One way into thinking about historical LGBTQ+ relationships is through looking at the queer women artists whose stories are represented in the museum’s twentieth-century collection. The notorious Labouchere Amendment of 1885 which criminalised homosexuality, and under which Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing were convicted, did not extend to women because sexual expression between them was not thought possible in the eyes of the heteronormative state. While no legal constraints prevented lesbians from expressing their sexuality, it was the difficulty of achieving sufficient financial and social independence that was often the overwhelming obstacle to queer couples.
One example is Welsh artist Gwen John. Her painting was highly private, and something she did for herself rather than exhibition; she worked slowly, working for weeks or sometimes months on a single picture. John’s most famous relationship is with the much older sculptor Rodin, whose work you can see in gallery five, with both Rodin and John entering into a simultaneous relationship with Rodin’s assistant Hilda Flodin. Rodin was married, and although he reciprocated John’s feelings he eventually resorted to the use of concierges and secretaries in order to keep her apart from him and his domestic life. Throughout her life John was attracted to men and women, and the marked intensity of her attachments was often experienced as distressing to both herself and her partners; she wrote often in her letters about her ‘desire for a more interior life,’ and she often sought a kind of solitude in which she could become ‘so strong that people and things could not effect me beyond reason.’ John’s final relationship was with a woman called Vera, from whose home she was eventually banned. After the relationship ended she became more and more reclusive, and her life ended with her poverty-stricken and alone.
Another artist represented in the collection is Ethel Sands. With her life partner Nan Hudson, she was known not only as a painter but as a hostess for the cultural elite at her homes in England and France, with many of the most famous writers and artists attending the lavish parties she held regularly well into her 80s. She met Hudson while studying art in Paris, and the two lived together for over sixty years; many of Sands paintings are still lives and interiors painted in her and Hudson’s home in France. Unlike Gwen John, Sands and Hudson were able to live an independent existence; Sands inherited a vast fortune from her parents, and Hudson was an only child and heir to the fortune of her wealthy grandfather. The two, through their hospitality and entertaining, were key presences in the cultural scenes of England and France, and their social life was one of incredible expense and luxury. Despite this immense social privilege, they still faced obstacles as artists; neither Sands nor Hudson were invited to officially join the Camden Town Group, despite their close relationships with the other members.
It’s worth remembering, though, that we need to be careful and attentive in bringing the categories and terms that we’re most comfortable using today to the lives of queer figures from the past. Ethel Sands and Nan Hudson, for example, were known to reject the identity of a lesbian couple; and they avoided associating with known lesbian figures such as Vita Sackville-West. Acknowledging this means that we need to be attentive to the ways in which we run the risk of overriding the particularity, the specificity, of the queer lives that have come before ours. Rather than attempting to categorise and simplify, one of the joys of looking at art history through a queer lens is the way it encourages you to remain open to ways of being and queer existences that don’t fit the preconceived notions that we bring to what we’re looking at. Which really, to my mind, is the most powerful aspect of engaging with art – for it to be more and other to whatever we expect of it.