Spotlight: LGBTQ+ Icons

As part of LGBTQ+ History Month, our Youth Forum delved into our Collection to explore the LGBTQ+ sitters that particularly inspire them. From artists to activists, discover the incredible portraits that they’ve selected, and the connections that they have found within the works.

Gwen John

Gwen John by Gwen John, circa 1900, NPG 4439

Selected by: Alicia, Milly, and Sonia

Painter Gwen John was one of the foremost women artists of the 20th century, with Youth Forum Member Milly highlighting how: “ Gwen John's self-portrait is striking as the artist has depicted herself gazing directly at the viewer with a hand on her hip, giving her a sense of defiance.” She also added: “As John was a queer, female artist living in the patriarchal society of Victorian Britain, I find the confident way in which she depicts herself extremely inspiring.” The artist’s bold and certain expression was also acknowledged by Alicia, who said: “I love the quiet confidence of this painting. The brushwork feels delicate and the lighting is soft, the colour palette restrained. Although these aspects make the painting subtle and gentle, John has a very bold presence; her pose and expression are defiant, complimented by the dramatic, structured shapes of her blouse, and she fills the frame.”

Sonia also shared why she felt it was so important for this portrait to have been created by John herself: “I truly believe that no one can paint the artist better than an artist themselves. It wasn't the only her self-portrait, however for me it looks like the most powerful of them."

Gwen John, by Gwen John, circa 1900

Jan Morris

Jan Morris by Arturo Di Stefano, 2004-2005, NPG 6722

Selected by: Sienna

Sienna chose Jan Morris, a journalist, author and historian who shared her experiences as a transgender woman in her 1974 memoir ‘Conundrum’. Sienna explained, “I chose Jan Morris as I found her story inspiring due to being one of the first well known authors to undergo sex reassignment surgery and outwardly accept who she is to society. The painting depicts her as a calm sitter shown from her relaxed body language and leg placed over the other which implies her comfort and security in herself.” She also focused on Morris’ cat in the portrait, sharing how it “reinforces the symbolism of femininity.”

Jan Morris, by Arturo Di Stefano, 2004-2005

Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker by Murray Korman, 1936, NPG x135816

Selected by: Jake, Gabby, Bess, Freya, Lourdes, Rose, Lara, Abi, Megan, Abi, and Sophie

Our Youth Forum highlighted how Baker’s career went beyond being a dancer and performer, with Jake noting how, “she also risked her life working for The French Resistance and campaigned across the globe for civil rights.” Lara added that alongside her activism, Baker was “also an openly bisexual woman. Her fearlessness to unapologetically be herself and to stand up for what she believes in is inspiring!”

Another aspect of the portrait our Youth Forum particularly enjoyed was Baker’s pose in the photograph, with Gabby exploring Baker’s position, centre stage: “I love how confident she is in her femininity and her skin and it’s so obvious in the photo, she breaks gender barriers and allows men to admire her as her natural self.” Bess agreed, explaining how she was “immediately drawn to the energy of this piece. The movement, facial expressions and eccentric body language create a dynamic and lively portrait.”

Josephine Baker, by Murray Korman, 1936

Kae Tempest

Kae Tempest by Dav Stewart, 2013, NPG x199075

Selected by: Olivia N and Olivia K

Poet Kae Tempest was selected by Olivia N due to Tempest’s intriguing and captivating expression, saying how, “it makes the observer want to know what’s going on in their mind, what are they yearning for, or looking at in that moment? The colour contrast of their hair with the black background gives the portrait a dynamism and illuminates their outline. It perfectly captures Kae's potent, passionate thoughts and emotion without speech or text.”

Olivia K added: “Kae Tempest is a very influential person who appears very confident in their work, yet in this photo they appear slightly vulnerable. I was drawn to this photo as it reminds us that no matter your power and how confident you think others are, at the end of the day we are all human and we all have our vulnerabilities.”

Kae Tempest, by Dav Stewart, 21 November 2013

Nicola Adams

Nicola Adams by Kate Peters, 2012, NPG P1831

Selected by: Mia and Lilly

“For me, this portrait of Nicola Adams, an iconic lesbian boxer, captures something integral about the queer community,” Lily explained, sharing how the portrait “is full of seeming contradictions: the obvious strength of the muscled sportswoman in a stance that takes up space in the frame alongside the soft lighting that brushes her features, the flash of blue in her shorts and the mainly muted tones of the rest of the portrait. These oppositional features resolve themselves into one powerful portrait, perhaps mirroring some values of the queer community – power and softness, colour and calm, taking up space in a way that challenges her community to do the same.”

Mia also found the portrait to connect with the LGBTQ+ community, telling us how, “Nicola inspires the young LGBTQ+ community to push and strive for their goals no matter what that goal is. Also they make people aware that they are accepted and there's nothing to be afraid of.”

Nicola Adams, by Kate Peters, 2012

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde by Elliott & Fry, 1881, NPG x82203

Selected by: Evie and Creagh

Dramatist Oscar Wilde was chosen by Evie due to his wide-ranging influence. She explained, “A pioneering and hugely influential novelist/playwright of the late 1800s, his work has had an immeasurable effect on society and literature as a whole. His works, namely, ‘The Picture of Dorian Grey’ and ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ (just to name a few) are such pieces that one simply doesn't forget. His uncanny ability to portray emotion and poetic writing style has immortalised his work for ever.”

Creagh also spoke about Wilde’s place in history, describing how, “Wilde’s wit and bravery to defy social norms as a gay man in 19th century England makes him an amazing icon for LGBTQ+ History Month. This portrait taken by Elliott & Fry shows him in 1881, just years before he would become accused and imprisoned for being gay in 1895, at the start of his literary career.”

Oscar Wilde, by Elliott & Fry, 1881

Radclyffe Hall

Radclyffe Hall by Charles Buchel (Karl August Büchel), 1918, NPG 4347

Selected by: Isabella and Eve

Isabella describes why she was drawn to this portrait of poet and author Radclyffe Hall: “Taking into consideration the time this painting was done, Hall is defying traditional societal stereotypes imposed upon women. This is shown by what Hall is wearing, which is striking. Furthermore, the choice of colour and the plain backdrop makes me empathise with Hall's pain. The overall mood of the painting is sombre. Perhaps, this is a reflection of Hall’s internal struggle, to show how Hall has been denied access to an essential part of identity.”

Hall was known for the novel ‘The Well of Loneliness,’ a semi-autobiographical novel that became famous for Radclyffe’s frank portrayal of its central lesbian relationship. Focusing on the era Radclyffe lived in, Eve describes why the portrait stands out to her: “It would probably have been a secret that Hall was part of the LGBTQ+ community as being a part of the community was only legal in 1967, this makes Hall's popularity in literature even more impressive.”

Radclyffe Hall, by Charles Buchel (Karl August Büchel), 1918

Vikram Seth

Vikram Seth by Julian Anderson, 2009, NPG x133123

Selected by: Sophie

The final LGBTQ+ sitter selected by our Youth Forum is writer Vikram Seth, perhaps best known for his novel ‘A Suitable Boy’. Sophie described how: “The frame simply struck me. The calm in the trees is the perfect setting for the calm in the expression. The posture feels unstaged and unpolished. Like a photo of a relative, familiar, but unfamiliar.”

Vikram Seth, by Julian Anderson, 30 March 2009