‘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.
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.
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:
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 outandabout.exeter.ac.uk/meet-the-artists
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 Buzzfeed, the Independent, Dazed, 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.
The RAMM’s quizzing glass, also known as a quizzer or monocle, is a singular eyeglass set with a round magnifying lens. This type of quizzing glass was a fashionable accessory among upper-class English gentlemen in the nineteenth century. Its name comes from the practice of ‘quizzing’ people by looking them up and down through the ominous glass clenched firmly between the cheek and brow. As you can imagine, the feeling of being quizzed, studied, or judged by a man wearing a quizzing glass could be highly intimidating, if not unsettling.
Fortunately, this post is not about the quizzing glasses popularised by haughty nineteenth century English gentlemen and their wandering eyes. It has a much more exciting history to tell us about the evolving fashions of queer communities in interwar Paris. In the 1920s and 1930s, Paris gained a reputation for its relative tolerance towards queer life. Word spread abroad that it was a city peopled with like minds and hearts. American and British queers were among those who flocked eagerly to the French capital to start new lives. Within this growing queer climate, many queer establishments and communities emerged in the lively Parisian districts of Montmartre, Montparnasse and Pigalle. Though there were queer bars and clubs all over the city, it was number 60 Boulevard Edgar Quinet in Montparnasse that offered the premier, and predominantly lesbian, nightclub of the era suitably named Le Monocle.
If you were queer, or lesbian, in 1920s and 1930s Paris, looking for love, a short-term fling, or friends, your go-to club would probably be Le Monocle. Those who frequented the club could hustle in through its custom-made monocle-shaped doorway to partake in night-time queer sociability. Aside from alcohol, distinct queer and lesbian looks were also served at Le Monocle, with staff and guests modelling the latest, or a-la-mode, queer fashions. Reading, or ‘quizzing’, someone’s sartorial aesthetic through the filter of thick cigar smoke was a fundamental skill for pursuing hook-ups and potential friends. At Le Monocle, you were free to signal your queer interests simply by locking eyes with your chosen amours or amies.
Though some queer and lesbian guests wore flowing frocks, many embraced the opportunity to follow the club’s loosely-prescribed masculine dress-code set by its owner, Lulu de Montparnasse. In part, dressing in masculine attire signalled increased female autonomy and the so-called ‘new woman’. But wearing handsome tuxes, high collars, bowties, and trousers was also emblematic of diverse gender and sexual identities and expressions emerging in the capital. Other clues to a person’s queerness included a white carnation or sprig of violets pinned to the suit-jacket lapel, a ring on the smallest finger or ‘pinkie’, a cigar in hand, and brilliantined, cropped hair. Of course, at Le Monocle, visitors also wore their very own monocles to mark themselves as part of the queer community. This can be seen in the photograph of a night out at the club above. To wear a monocle in public was one way to state your sexual preference for women and be recognisable within the queer community.
If the Hungarian photographer, Georges Brassai, had not been invited to Le Monocle in 1932 to photograph its patrons, our knowledge of the club, its people, its fashions, and its intimacy would be left to our imaginations.
“Take another look at the central person in the photograph above: do you feel the intensity of being quizzedthrough the lens of their monocle?”
Whether butch or femme, besuited or befrocked, bemonocled or not, or situated somewhere in-between, personal style was a useful marker for identifying, and being identified by, fellow queers at Le Monocle. Beyond the club, however, few queer and lesbian Parisians wore monocles out and about in the city. So few, in fact, that Djuna Barnes’ 1928 satire of Lesbian Paris, the Ladies Almanack, enabled readers to identify the inspiration behind the character Lady Buck-and-Balk from a bare description. This hallmark accessory allowed queers who were ‘in the know’ to identify the character who “sported a Monocle and believed in Spirits” as Una Vincenzo, Lady Troubridge.
Lady Una Troubridge was an upper-class British sculptor, translator of French and Italian literature, and the lover of Radclyffe Hall (author of the 1928 lesbian novel, The Well of Loneliness). Both Troubridge and Hall were among the few queers who visited Paris and donned the monocle as a regular accoutrement – and it did not go unnoticed. In her 1924 portrait of Troubridge pictured above, the Paris-based artist, Romaine Brooks, captured her friend as a powerful self-assured queer. In this painting, Lady Troubridge dominates the scene: her impeccably tailored androgynous clothing conceals her feminine figure, while her short hair, cravat, and our now-familiar friend, the monocle, all signal queer energy.
Once again, it is difficult not to feel the intensity of being caught in the monocle’s intimidating gaze …
In order to maintain safety, the Exeter Pride Committee decided to keep Pride online in May 2021, and we were excited to join forces to celebrate Exeter Pride Month with them. RAMM usually has a stall in Rougemont Gardens for Exeter Pride, so we thought that creating a programme of events would remind us all of what Pride means to us and allow us to spend some time together online! You can find the full programme of events and catch up with some of the recorded sessions below.
Welcome –What Does Pride Mean to You?
1:30 pm to 2:30 pm
Join Natalie McGrath, Prof Jana Funke, and Ellie Coleman to launch our collaboration with Exeter Pride. Hear from the Exeter Pride Committee about what Pride means to the queer, trans and non-binary community in Exeter and beyond, and what else they have in store for us as part of this year’s celebration.
We will also be joined by Sharifa Hashem Al Hashemy (Head of Diversity and Inclusion, SWASFT) to honour the contributions of NHS workers during this time of global pandemic.
Finally, we will introduce our three new commissioned artists, Shiri Shah, Sachal Khan and Rushaa Louise Hamid, who will be presenting their new artistic responses to RAMM’s collection at an event on the 27th May 2021.
Don’t forget to also visit our YouTube Channel for another opportunity to watch the work by Oren Shoesmith, Caleb Parkin, Charice Bhardwaj and Carina Miles.
You can also learn how to make a Pride inspired cocktail by Exeter Phoenix’s amazing Adam. More details will be announced soon!
Queer & Still Here: Writing for Performance Workshop (£3 + booking fee)
2 pm – 3:30 pm
Join poet and performer Chris White, and spoken-word artists Jasmine Gardosi & Charice Bhardwaj for a fun, dynamic online session exploring writing for performance. We’ll talk about how to write and prepare for different types of performance as well as how to bring our own words to life, with a particular focus on LGBTQ+ artists and how we amplify our unique queer voices. A chance to share work and learn new performance techniques.
Open to all LGBTQ+ artists, poets, writers and anybody who speaks their words out loud, of any experience or ability.
What can the RAMM collections tell us about LGBTQ+ history and heritage?
The brilliant team of Out and About researchers will share some of their discoveries from RAMM’s collections to explore LGBTQ+ history and heritage. Join us to find out how objects and artefacts can resonate with LGBTQ+ people today and offer insights into our histories. One particular focus of this session will be queer and trans perspectives on the natural world! There will also be time to ask questions and discuss what queering the museum might mean to you.
The event will be introduced by Prof Jana Funke (University of Exeter).
Instead of icing cakes, our four contestants will be sugar-spinning wonderful words to convince you, the audience, that their book review is the best, thereby winning them the title of ‘British Queer Bookoff Champion’ and a copy of Mr Loverman by Bernadine Evaristo. There will also be a book-related prize for best question from an audience member! This event will be hosted by Exeter Pride’s Katie Moudry.
Interested in being one of the contestants? Email Katie at email@example.com.
The Royal Albert Memorial Museum holds a number of seaweed and algae specimens collected by the early Victorian botanist Amelia Warren Griffiths (1768-1858). Revered by many of the leading experts of her day, Griffiths was so renowned for her scholarly expertise that several seaweed specimens were even named after her, such as the Griffithsia and Furcus Griffithsia. Whilst Griffiths published relatively little in her lifetime, she maintained a constant correspondence with experts such as W. D. Harvey, who dedicated his seminal 1849 text British Marina Algae to Griffiths.
Seaweed collecting had become a popular activity for Victorian women. In an essay entitled ‘recollections of Ilfracombe’, the author George Eliot described her fascination for the intricate algae forms, noting ‘these tide-pools made me quite in love with sea-weeds’. Nevertheless, many raised an eyebrow at the sight of women wandering alone on the edges of the beach, an occurrence at odds with the Victorian expectation that middle-class women should always go about accompanied, in order protect their modesty.
Griffiths, however, was not entirely alone in her efforts to collect and preserve seaweed specimens across the Devon and Cornish coast. At her side was Mary Wyatt, owner of a pressed plant shop in Torquay. Wyatt had originally worked as a servant in the Griffiths household, before developing a close friendship with Griffiths and setting up a business independently. Together, they scoured the coast, searching for specimens, and Wyatt eventually published the results of their findings in Algae Danmonienses, a multi-volume compilation consisting of specimens from Devon and Cornwall. Their work, in other words, was an active collaboration, as they scrambled across rocky shores in cumbersome skirts, compared notes and exchanged specimens in real time.
This intimate collecting history rewards further consideration. At first glance, the story perhaps appears unremarkable. Two female friends working together does not immediately suggest romantic involvement, an idea particularly at odds with our received notions of the Victorian period. If we press further, however, it becomes evident that the early Victorian period had a number of such close companionships, framed around the common activity of collecting. In her book, Sister Arts: The Erotics of Lesbian Landscapes, Lisa Moore has drawn attention to the popularity of such activities, suggesting that they were a way of celebrating partnership and companionship amongst women. Might these ‘friends’, and their activities, actually evidence a form of intimacy that contemporary viewers would call queer? Whilst words like ‘lesbian’ and ‘queer’ did not then exist in the way that we use them today, they can still be helpful terms for understanding a longer history of same-sex desire. Moore argues that the ordering of natural history in a domestic setting, like the arranging of algae within a scrapbook, was one way of expressing love for women, and one that has often been overlooked.
To understand the history of queer identity, therefore, we might need to reconsider how we lookfor evidence of same-sex relationships. The story of Griffiths and Wyatt roaming the coasts and working together, in fact, might be a tale belonging to LBTQIA history.
Queer Objects, Queer places
The queerness of seaweed has been recognised for a long time. In 1898, the writer and women’s rights activist Edith Ellis published her first novel, Seaweed: A Cornish Idyll, which narrates the tale of a forbidden love affair and its consequences. Ellis was a queer author who argued for the creative superiority of the ‘invert’, an umbrella term then used to describe gay and gender non-conforming people. The novel, set in rural Cornwall, is framed around collecting seaweed, as Janet, wife of ex-sailor Kit, leaves the house for long periods of time, on the pretext of gathering seaweed to make an ointment for her husband. Kit’s mother and her friends in the village are suspicious of the activity and of the supposed benefits offered by the seaweed. They see seaweed as a symbol of deceit and treachery, linking it to witchcraft, ‘nothin’ but pap to stop up Kit’s mouth wi’, an object that threatens the stability of the normal family unit. Seaweed, in other words, becomes a byword for forbidden activities, a symbol of female transgression. Janet gathers seaweed in order to be able to see her love. As collecting becomes a synonym for female desire, could we also read a subtext of same-sex desire in the novel?
Kit reflects on his marriage with Janet during her long periods of absence. He is frustrated that he is unable to offer her sexual satisfaction due to complications resulting from an accident at work. He tries to explain this to the village’s new curate, who is horrified at the suggestion that women might have sexual desires: ‘but, my good man, you don’t suppose for one moment that women have animal passions like ours[?]’. Kit is clear that this is the case, and the curate interrogates him further,
Do you seriously meant to imply that you have some idea of letting your wife – ahem! – cohabit with another man while keeping up a semblance of a relationship with you?
The idea has an interesting connection to Ellis’ own life. Married to the prominent sexologist Havelock Ellis, the pair were in a non-romantic life partnership, built on the values of mutual understanding and respect. It is commonly suggested that Edith is ‘Miss H’, an example of the ‘female invert’ used by Havelock in his groundbreaking study Studies in the Psychology of Sex (1897). Whilst Edith had taken a deep dislike to Havelock on first meeting, after a chance encounter in Cornwall in 1890 the pair developed a deep friendship and married the following year. The relationship was ultimately an important source of great companionship for both. This type of relationship is matched in Kit and Janet in Ellis’ novel. Whilst other characters encourage Kit to restrain Janet, his mother even claiming that ‘a woman must be captained same as a ship’, Kit and Janet work out a relationship based on their own needs. The story’s queerness resides in its presentation of a fulfilling relationship outside of social mores, in ways that people around the couple struggle to recognise.
The portrayal of disability suggests a further connection to queer history. At the beginning of the twentieth century, homosexuality and gender non-conformity (lumped together as ‘inversion’) were considered to be a form of disability, a so-called defect of development. Both disability and queerness would often result in partial or total exclusion from society; Ellis, however, campaigned for the acceptance of those who felt, in her words, an ‘alien amongst normal people’. These intersections between disability and queerness – in particular the shared experience of exclusion – have been powerfully reclaimed thanks to the pioneering work of queer disability activists over the past fifty years. Ellis’ novel, despite its use of outdated language, may be reread as an early effort to counter the ableist and prejudiced assumptions prevalent in her society, through its celebration of a relationship built carefully around the sexual and physical needs of both individuals. This type of relationship was exactly what Havelock and Edith aimed to build together.
In the same period that Ellis was writing the novel in Cornwall she met the artist Lily Kirkpatrick, and the pair would be lovers until Lily’s death in 1903. Cornwall was an important site of refuge for many queer writers at the beginning of the twentieth century, who considered the place as almost foreign to England with its apparently wild and untouched landscapes. The trans writer Bryher, for instance, based their name on the island ‘Bryher’ in the Isles of Scilly. They introduced their eventual life partner, H. D., to this “personal” place, and the couple spent much time in Cornwall, where Bryher was able to show H.D. their “boyhood”, an experience not acknowledged by others at the time of their childhood. Similarly, the queer writers Michael Field (a pseudonym for the couple Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper) found religious and sensual value in the landscape on their holidays to Cornwall a few decades earlier. Common to these writers is a deep appreciation of place, a quasi-spiritual connection to the nature around them that allowed them to realise who they are and what they desire, beyond the expectations of their society.
In 1938, Daphne du Maurier published Rebeccca, a gothic novel set in Cornwall. The novel plays on the unfamiliarity of Cornwall that so many queer writers found attractive, suggesting it is a place still inhabited by ghosts. Cornwall is a kind of space beyond, a land at the edge of the sea. Seaweed marks the final boundary between the ground and the water, ‘the woods came right down to the tangle of seaweed marking high water’. In this sense, it is an object between things that is constantly changing, both in and out of the water, ‘as the slow sea sucked at the shore and then withdrew, leaving the strip of seaweed bare’. Seaweed is the final frontier between the known and the unknown.
Seaweed seems a particularly beautiful object for queer history. It defies classification, the word referring to the thousands of forms of algae that litter the water floor. A weed of the sea, it officially lacks any formal definition, and yet it is nevertheless essential for the eco-system of the sea. Some writers, like Timothy Morton, have suggested that ecology, free of hierarchical structures and order, is a queer object of study. According to queer ecology, nature is fundamentally queer because it undermines any of the certainty of human control. Random, erratic, aesthetic, ecology teaches humans the capacity of queerness.
Preserved almost translucent on the pages of Griffiths’ collection, the intricate networks of veins threading across blades of seaweed suggest a hidden life of non-human activity. The collection is unexpectedly beautiful. Considering such unexpected objects, stories and places, a rich network of queer histories is revealed to be threaded through the museum’s collection.
Clare, Eli. Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation. (Duke University Press, 2015)
Ellis, Edith. ‘Seaweed: A Cornish Idyll’ (London: The University Press, 1898) – available on archive.org
Moore, Lisa. Sister Arts: The Erotics of Lesbian Landscapes (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).
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