Issue 3 - Utopia
Queer Waters - The Art of Duncan Grant and Henry Scott Tuke
by Maddie Evans
I had a block of free hours on a Sunday afternoon, so I took myself to the Tate Britain. I got off the bus a few stops too early so I could walk over Vauxhall bridge in the January sun. It doesn’t take long to walk into Pimlico, an area so untouched by the swim of the city - it’s uncomfortably pristine. Walking through the streets I felt nervous of my bag swinging heedlessly from my shoulder - as if I were squeezing past fragile heirlooms.
I’d picked a good day, no trail of people queuing outside. I entered and carried out that now familiar routine: mask on, sanitise hands, hold out my phone and have a QR code scanned, sanitise hands again. I walked straight through, passing room after room, straight to my favourite room: Room 9, A Walk Through British Art, 1910-1930.
I’ve been in here so often I’ve near memorised its contents, down to the intricacies of the door frame and the way the light reflects back off the glass cabinets. So many of the works in here find themselves among my favourites: Carrington’s Farm at Watendlath, Vanessa Bell’s Studland Beach, Gwen John’s Nude Girl.
But it’s the painting, to the left side of the entrance that I end up losing large chunks of time to: Duncan Grant’s 1911 Bathing. It’s a rippling panorama of water, flesh, freedom, and desire. Every stroke exists as a kind of entry. It’s action is read in a curvature from top right to top left, beginning with two figures diving from a podium, then to two swimmers, and finally two figures clambering onto a boat, leaving a single figure unaccounted for - bobbing the waters of the bottom left of the canvas. An air of uneasiness, crisis– even, is attached to this lonely figure; an inner conflict and outsider status.
Bathing was painted for the dining room of Borough Polytechnic, part of a project led by Roger Fry. Although Fry took a loose approach in leading the project, Grant relied on the murals’ theme, ‘London on Holiday’, soaking up inspiration from Michelangelo’s male nudes and summers spent at the Serpentine - a place that pooled with London’s gay culture. The Rose Gardens of the southern eastern corner of the Serpentine has long been an unofficial meeting place for London’s gay community.
Bathing is now heralded as a key work in the history of public art, coming full circle from its unveiling where The National Review warned that paintings like Grant’s would “deteriorate young and sensitive minds”, writing that Grant’s exercises in avant-gardism were “travesties beyond the comprehension of the working-class students of the Polytechnic”, believing that the students would be at risk of “degeneracy” through “bad examples and false ideals”. Beyond the National Review’s irrefutable homophobia, the language of the National Review’s critique picks at something more subversive in Grant’s work, the language signals fear of something that cannot be locked away: desire.
Water and queerness pool together in a fantasia of possibility. Water exists as a liminal space, unbound by the oppressive rules of heteronormativity on land, it allows movement and there’s a lack of constriction of desire. It exists as a vast expanse of unlimited potential and reflects the changeable nature of human experience: a place where desire can be tested outside the boundaries and categorisation of the socially regulated world, but without fear of reprisal. It’s therefore no surprise that Grant revisited the water nine years later in Bathers by the Pond, and desire - once again - floods the canvas, rippling greedily across the waves. Bathers by the Pond is a landscape of nude men; bodies turned golden by the sun, slipping to and from dry land and water, the glances exchanged between the men are electrifying - feelings spilled wordlessly, and completely understood.
The bodies of the men in Bathers by the Pond echoes the colour palette of the soft mounds of water and shoreline. The landscape itself translates as a body - its gently sloping terrain replicates the bathers’ own thigh - creating a totalising erotic environment. The bodies of the bathers themselves appear in sensuous integration with nature, blurring the boundaries between bodies and the landscape and thus, repositioning gay desire as an undeniable and essential element of nature. Removing them would create a disconnect; the world torn and left lifeless.
In Henry Scott Tuke’s 1927 work, The Critics, two young men, mostly nude are resting gracefully on the shore: totally at ease. The water is glassy, translucent, an almost otherworldly utopia - a sensual rendering of the English coast. The sea is a recurrent theme in Tuke’s work, frequently the setting for classically rendered, soft, muscular male nudes: their bodies reminiscent of ancient Greek sculpture. The sea in The Critics presents the infinite possibilities of a world that is no longer contained by homogenising ideas of sexuality, gender and desire. Queerness, so long coded by society as ‘unnatural’, Tuke - like Grant - renders an essential part of nature, as eternal and constant as the tide.
The sea as an escape route: a place for queerness to flower, freely flows through Virginia Woolf’s strange, entrancing and fragmentary seventh novel, The Waves. Woolf mourns the lonely, limited lives that empire and patriarchy generate, but counters the losses and limitations by offering a mode of being in the world that takes direction from the sea. “They provide access to what had become obscured: the sense of the world as a unified whole, humans’ place within it, and the deep but occluded connections they consequently share with each other.” The novel conjoins aesthetic perception with the rhythmic materiality of the sea and creates a lateral, nonhierarchical relationality between subjects and the nonhuman world, a decentering that opens the present moment to innumerable temporalities. The sea exists as sublime excess, seeping beyond traditional modes of representation—it is utterly boundless.
“When you swim, you feel your body for what it mostly is – water – and it begins to move with the water around it. The swimmer is content to be borne on his way full of mysteries, doubts and uncertainties. He is a leaf on the stream, free at last from his petty little purposes in life.” writes Deakin in Waterlog, his beautiful ode to the pleasures of outdoor swimming.
Swimming is a full-bodied activity that enlivens the senses: the kiss of water on your skin, the salty taste of seawater, a whisper of reeds against your legs, the muffled sound of bubbled breath, the world soaked up by the water’s surface and reflected back: a mysterious and obfuscated view of land. Being in the water is a meditative and weightless experience—our bodies reach and glide in new, lawless ways. In water we have less control over our bodies, we're carried by currents and pushed by eddies.
For queer artists, if the water can allow the fundamental grounds upon which material existence is actualised to be contorted, then it brings to view a mode of being within the world that exists separately to rules of heteronormativity. The pull towards water in the work of Grant and Tuke takes on new meaning: a vision of the world they craved. Grant in particular lived his life with a complete refusal to live within the narrow parameters of what is permissible for male intimacy, or what is permissible for friendship. His illustriously unconventional relationship with Vanessa Bell was, for its time, one of the most radical experiments in modern love. To put simply: Grant and Bell lived together at Charleston house, they have a child together, and some of Grant’s really important boyfriends often came and stayed. Vanessa is married to Clive Bell, he doesn’t live with the family but they have two children together. The wonderful unconventionality of Grant’s life spilled into his art, and his art into his life.
Though for Tuke, the life he aspired to, existed mostly on the canvas: contained within its borders by the hateful attitudes of those around him. A few short years after his death, his sister, Maria Tuke Sainsbury, wrote his biography— its contents formed from twelve of his diaries. She was aware of his sexuality yet chose to ignore it, filtering out and embellishing details. After the biography’s completion, Sainsbury went on to destroy ten of the diaries— denying, refusing and silencing Tuke’s queer identity.
Yet the water will forever be there for and belong to those who refuse to submit to restrictive and damaging ideas of what is or is not permissible for human identity, for desire, and for love.
I like to think of Tuke sat on the shore, in reach of a world where he could live and love freely, capturing the eternal, boundless queer possibility of the water.
by Louise Mather
My inability to control the wildness left me nurturing ivory and
snow, deep in my body was winter, I could shriek for spring's
tentacles, call for the birds, envy, a flood
sometimes I thought it might save the world, that I would be able
to turn my insides out and feed them to those who had not yet
I would lie with the howling sun on my back and bathe the
darkness on my tongue, I could spend hours counting currents of
droplets, thinking of earth, origins, the glimmer of distances, how
cells decompose, the space the brain left behind
wondering if I knew something others didn't, or so much less,
either way it crushed me and I never decided
I tried less, I admit, or I tried more, and I failed more, whatever
failure is, what is wrong with standing still, lying so still so as not
to disturb the shimmer of the tide, not to make a dent, waiting for
the water, or waiting for nothing, clawing out dread, giving it back
to the tunnel
no matter what, at some point, you saw the wildness in me, startled
in the shape of a deer, or a thread, the tail of a star, something
burning with death, how it drew you in I do not know and I never
saw it coming
I forget now, whether this is important, what it means, if it changes
anything, I think it is something about destruction, not love, no