There is definitely a PhD waiting to be written on the subject of Saki and painting.
In her memoir of her brother Ethel Munro describes visiting museums and art galleries in Europe with her father and siblings.
Although it is doubtful Ethel realised its significance, the choice of St. Sebastian may have been not been completely arbitrary, for this saint was something of a homosexual icon and in this post I want to explore some possible ways Munro’s interest in particular niche genres of art may reveal aspects of his sexuality.
We saw an immense number of picture galleries in Berlin, Munich, etc., and were impressed by the love of Germans artists for St. Sebastian (the arrow-struck saint), so we started bets on the gallery which would have the most: Berlin won.
Before beginning I may as well include the usual disclaimer. As Brian Gibson is at pains to point out in his book,, most critics and commentators (recent ones at least) have taken Munro’s homosexuality as established fact when there is no proof one way or the other. (There may once have been, before Ethel Munro did her censorship job on her brother’s papers after his death. Indeed, the fact that she tried so rigorously to present a particular image of him posthumously very much suggests there was something to hide – but here again we see how easy it is to slip into speculation based on circumstantial evidence.) The second part of the disclaimer is the standard warning against the biographical interpretation of fiction, as taught to every undergraduate studying literature: one must be extremely wary of drawing conclusions about a writer’s life from his fiction, or vice versa.
I suppose at this point I could stop writing.
However, were I to continue along this route, then I might want to begin with the uncontroversial assertion that art was clearly an aspect of culture that Munro had a great deal of interest in and (judging by its presence in many of his works) a fair amount of knowledge of too. There are numerous references in his work to painters and paintings, both real and imagined. One of his early stories was even entitled ‘Reginald on the Academy’ (a reference to London’s Royal Academy of Arts). The Academy and the types of paintings it bought and displayed were the subject of some discussion at the time Munro was writing. In particular, its acquisition policy, financed through the Chantry Bequest (referred to in that story), had come under fire for being conservative and parochial. The Academy’s Summer Exhibition, which showed amateur works, was similarly unadventurous. It is the Summer Exhibition that is the recipient of Theophil Eshley’s paintings in the story ‘The Stalled Ox’:
Theophil Eshley was an artist by profession, a cattle painter by force of environment. It is not to be supposed that he lived on a ranch or a dairy farm, in an atmosphere pervaded with horn and hoof, milking-stool, and branding-iron. His home was in a park-like, villa-dotted district that only just escaped the reproach of being suburban. On one side of his garden there abutted a small, picturesque meadow, in which an enterprising neighbour pastured some small picturesque cows of the Channel Island persuasion. At noonday in summertime the cows stood knee-deep in tall meadow-grass under the shade of a group of walnut trees, with the sunlight falling in dappled patches on their mouse-sleek coats. Eshley had conceived and executed a dainty picture of two reposeful milch-cows in a setting of walnut tree and meadow-grass and filtered sunbeam, and the Royal Academy had duly exposed the same on the walls of its Summer Exhibition. The Royal Academy encourages orderly, methodical habits in its children. Eshley had painted a successful and acceptable picture of cattle drowsing picturesquely under walnut trees, and as he had begun, so, of necessity, he went on. His “Noontide Peace,” a study of two dun cows under a walnut tree, was followed by “A Mid-day Sanctuary,” a study of a walnut tree, with two dun cows under it. In due succession there came “Where the Gad-Flies Cease from Troubling,” “The Haven of the Herd,” and “A Dream in Dairyland,” studies of walnut trees and dun cows. His two attempts to break away from his own tradition were signal failures: “Turtle Doves alarmed by Sparrow-hawk” and “Wolves on the Roman Campagna” came back to his studio in the guise of abominable heresies, and Eshley climbed back into grace and the public gaze with “A Shaded Nook where Drowsy Milkers Dream.”
However, it is a couple of passing references to the works of a different (real, this time) Academician that set me thinking (speculating might be a better word) about the controversial topic of Munro’s sexuality.
The reference comes in the story ‘The Lull’, in which a young girl fools a visiting country house guest into believing there has been a great flood. The bathroom, she reports, is full of Boy Scouts.
“Yes, thirty of them came to rescue us while the water was only waist-high; then it rose another three feet or so and we had to rescue them. We’re giving them hot baths in batches and drying their clothes in the hot-air cupboard, but, of course, drenched clothes don’t dry in a minute, and the corridor and staircase are beginning to look like a bit of coast scenery by Tuke.”
“Tuke” here is Henry Scott Tuke (1858–1929). He was one of a number of artists in the late Victorian and the Edwardian period with a fascination for the male nude, and is particularly remembered for his paintings of boys swimming or boating in the open air. (He lived on the Cornwall coast.)
The reader will find more undressed young boys in ‘Reginald’s Choir Treat’. In that story Reginald takes a church outing to a bathing spot and then makes them parade, undressed, back home.
Reginald said he had seen something like it in pictures […]
Brian Gibson suggests that the pictures may be like those taken by the photographer Wilhelm von Gloeden.  Von Gloeden, a German nobleman, lived in Sicily and used local models. Although he took landscape photos as well, he took many nude photographs of boys and young men, usually with some kind of classical imagery or props such as pillars or amphorae.
In the article ‘The Love that dare not speak its name’, Emmanuel Cooper lists other artists around the 1890s, such as Frederick Rolfe (aka Baron Corvo), who created similar classically inspired artworks.
Many of these men were homosexual and used classical Greek art (principally sculpture) as a model/legitimation for their own studies of nudes.
Homosexual acts were of course illegal at that time and therefore had to be carried out clandestinely. An interest in classical nudes represented a kind of grey area where the normal Victorian prudery and abhorrence of homosexuality did not apply as it did in society at large. It was within “transgressive spaces” such as these that homosexuals were forced to operate.
As a result, objects, cultural artefacts, people (such as St. Sebastian) and even places had a double meaning, creating a kind of code developed which only initiates could ‘read’. For example, when Munro presents Clovis reclining in the Jermyn Street Turkish baths, the average reader was probably unaware that they were a popular rendezvous for homosexual men.
Clovis sat in the hottest zone but two of a Turkish bath, alternately inert in statuesque contemplation and rapidly manoeuvring a fountain-pen over the pages of a note-book.
“Don’t interrupt me with your childish prattle,” he observed to Bertie van Tahn, who had slung himself languidly into a neighbouring chair and looked conversationally inclined; “I’m writing deathless verse.”
Bertie looked interested.
“I say, what a boon you would be to portrait painters if you really got to be notorious as a poetry writer. If they couldn’t get your likeness hung in the Academy as ‘Clovis Sangrail, Esq., at work on his latest poem,’ they could slip you in as a Study of the Nude or Orpheus descending into Jermyn Street. They always complain that modern dress handicaps them, whereas a towel and a fountain-pen—”
Clovis and Bertie’s presence at this location are incidental to the story itself, which deals with Clovis’ composition of an execrably bad poem to celebrate an important imperial occasion. (A recycling of an idea already used twice in stories about Reginald.)
Nevertheless, Clovis’s position represents another of the many occurrences of the ‘naked young man near water’ motif in Munro’s short stories. The quintessential one is to be found in a relatively early tale, one of Munro’s best-known: ‘Gabriel-Ernest’:
On a shelf of smooth stone overhanging a deep pool in the hollow of an oak coppice a boy of about sixteen lay asprawl, drying his wet brown limbs luxuriously in the sun. His wet hair, parted by a recent dive, lay close to his head, and his light-brown eyes, so light that there was an almost tigerish gleam in them, were turned towards Van Cheele with a certain lazy watchfulness.
As Brian Gibson and Sandie Byrne point out, the bachelor Van Cheele’s encounter with this naked teenager is charged with homoeroticism. Bringing us full circle, Adam Frost in his study of “Saki’s Context and Development” links Gabriel-Ernest’s pose to Tuke’s ‘The Diving Place’:
Summarising, it’s indisputable that Munro was familiar with Tuke’s paintings. Whether he knew the works any of the other artists and photographers mentioned by critics such as Cooper is less clear. But the references in his stories imply a kindred interest. Would it be fair to say that ‘Gabriel-Ernest’ is – at least in part – a prose version of these visual works?
Suddenly I became aware of a naked boy, a bather from some neighbouring pool, I took him to be, who was standing out on the bare hillside also watching the sunset. His pose was so suggestive of some wild faun of Pagan myth that I instantly wanted to engage him as a model […]
- Byrne, Sandie, The Unbearable Saki: The Work of H. H. Munro, 1. publ. (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2007).
- Cooper, Emmanuel, ‘The Love that dare not speak its name’ in High Art and Low Life: The Studio and the Fin-de-Siecle ; Incorporating the Catalogue to the Exhibition High Art and Low Life: The Studio and the Arts of the 1890s, Victoria and Albert Museum, 23 June–31 October 1993 (London: Studio International, 1993).
- Frost, Adam, Saki: His Context and Development (Diss. Univ. of Cambridge, 2000).
- Gibson, Brian, Reading Saki: The Fiction of H. H. Munro (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014).
- Hoare, Philip, Oscar Wilde’s Last Stand: Decadence, Conspiracy, and the Most Outrageous Trial of the Century, 1st North American edition (New York: Arcade Publishing, 1998).
- Hynes, Samuel, The Edwardian Turn of Mind (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1968).
- Munro, E.M., ‘Biography of Saki’, in The Short Stories of Saki (H.H. Munro), with an introduction by Christopher Morley, New York, 1945, pp. 637–715.
- Munro, H. H., The Complete Annotated Reginald Stories, ed. by Bruce Gaston, 1 edition (Favoriten Press, 2016).
- Munro, H. H., The Short Stories of Saki (H.H. Munro), with an introduction by Christopher Morley, New York, 1945.
- Saville, Julia F., ‘The Romance of Boys Bathing: Poetic Precedents and Respondents to the Painting of Henry Scott Tuke’, in Dellamora, Richard, ed., Victorian Sexual Dissidence (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1999).
- Munro, E.M., p. 655. ↩
- https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/arrows-of-desire-how-did-st-sebastian-become-an-enduring-homo-erotic-icon–779388.html ↩
- Note 8 on p. 250. ↩
- The history can be found in some detail in Samuel Hynes’ The Edwardian Turn of Mind. ↩
- Note that I disagree with him when he says the choir group is “presumably co-ed” (Gibson p. 41); the Anglican Church has a long tradition of all-male choirs. ↩
- Gibson, note 25, p. 252. ↩
- In High Art and Low Life: The Studio and the Fin-de-Siecle ; Incorporating the Catalogue to the Exhibition High Art and Low Life: The Studio and the Arts of the 1890s, Victoria and Albert Museum, 23 June–31 October 1993. ↩
- Gibson, note 43, quoting Hoare p. 123. ↩
- In Reginald’s Peace Poem’ and ‘Reginald’s Rubaiyat’, and if you’re interested in knowing more can I recommend The Complete Annotated Reginald Stories? https://www.annotated-saki.info/reginald-stories-now-even-jokes/ ↩