For more than 35 years the composer Benjamin Britten and singer Peter Pears lived together as life partners, their work together as musicians underpinned by a deep and fixed relationship that the two men described as a marriage. Although it was an open secret, for much of their lives that relationship was illegal and a plausible deniability had to be maintained at all times.
For nearly 20 years the two men made their home together in The Red House in Aldeburgh, and in the hall is a painting that tells a vivid story about their lives as gay men at this time. Double Concerto was commissioned by the two in 1967, very shortly after the Sexual Offences Act made their relationship legal at last.
The men are pictured together in front of the concert hall that they built at Snape Maltings, one of the main venues for the annual Aldeburgh festival Britten had founded in 1948. Behind the pair are reedbeds, but close inspection reveals something painted over. In the original portrait, Pears’ arm was flung across Britten’s shoulders. Pears, in his correspondence with Maxwell Armfield, had suggested this pose; Britten, the more introverted of the two, could not face making their relationship so public. Armfield, anxious that this should be a collaborative exercise in which the sitters were comfortable with the finished product, painted out the arm and put more reeds over the top of it.
It is easy, over 50 years on, to think of the 1967 act as enabling gay men to come out and live uncomplicatedly at last. Yet, as any gay person alive at the time could testify, and as this painting demonstrates, decriminalisation did not mean destigmatisation, and the habits of discretion formed over a lifetime were hard to shake off.
But now the painting in the hall symbolises how the relationship of these two men is at the heart of the visitor experience at The Red House, and how the central role of their long marriage in fostering their art can be acknowledged with a freedom of which they could only dream.
• This series is brought to you in collaboration with Art UK, which brings the nation’s art together on one digital platform and tells the stories behind the art. The website shows works by 50,000 artists from more than 3,000 venues including museums, universities and hospitals as well as thousands of public sculptures. Discover the art you own here.