We acknowledge the Gadigal of the Eora Nation, the traditional custodians of the Country on which the Art Gallery of New South Wales stands.

Queering the collection

Journey through the Gallery on this self-guided tour and learn some of the queer stories and fascinating facts behind the art. Put together by our library and archive staff, you’ll hear stories that delve into the lives of the artists and sitters.

An introduction to the 'Queering the collection' tour, recorded in June 2020 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Thanks for joining us on the 'Queering the collection' tour. Let’s start by acknowledging the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, the traditional custodians of the land on which we’re standing. We hope you enjoy this audio experience that’s been put together and read by Gallery staff.

Hear from one of our staff about Agnes Goodsir’s artwork Chinese skirt 1933 at the Art Gallery of NSW.

Image: Agnes Goodsir Chinese skirt 1933. Gift of the artist 1938.

The subject of this portrait is Agnes Goodsir’s American partner Rachel Dunn, who was known as ‘Cherry’. The couple lived together in Paris, and Goodsir often painted Dunn as the bold, liberated and fashionable woman that she was.  
 
Here she is dressed in a stylish Chinese-inspired skirt. Notice how its blue embroidery is echoed in the ceramic figurine, and the books and pot in the background.   
  
Paris between the wars was, for the saddest of reasons, a particularly welcoming place for creative women. With a generation of men lost to the war, social life in the City of Light was an increasingly feminine affair. This made it easier for lesbian couples to live their lives publicly.   
 
The Australasian newspaper described Goodsir’s art as ‘a galaxy of beautiful, and even more beautiful women, doing feminine things: taking morning tea, posing before a mirror, reading, wearing blue hats or Chinese shawls’.  
 
This painting shows Dunn doing almost all of these supposedly ‘feminine things’.

Hear from one of our staff about William Dobell’s artwork Self portrait 1932 at the Art Gallery of NSW.

Image: William Dobell  Self portrait 1932. Purchased with assistance from the Trustees of the Sir William Dobell Art Foundation 1985. © Courtesy Sir William Dobell Art Foundation.

This self-portrait was painted three years after Newcastle-born artist William Dobell arrived in London.  
 
The impoverished 33-year-old artist gazes out at us, his hair slightly dishevelled. It’s a remarkable attempt to portray one’s self without glamour, bravado or artifice.  When Dobell later returned to Sydney, he became a popular portraitist and won the Archibald Prize three times. Yet his success was not without cost.  
 
His first win, a portrait of fellow wartime artist Joshua Smith, was challenged in court for being a caricature rather than a formal portrait. Tabloid headlines like ‘Dobell tells of 2 years in a tent with Joshua Smith’ invited readers to infer the nature of their friendship.  
 
Critics also dismissed Dobell’s portraits as ‘arty to the point of effeminacy’. Even positive press spoke of the ‘queer genius’ of this ‘handsome, well-built bachelor’. Dobell and Smith were both intensely private men at a time when male homosexuality was a crime. They soon retreated from the gossipy Sydney art scene to their respective family homes in suburban Newcastle and Sydney.

Hear from one of our staff about Pat Larter’s artwork Five in a row show 1969.

Image: Richard Larter Five in a row show 1969. Gift of Frank Watters 2018. Donated through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program. © Richard Larter. Licensed by Copyright Agency.

Richard Larter’s vast multi-panel painting was created for art dealer Frank Watters’ apartment in East Sydney. It’s an interesting commission choice for an openly gay man.  
 
Here you see pop-art clippings of famous women mixed in with nude portraits of Larter’s wife Pat and images from so-called ‘girlie’ magazines of the 1960s.  Most of the women are shown performing alone for a camera. But a black-and-white image on the lower left and the brown image on the centre right are suggestive  of lesbian love, albeit a heterosexual male fantasy version of it.

This exuberant collage of images is a superb example of Richard and at Larter’s preoccupation with the candid depiction of human sexuality. There’s certainly no censorship here!

Hear from one of our staff about William Strutt’s artwork Gold diggers receiving a letter from home c1860.

Image: William Strutt Gold diggers receiving a letter from home c1860. Art Gallery of New South Wales, purchased 1964.

The two men in this painting were among the thousands of people who rushed to Australiain the 19th century in search of gold.  
 
Their identities are unknown to us, but their closeness suggests an intimate relationship. The fair-haired man places a hand gently on his companion’s shoulder as he leans in to read the letter. Are they friends, or relatives? Or could they be lovers?   
  
It’s a little-known fact that the Australian Gold Rush provided an opportunity for many queer people to begin a new life on the goldfields that was true to their identity. But there were risks, and exposure could come at a heavy cost.  
 
This painting reminds me of Edward De Lacy Evans, a young Irishman who arrived in Melbourne in 1856 to mine the Victorian goldfields. According to the contemporary press, his ‘somewhat effeminate face and figure at times excited comment’.  
 
After suffering a break down over his wife’s infidelity, Evans was medically examined and his biological gender was made public. He later joined the travelling show circuit in an attempt to raise money to leave Australia, but his mental health never really recovered from the scandal and he soon died in Melbourne.

Hear from one of our staff about Tom Robert’s artwork Jealousy 1889.

Image: Tom Roberts Jealousy 1889. Art Gallery of New South Wales, purchased 1960.

Look at the woman in blue as she recoils from what she is hearing. She clings to the fabric of her skirt nervously. If she moves she will be found out. She is frozen, listening to a man and a woman as they flirt together.   
  
The Melbourne journal Table talk described the subject of this painting as ‘a young lady seated in a recess, becoming the voluntary or involuntary auditor of a flirtation which is being carried on by a rival round the corner, with the listener’s own lover’.
 
The heteronormative assumption would be that the woman’s lover is the man, and the rival is the woman dressed in red. But it’s worth thinking about other possibilities. After all, the painting’s original title was a quote from Shakespeare’s Othello. And in the play, the ‘rival’ is a man and the ‘lover’ is a woman. 

Tom Roberts painted this work in his studio. You can see the Japanese fans, screen and ceramics, all part of the fashionable Aesthetic style of the time. This decorative movement was popularised by Oscar Wilde and embraced by Melbourne’s artists – at least until news of Wilde’s conviction for indecency in 1895.

Hear from one of our staff about Harriet Hosmer’s artwork Beatrice Cenci 1857,

Image: Harriet Hosmer Beatrice Cenci 1857. Art Gallery of New South Wales, purchased 1892.

This delicately carved marble sculpture shows the Roman noble woman Beatrice Cenci lounging peacefully in her prison cell on the night before her execution. She clutches her rosary, a symbol of faith, despite the church condemning her to death for killing her abusive father.

All of Harriet Hosmer’s sculptures of women are provocative reflections on their fate in a male-dominated world. She said her aim was to show women like Cenci as ‘not subdued, but calm, grand and strong’ within themselves. 

‘Strong within herself’ is a perfect description of Hosmer. She left America just before her 22nd birthday and travelled to Rome to pursue her artistic ambitions. It was there, as a student of artist John Gibson, that she created this sculpture and you can see some of his works on display beside hers.

As an openly gay woman, Hosmer lived outside what she described as the ‘restricting patterns of womanhood’. She managed to achieve distinction in the traditionally male-dominated field of sculpture.

  • 01
    Introduction: Queering the collection
    20 seconds
  • 02
    Agnes Goodsir 'Chinese skirt' 1933
    1 minute
  • 03
    William Dobell 'Self portrait' 1932
    1 minute
  • 04
    Richard Larter 'Five in a row show' 1969
    46 seconds
  • 05
    William Strutt (attrib) 'Gold diggers receiving a letter from home' c1860
    1 minute
  • 06
    Tom Roberts 'Jealousy' 1889
    1 minute
  • 07
    Harriet Hosmer 'Beatrice Cenci' 1857
    1 minute