Keith Vaughan [1912-1977] was a painter, initially a post-war neoromantic, but later pushing towards a more abstract style. He painted men – and men in movement particularly – in a way which was utterly and unashamedly erotic. The extraordinary thing is that nobody noticed – or if they did, they didn’t comment on it – at the time.
Yet gay men did notice. Since putting together this show, I’ve had several say that in the 1960s Vaughan was the first modern painter who proclaimed to them in art that not only were there other people ‘like them’, there was a way of expressing it. As a result, Vaughan is something of a cult figure – there is a Keith Vaughan Society – yet his work has never commanded enormous prices. £300k? Peanuts compared to his chum Francis Bacon, or even his flatmate Graham Sutherland.
But it is the diaries of Keith Vaughan which remain a fascination. He observed himself and his life relentlessly from the 1930s onwards. He recorded his unrequited and idealised love for his contemporaries at school; his burgeoning masochism from beatings at Christ’s Hospital; his struggles as a conscientious objector and being taken for a German spy; his forays into the dark French queer underground; his love for Johnny, a beautiful working class man who spent much time in prison, and gave him the pain he needed; like Bacon, he craved rough trade who would savage him. Increasingly he wrote about his isolation from the contemporary art scene, his self-doubt about his talent, and his struggles with illness, impotence and his needy, wheedling lover, Ramsay. Love turned to hate, too, with his mother, who lived to 95 and became a constant demand on him.
Perhaps the nearest he comes to expressing conventional love is towards Raoul, a Mexican teenager with whom he had a holiday romance. It is charming and touching, but Vaughan is aware of how he is exploiting Raoul in what we would now call sex tourism. Right from the start he knows that this can have no future, which means Raoul will have no future. He abandons the boy with a finality which makes his expressions of sympathy ring hollow. Vaughan is never harder on anyone than he is on himself.
The last years make grim, fascinating reading. He became obsessed with his Electrical masturbator, which became his primary sexual outlet. He records in unsparing detail the progress of his cancer, the acquisition of his colostomy bag, his constant fascination with suicide, which he eventually achieved, and recorded as it was happening. If anyone ever doubted the truth of Bette Davis’s dictum, ‘Old age is no place for cissies’, they have only to read Keith Vaughan.
From those diaries I fashioned a show for Edinburgh for the Vaughan centenary in 2012, entitled “Locked In”. That’s what Vaughan was, conflicted as he was about sexuality and relationships. Now, for the Zoom revival towards the end of a pandemic, that title had other resonances, hence a new title, “Out Of Time”; Vaughan became increasingly detached from his era, and also ran out of time and the will to live.
New title, new material. Since 2012 new diaries have been published which were considered too hot to handle previously; material about his sex life and fantasies which is even more raw. Some of this has made its way into an expanded show. It’s my belief that Vaughan is one of those people – Malcolm Arnold is another – whose life, character and sexual interests have been a major inhibitor of a proper appreciation of his work. We seem incapable of separating the two.
I went in search of the Vaughan paintings at the Scottish National Gallery. No sign of them. They were locked away in a basement, and no, I couldn’t see them. Same thing in London at the Tate Gallery. A forgotten man, it seemed. However, in the last ten years, we have come to accept a more flexible view of what it means to be queer, to be more sympathetic to the struggles for self-fulfilment in viciously repressive times. Our censoriousness has moved on into other areas. I was delighted to see that Vaughan was at least represented in the Tate show of Queer Art mounted in 1967 for the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act.
Perhaps Vaughan is no longer ‘Out of Time’. Perhaps his time is coming.
Judge for yourself on Tuesday 25th May at 7.30pm by going to:
Meeting ID: 838 2521 0002
“Out of Time” – the Diaries of Keith Vaughan, compiled by Peter Scott-Presland, performed by Peter Boyle and Peter Scott-Presland on Tuesday 25th May at 7.30pm.