James Hanley (born in 1897, died in 1985) was a Liverpool-born, novelist and playwright of Irish descent. He is one of the best-regarded writers of working-class fiction in British history. His writing explored both the extreme and everyday conditions and experiences of working class people and communities. Many of his best-known works, including his semi-autobiographical series of five ‘Fury’ novels were set in Liverpool, at Kirkdale and the docks.
Hanley came from a seafaring family. He joined the merchant navy himself when seventeen, before jumping ship and joining the Canadian Army. He fought in the First World War, returning to Liverpool in 1918. Several of his novels and short stories published in the 1930s and 1940s, focused on seamen and their families.
Two of Hanley’s major works address themes of sexual desire and sexual violence amongst men at sea and at war. ‘Boy’ (1931), for example, is a deeply disturbing novel about Arthur Fearon, a working-class thirteen-year-old from Liverpool who stows away on a ship called The Hernian. After he is found half-dead by a crewman, the sailors treat Fearon like a slave and physically and sexually abuse him. In Hanley’s equally harrowing ‘The German Prisoner’, two British working-class infantry men capture a German soldier and subject him to sexual and physical torture. In the scene where they finally kill the soldier, Hanley presents the violence as if it were an act of homosexual congress transformed into torture.
Hanley’s depictions of sexual violence contrast strongly with the portrayals of tender, romantic homosexual love and desire between soldiers, by other writers of the period. Indeed, such overt and detailed accounts of homosexual desire and sexual violence were exceedingly rare. Censorship rules around homosexual and violent content were severe at the time these books were published. ‘The German Prisoner’ was only produced as a luxury edition and privately printed to allow its content to bypass conventional publication laws and escape censorship. ‘Boy’, on the other hand, became the subject of a famous obscenity trail, was judged an ‘obscene libel’ and remained banned for almost sixty years. E M Forster, a great admirer of Hanley’s work, addressed the 1935 Paris Writers’ Congress appealing for fellow writers to oppose the ban.
This portrait was painted by the self-taught artist Gladys Vasey between 1951 and 1952. Vasey appears to have initiated the painting of the portrait herself. Vasey lived on the Wirral for some time. However, she first met Hanley sometime after her move to Llanyblodwel, North Wales, in 1943. Hanley lived at the nearby village of Llanfechain. Liam Hanley, the author’s son presented the portrait to the Walker Art Gallery in 2005.