KaleidoScot highlights the story of a forgotten Scottish born artist, William Bruce Ellis Ranken, a man who lived his artistic passion and wasn’t shy paintings compositions with explicit homoerotic undertones.
Born to the well to do Ranken family, in Edinburgh in 1881, he was educated in the country’s finest institutions, the prestigious Eaton College and later, Slade school of Art at the liberal UCL.
At the age of 23, Ranken had already his first one-man exhibition at the esteemed London’s Carfax Gallery. In 1907 he moved to the bohemian and privileged neighboured of Chelsea, socialising with the ‘Edwardian Aesthetes’ and the country’s artistic elite.
It was around then he met and befriended the gay artist John Singer Sargent, who became his mentor, as well as became close friends with the gay photographer Baron De Meyer.
Ranken loved the high-life and many of his friends and patrons were lesbian, gay and bisexual artists. According to the Advocate, some of those included composer Cole Porter, writer Violet Keppel Trefusis; Anne Morgan, and her lover Elsie de Wolfe; The literary agent Elizabeth Marbury who was also de Wolfe’s lover. The famous collector, Henry Davis Sleeper and his life long lover, actor Ernest Thesiger, who ended up marrying Ranken’s sister Janette! Most notable was “William Lygon, Earl Beauchamp, and his middle son, the Honorable Hugh Lygon, the model for Sebastian Flyte, the catalyst in Evelyn Waugh’s most famous novel, Brideshead Revisited.”
In the subsequent years up until the end of the First World War (which Ranken couldn’t serve in, due to consequences of contracting polio as a child), he instead developed a formidable reputation for himself on the art scene. He also regularly travelled the globe, and was commissioned by the likes of members of national and international royalty and American industrialists.
He enjoyed bohemian life and beauty, making portraits of many beautiful aristocratic and rich ladies, such as of Queen Elizabeth, and Olga Alberta, Baroness de Meyer, wife of his gay friend, who he painted in Venice, which can still be seen at the be found at Leeds Museums and Galleries.
He enjoyed painting beautiful men, often in nude, which was still uncommon at the time, and his compositions had a highly homo-erotic and suggestive undertones.
Artistically, he was prolific and a master of a number of different mediums from pastels, to watercolours and oil paintings, creating numerous portraits and still lives(- not always of just the great and the good), landscapes, interiors, even some design work alongside architects, most notably Basil Ionides, they re-modelled Claridges Restaurant in London.
His hobbies were an extension of his professional life, included music, embroidery, antiques, interior decoration and gardening.
In the late 1920’s his work was described by art critique Joseph Duveen: “Mr Ranken is one of the few painters of the present day who shows in his work a genuine love of the gorgeous, the stately and the splendid”
Was Ranken openly or explicitly gay? Almost no one was at the time. As with Sargent and Henry James, this is still up for debate in some circles. We feel confident when we view his work that Ranken was a man of the world and aware of his own nature
By the mid 1930s, his success and wealth were on the wane due to the ongoing worldwide Depression and his own spending habits, regarding his treasured home, which he was forced to sell.
He then moved in with his sister Ann, who was married to the Earl Of Elgin and Kincardine. His final major work, was his painting of the coronation of King George VI in 1937 at Westminster Abbey.
Tragically, Ranken died of a cerebral Haemorrhage in 1941 at Charing Cross Hospital.
The memory of his work faded due to several reasons, first, many of his paintings were destroyed or damaged during the Blitz and the rest were given by his sister and his brother to family and friends.
Ranken never married and it has been suggested that his relationships were mostly same-sex. At the time it was very rare indeed to find people who were open about their sexuality as morality and social standing would not allow it. However, there is no doubt that his greatest passion was his work and the highlife.
Here are some of his paintings: