Much of the discussion concerning queer exhibitions and curating inevitably focuses on historically significant, politically and socially engaged projects, most often in organizations in major urban centers. The present case study does not necessarily fit this model. Instead, it considers whether ‘queer curating’ can exist ‘within plain sight’ in the mainstream of museum exhibitions, in what might—outwardly—seem like a more traditional institution.
Although Pallant House Gallery (figs. 1-2) is situated in the small and picturesque English cathedral city of Chichester, with a population of just 26,000 people, its program and collection are, perhaps surprisingly, metropolitan and international. Housed in a unique combination of an eighteenth-century Queen Anne townhouse and a contemporary gallery, designed by Long & Kentish, in association with the architect of the British Library, Colin St John Wilson, the museum houses one of the best public collections of modern and contemporary British art, together with international works by artists including Edgar Degas, Picasso, Paul Klee, Gino Severini, and Fernand Léger. The atmosphere and program is characterized by the creative tension between modern and historic—with contemporary installations in paneled interiors; but is also known for its substantial collection of British Pop art, including celebrated works such as Richard Hamilton’s Hers is a a Lush Situation (1958), Peter Blake’s The Beatles (1962-68), and Patrick Caulfield’s Portrait of Juan Gris (1963). Although the city has a university, the population is largely older and socially conservative; there is no significant LGBTQ community or social scene. However, it is located just under an hour from Brighton, which has one of the largest LGBTQ communities in Britain, and one and a half hours from London, with about a quarter of its visitors coming from the capital. The Gallery’s program therefore aims to attract and communicate with a wide demographic of visitors, often with the aim of what might be described as ‘programming by stealth’ with progressive themes and installations presented alongside familiar artists that will draw more traditional audiences. Through combined tickets, by default this strategy exposes audiences to ideas and works they might not otherwise encounter. In many ways, our stealth programming enables the Gallery to be quietly radical in its thinking: for example, its award-winning Learning and Community program seeks to avoid labeling individuals since we aim for something other than ticking boxes and really encourage people to seek out the Gallery as somewhere to go to be creative, whatever their life circumstances, on a sustained basis. The Gallery is an independent charitable museum, with a Board of Trustees. Only 14% of Pallant House Gallery’s funding comes from public sources, and the rest comes from ticket sales, endowment funds, commercial activities, and support from patrons, friends, and trusts and foundations, which means the programming needs to be distinctive from other museums in order to attract funding and visitors.
Pallant House Gallery has what might be described as ‘a collection of collections’ and seeks to explore the motivations of how and why particular individuals developed the collections they subsequently donated or bequeathed. The museum’s founding collection, bequeathed by Walter Hussey, the Dean of Chichester Cathedral, is largely comprised of modern religious art by artists including Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, and John Piper, as well as Old Master drawings, and paintings and sculptures by the likes of Barbara Hepworth, Frank Auerbach, and others. But there are some surprisingly bold inclusions for a man of the cloth, such as a strikingly homoerotic male bathing scene by the Bloomsbury artist Duncan Grant, which has been a staple in books on homosexuality in art, including the recent Tate Britain exhibition, Queer British Art. Some institutions might treat this, and other works such as a male nude drawing by Annibale Carracci, as ‘problem works’ that run against the dominant public narrative being told of the great patron of religious art. Currently, the Duncan Grant is shown alongside works by Cézanne, Jean Metzinger and Manet in a display exploring the influence of Post-Impressionism on British art, but the homoerotic content is clearly acknowledged and articulated in the picture label. In fact, it is the very first picture that a visitor encounters in the galleries, thus immediately unsettling any preconceptions about the collection they are about to view. This visibility of artworks that might be deemed ‘queer’ in amongst the wider collection is important. Whereas some museums might leave such works in their stores, rather than include them within wider narratives, the Gallery has simply presented them as part of the collection, and it often receives gifts of works because collectors know they will be displayed and rotated more frequently than in other, larger institutions. Over fifteen years, the Gallery has formed a collection of over 350 contemporary prints through the generosity of a couple, Mark Golder and Brian Thompson, two school teachers who gave £225 per month towards acquisitions. Through discussion with them about their interests, possible acquisitions were selected, including many female artists (to address historic gender imbalances in the collection), but also sometimes reflecting their own sexuality, such as David Hockney’s etching Peter (1969) of his then-partner Peter Schlesinger. Through gifts such as these, and a recent bequest of paintings by Keith Vaughan from the playwright Sir Peter Schaffer, displays of nudes at the Gallery can question the standard art historical trope of the male gaze on the female body, and consider either the female gaze on female or male subjects, or the male gaze on other males, raising valid questions about desire and representation, while challenging widely-held cultural assumptions. Several male couples have donated works to the Gallery, or intend to do so, and perhaps the fact that two Directors in recent years have been openly gay (Stefan van Raay and myself) has created an atmosphere of acceptance. For long-term relationships with donors it is important that they feel welcome, that they feel part of the organization and their voice is heard. For example, although not making it the focus of interpretation, the Gallery has never shied away from discussing the Golder-Thompson Gift in relation to them as a male couple in press and marketing.
Whilst exhibitions exploring collecting often deal with the question of familial inheritance, The Radev Collection: Bloomsbury and Beyond, in 2011, instead considered how one collection of Post-Impressionist and modern British artworks had passed through a group of homosexual males during the twentieth-century, from the 5th Lord Sackville Eddy Sackville-West and his one-time lover Eardley Knowles, to a Bulgarian picture-framer, and lover of the Bloomsbury artist E.M. Forster, called Mattei Radev. The largely-female corps of voluntary Gallery Guides relished talking about the unconventional aspects of the collectors’ lives and their connections, but this perhaps also reflects an English fascination with class and transgressing boundaries.
All of this is context for understanding aspects of the program of exhibitions that may be recognized as ‘queer’ by some visitors, but not necessarily by many others. Part of Pallant House Gallery’s rationale in presenting a distinctive program has been to hold exhibitions of deserving, but overlooked British artists, who have often not been shown for several decades by major institutions in London and other centers, with the aim of shining new light on their life and work. To me, personally, it is important that, when it is relevant to the work, we approach aspects of an artists’ biography differently from how they might have been tackled in the past. A lot of this comes down, firstly, to the honest presentation of information: not shying away from discussing an artist’s personal relationships, whether with men or women, and avoiding polite euphemisms such as ‘friend,’ when what we actually mean is ‘lover,’ ‘boyfriend,’ ‘girlfriend,’ or ‘partner.’ (Of course, sometimes we simply do not know the nature of someone’s relationships.) Secondly, in the curatorial process we must maintain an objective selection of works, not leaving out those that may be deemed controversial or expressive of an artist’s sexuality, but actually understanding these as providing insights into what makes them human.
The Gallery, as a public institution, is, of course, necessarily sensitive to artists and their estates. This approach reflects a wider stance in our Learning and Community programs towards normalizing difference; including the excluded and overlooked and as in our flagship project Outside In, a now-independent program championing marginalized artists, and celebrating what is traditionally termed ‘Art Brut’ or ‘Outsider Art.’ Instilled in this ethos is the core belief that our work as a museum must be about the intrinsic value of the art, enabling the artist’s voice to come to the fore regardless of the background of the maker.
Several exhibitions in recent years have focused on reappraising overlooked modern British artists, including Edward Burra, Keith Vaughan, Christopher Wood and John Minton. These artists are all represented in the Gallery’s collections, but in selecting them, there were other programming rationales: some were regional connections (Burra lived in Sussex; Vaughan was born nearby); some were anniversaries (the centenary of Vaughan’s birth was in 2012; Minton’s in 2017); and each of these artists could also be considered ‘queer’ subjects. ‘Edward Burra’ in 2011-12, which toured to the Djanogly Gallery at the University of Nottingham, was the first museum exhibition of the artist’s work for 25 years and the first to discuss in any depth the artist’s queerness and his interest in drag and gender fluidity, through works such as Dockside Café, Marseilles (1930) (fig. 3). In this painting, Burra depicted a young black male wearing espadrilles, whilst smoking in an identifiably ‘camp’ manner, whilst the figures behind the bar appear to be men in drag. The humor in his work can be an important vehicle for allowing people ‘a way in.’ Humor as a strategy for acceptance is, of course, a much wider phenomenon within the gay community, and in Burra’s case his ‘camp sensibility’ was expressed through depictions of Mae West, visual puns on erect penises, exotic costume designs, men in drag, and characters on the margins of society, such as prostitutes. Burra was part of an artistic and literary community of homosexual men and lesbians in the 1920s and 30s, whom he would send up in paintings and letters—he even had an alter-ego named ‘Lady Aimee Bureaux.’ Significantly, Edward Burra was one of the Gallery’s most successful exhibitions, surpassing even an international exhibition of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.
The exhibition Keith Vaughan: From Romanticism to Abstraction (2012) focused on the artistic journey of one of Britain’s most significant modern painters from ambiguous depictions of figures embracing during the Second World War, to abstract landscapes, as well as addressing the theme of the male nude in his work, not only in relation to Vaughan’s homosexuality, but also as an expression of post-war Humanism (fig. 4). It explored how certain subjects such as The Martyrdom of St Sebastian might be read in one way by informed audiences, and differently by others. Alongside this exhibition was a smaller Print Room show of Robin Ironside, whose centenary also fell in 2012. This was the first museum exhibition of the artist’s work, even though in the 1950s he had exhibited in a two-man exhibition with Francis Bacon. Ironside had originally trained as an art historian at the Courtauld Institute and worked as a Curator at the Tate Gallery, but produced watercolors with an overwrought Baroque exuberance that arguably encode his homosexuality. In Summer 2017, the Gallery held the first museum exhibition in almost 25 years of Vaughan’s friend John Minton. In addition to marking the centenary of his birth, it marked the 50th anniversary of the partial legalization of male homosexuality in England and Wales. For many visitors the exhibition provided a long-overdue opportunity to see examples of Minton’s remarkable draftsmanship and his celebrated book illustrations, but it also featured his sensitive portrayal of his boyfriends and lovers, male nudes, and illustrations for novels dealing with ‘gay themes’ in the 1950s (fig. 5). In 1950, prior to the Wolfenden Report and subsequent legalization of homosexuality, Minton had written to The Listener calling out bigotry and asserting the cultural contribution of homosexuals, an action that was discussed in exhibition interpretation.
The Mythic Method: Classicism in British Art 1920-1950 (2017-18) explored the ‘return to order’ in British art following the First World War, which paralleled the ‘rappel a l’ordre’ in the work of Picasso, De Chirico, Andre Dérain, and others. Central to this was a discussion of the crisis of masculinity following the First World War, how war memorials idealized the complete body as artists sought a sense of security in the classical traditions of ancient Greece and Rome manifest in works such as Classical Male Athletes (c. 1930) (fig. 6) by John Kavanagh. Alongside consideration of idealized beauty in the 1920s and 30s, the exhibition also considered how artists such as Glyn Philpot had used the veil of classicism to explore Freudian readings of homosexuality in works such as his sculpture Echo and Narcissus (c. 1931), or William Roberts’ witty depiction of an all-male bathing site Parson’s Pleasure (c.1944). In spring 2018, Pallant House Gallery presents Leonard Rosoman’s series of paintings based on the controversial 1965 play by John Osborne A Patriot for Me at the Royal Court Theatre. Due to a plot that included a drag ball and male kiss, it was deemed too sexually transgressive by the Royal Chamberlain’s Office and denied a license, leading the Theatre to turn itself into a private member’s club for the duration of the run. Rosoman’s paintings of the play, including depictions of the curtain rising on the drag ball (fig. 7), were exhibited at the Lincoln Centre in New York in 1969, but have never had a showing in a British institution until the presentation at Pallant House Gallery. They are shown as part of a season exploring how art reflected changes in 1960s society, and thus provide an alternative to the predominance of Pop imagery reflecting the objectification of the female body in advertising as seen in the major exhibition POP! Art in a Changing Britain, featuring works by the likes of Peter Blake, Richard Hamilton, Jann Haworth, RB Kitaj, Gerald Laing, and Eduardo Paolozzi. A kindred redress to female objectification can be found in the subsequent exhibition, from Tate St Ives, Virginia Woolf: An Exhibition informed by her Writings, that frames around 80 women artists through Woolf’s ideas, including iconic works such as Gluck’s Medallion (YouWe), a self portrait also featuring the artist’s lesbian partner.
None of these exhibitions at Pallant House Gallery could be described as politically radical, but perhaps this is all a matter of context. Arguably, many people would not even recognize them as ‘queer,’ but that is perhaps where their power to inform lies. With their focus on the art, rather than any overt agenda, perhaps such exhibitions can reach audiences that might never consider attending more politically forward exhibitions, and thus change opinions, rather than serving to merely reinforce extant opinions. Crucially, at the heart of each project is an attempt to be honest and straightforward about the complexities of human sexuality and identity, and to include alternative voices within a wider mainstream narrative. In their own right each of these exhibitions may subtly help to shift public attitudes towards one of acceptance and understanding.
Simon Martin is Director of Pallant House Gallery. He is a Trustee of Charleston (the Sussex home of the Bloomsbury artists Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell) and HOUSE, and has written extensively on Modern British Art.
7 See Laura Smith ed., Virginia Woolf: An Exhibition Inspired by her Writings, London Tate Publishing, London, 2018. The present author has also contributed the chapter ‘The Individualist Artist: Gluck and Modern British Art’ to a recent book: see Amy de la Haye and Martin Pel eds., Gluck: Art and Identity, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2017.