The Watercolour Paintings of Judith Ackland and Mary Stella Edwards

By Lucy Allan-Jones

Judith Ackland (1892-1971) and Mary Stella Edwards (1893-1989) were lifetime partners, and a selection of their artwork now belongs to RAMM. On the Queering the Museum Project and elsewhere, researchers have begun to uncover more about their relationship with one another, and with the Southwest. 

Of particular interest is their cabin in Bucks Mills, North Devon, which the two visited every summer for the best part of 50 years. A whitewashed one-up-one-down on the edge of a cliff, the cabin was first acquired by the Ackland family in 1913 and provided Mary and Judith with somewhere to nurture their creative energies as well as their love for one another.

It is important to respect the fact that the two never publicly defined themselves as lesbian, or gay, even when they could’ve done given the wider availability of these terms in the second half of the twentieth century. What is clear in letters between them, however, is a love that exceeds the ‘normative’, and that we can, as such, include under the queer umbrella. 

In 2008, the cabin was gifted to the National Trust and remains almost untouched since the women closed the door on it for the last time. A 360° tour available on the Ackland and Edwards Trust website reveals paint stored under the bed, crockery on the shelves, and a watercolour hung up to dry. The significance of the cabin as a site of queer heritage was explored in a podcast series commissioned by the National Trust called Prejudice and Pride, where it was used to discuss the concept of creative retreat.

In the podcast, writer and academic Will Eaves defines ‘creative retreat’ as “a line of defence or retreat from social pressures, from the liveliness of your social environment, from your day to day duties, and it represents an opportunity to get in touch with who you really are and what you really want to do”. Put simply, a creative retreat provides a place where social pressures, including cis-heteronormative ones like marriage, are alleviated, and failure to conform to them is accepted, , understood as generative rather than antisocial. 

For Judith and Mary, the annual retreat to Bucks Mills provided them with the space to fail together. Somewhere they could move toward one another, and away from the societal and familial obligations attending them in their everyday lives. What they created in their retreats to the cabin was not just artistic, but relational too. 

Their position on the edge of the village, and proximity to the beach, also seems to have inspired a relationship with the natural world that exceeds the observational. As such, I think it is useful to view their relationship and their art through the concept of queer ecology. Queer ecology is a movement toward understanding all living things as interrelated, eroding divisions between natural and unnatural, human, and non-human, and the valuable or valueless judgments that accompany those binaries. As part of this, queer ecology also exposes the heteronormative assumptions we have historically made about nature, favouring instead an approach in which the complex relations that exist between all life are understood.

By analysing the composition of a few of Judith and Mary’s paintings, we can see traces of a queer ecology emerging. It gives us a way to understand them, and their relationship with Bucks Mills, that holds all relational possibilities open, in any combination of romantic, platonic, or sexual. There is no need to scrutinise their relationship in the interests of finding a label that ‘fits’, if we can adopt a lens that recognises the failure of all labels, and allows their relationship together to endure as whatever it was. 

In this watercolour of Judith Ackland’s titled “The Cabin from the Shore” (1941), we see the landscape empty of people, with seaweed and rocks in the foreground, and hallmarks of civilisation (the cabin and the village) in the background.

The perspective is from somewhere on the beach, closer to the ecosystem of seaweed and rock pools than the human-dominated one at the top of the cliff. The cabin, however, sits on the threshold of the two, tied neither to the village nor the beach. It appears to be almost part of the cliff, but the colour of the rock matches the rest of the village buildings. The cabin, and by extension the people inside, are captured in an environment where lots of different relations are possible. Against the greys and browns of the rock, the green and purple seam running from the beach up to the village looks almost supernatural by contrast, capable of traversing both geographical and man-made distinctions to draw every part of the painting together. 

Mary Stella Edwards’ watercolour “Paddling in the Sea” (ca. 1940-1979) reverses the perspective, and we see a view of the beach from the cabin. 

Mary Stella Edwards, Paddling in the Sea (RAMM)

A much more colourful scene, there are several groups of people on the sand and in the water. But the further the people are from the village and the cabin, the less vibrant the colours get, and the closer to the colour of the sea and the sky they become. The distinct humanness of their bodies gradually collapses as they are swallowed by the blur of sea and sky.  

Finally in this watercolour “Left by the Tide” (1958-1960) by Mary Stella Edwards of seaweed draped over rocks on the beach, what is striking is how it foregrounds the seaweed in the same way a person might be in a portrait. It stands, almost bipedal, posed on the rocks with a visceral red agency, commanding the attention first of Mary Stella Edwards, and now the viewer in her rendition of it. Again, the natural comes into focus, and a new kind of relationality is opened in the compositive dynamics of the painting.

Mary Stella Edwards, Left by the Tide (RAMM)

The medium for all three paintings is watercolour, the fluidity of which, according to Edith Dormandy, “makes it seem to me an excellent [medium] for slippery subjects, such as queerness. Watercolour in its broadest definition of pigment suspended in watersoluble binder” (“Bodies in the Archive: Is There an Alternative History of Watercolour?”). In many ways, I think Judith and Mary’s relationship to each other and to Bucks Mills reflects the medium within which they chose to express it. Two pigments brought together and made soluble by the sea, and bound permanently by it in the art that has outlived them. 


We are currently in the process of transcribing and uploading the interviews. Please check this page again soon to access full transcripts and audio files of all of the interviews.

Picture By Jim Wileman

Queer Objects: William Courtenay Miniature by Richard Cosway

Miniature of William Courtenay by Richard Cosway (1793) (RAMM)

By Kathryn Edwards

In September 2020, I – Jana Funke – was invited to give a talk about the Out and About: Queering the Museum project at beautiful Powderham Castle in the village of Kenton, a 20-minute drive from the Exeter city centre. After the presentation, Charlie Courtenay, the 19th Earl of Devon, drew my attention to a description of a portrait miniature of his ancestor, William “Kitty” Courtenay, the 9th Earl of Devon, on the RAMM website.

The page has recently been removed. We have included a screenshot above.

Charlie pointed out that the framing of the object offered here was misleading. In particular, the insinuation that the 9th Earl of Devon threatened the family inheritance due to his “extravagant lifestyle” that allegedly “left the estate on the verge of bankruptcy” was not supported by the historical evidence. Presenting Kitty as wasteful, excessive and irresponsible plays into queerphobic stereotypes that we want to challenge as part of this project. This narrative did not originate with RAMM, but was perpetuated through the framing of the miniature. To correct this mistake, we have invited Kathryn Edwards, who has carried out extensive research on the life of the 9th Earl of Devon, to offer a different account of Courtenay’s life story, which you can read below. Our goal in doing so is not to erase or distract from the original framing of the object, but to make it visible and correct it at the same time. 

William “Kitty” Courtenay 9th Earl of Devon

History has not always been kind to the 9th Earl of Devon. Family lore passed down for almost 200 years painted him as an uncaring, self-centred and extravagant man. This history claimed that the Earl fled the country due to debt and neglected his duties to his family and estate. This, compounded with an assumed affair with the gothic novelist William Beckford, has maligned his reputation ever since. However, recent archival discoveries reveal that he remained financially and emotionally committed to home and family even after fleeing due to an impending charge of “buggery”.

William Courtenay was born at Powderham Castle on July 30th in 1768, to Lady Frances and Lord William ( 2ndViscount) Courtenay. He was the 5th child born to the family and would be the only son of 14 children. It is believed that the 9th Earl had a relaxed, normal and happy childhood for a boy of his standing of the time. He spent most of his time between Powderham Castle and a home in Grosvenor Square in London. He also attended Westminster School from 1779 to 1784.

In 1811 the Earl found himself involved with rumours of charges against him for “buggery” with another man named William Fryer. Due to these impending charges, it was decided that the Earl should leave England for his safety. News reports of the Earls departure vary from him leaving different ports to leaving on different ships or his private yacht, whatever the case he landed in America.  

Upon reaching America, the Earl set up residence in a place known as the Claremont, located in Manhattan, New York. It is doubtful that when the Earl chose America as the location to travel to that, he could have foreseen The United States declaring war against Great Britain and the beginning of the War of 1812. During this time, the Earl and his household were detained as enemy aliens. Due to the war, the Earl set sail in 1814 from New York to Paris, where he settled in Chateau Draveil, located a short distance outside of Paris. In France in May of 1835, the 9th Earl passed away from natural causes at the age of 66, having never returned to his beloved Powderham Castle.

In 2001, a series of letters were brought to the attention of the archivist at Powderham. Although these letters were found in 1970 located in a coal shed in London, it was not until 2001 when they were brought to the attention of Powderham. These papers later became known as the Wilkinson papers and shed quite a bit of light on the Earl’s life in Paris from 1823 to 1825. The Wilkinson papers are a series of letters written by John Wilkinson, a lawyer of London, while he was in the service of the Earl. 

These letters rewrote the story that had been told about the Earl. He was far from uninterested and inattentive when caring for his family and his Estates. On the contrary, every matter concerning the family and the Estates was brought to the Earls attention, even minor issues. It was clear through these letters that even after 14 years of exile, the Earl exhibited a broad knowledge of his tenants and showed a keen interest in the welfare of his Estates. They also show great love for his family and his home at Powderham Castle.   

Swimming Baths

Magic Lantern Slide: Swimming Bath, Norbreck Hydro (RAMM)

by Fred Spence

‘The waves are running in verses this fine morning.’

‘Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore’, Elizabeth Bishop

This photograph, taken in 1935, captures bathers splashing in the water at Norbreck Hydro swimming pool, Blackpool.

Gay painter David Hockney is one of the most influential twentieth-century British artists. His swimming pool paintings of the 1960s and 1970s are some of his most famous. In 2018, his painting Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) (1972) became the most expensive artwork by a living artist sold at auction to that date when it was bought for $90 million (£70 million).

Film Swimming with Lesbians (2009) follows Madeline Davis as she builds an LGBTQ history archive. Davis is an author, songwriter and activist. With Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy, Davis wrote Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold (1993). Drawing upon oral histories, the book describes the working-class lesbian community and butch-fem culture of Buffalo, New York from the mid-1930s to the early 1960s. It won the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Studies.

Alan Hollinghurst’s novels often depict the lives of gay men as they intersect across traditional class, race and age boundaries. His first novel, The Swimming-Pool Library (1988), follows a privileged and promiscuous gay aristocrat, Will, living in London in the early 1980s, who agrees to write a biography of the elderly Lord Nantwich. Reading Nantwich’s diaries, Will learns about the troubled experiences of gay men in the early twentieth century, in England and the British Empire colonies.

In 2019, footballer Megan Rapinoe was the first openly gay woman to appear in a Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, wearing a gold bikini. That year, as team captain for the United States, she won the FIFA Women’s World Cup, as well as winning the ‘Golden Boot’ award as the top scorer in the tournament and the ‘Golden Ball’ as the best player. She is an outspoken activist on LGBTQ+ issues, equal pay for sportswomen and racial justice. Her partner is acclaimed professional basketball player Sue Bird.

Exploring the Life and Work of Judith Ackland and Mary Stella Edwards (15 July 2021)

Judith Ackland (1892-1971) and Mary Stella Edwards (1898-1989) were two English artists and painters. Edwards was also a poet. The two women first met while studying in London and became life partners, spending decades of their lives together in North Devon. Some of their art works, including a series of landscape paintings, are now part of RAMM’s collections.

On 15 July, members of the Out and About: Queering the Museum project team were joined by other researchers and writers to share their insights and examined different aspects of their life and work. Why were Ackland and Edwards so drawn to the rural landscapes and seascapes of Devon? How did they relate to other artists and writers of their time? What can we know about Ackland’s and Edwards’ relationship based on their writings and archive? What are their cultural legacies, and how have their lives been understood and framed so far?

The event was hosted by the Out and About: Queering the Museum team and introduced by project co-director Ellie Coleman from RAMM. Writer in Residence at RAMM and project co-director Natalie McGrath presented a creative response. Co-Director Professor Jana Funke and project researcher Emma Wallace presented their work on Ackland’s and Edwards’ life and art. We were very excited to be joined by Nicole Hickin (Burton Art Gallery and Museum) and Helen Kent (Southampton University), who have researched Ackland and Edwards for many years and shared fascinating insights with us and the audience. The event concluded with a Q&A session.

You can watch a recording of the event below.

Artists’ Platform (27 May 2021)

On 27 May 2021, the Out and About: Queering the Museum project launched three new commissioned digital pieces by artists Rushaa Louise Hamid, Shiri Shah and Sachal Khan in response to the RAMM’s (Royal Albert Memorial Museum) collections. The event was hosted by Sharifa Hashem Al Hashemy (Head of Diversity and Inclusion SWASFT) and featured a first sharing of the new commissioned works. In addition, the three artists shared insights about their work on the Out and About: Queering the Museum project at RAMM and answered questions from the audience. What are the challenges when working on the collections without being able to visit the museum? How can we queer the museum and engage with the collections at a distance? How can we uncover and present alternative narratives about RAMM’s objects? What are the limitations and restraints of museum collections and spaces, and how might we begin to address those?

To find out more about the artists’ work, please have a look at the following brief videos:

Rushaa Louise Hamid
Sachal Khan
Shiri Shah

Press Release: QTIPOC writers, poets and performers to uncover hidden LGBTQ+ heritage among collections at Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) & Art Gallery

A new group of writers, poets and performers will produce innovative new digital work to reveal the LGBTQ+ heritage found in the collections at Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery (RAMM) as part of the Out and About: Queering the Museum project. 

RAMM’s collections will inspire new digital performances, poetry and artworks; interpretations which will, through a queer and trans lens, re-write the stories of objects within the collections and give a different perspective on their history. 

This is the second group of artists to be commissioned as part of a two year project funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The artists in this round have all chosen to focus on one of the project themes ’Home, belonging and exile’, each selecting one object from the museum’s collections to unpick and explore this theme.

Museum staff are working together with Professor Jana Funke from the University of Exeter and socially engaged artist and writer Natalie McGrath to empower lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer communities in the South West to uncover, create and share existing and new LGBTQ+ heritage. 

The artists and writers will work closely with McGrath, the project’s Writer in Residence and Creative Heritage Producer, and Prof. Funke, lead researcher on the project. They will also be supported by RAMM’s Engagement Officer Ellie Coleman, as well as colleagues from the Collections team at RAMM.

Natalie McGrath (artist and writer) said: “We are really pleased to be offering these commissions to three exciting QTIPOC artists as part of our ongoing work to queer the museum at RAMM. Their perspectives on the collections are timely; sharing urgent and necessary new narratives and stories with us. Bringing to light objects in the collections through their own unique creativity and voices.” 

Prof Jana Funke (University of Exeter) said: “Working with artists to explore objects through creative lenses is a crucial component of our project. It allows us to reframe the museum’s collections and reveal new queer and trans perspectives in engaging and thought-provoking ways. We are so excited to build on our existing work and commission three brilliant artists to produce new digital responses, focusing specifically on the themes of home and belonging.” 

Ellie Coleman (RAMM) said: “We are looking forward to working with these fantastic artists to uncover hidden LGBTQ+ stories and heritage behind objects from RAMM’s collections. RAMM is striving to make its collections more accessible and relevant to all audiences, as well as beginning to democratise its spaces. We are so lucky to be working with artists to discover and highlight alternative narratives, in order to move towards this vision together.”

The pieces will be released in a digital format, and will be shown and discussed at an online event on 27th May as part of Exeter Pride celebrations.

The artists who have been commissioned for this important project are as follows. For more information please see the Out and About: Queering the Museum project website

Rushaa Louise Hamid is a socio-political researcher, writer, and poet living in East London. Her work centres on identity tensions in the modern world, and draws from her Sudanese and British heritage and upbringing straddled between the two countries. In particular she enjoys taking a multi-disciplinary approach to exploring issues of race, culture, queerness, and disability using digital formats alongside more traditional mediums. Her writing has appeared in places such as Buzzfeedthe IndependentDazed, and Rooted in Rightsamongst others and she maintains an online dashboard project, visually exploring the cliché question “but where are you really from?” which plagues people coded as other. Currently she works as the Research Manager at a national institution, guiding people on how to study and find solutions to problems that have an impact on their communities and – on top of her work for Out and About – is also developing an interactive digital project about disability. She can be found on her website or over on Twitter @thesecondrussia.

Sachal Khan is an emerging writer based in Exeter using poetry and manipulated sound to explore history embedded within memory. By picking apart separate sounds, memories, and moments before stitching them together, they hope to explore the disruptive experiences within migration and transness. In 2020, under the mentorship of Rikki Beadle-Blair, Sachal wrote a monologue that will be published in Blair’s upcoming anthology LIT! alongside other emerging writers of colour. They are also working with a small group of programmers, artists, and musicians on a narrative video game exploring loneliness, failure, and online friendship.

Shiri Shah is a poet and lyrical essayist, born and raised in London. She dedicates her artistic practice to unearthing mythical histories, and abstracting the distinction between the non/human and the un/natural. After receiving her Masters in Comparative Literature and Philosophy at Goldsmiths in 2019, she began to write creatively after a surreal experience at a wedding. Shiri is also an experienced makeup artist, performer, and host. She was recently long listed for Spread The Word’s Life Writing Prize in 2020, and is currently writing her debut novel on the luxury retail dystopia. Her most recent project dives into the fractured and contradictory process of translation and documentation within family and poetry.