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The Bournemouth exhibition marking an important milestone in legal history

PUBLISHED: 10:58 31 August 2017 | UPDATED: 10:58 31 August 2017

Painter and Model (1957) by John Minton whose struggles with his sexuality eventually led to his suicide.

Painter and Model (1957) by John Minton whose struggles with his sexuality eventually led to his suicide.

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‘Refracted’ is a compelling exhibition at Russell-Cotes Art Gallery in Bournemouth which marks an important milestone in legal history, as Jeremy Miles discovers

It is astonishing how many people are not aware that until 1967 - around the time The Beatles were singing All You Need is Love - being a gay man was a crime in this country. Literally thousands were fined, imprisoned and disgraced. Their lives were destroyed just for being themselves.

Being caught or even reported for engaging in gay sex could cost a man his job, alienate him from his family and friends, expose him to blackmail, drive him to the brink of despair, or even suicide. Bizarrely the same establishment that enforced this inhuman law, with all its attendant prejudice and bigotry, refused to even accept that being a gay woman was possible.

So it is understandable that this year’s 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, which finally decriminalised homosexual acts in private between consenting men aged over 21, is being loudly celebrated by the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community in Dorset.

Sadly, even after half a century and the liberating measures of further legislation, full acceptance of sexual diversity cannot be taken for granted.

This is clear from Refracted, the exhibition marking this important anniversary, which is currently running at the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum in Bournemouth. The exhibition opened with a colourful 1960s themed party, but the mood of celebration was offset by a tangible sense of defiance and survivor stories from those who to this day find themselves confronted by incidents of homophobia.

For many LGBT people life is still a struggle. As one of the exhibition’s co-curators, Judith Richardson, told me: “Half-a-century after the 1967 Act we are undoubtedly living in more enlightened times and this is what we are celebrating but you have to put it into perspective.

“If you’re a white Anglo Saxon British person being gay tends not to be a major problem, but for those of Caribbean and Muslim origins, even though they are governed by our laws, there can be family and cultural pressures that make their position extremely difficult.”

Even Judith’s own experiences as a white middle-class lesbian living in a long-term relationship in Bournemouth, a town considered extremely LGBT friendly and with the fifth or sixth highest gay population in the country, tolerance of her sexual orientation cannot be assumed.

“I used to live in London and never gave it (being gay) a second thought but since I’ve been in Bournemouth I’ve been slightly wary. I weigh people up before deciding whether I can be completely open with them. Maybe that’s just me being paranoid but I get a general feeling that it’s not quite so easy here.”

The exhibition was opened by Professor Stuart Bartholomew, principal and vice chancellor of Arts University Bournemouth. He described it as “a celebration of what some would claim was the most important legislation of the 20th century.”

Featuring an eclectic display of paintings and other works from the Russell-Cotes permanent collection, the show has been co-curated by volunteers from the local LGBT community. Working alongside the museum’s professionals, the team selected works that chimed with their own experiences of gay, bi-sexual and transgender lives. The title - Refracted - is a reference to the rainbow peace flag used by LGBT groups since it first emerged in California in the 1970s. The exhibition, like the flag, is divided into seven thematic sections: pink for sexuality, orange for healing, green for nature, blue for serenity, red for life, yellow for sunlight, turquoise for magic and art, and violet for spirit.

What Refracted is not however is an exhibition of gay art. Only one or two of the works - notably John Minton’s 1957 double portrait ‘Painter and Model’ making its second consecutive special exhibition appearance at the Russell-Cotes - explicitly focus on gay issues. Other pieces have been chosen for their kitsch and exuberance, for their relevance to the rainbow themes, or merely because of their personal appeal to the individual curators.

However several exhibits offer intriguing alternative views when glimpsed through an LGBT mindset. ‘The Annunciation’ by Simeon Solomon for instance has a tragic back story. It was painted in 1877 when Solomon, once a flamboyant rising star of the Pre-Raphaelites, was facing social ruin after being found having sex with a stableman in a public lavatory. Despite being bailed out by wealthy friends he was shunned by many, took to drink and died in poverty after spending the final 20 years of his life in a workhouse.

Ralph Todd’s ‘The Confession’ (1929) seems to simply be a study of two women in earnest conversation. Yet its title has led one of the co-curators to ask: “Are the couple mother and daughter, sisters, just good friends, or more than good friends?” The exhibition label goes on to say that the conversation is clearly causing great concern “…just like many LGBT people have felt when declaring their sexuality or feelings.” It’s a comment that speaks volumes about the anxieties that accompany many gay, bi and trans people on their journey through life.

The exhibits certainly cover all bases. Edwin Longsdon Long’s ‘Alethe, Attendant of the Sacred Ibis’ (1888) and Elfreda Beaumont’s ‘I Had a Little Nut Tree’ (1941) both seem to visually explore high-camp and fantasy. ‘The Dunce’ (1886) by Harold Copping deals with the misery of rejection. ‘Andromeda’ (1875) by Arthur Hills dwells on sexually-charged captivity, and ‘Remembering Happier Things’ (1921) by Henry Justice Ford offers a wistful figure seemingly trapped by circumstance.

There’s even a Native American war bonnet which is perhaps reminiscent of the rainbow flag itself: a colourful accessory to take into battle made of eagle feathers, wool, leather, felt and glass-beads. The Village People would love it!

Refracted - funded by a grant from the Lottery Heritage Fund - is an important aspect of Dorset’s contribution to the 50th anniversary of what the co-curators stress was only the “partial decriminalisation” of the homosexuality laws.

Today the LGBT community in Dorset has more freedom and acceptance than ever before, but the Refracted exhibition is a significant milestone in their ongoing fight for total inclusion. It’s another step towards breaking down the barriers that still exist as well as a celebration of diversity and our shared humanity.

Refracted: Collection Highlights runs at the Russell-Cotes until 8 September 2017. Find more details at russellcotes.com

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