‘It is difficult to recall those days of last summer; difficult to believe they ever existed, waking each morning with the sun already hot and high in the sky. Walking out through the shallows of the sinking tide and wandering all day over the islands of shingles with nothing but the white flecks of birds and our naked bodies browning in the sun and salt…’
Keith Vaughan, Journal & drawings, 1940.
Keith Vaughan (1912-1977) reminisces in his journal in the winter of 1940 on the happy summer of 1939 before the outbreak of war that changed the lives of young men across Britain. Set over two floors at Austin/ Desmond Fine Art, Vaughan’s exhibition, On Pagham Beach, Photographs and collages from the 1930s, explores youthful male bodies browning in the sun and salt of the sea. Vaughan, one of Britain’s most renowned twentieth century figurative painters, photographed these briny men playing out playful and homoerotic poses on the beach exposing their bodies without shame. Openly attracted to the younger men, he became a father figure to them at a time when it was only socially acceptable for a man to publically gaze at another’s body hidden behind the lens of a camera.
Male figure in bathing shorts lying-on a towel,1939-© The estate of Keith Vaughan, Courtesy Austin Desmond Fine Art
Taken in the 1930s before World War II, Vaughan’s rare vintage photographs preserve the men’s youthful naiveté, the joy and pleasure of the summer sun and carefree playfulness of the beach before the war began in September 1939. Many of the men photographed would not have returned home from WWII, including Vaughan’s brother Dick, who was killed a year later whilst serving in the RAF, and these images remind us of a generation of healthy men that were soon to be lost. Vaughan’s black and white images of joyous times on the beach also painfully contrast the photographs taken of men fighting on the beaches of Dunkirk the following summer.
As 2017 marks the fortieth anniversary of Vaughan’s death, the exhibition contains a poignant element through the presence of an empty box many of the small photographs were found in years later with ‘Pagham’ just about legible in the artist’s hand written on a faded label. The postcard-sized photographs themselves are hung in grids, framed individually in black, resonating mournful letters edged in black.
Keith Vaughan, Floating boy, 1939 © The estate of Keith Vaughan, Courtesy Austin Desmond Fine Art
Due to the provocative and sensual nature of the imagery for the time, the photographs were hidden away for many years, but are now celebrated here on the fiftieth anniversary of the repeal of the ‘Labouchère amendment’ of 1885 and the passing of the Sexual Offenses Act in 1967, which legalised homosexuality between consenting adults. The images are a celebration of male sexuality and youthful innocence at a time when men were still imprisoned for their love and desire for one another. Vaughan’s Leica camera was stolen in 1939 and was never replaced, making these photographs a rare and uniquely hopeful account of what it was to be a young gay man in the 1930s which formed part of his artistic evolution.
Hidden in the centre of a grid of photographs is the beautifully ethereal image, Floating Boy (1939), depicting a young man lying in the sea with light subtly reflecting on the water giving it a ghostly quality. His face is not submerged but his ears are below the surface. The man is preserved in the photograph and with his eyes closed he appears dead as an omen for the war coming and the loss of young men.
On Pagham Beach, Photographs and collages from the 1930s is on at Austin/Desmond Fine Art until 8 December. For more information see: www.austindesmond.com