Thursday, December 29, 2016


THE 2,000-year-old relationship between the Roman emperor Hadrian and his beloved Antinous is the focus of cultural events marking the 50th anniversary of one of the most important moments in gay British history.

In July 1967 the Sexual Offences Act finally decriminalised private homosexual acts between men over 21 in England and Wales. It was a momentous, transformative moment, although it took until 1980 for the law to be changed in Scotland, and until 1982 in Northern Ireland.

Galleries and museums across Britain will celebrate the anniversary with a blizzard of exhibitions and events, with the British Museum putting on a display that shines light on the gay histories that are often overlooked or hidden in its vast collections ... "a great unrecorded history," as EM Forster put it.

The display's co-curator Stuart Frost, head of interpretation at the museum, is bringing together objects that might challenge assumptions we make when we look at items not from our time.

The project was inspired by the 2013 book A Little Gay History by Richard Parkinson (pictured above), a former curator in the museum’s ancient Egypt department, and there was a lot to go at, said Frost.

"There are so many works here … it is hard to stop, I keep finding things. Hopefully we may be able to use them further down the line," Frost said.

Among the objects going on display are a particularly impressive silver medallion of Hadrian and a coin bearing the head of Antinous.

Hadrian, who was emperor from 117 to 138 AD, was far from the only Roman emperor to sleep with boys. 

But it is the intensity of the emperor's grief when Antinous died that has always been striking to historians. 

Not much is known of Antinous’s life or how he became a favourite of the emperor, but it is known that he was an attendant during a lion hunt in Libya in 130 and that he drowned in the Nile.

The exact circumstances of his death are unknown, with one account saying Antinous had hurried into the river to purify the lion's blood by pouring some of it into the water.

Whatever happened, Hadrian was grief-stricken ... he “wept like a woman," according to the Historia Augusta ... a level of grief for a boy lover that was unprecedented.

Hadrian founded the Egyptian city of Antinopolis in the boy's memory and had him deified, while other cities queued up to produce coins with the head of Antinous as well as creating or converting statues in his honour. 

"It was a way of local cities being able to express their allegiance and sympathies to the emperor," said Abdy. "They were sucking up."

Not far from the planned exhibit are marble busts of Hadrian and Antinous that are always side by side, part of the museum's permanent display.

Visitors will be encouraged to go on a trail through the museum to find other objects that may have LBGTQ (lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, queer) stories.

Some of them are more obvious than others. 

For example, the Warren Cup is a Roman silver drinking vessel that many visitors look at but perhaps don't inspect closely enough to see two explicit sex scenes ... one between two teenage boys and the other a young man lowering himself on his older, bearded lover.

Visitors will also be directed to the prints gallery where curators plan to displayDavid Hockney’s series of sometimes homoerotic illustrations made for the poetry of CP Cavafy, one of the earliest modern authors to write about same-sex love.

Frost said the display, opening in May, would have objects from 9000BC to the present day. 

The oldest is a phallic stone sculpture that shows two figures making love, whose genders are open to question.

There will bfigurines from the mid-1920s made by the German artist Augusta Kaiser which shine light on her lesbian partnership with the expressionist artist Hedwig Marquardt, highlighting a biographical detail that almost slipped through the records.

The British Museum display, to be called "Desire Love Identity: exploring LGBTQ histories," is one of many exhibitions and events taking place in 2017.

In Suffolk, the years leading up to the law change will be explored through the prism of Benjamin Britten, whose lover, muse, collaborator and recital partner for 39 years was the tenor Peter Pears.

The majority of those years were before the change in the law, when homosexuality was both illegal and socially stigmatised. 

Yet their relationship was something of an open secret, said curator Lucy Walker, and Britten wrote some extraordinary works such as the 1951 all-male opera Billy Budd and the extended solo vocal work Canticle I, My beloved is mine (1947), an open declaration of love for Pears.

"Before 1967, having been together nearly 30 years, it would have been impossible for them to admit in public they were a couple, and they remained discreet on that matter even after then," said Walker.

Comparisons will also be drawn with other high-profile figures who lived lives at odds with the law. 

There are letters written by Saint of Antinous ALAN TURING, the code-breaking hero prosecuted for "gross indecency" and chemically castrated; edits of EM Forster’s homoerotic novel Maurice; and photographs of Nöel Coward and his long-term companion Graham Payn.

Queer Talk: Homosexuality in Britten's Britain will take place at The Red House, Britten and Pears’s home in Suffolk.

The biggest art exhibition is likely to be Tate Britain’s Queer British Art 1861-1967, which will include work by artists including Hockney, Francis Bacon, Dora Carrington, Duncan Grant and Simeon Solomon, the pre-Raphaelite artist who was ruined after his arrest in a public toilet.

It will also include a full-length portrait of Oscar Wilde being exhibited in the UK for the first time.

There will be numerous events across the UK. For example, the National Trust is running a "Prejudice and Pride" programme exploring the history of sex and gender diversity in its properties. 

In Liverpool, the Walker will open a show in July drawing on works in the Arts Council Collection and its own collection; and in Bournemouth, curators at the Russell-Cotes museum and gallery will work with members of the local LGBT community on an exhibition opening in May.

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