Studio Passageway : This characterful etching is hung in the passageway to Duncan Grant’s studio and depicts two sailors in conversation at a bar. The work was given to Clive Bell, husband of Vanessa Bell, by French artist Jean Oberlé, and bears a personal inscription to Bell. The subject matter can be considered a gay archetype, and it is interesting to consider the etching through this lens.
Sailors have long been a common trope in queer iconography, and this etching introduces homoerotic undertones through the pair’s close, interacting pose. All male organisations such as the navy have tended to be homoeroticised by society, in part due to the combination of the hyper-masculine environment of the ship and the specific characteristics of the naval uniform. Ships were crammed with young, fit and healthy men in uniforms that were more feminine in their fashion-conscious tight fit than other more practically designed military uniforms. The sailor has as such been historically fetishized and queered because of his costume and all-male environment. In this etching we see an exploration of this queer iconography: the sensuality of the tipped hat and close fit clothes, accentuating the physique of the male body, is brought out in the fluid curves of the foreground figure, while the front-facing figure exudes health and strength.
Jean Oberlé, the artist of this work, became a major voice in the French resistance through the powerful medium of the radio in the 1940s, producing famous slogans of the BBC Free French broadcast in particular. One of the best known was “Radio Paris ment, Radio Paris ment, Radio Paris est allemande” (“Radio Paris is lying, Radio Paris is lying, Radio Paris is German”). Closely involved in the Free French broadcasts with Oberlé was Raymond Mortimer, the Francophile writer, literary and art critic and editor. Mortimer was a member of the second generation Bloomsbury group and was the long-term lover of Harold Nicolson, husband of Vita Sackville-West.
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