Desperately Seeking Gays in Hull


Now that I am retired and have endless leisure time I can do crazy things like visit art galleries in the morning.

Here in Kingston upon Hull we are certainly not spoilt for choice. We have a single gallery in town. Therefore, one visit goes a long way.

The Ferens Art Gallery is in the old town of Hull, and we have had some notable paintings on display. There was once a Hockney triptych, the Turner Prize exhibits during our Year of Culture and at the time of writing we have an exhibit about Tutankhamun. (Don’t get too excited about the last one, it is an exhibit of reproduced artefacts, but it is nevertheless, interesting. The most fascinating thing was to discover that these reproductions are held by an historical society in Hull).

On the way in I saw a notice with the ubiquitous LGBTQ+ flag on it. Being a non-judgemental and inclusive kind of a chap, I read it and learned that I could follow the Ferens Art Gallery LGBTQ+ Gallery Trail which, according to the website:

‘Highlights queer narratives in the gallery’s collection’ all designed to ‘get you thinking and chatting about art, identity, gender and sexuality.’

Expecting to be faced with a deluge of gay flag stickers around the gallery and to learn something such as ‘so and so was gay’ or ‘such and such a piece of art is a metaphor for gay sex’, that kind of thing, I was somewhat underwhelmed. I was under the impression that the world of art was a hotbed of homosexual activity, but all the gallery managed to drum up were seven examples of pieces of art relevant to LGBTQ+ people. And even here, there is a problem: only two of them were gay.

Two were mythical figures. One was a depiction by Antonio Maria Maragliano (1664-1739) of Hercules who, in addition to not existing, was less than convincing in his mincing. He had relationships with women which we can only assume, him being Hercules and all, were sexual. But he also had relationships with men for whom he professed his love. There is not a shred of evidence that these were of a sexual nature. A depiction of Jupiter and Ganymede by Jacob de Wit (1695-1754) is alleged to have homosexual undertones. Jupiter spotted Ganymede, a handsome chap on earth, transformed himself into an eagle and took Ganymede away to take a closer look at him. The story originally had no sexual connotations, these were later interpretations by Greek philosophers (of course) and, in common with Hercules, neither Jupiter nor Ganymede ever existed either.

A painting of St Sebastian by Nicolas Regnier (c.1591-1667) having his arrows removed by two women also brandished the LGBTQ+ flag. Apparently he is a queer icon and, according to Wikipedia (sorry Editor, I know Wikipedia sourcing drives you up the wall) this is due to the:

‘Combination of his strong, shirtless physique, the symbolism of the arrows penetrating his body, and the countenance of rapturous pain.’ But he was not gay either.

A painting by Bloomsbury Set member Roger Fry (1966-1934) of his son is an excuse, retrospectively, to portray him as ‘a proud ally of the LGBTQ+ community’ because he hung about with people in the Bloomsbury group of both sexes who had same sex relationships. (I guess, on that basis, that makes me a proud ally of the LGBTQ+ community. Except I’m not, I just don’t pry into anyone’s sexual preferences and try to accept people as they are).

The next example really did scrape the wood at the bottom of the barrel. A marble statue of St Joan of Arc saying farewell to her flock of sheep when she heard the call to go and save France, from us, is a challenge to ‘gender stereotypes’ because she later wore male clothing. The fact that she wore male clothing to join the French army and to risk her life in battle rather than enter the local drag king competition is somewhat glossed over.

On display there are paintings by two actual gay artists: Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899), who lived defiantly with her female partners, and Duncan Grant (1885-1978) who was bisexual. These were accompanied by some blurb about ‘being your authentic self’ and ‘discrimination’ which simply got in the way of the fact that they were both extremely good painters of wildlife and post-impressionist scenes, respectively.

But all power to whoever put this ‘trail’ together; I may sound disparaging, but I followed it and learned something.

I love being retired.

Roger Watson is a British academic and former professor of nursing at the University of Hull. He is the editor-in-chief of Nurse Education in Practice and an editorial board member of the WikiJournal of Medicine. He was the founding chair of the Lancet Commission on Nursing, and a founding member of the Global Advisory Group for the Future of Nursing. In 2020, Watson was elected vice president of the National Conference of University Professors. In 2022, Watson was elected president of the National Conference of University Professors. You can follow him here.