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Your place to explore new perspectives on British art from 1900 to now. Through interviews, films, image galleries and essays, we uncover the creative lives of the people behind the art on our walls.

A stage filled with actors dressed in drag, dancing, talking and kissing.

Having a ball: Leonard Rosoman and A Patriot for Me

[ Stories )

Leonard Rosoman’s  paintings based on John Osborne’s 1965 play A Patriot for Me depicted parts of gay sub-culture which most mainstream audiences had never seen before. As part of our series celebrating LGBTQ+ History Month, we take a look at the inspiration for these paintings, and how they challenged old ideas around censorship and sexuality.

A Patriot for Me, a play by John Osborne, tells the story of Colonel Alfred Redl, an elite officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army who was blackmailed by Tsarist Russian agents because of his homosexuality. Its subject matter was considered to be so controversial that it was a licence for performance by the censor for scenes so sexually transgressive that they were “liable to corrupt”.

The play’s themes suggested a correlation between the nature of espionage and the lived experiences of gay men in the early 20th century, forced to hide their true identity behind the façade of traditional masculinity. It also commented on how the silence that discrimination forced upon gay men actually constituted a risk to the state itself.

Redl is portrayed as a complex yet largely sympathetic character, which was remarkable enough in itself for the time. Yet this portrayal wasn’t what outraged the Lord Chamberlain (the official censor for virtually all theatre performed in Britain until 1968).

A stage filled with actors dressed in drag, dancing, talking and kissing.

Leonard Rosoman, The Drag Ball, No. 2, 1967-8 Courtesy of Roxanne Rosoman, Photography Dawkins Colour / John Bodkin © The Artist’s Estate

The centrepiece of the play is a glamorous drag ball, in which members of the Viennese high society appear in drag. For Osborne, this scene was the heart of the play; for the Lord Chamberlain’s office, it was obscene. The censors demanded that the scene (along with two others) be cut entirely or they would not issue a performance licence.

But Osborne had a cunning plan. He staged A Patriot for Me as a private club production by the English Stage Society at the Royal Court Theatre. By turning the theatre into a member’s club, he no longer needed a licence.

It played to packed audiences, for a run of six weeks, making a profit despite the expense of its large cast of 37 actors. Leonard Rosoman attended with his wife on opening night on 30 June 1965.

I was bowled over by the Drag Ball scene & asked John if I could go again & make drawings of it; so he gave me one of the house seats for a week & I went every night.

Leonard Rosoman

Rosoman returned over and over again to draw in the theatre by torchlight. Despite this intense fascination, it took another two years before he began working on a series of paintings inspired by the drawings. Perhaps it was due to this time lapse that the paintings are not in fact a straightforward depiction of what happened on stage but instead represent Rosoman’s own response to the play and its themes.

A crowded stage filled with actors in elaborate drag and other costumes. A purple curtain obscures the top half of the stage.

Leonard Rosoman, The Drag Ball, No. 1, 1967-8, Acrylic on canvas, Courtesy of Roxanne Rosoman, Photography Dawkins Colour / John Bodkin © The Artist’s Estate

As well as renderings of other scenes including the gruesome The Beating Up, for which he referred to media images of male conflict and attack, Rosoman produced smaller portrait studies including of George Devine as Baron von Epp (pictured below). Devine, the first artistic director of the English Stage Company, had always wanted to appear in drag on stage, telling Osborne about a transvestite ball he had attended as a student at Oxford in the 1920s.

Painting by Leonard Rosoman depicting a man dressed in drag standing beneath a candelabra. The top of the painting is slightly obscured by a stage curtain

Leonard Rosoman, Portrait with Candelabra: George Devine as Baron von Epp, 1968, Acrylic on canvas, Accepted in lieu of Inheritance Tax by HM Government from the estate of Roxanne Rosoman and allocated to Pallant House, (2020) © The Artist’s Estate

The paintings were exhibited in both New York and London but the critical reception was somewhat muted; perhaps because of the controversial subject matter. This lack of recorded response is a little frustrating – we’d love to know how people reacted to these scenes. Some may have been outraged, but would others have recognised themselves in the characters? Or simply been amazed to discover a vibrant underground sub-culture for the first time?

We can’t know for sure, but perhaps these paintings played a small part in bringing underground gay culture to a more mainstream audience. In any case the paintings capture a moment in time when attitudes towards both sexuality and censorship were fiercely contested.

LGBTQ+ people today are still facing discrimination. But the story behind A Patriot for Me reveals how much social attitudes have changed throughout the last 100 years. In the mid-1960s, a play depicting the gay sub-culture of drag balls was censored. Today, one of the biggest hit TV shows of the moment is RuPaul’s Drag Race, a reality TV contest that has propelled drag into the mainstream. Rosoman’s paintings remind us of how far social attitudes have changed during the 20th century.

In 2018 we held an exhibition of Leonard Rosoman’s A Patriot for Me series, the first time they had been shown together in over 40 years. Find out more with Leonard Rosoman: Painting Theatre.

In 2020 we were thrilled to acquire five works from the A Patriot for Me series – find out more.