May Morris: Art & Life (& Lesbian Erasure…. again)

I seem to start every blog post with an apology for how long it’s been since I last blogged, so I won’t with this one. But I will try to blog more regularly now that my thesis is out of the way. I want to post about some of the work I’ve been doing at Sutton House recently, a recent visit to Gunnersbury Park and some amazing interpretation at Nunnington Hall. But in the mean time, I want to address a glaring problem with the May Morris: Art and Life exhibition (on until Jan 28th 2018) at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow.

It is, of course, really lovely. Morris’ talents have long been in the shadow of her father, so it’s no wonder that such a comprehensive overview of her design and craftswomanship is so beautiful to behold. The problem I have with it is, perhaps predictably, the lack of mention of Mary Lobb.

To get up to speed with this particular bugbear of mine, check out my earlier posts about similar problems I had with Kelmscott Manor, former home of May Morris and Mary Lobb, and the artworks I made in response to it here, here, here and here. (I should note that an exhibition about Mary Lobb has just finished at Kelmscott, I didn’t get the chance to see it, as it’s difficult to get to Kelmscott if you don’t drive, so I can’t comment on how it covered their relationship, but it’s great to see a spotlight on her).

First, I’ll highlight all of the mentions of Mary Lobb in the exhibition, then I will address some of the objections I often encounter when highlighting the absence of a queer narratives in such exhibitions, with this one in mind.

Mentions of Mary Lobb in the exhibition:

  • A text panel about Kelmscott Manor begins: ‘In her later years, the majority of May’s time was spent at Kelmscott Manor, Oxfordshire, which she shared with her ‘housekeeper, cook and companion’ Mary Lobb’
  • A photograph of the pair on holiday in Wales in 1926
  • Two further small photographs of the two in Iceland in 1931
  • A caption for a photograph of May on a pony in Iceland from the same trip, which reads: ‘William Morris first visited Iceland in 1871 and was captivated by the dramatic landscape. In 1926, May and Mary Lobb followed in his footsteps. They returned to Iceland twice more. One their last trip in 1931, they were accompanied by Mary and Margaret Pierce, whom May had befriended during her lecture tour of North America’
  • In a display case of jewellery, all of the items were given to the V&A by Mary Lobb. It fails to mention that this is because May bequeathed the majority of her money and belongings to Lobb when she died.

Nowhere in any of this do we get a sense of the closeness between the two that would be evident with better interpretation. They lived together for the best part of 20 years, and hearsay has it that they shared the same bed, this seems to me that once again Mary Lobb’s significance in May’s life is being overlooked or swept under the carpet, whether platonic or otherwise.

The following are things I often hear in response to historic figures being read as LGBTQ, so I thought I would respond to them here. I also expect these would be the kind of defences people would make about Lobb’s exclusion from the exhibition:

The exhibition was a showcase of Morris’ work, not a biographical exhibition

That’s not strictly true. The exhibition of work is shaped around a timeline of May’s life, which includes biographical information throughout. Curator Michael Petry once said (I’m paraphrasing) ‘if you mention the wife, you have to mention the relationships he had with men’ (about a male artist), and since there is mention of the May’s relationships with George Bernard Shaw, and Henry Sparling, so too should there be information about her relationship with Lobb.

There is no proof that their relationship was anything but platonic

There is also no proof that she was sexually attracted to George Bernard Shaw or Henry Sparling. There is proof that Lobb and Morris lived together. A few years ago I spent a day at the archive at the William Morris Gallery and asked to see all of the material relating to Lobb, so I know that there is plenty of material that shows that other people around them thought that there was an atypical closeness between them, or more to their relationship than merely companionship (in fact, I made a sound piece called The village folk had a lot to say about it using the words of their contemporaries verbatim).

Lobb was not a designer/ well known figure/ pre-Rephaelite beauty/ important enough to feature

All the more reason to include her. She was a working woman, and an important part of May’s life. Figures like her are all the more relatable to visitors today than anyone else in the exhibition. I was first drawn to Mary Lobb because she is an androgynous figure, she instantly spoke to me in a way that many historic figures do not.

Lobb, and more specifically, the relationship she had with May Morris is not well documented enough

Indeed not, but curators and interpretation staff in museums draw conclusions every day. I’m not asking that they ‘out’ May Morris, but that they aren’t dismissive of such an important relationship, or that perhaps they acknowledge that many, even in their lifetime, assumed the two were a couple.

The curators did not want to make any assumptions/ jump to conclusions

To say this, assumes heterosexuality as the default, or that May Morris being a lesbian, or bisexual is somehow shameful. How often do we assume that someone was straight with no proof? There’s plenty of proof that Morris’ relationship with Mary Lobb was a more enduring and important one than any she had with a man. I think it’s not too far of a reach to jump to this conclusion.

Those are just some very quick thoughts about it. I’d be really keen to hear from anyone who visited, or was involved in the Mary Lobb exhibition at Kelmscott Manor, to see how they approached the relationship, and to hear if any more archival material was dug up in the process. That all said, if you want to have a look at a load of very beautiful embroideries, for free, then I recommend the exhibition. If you’re looking for any mentions of the queerness of the relationship between May Morris and my favourite historic butch, Mary Lobb- then you’ll probably be disappointed.


New York

Hello all, sorry for the radio silence, been a bit busy. I thought I’d share some brief thoughts about my visit to New York, which was amazing (but feels like a million years ago now…)

A few bits of news before I do:

  • I did an interview for the Queer East London Project, which you can read here.
  • ‘Twilight People: stories of faith and gender beyond the binary’ is looking for trans and gender variant people of faith to share their stories, see here for more details of how to get involved, it’s a groundbreaking project that I feel really privileged to be a part of.
  • An updated version of my book chapter about LGBTQ oral histories (including PICTURES!) appears in the new MuseumsEtc book ‘On Sexuality‘, it’s a really great book that collects together essays about making LGBTQ narratives visible in museums, it’s also more reasonably priced than the last one!
  • I’m part of a really great steering committee for the next LGBTQ+ Archives, Libraries, Museums and Special Collections conference. The last took place in 2012 in Amsterdam, and was incredible, I wrote about it at the time here. The committee includes archive professionals, artists, academics and activists from Bishopsgate Institute, London Metropolitan Archives, Kingston University, the Institute of Education (that’s me), Tower Hamlets Local History Library, rukus! Federation, the Parliamentary Archives, Tate Britain and University College London. I’ll keep you posted once the official blog is up and running, but in the meantime, like the Facebook page here.
  • I’ve been recruited as an ‘expert advisor’ for a new project by Leeds Beckett University and Historic England, which is crowdsourcing pins on a map highlighting LGBTQ history. The trial version is available here. Feel free to add your own pins, although for the trail the map includes only London.

That’s enough of that. On to New York.

Museum Association of New York: Museums in Action Conference “Museums Mean Business”
April 12th , Corning Museum of Glass

Myself and Lauren Windham presented a workshop together on the first day of this conference. Initially, it was to be a three person panel, but Ellie Lewis-Nunes was unfortunately unable to make it (I’m hiking with her to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support, you can donate here!), so while it was bitter sweet, the talk was still a great success. Our workshop was called ‘Addressing the balance’ and we spoke about challenges arising when addressing specific community groups in historic buildings in London, and how this can extend to the regular visitor. I spoke about my work with Sutton House, and Lauren spoke about her time at Bruce Castle, and a project she ran with children and their non-English speaking parents. We had some really great questions, and people seemed really engaged with the subject.

We had a quick chance to poke around the new wing of the museum, and we were blown away. I must admit my expectations of glass museums are based on the one in my hometown of Sunderland, which may be great now, but when I visited it a very long time ago, it was a little dry. This new wing was spectacular, a huge array of really challenging contemporary glasswork in a beautiful naturally lit space, it really was breathtaking.

Bjork at MOMA

I am a huge Bjork fan, like worryingly huge. I have her words tattooed on my flesh (as well as the swan from Vespertine) and I’ve seen her live 6 times now (7 in July!), she truly is my idol and this exhibition felt like a pilgrimage for me. Four of her instruments, which I’d previously seen live on her Biophilia tour, were dotted around the museum atrium and removed from their natural context, it became even more clear what beautiful works of art they are, especially the pendulum harp.

The first part of the exhibition was an immersive screening of the MOMA commissioned video for Black Lake, which is the centrepiece of her new album Vulnicura. At ten minutes long, Black Lake is sparse and heartbreaking, probably Bjork’s most personal and vulnerable song to date. The video is understated, it features her walking around barefoot in the inside of a volcano, and only in the final minute or so does she surface to the moonlike mossy Iceland surface. The video is projected on two walls that are often in sync, but often show different things, and the small space they were played in was made to recreate the inside of a volcano, with crater-like protrusions lining the wall. The room had nearly 50 speakers, and we saw the film twice (I cried both times haha), the first time, everyone was sitting on the floor, which I thought was weird, and the second time, people stood and moved around the space. There’s a particular moment in the film during a long 30 second drawn out note from the strings, where Bjork, on her knees, pounds violently at her chest as if she is trying to restart her heart. I glanced around and it was really moving to see so many glistening eyes reflected from the glow of the screen. For me, if you can’t see an artist live, surely this is the ideal way to experience music, it was a staggering achievement.

The next part was the Bjork cinema, a room filled with red velvet cushions to lay on where they play all of Bjork’s music videos in chronological order. We spent about 40 minutes in there, I have seen all of those videos countless times, but it was a whole new experience to see them in this setting.

The final part was the timed-ticket section called ‘Songlines’, in which a fictional story about a woman moving through the albums of Bjork is whispered in your ears alongside snippets of her songs. It was a really creative and unusual way of telling the story of Bjork’s music, and of the strongly defined characters she creates for each of her albums. In each room, which corresponded to an album, were costumes and props from videos and live performances and Bjork’s notebooks.

The exhibition completely lived up to my expectations, and the Black Lake screening in particular completely surpassed it. I’m not sure I’ll ever love an exhibition as much as I loved this one, it truly felt like a religious experience.

(here’s me gazing lovingly at the bell dress from the Who Is It? video)

9/11 Memorial Museum

Lauren left to go back to Washington, it was really great to catch up with her after so long (she and I studied on our MA together), she is one of my heritage idols and a continued source of inspiration to me. I had a day on my own before my housemate arrived to stay for a week, so I went to see the 9/11 Memorial Museum. I was expecting it to be problematic to be honest, I imagined it would be extremely patriotic and Islamophobic, but I was very pleasantly surprised at how tasteful and moving it was, it was purely a commemoration of those lost in the attacks, and the interpretation combined stark monuments, rich and compassionate storytelling, and some really visually powerful moments (especially the missing posters that were projected onto one of the walls and gradually faded in and out). The fountains themselves were really beautiful too.

Two really interesting points (from a museum studies student perspective…); firstly, there was a recording studio for visitors to record their memories and thoughts about the day, these were then projected onto a long screen and was really beautifully done. Secondly, I’ve never experienced such a raw and solemn audience before, I’m a terrible eavesdropper in museums, as I think it’s a good lazy research tool, but in this museum the conversations were much more personal than usual, everyone remembers where they were that day, and everyone was very visibly moved and at times uncomfortable. The museum even had tissue dispensers at parts of the main exhibition, it was quite unlike anything I’d seen before.

Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art

One of the smaller treats we had was the Leslie Lohman, which is a really nice space devoted to LGBTQ art and artists. The mission statement reads: ‘The Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art is the first dedicated LGBTQ art museum in the world with a mission to exhibit and preserve LGBTQ art, and foster the artists who create it The Leslie-Lohman Museum embraces the rich creative history of the LGBTQ art community by educating, informing, inspiring, entertaining, and challenging all who enter its doors. The Museum is operated by the Leslie Lohman Gay Art Foundation, Inc., a non-profit founded in 1987 by Charles W. Leslie and Fritz Lohman who have supported LGBTQ artists for over 30 years.’


The exhibition we saw was called ‘Irreverent: a celebration of censorship’. The museum hosts up to 8 exhibitions a year, which is pretty remarkable for a non-profit venture, it was also one of the very few free museums we visited, which seems like a rare treat in New York, where entry to most museums is in excess of $15. I really wish there was an equivalent to this in London.

Brooklyn Museum

I think my favourite museum overall was the Brooklyn Museum. Lauren had recommended I go and see the Kehinde Wiley exhibition there, and the museum was already on my housemate’s to do list. It is one of the best art exhibitions I have seen in ages. Wiley paints huge portraits of people of colour in classic heroic poses, with rich and florid patterned backgrounds. They really are incredible, and the exhibition also featured work on stained glass and sculpture. We also saw the Jean-Michel Basquiat ‘Unknown Notebooks exhibition’ and looked around the permanent collections. It was great to see a museum genuinely privileging its local artists, and especially exciting to see people of colour represented on such a scale in such a huge museum.

These are just a few of the things we saw, we also saw a small exhibition of Keith Haring’s work, the American Folk Art Museum, the Museum of Morbid Curiosity (which was a HUGE disappointment), the Museum of Sex, the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens (which a lovely couple kindly gave us their tickets for so we didn’t have to pay!), a super cute little museum at Coney Island, and Lauren and I had a little tour of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

If you get the chance to go to New York, definitely do! It was incredible and I hope I get the opportunity to go back one day, I feel like we only scratched the surface!

Here’s a little bonus picture of me admiring some of the art at the American Folk Art Museum:

Print your own Mary Lobb zine!

You may have seen a few months ago I made a zine about Mary Lobb and the sound piece I made to accompany it, in response to the lack of mention of her and her relationship with May Morris at Kelmscott Manor (you can see the original posts about it here, here and here).

I’d now like to share a print-your-own PDF of the zine!

Follow this link here

Then download the PDF (from the link along the top menu bar) and once downloaded, select ‘print’ and select ‘print on both sides’ and make sure to select the option to flip on the side edge, as otherwise the pages will be upside down. Obviously the PDF will look a bit jumbled, as the pages are in an order to ensure it can be printed as an A5 booklet. Once it is printed, fold in the middle, and hopefully all the pages should be in the correct order!

The sound piece to accompany the zine is here:

Thanks again to Joe and Ellie Lewis-Nunes for patiently lending their voices and recording skills.

Please share this with anyone who might be interested- and enjoy!

‘The village folk had a lot to say about it’ – a sound piece for Mary Lobb

Back in July I contacted the staff at Kelmscott Manor about the neglectful way they had dealt with Mary Lobb in their interpretation. I subsequently offered to put together a sound piece for visitors to listen to, to the staff at Red House in Bexleyheath, that was made from verbatim snippets from sources I had found during a visit to the William Morris Gallery archives in Walthamstow.

The aim was to show that even when they were both alive, contemporaries of Mary Lobb and May Morris considered their relationship to be more than just ‘companions’ and the hope was that this sound piece, presented as gossip, would serve as a small way of remembering the close relationship between the two women, that has for so long been overlooked.

Unfortunately, the staff at Red House refused this interpretation, saying first that the exhibition programming for 2015 was to be all about architect Philip Webb, as 2015 is the centenary of his death. When staff from the London Project asked about it again, they were told it was due to staffing and budget issues, which seems odd, as I was offering to make the sound piece for free.

Fast forward to the end of 2014, and the opportunity arose to be part of a group show at the Institute of Education to showcase the work of five PhD students in the Art, Design and Museology department whose research includes elements of practice. Rather than just showing some of the work I’ve been doing with Sutton House, I instead decided to use this as an opportunity to revisit the idea for addressing Mary Lobb, and alongside the sound piece, I created a protest banner out of a William Morris tea towel, and a fan zine for Mary Lobb, explaining who she is, and how she has been overlooked at various heritage sites.

While the sound piece (recorded thanks to Joe Lewis-Nunes and Ellie Lewis-Nunes) obeys the convention of heritage interpretation, it is offset by the objects more closely aligned with activism: a banner, zines.

It’s important for me to consider how my work changes in an exhibition environment, to consider what it becomes. I want to avoid fetishising paraphernalia (such as banners, zines) used to enact change. The inclusion of such objects here raises questions about what is allowed and expected in a gallery space, but refused (as it was) as legitimate interpretation in a heritage site. Interestingly, and perhaps proving that the inclusion of these objects was not successful in fetishising them, at the private view, the plinth upon which a stack of zines (masquerading as museum objects) rested, was treated by visitors as a table, rather than a plinth, people leaned against it and rested drinks on it, rather than revering the plinth as is often the case. Observing people interacting with the plinth in this way was a nice piece of accidental data.

On Thursday 29th 4.00- 7.30, there will be a seminar in which we will discuss the nature of practice-based research.

In the mean time, here is the sound piece.

I will make the zine available online at some point, when I work out the best way to do it.

Kelmscott Manor: a reply

If you read my previous post, you will know that I recently emailed staff at Kelmscott Manor to voice my dissatisfaction with the interpretation of Mary Lobb there. After chasing up the lack of response with the Kelmscott Manor twitter feed, I was given a direct email address for someone, and received a response the same day.

The response is as follows:

Dear Mr Curran,

Thank you for your recent comments, which I was pleased to receive. There are, as you will know, many people who were connected in significant ways with the Manor, and since arriving in post relatively recently Sarah Parker (Property Manager) and myself have been working on ‘unlocking’ some of the many narratives connected with them and addressing this in new interpretation for our visitors. This season new labels were installed throughout the Manor, a new Room guide was introduced, and in addition we undertook a research project with volunteers during our closed season, of which Kelmscott Manor’s Wider Cast of Characters was the outcome. Having made these initial steps we are undertaking additional research with the assistance of interns and aim to improve interpretation still further, incorporating, of course, Miss Lobb.

I was very interested to see that you describe yourself as having some degree of knowledge about Miss Lobb, and would be delighted if you would like to share this with us, in particular any relevant archive sources of which you may be aware. As she was a pivotal figure in May Morris’s later life we are eager to ensure that our visitors are given a more rounded picture of her than is, admittedly, currently the case.  It is regrettable that you have taken this omission to be in any way deliberate, and I would like to assure you that this is far from the case; Miss Lobb’s sexuality or physical appearance are certainly not informing factors but the reality is that when running a visitor attraction with a small team, lack of time and resources unfortunately, are.

I would like to thank you once again for your observations and look forward to your response.

With all good wishes,

Kathy Haslam

This is a great response, and I am so pleased to see it has been taken seriously and that it looks like they are committed to looking into this and expanding Mary Lobb’s biography in the house to include a more sympathetic and less one dimensional interpretation of her.

I will keep you posted.

To celebrate, here’s a lovely picture of Morris and Lobb, taken from the William Morris Facebook page (I presume it’s not actually his).

a letter to Kelmscott Manor

On Wednesday myself and a few of the lecturers and students from my department hopped on a minibus to Kelmscott Manor in Lechlade, Gloucestershire, the former home of William Morris. I was keen to visit to see how the relationship between Morris’ daughter May and her ‘companion’ Mary Lobb was addressed.

I’d found out about Mary Lobb by a chance conversation with a Central Saint Martins student when I lectured there. She had written an essay about photographs of May Morris and suggested I might be interested to know she had a close relationship with Mary Lobb who had previously worked on a neighbouring farm. When May died in 1937 she left £12,000 to Lobb. Mary Lobb seemingly took her own life two years later. You can read a nice little summary about Lobb here.

I was really distressed to see only a very brief mention of Mary Lobb in the house, which was a small caricature of her, accompanied by a quote from George Bernard Shaw: ‘I was soon on the garden flag way to the ancient door of the Manor House. It was opened by a young lady whose aspect terrified me. She was obviously strong enough to take me by the scruff of the neck and pitch me neck and crop out of the curtilage; and she looked as if for two pins she would do it as she demanded sternly who I was. I named myself apologetically….’

In the final room, there was a booklet containing biographical information about other people mentioned in the house, but Mary Lobb was not one of them. Her only mention in the house was through the eyes of someone who did not know her and clearly did not think highly of her, and while there was a photograph of her with May beneath, the main visual representation of her was a rather cruel caricature from behind. Annoyed and saddened by this, I spoke to two volunteers about her lack of mention and they both shrugged, one of them rather shiftily. I decided to write an email to the staff at the house:


I am writing with a query from a recent visit to Kelmscott Manor. The house was very beautiful and I was pleased to see so many visitors. However, I left the house with a rather sour taste in my mouth due to what I felt was a misstep and an oversight in the interpretation in the house. I’m referring specifically to the way in which Mary Lobb is portrayed.

I had some knowledge of Mary Lobb before I arrived at the house, and when I finally got there I was not only surprised at how little of her story was told, but extremely saddened that she was only mentioned as a figure of fun, while the deep affection that May Morris had for her was not mentioned at all.

Alongside the caricature of her in the small nook coming from the right hand garret, is a cruel description written by George Bernard Shaw. While this is really interesting, and definitely has a place in the house, it should not stand as the sole representation of a woman who clearly played an important part in May’s life, important enough to inherit everything of May’s that wasn’t donated to the University of Oxford when she died. The obvious counter to this would be John Betjeman’s account of her and their warm relationship, which is alluded to in the guidebook.

In the final attic room I came across the ‘Wider cast of characters’ booklet and assumed that the brief mention of Lobb would be elaborated upon in it. Surprisingly, in spite of the rather remote and tangential figures to whom there are pages are devoted, there was no further mention of Mary Lobb. I asked two volunteers about this oversight, neither of them knew why her story was demoted to a mere footnote of ridicule, so hopefully I can get some answers this way.

The exhibition in the display space by the ticket office mentioned Lobb briefly, but I believe that this is insufficient. There was no mention in the house of the fact that the two slept together in the same room, or about the controversy their relationship caused, or about how May’s affection was so strong that she bequeathed most of her possessions to Lobb. I can think of two possible reasons for this oversight, the first is that those who oversee the interpretation at Kelmscott Manor are not willing to explore the relationship between May Morris and Mary Lobb because they do not wish to be faced with the possibility that the relationship could be considered, in contemporary terms, a lesbian one. Secondly, and equally as concerning, is that in a house full of Pre-Raphaelite beauties, Mary Lobb is not considered sufficiently beautiful to warrant covering her role in May’s life in any great detail.

Either way, to demote a person to a mere caricature is unkind. I eagerly await a response about why this is the case, and hope that by raising this matter, it can be addressed and that the bond between May Morris and Mary Lobb can be given the attention it deserves in such a beautiful and important heritage site as Kelmscott Manor.

Best wishes,
Sean Curran

I really hope they will respond, I’ll be sure to post it here if they do. I think heritage sites must be held accountable for their treatment of the narratives of people with non-normative identities, to overlook them is both irresponsible and distressing for queer visitors and their supporters alike. For those who think this is excessive, I hope you never have to experience finding the rare historical figures that you can relate to being reduced to a figure of ridicule. People like Mary Lobb and May Morris are part of a still barely visible queer heritage that can contribute to legitimising contemporary queer identities, especially when encountered by children, who see themselves as outsiders or marginalised because of who they are.

In spite of this, Kelmscott was really beautiful, and worth a visit!

I’ll blog again soon about my Taiwan trip.

Call for presentations / performances


The Eleventh LGBTQ History and Archives Conference
7 December 2013, 9.30am-4.30pm
London Metropolitan Archives, 40, Northampton Road, London, EC1R 0HB

Call for Presentations / Performances

Due to much of LGBT History being shaped around legal and political landmarks relating mainly to the experiences of gay men, other queer voices often go unheard. The eleventh LGBT History and Archives Conference explores the histories and experiences of Trans, Lesbian and Bisexual people. These stories are rarely told and, if presented, often not listened to. Come and make some history.

Contributors are invited to submit proposals for performances, presentations and talks lasting ten-twenty minutes,  which explore marginalised experience within an apparently liberated community. Suggested themes: the creation, control and breaking of boundaries; self-asserted and imposed identities; labelling – the liberation and constraint of language; activism – meeting challenges

Deadline for submissions: 6 September 2013     email:

Iris Murdoch letters at Kingston University

This is my first attempt at blogging from my iPhone- so apologies if the formatting goes wrong.

The Centre for Iris Murdoch Studies at Kingston University has just acquired 250 letters from Murdoch to Philippa Foot thanks to £107,000 of Heritage Lottery money.

Philippa Foot was one of Murdoch’s closest friends. The pair met as students at Oxford. Theirs was a tempestuous relationship, and they were lovers. The collection is a great acquisition for the Centre, thought to be the most extensive authority on Iris Murdoch in the world, and aside from providing an interesting social history of Ireland, holds great significance for researchers looking at same-sex relationships.

My friend Alex is studying literature at Kingston Uni and is a massive Iris Murdoch fan, and queer, so I know she will be eager to get her paws on these letters!

More can be read about it here

and more about the Iris Murdoch collections here

The sixth annual Iris Murdoch conference takes place on the 14-15th September.