As it closes in one week’s time, I would be remiss not to mention this comprehensive curation of all manner of British art (painting, photography, sculpture) chronicling a queer aesthetic (both coded and overt) from the year sodomy was no longer punishable by death (in 1861, when it was merely downgraded to grounds for imprisonment) to the partial decriminalisation of sex between men in 1967 (permissible if both consenting partners were over 21). The works may be of wildly varying quality, but I can guarantee that for the casually curious visitor that many of these works will have never been seen before, and may never be exhibited again-and therein lies the fascination and value of this installation. The earliest works coyly hide their homoeroticism in the studied language of Greek and Roman idealisation of beauty, narcotised, dreamy contemplations of coupled and group dynamics of mutual adoration (and in Frederic Leighton’s The Sluggard, suggested by Michealangelo, an artist’s unselfconscious appreciation of individual beauty). Other rooms reveal portraits (some plain, some abstract) of lost historical progressive figures who were living fairly open, unobstructed lives with partners or experimenting successfully with gender fluidity long before there was even proper definition, much less open discussion, of such topics (social activist Edward Carpenter, Edith Cooper and Katherine Bradley who created the collective identity Michael Field, jewellery designer Charles Ricketts, Harry Daley, a cultured, out police constable who eventually wrote a memoir of his brief love affair with E.M. Forster), along with more high-profile figures such as Radclyffe Hall, Vita Sackville-West and Oscar Wilde (often cited as the cautionary tale of living a life too candidly in a repressive age). The Bloomsbury set is catalogued, of course, with their experiments in alternative lifestyle “utopias”. Even the final room, with the somewhat predictable duo of 20th century titans Bacon and Hockney representing the age when queer themes and compulsions could be more assertively addressed, finds more obscure works by each (including some of Hockney’s graduate work, with which I was unfamiliar).
I was very happy to make the acquaintance of John Craxton’s fascinating cubist, prismatic works and Henry Scott Tuke’s sun-stroked beach idylls, as well as witness the self-portrait of Laura Knight (the first female member of the Royal Academy since 1769). The exhibition is generously split between both sexes, not favouring one gaze over the other, and is all the richer for it. This is the rare instance when a concentrated read of each accompanying text rewards a deeper understanding of the exhibition-the dimension and diversity of an entire concealed history is coaxed out to freedom. The show runs through 1 October