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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.

Keith Vaughan: Self-censorship and the Male Nude

Gerard Hastings

[ Artist in Focus )

Gerard Hastings explores the art and struggles of queer artist, Keith Vaughan for LGBTQ+ History Month.

Keith Vaughan was Britain’s foremost painter of the male nude before David Hockney and Patrick Procktor. His work, which fetched high prices throughout his life, was consistently promoted by the Arts Council and shown in numerous exhibitions both at home and abroad. He evolved a unique manner of depicting his figures, often faceless and without obvious genitalia, since he regarded such details as distracting ‘attention grabbers’. But there were other reasons why he did this. During the 1940’s and ’50s Vaughan, like other queer artists, was compelled to self-censor and veil his imagery since overt, male nudity was suspect and any expression of same-sex eroticism carried with it legal risks and possible charges for contravening obscenity laws.

By the time he painted Figure Falling Forwards in the early 1960s, a prime example of his work, Vaughan had evolved a manner of painting which hovers between abstraction and figuration. The human form is integrated with its surroundings and a crucial balance is achieved between the depiction of the subject and the expressivity of the luscious, painted surface. But this resolution of subject and pigment took many years to achieve. His faceless figures are representations of mankind in general, rather than individuals and reflect on the struggles and anxieties we all experience while negotiating conflicting emotions and often, hostile, external situations.

Painting of a figure falling forwards

Keith Vaughan, Figure Falling Forwards, 1962-3, © The Estate of Keith Vaughan, All Rights Reserved DACS 2022.

Vaughan was a prolific journal writer and revealed his most private thoughts in sixty-one, hand-written volumes. This extremely honest document records the apprehensions and self-doubts of a gay man struggling to conceal his frustration at the social injustices in public life at the time.

He criticizes censorship, voices disappointment at establishment hypocrisy and expresses horror at the lack of insight into human behaviour exercised by public figures and politicians:

It is difficult to bear in mind that with all one’s honours, distinctions and successes etc. one remains a member of the criminal class. My sexual relationships, on the rare occasions when they have been successful would, or could, earn me at least life imprisonment if known & prosecuted. How can one feel part of one’s time & society in that case?

When he made this statement, Vaughan was not only an Associate Member of the Royal Academy, an honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Art but also a Commander of the British Empire.

In 1966, one year before the partial decriminalization of homosexuality, Vaughan was brave enough to publish extracts from his journal, revealing himself as a gay man. On several occasions he expresses a desire to console other marginalized and excluded members of society and conjures up an imaginary reader who might benefit from his chronicle of social transgression:

I imagine some young man reading these lines some fifty years hence. Yet if I was talking to such a person, would I confess these things? Of course not. I would suppress & invent solely to impress him – make myself interesting to him. But supposing he too has dark, guilty, submerged desires for such things – after all, I cannot possibly be unique – to him surely it would bring some consolation, even encouragement.

Black and white photograph of Keith Vaughan painting in his studio

Photograph of Keith Vaughan painting Second Assembly of Figures, 1953

Unobtrusive though his paintings were to those who could not fully decode them, they nevertheless represent a specific brand of subversion which flew in the face of prevailing rectitude. In many ways his work was an expression of dissent and non-conformity which subtly challenged hostile attitudes.

Recent academic developments in Queer Studies and art history, changes in the law, increased tolerance and unremitting male nudity in advertising and social media, have contributed not only to the opening up of attitudes but also to the opening of eyes. We perceive the world in an entirely different way to Vaughan’s contemporaries and are adept at interpreting visual material in more nuanced ways.

In Vaughan’s day, homoerotic visual references were recognized only by fellow queers or uncommonly perceptive individuals. The idea that such imagery could grace the walls of publicly funded galleries was beyond serious consideration. It was such an unthinkable idea that it simply went unthought. Upbringing and social conditioning ensured the gallery-going public accepted his male nude subjects at face value without identifying any surreptitious or covert meanings. To do otherwise was virtually impossible since alternative ways of looking and perceiving were not part of the collective, visual culture of the immediate post-war years. If someone happened to identify ‘impropriety’ in Vaughan’s paintings, they naturally assumed that this was entirely within their own imaginings and certainly could not have been the artist’s intention.

Vaughan was not alone; other artists shared similar agendas. His friends and fellow queers John Minton and John Craxton also infused their work with homoerotic references. Most would have understood their nocturnal figures hiding in shadows beneath canopies of predatory foliage as embodiments of anxiety within the context of the Blitz and wartime blackouts. Such readings were certainly intended, but there are other ways of understanding their work. Queer viewers, for example, compelled to conceal their private identities while harbouring the constant fear of detection, would have perceived these sheltering figures very differently; the moonlit skies and hostile tangles of undergrowth would have signified a more personal and sinister threat.

Abstracted male figures sit in groups of two or threes.

Keith Vaughan, Musicians at Marrakesh, 1966-70, Oil on canvas, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester (Accepted by HM Government in lieu of Inheritance Tax and allocated to Pallant House Gallery from the Estate of Professor John Ball, 2011) © The Estate of Keith Vaughan. All rights reserved, DACS 2020

Like other queer men, Vaughan lived in constant fear of public exposure and social disgrace, since it was not uncommon for blackmailers to extort money under the threat of revealing their ‘crimes’. Complacent in the knowledge that the ‘unspeakable’ nature of their offences ensured they ‘coughed up’, criminals regularly targeted them.

Vaughan discovered this for himself when he met Johnny Walsh in a Soho ‘queer bar’ in 1956. Known to the police as a petty criminal, Walsh presented an unsettling threat. After a drunken altercation in the summer of 1956 Vaughan attempted to terminate all connections with him:

Letter to Johnny Walsh severing relationships. Sat & Sun at wits ends. Severe anxiety states – hopeless emotional confusion (following a final climax of dangerous violence). Have not seen him since his return nor know his whereabouts. But have an uneasy feeling I soon shall & with difficulty try & keep myself prepared for any situation. More than anything, I long to forget completely the last 3 months & take up the threads of life again with undivided concentration.

Out of the blue, Walsh turned up again at Vaughan’s home demanding £50 in return for his silence. Vaughan stood his ground, fully aware that if reported, he would be brought in for questioning and his house would be searched. His tore out the pages of his journal that related to Walsh then cleared all incriminating material from his flat. For months he waited for a knock on the door. Fortunately, it never came.

Over the course of the following year the association between artist and blackmailer took on a surprizing and unanticipated complexion. Despite Walsh arriving drunk on his doorstep at all hours of the day and night, embroiling him in rows and confrontations an unlikely relationship took root. While Walsh continued to get into trouble with the police, Vaughan went on supporting him with written statements guaranteeing his good character and visiting him to take money and cigarettes whenever he was in Pentonville prison. They became lovers and Walsh, for a time, was one of Vaughan’s prime models.

Sketch of a man in briefs leaning with arms on back of chair

Keith Vaughan, Study of a Figure Relaxing, Pencil on paper, © The Estate of Keith Vaughan, All Rights Reserved DACS 2022.

Being a self-taught painter, Vaughan had neither attended art school nor received a formal art education. To paint the male form he relied on friends, lovers and pick-ups to stand in as his models. Male nude photography during the 1930s and ’40s was very difficult to find and dangerous if discovered in one’s possession. It was impossible to send a roll of film away to be printed commercially, so he improved his knowledge of photography and mastered the dark room skills he had acquired as a schoolboy.

Army regulations and the constraints of rationing precluded studio work during the war. As an alternative, Vaughan produced works on paper, commandeering a quiet corner of the barracks to do so. His mainly recorded his daily life or the landscapes where he was stationed. However, in secret, Vaughan produced homoerotic images while running the risk of court martial and imprisonment had they been discovered.

Back home on leave, Vaughan could paint in comparative privacy, since his bedroom doubled up as his studio and, thanks to the blackout curtains, his darkroom. This provided him with the excuse to put a lock on his door while printing photographs of male subjects and keeping his inquisitive mother at bay.

He also went to queer bars and cruising areas with John Minton and the Scottish artists Colquhoun and MacBryde. In 1948 Vaughan moved to Hamilton Terrace to share a house with Minton where, at last, he could pursue a private life. Nevertheless, for much of this time he lived in a state of nervous anxiety, worried that he might be picked up by a plain clothes policeman or an agent provocateur.

Despite the hurdles which Vaughan encountered in the early part of his career, he continued to seek out solutions to the social tensions and personal struggles he faced, by using his art to make sense of the world in which he found himself:

If you make an orderly resolution to the particular problem you set out with, you automatically make some sort of comment on the human situation. You have demonstrated that the order is possible, in art if not in life. But I have never claimed to be making profound statements on the human situation. I am trying to sort out a personal conflict which I suppose is shared by a certain number of people.

Gerard Hastings is a leading scholar on the life and work of Keith Vaughan. You can find a selection of his writings on Keith Vaughan at Pallant Bookshop.

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