguity – in both the work, and the artist’s proclivities – 19th Century society was prepared to turn a blind eye. Or, at least, confine themselves to a raised eyebrow. Even works which, to the modern viewer, look blatantly homoerotic could be respectably contained within the framework of the classical male nude, the ideal of Hellenic youthful beauty, or celebration of noble male friendship. Such narratives “veiled the potential homoeroticism of the works,” suggests Barlow.
Notes on a scandal
In 1873, however, Solomon rather publicly confirmed all whispered suspicions: he was caught having sex with a man in a public toilet off Oxford Street. It caused a scandal, with the 32-year-old Solomon charged with “attempted buggery” and given a £100 fine; a successful career was abruptly derailed. After once more being arrested for “indecent touching” in a lavatory in Paris the following year, he spent three months in jail. Solomon was admitted to lunatic asylums, and would for rest of his life battle alcoholism, spending the latter part of it penniless and destitute. It was a very public fall from grace.
Simeon’s famous friends dropped him, and he died in a workhouse
“Artists at this time can get away with [suggesting] quite a lot providing there’s no hard proof,” points out Barlow. “It’s only when Solomon gets caught that all these rumours that have been swirling about decadence and sickliness crystallise into a specific sexual act.”
Although there is a sadness to Solomon’s story – famous friends dropped him, and he died in a workhouse in Covent Garden in 1905 – the artist did continue to produce work with impressive tenacity and creative conviction. And, later in life, he also achieved something of a cult status within gay circles. Frederick Hollyer, the great populariser of the Pre-Raphaelites, sold photographs of his work, and collectors included Oscar Wilde, essayist and critic Walter Pater, and the writer John Addington Symonds. “If you’re trying to seduce elegant young men in the 1890s, showing them your Simeon Solomon Hollyer editions is not likely to do you any harm,” says Barlow wryly.
Queer British Art is a show that, necessarily, often invites us to read (or re-read) work through the frame of the artist’s life, allowing what we know – or guess – about their sexual desires to open up fresh potential meanings. “It’s always tempting to read the biography into the work – that’s something which can be illuminating but can also be problematic. But he does produce these incredibly agonised series of highly symbolist works at the end of his life,” says Barlow. She refers to a series of depictions of very tortured Medusa heads, cross-gendered male. They’re referred to as masculine in the Latin inscriptions, which say things like “it is the worst thing for the best to become corrupted” or given titles such as The Tormented Conscience.
The Tate’s exhibition may start with Solomon, but it goes right up to David Hockney and Francis Bacon, taking in cross-dressing music hall stars, Oscar Wilde’s trial, and the Bloomsbury Group’s experiments in art and living along the way. The show aims to highlight “lots of different points of connection between the works and the queer narrative that surround them: some are autobiographical, sometimes the queerness is in the eyes of the beholder, or comes from a queer sensibility perhaps,” elaborates Barlow.
“What we’re doing is seeing what happens when you put these readings front and foremost: does it add to our understanding, or are they distracting? That’s certainly a possibility. We’re not trying to propose that these are the only ways these works should be read, but the queer narratives often help you see things in the work you didn’t see before.”
Still, when it comes to some of Solomon’s paintings, the thing that may prove most striking to the modern viewer in how little explanation or explication they need, how readily these works from the 19th Century offer up queer readings. And how they bring a note of tragedy in: it’s hard not to feel for Solomon, rejected from society, left out in the cold.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.