Petworth (and a very queer statue)

I was lucky enough to visit Petworth this week on a training day. The West Sussex country house contains one of the most iconic art collections in the care of National Trust, and a Capability Brown landscaped deer park in the 700 odd acre grounds are home to the country’s largest herd of fallow deer. We only had time for a brief whistlestop tour, but I will definitely make time to go back to have a closer look, and also to explore the grounds more.

There was one particular statue in the collection that stood out for me. The Petworth twitter feed helpfully pointed me towards this record on the collections website.

This is Pan and Apollo (or Marsyas and Olympos or Pan and Daphnis). In other words, it’s potentially any of three combinations of mythical figures. I was struck by the tenderness, and lets face it, queerness of the statue. Let’s consider for a moment that the sculpture depicts Pan and Daphnis, Daphnis was a Sicilian shepherd whose mother was a nymph, and is often depicted as an eromenos, which means the younger man in a pederastic relationship- a convention which was both socially accepted, and recognised in Ancient Greece. Pan fell in love with Daphnis, and taught him to play the panpipes. These models of relationships can be problematic to use as parallels with contemporary understandings of sexual identities. There were no rules or laws about age when it came to sex in Ancient Greece, but there were about consent. Either way, it’s certainly one aspect of Greek/Roman culture that hasn’t directly informed our own ‘civilisation’. The curators of the British Museum’s Warren Cup exhibition in 2006 no doubt had to think very carefully about how the object, which more blatantly depicts sex between erastês and erômenos, was framed in contemporary conversations around sexuality.

Apart from being a really striking statue, it serves to remind us that you never have to look too hard for queer histories and narratives in historic houses, or at least for artworks, furniture and objects that lend themselves well to queer readings and interpretation.

I was also compelled to do a little sharpie doodle of the statue:

V&A Friday Late: Queer and Now

I’m delighted to have been invited to speak at the V&A’s Friday Late ‘Queer and Now’ which takes place on Friday 27th February from 18.30 – 22.00

The event is free and consists of talks, music (from Amy Grimehouse), performance, food and drink and first come first served free haircuts from Open Barbers!

My talk is called ‘There’s no place like homo: the deconstruction of the queer country house’ and takes place in the beautiful National Art Library at 19.30.

Last year, the V&A celebrated the 40th anniversary of the influential and groundbreaking exhibition ‘The Destruction of the Country House, 1875-1975’. While the exhibition was concerned with the preservation of houses, this presentation will look at the idea of the preservation of homes, specifically the homes of those who could be considered queer figures. Domestic spaces have historically been some of the very few places where queer lives could be safely enacted and lived. Using a number of case studies, including National Trust properties, and other historic houses open to the public, I will make a case for activism in heritage sites to ensure that queer voices are heard in the spaces they called home. I will also showcase some of my own interventions, specifically my audiovisual exhibition at Sutton House in Hackney, and a multimedia protest based on Kelmscott Manor, Oxfordshire.

You can see the full programme of events here. Hope to see many of you there!

“Challenging histories” at Sutton House

On Thursday 13th, we celebrated LGBT History Month at Sutton House, Hackney, in an event to support the ‘Master-Mistress’ exhibition, which runs until 7th March. The event was called ‘Challenging Histories: what place do LGBTQ identities have in museums and historic houses’ and was so well attended that people had to sit on the window-sills in the beautiful Great Chamber.

The discussion raised many interesting ideas and questions, and we could have run for longer than we did- but hopefully we have peaked people’s interests for future events.

 Below is the podcast of the evening, I’m hoping to put it on iTunes at some point- but it’s beyond my technical capabilities, so this will have to suffice for now.

I’d also like to thank again the four speakers for the event; Jan, Claire, Naomi and Oliver, and of course to the team at Sutton House for being such great hosts!
 

I hope this is a conversation that will continue amongst everyone who attended, and amongst other National Trust properties.

Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill

There are two potential strands of LGBT interest that could be developed at Strawberry Hill, taking advantage of the lightness and the weight that this audience group can be approached with.

The LGBT and queer heritage of the house is intangible; the challenge is to bring this heritage to the surface. The National Trust, for example, is slowly beginning to embrace more daring ventures to include this audience group, with recent developments at Nyman’s House, where an artist and curator was invited to perform interventions to uncover the story of a gay former resident, and the ‘Soho Stories’ smartphone app, which is a guided audio tour around the popular LGBT-friendly streets of Soho, London.

The first strand is around the idea of social justice. Richard Sandell and others have looked with some depth at the potential museums, galleries and country houses have in reaching out to marginalised or “difficult-to-reach” groups. The Museums Association are currently looking at the idea of the ‘just’ museum, considering social justice at the very core of all institutions do. They are also looking ahead to ‘the museum in 2020’ and at how museum professionals can strive to reach the goal of being inclusive by that time.

There is great value in Strawberry Hill House as place, or as a safe space. In my MA dissertation I looked at how women’s collections in archives can be used for outreach and education and found, through looking at other institutions, particularly at the Women’s Art Library at Goldsmiths, that the library is valued as a space for women, with many groups using it as a base for discussion, workshops and debate. Strawberry Hill could become such a space for LGBT groups. It could be the venue for conferences looking at Horace Walpole’s sexuality (on which George Haggerty, Timothy Mowl and others have written about), queer identity in the 18th century, the queer gothic and queer aesthetic. It could also play home to LGBT books clubs, discussion groups and study days looking at, for example, the potentially homoerotic content of Walpole’s correspondence. Strawberry Hill could celebrate LGBT Pride over summer, sending a strong message that this is an audience group worthy of acknowledging and worthy of celebrating.

While we cannot assume to know of Walpole’s sexuality, his life and his home unpack and undo notions of heteronormativity and resist normative sexual values, this discussion is one that is worth exploring further.

The second strand is a lighter one, and would explore the kitsch and the camp that is abundant at Strawberry Hill House. Kensington Palace has begun to embrace a more kitsch line of interpretation to complement its kitsch aesthetic, evident in the recent Enchanted Palace exhibition. The theatrical and performative nature of the décor would lend itself to hosting gay youth groups and gay drama performances, as well as short running exhibitions examining the gay themes that currently reside only subliminally in the house. The empty and unfurnished rooms could be interpreted by queer contemporary artists, and the bold and unusual lighting created by the gothic windows and stained glass mean that it would require little to transform the rooms into breathtaking gallery spaces. There is also scope for a queer artist in residence, to help facilitate LGBT community groups (and others) to explore these themes for themselves. Similarly, these themes and ideas could be exploited with fashion and design students, who could look at masculinities, men and fashion and interior design.

The financial implications of welcoming and embracing an LGBT audience go way beyond the entry charge that new LGBT visitors would bring with them. If an LGBT audience sees that their narratives are valued by Strawberry Hill, the number of Civil Partnerships that the House currently caters for could increase considerably.

For those concerned with the idea that these proposals include the “outing” of Horace Walpole, this is not the case. It is instead a matter of interrogating undercurrent themes and using them to inform a new kind of conversation. Queering a space can be a retrospective form of interpreting that opens up innovative discourses and a reassessment of how inclusive Strawberry House can become.

The pictures were taken by me (with the help of the Instagram app).