David Hockney Poems & LGBTQ Histories at the British Museum


Coin with head of Antinous. Minted AD130-138. © Trustees of the British Museum

The British Museum has announced a number of remarkable exhibitions, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the partial legalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales, through the passing of the Sexual Offences Act of 1967.

To mark this anniversary, two exhibitions will go on show at the British Museum during 2017, as well as a public program of events. A display of David Hockney etchings will go on show in March, and an exhibition exploring the history of LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) people through pieces in the museum’s collection will open in May. Complementing these will be a host of events, as well as the creation of an LGBTQ trail, to take visitors on a journey highlighting relevant objects already on display throughout the museum.

02 David Hockney

David Hockney, “In the Dull Village” 1966, Ink on paper, 12 3/8 x 9 7/8″ © David Hockney

David Hockney: Fourteen Poems by C P Cavafy will be on display in Room 90a of the British Museum from March. Hockney created this series of etchings in 1966, having travelled to Egypt, Alexandria and Beirut in 1963, and was inspired by C P Cavafy, a Greek poet from the 19th century who wrote of his experiences growing up in Alexandria and his knowledge of the ancient Mediterranean world. Same sex attraction was central amongst his themes, and Hockney, too, drew from his own experiences as a gay man.

The publication of these etchings in the late 1960s was a part of a growing gay movement which resulted in the partial de-criminalisation of homosexuality. I was lucky enough to view a number of these etchings in the recent ‘Nude’ exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney. They are beautiful works, light and delicate, depicting casually intimate interactions of the everyday kind between two men, and to see the whole series together would be a great joy.

The history of the LGBTQ community is one that is largely hidden across time, existing in shadows and meaningful glances. Whilst great progress has been made in the last decade, most significantly with the legalisation of marriage between same sex partners in many countries (although unfortunately not Australia as yet), up until recent times relationships between two people of the same sex was frowned upon, and was indeed illegal in many places.

There are, however, wonderful little pockets of homosexuality that have been found, records of secret love, sometimes hidden away from unforgiving eyes, at other times hiding in plain sight. Desire Love Identity: Exploring LGBTQ Histories, on display from 11 May, illustrates this history, of the LGBTQ experience throughout the world across time through objects taken from the museum’s collection, including coins, medals and prints.

03 Ladies of Llangollen

R.J. Lane, The R Hon Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Ponsonby ‘The Ladies of Llangollen’, print, 1831-1872 © The Trustees of the British Museum

The delightful Ladies of Llangollen print above is one such item, a depiction of the Right Hon Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby, two upper class ladies from Ireland who created a scandal in the 18th century when they ran off to Wales together and set up house in a lovely little Gothic-style house called Plas Newydd.

From ancient history to the present day, the exhibition will show what EM Forster referred to as a ‘great unrecorded history’. It will seek to challenge visitors to consider what assumptions they might bring to objects from other cultures and other times.

04 Drag Queen Deck

Otsuka Takashi, Drag Queen Deck (Japan, 1997). This pack of cards uses photographs of drag queens from across Japan. The Trustees of the British Museum © Otsuka Takashi

The display will highlight such luminaries of the Greek poetess Sappho, as well as Roman Emperor Hadrian and his lover Antinous, but will also go beyond Europe’s classical past to explore some less familiar themes. Also on show will be a number of contemporary pieces, including Drag Queen Deck by Otsuka Takashi, which looks to be truly fabulous – it will definitely be worth studying every single card in the deck.

Objects from recent history will also be on display, including a variety of campaign and protest badges from the 1970s to the present day.

The British Museum has long-standing relationships with a number of LGBTQ organisations. These organisations, as well as a large number of individuals, have contributed their expertise and experiences towards the final display, which promises to be eye-opening and enlightening.

05 Bhupen Khakhar

Bhupen Khakhar (1934-2003), In the River Jamuna, print, 1993, Reproduced by permission of the estate of the artist

To complement Desire Love Identity, an LGBTQ Trail has been created to guide visitors through the museum, highlighting the many significant objects already on display as part of the permanent collection. This trail will be centred around 10-15 key objects, and additional interpretation will be added as appropriate to provide guests with information relating to the LGBTQ history of each object.

Once the exhibition is completed, the trail will be removed, but new permanent labels will be installed to ensure the significance of each LGBTQ object is captured, leaving a lasting legacy.

A number of talks on both exhibitions will take place from March, with the opportunity to hear Laura Phillips and Stuart Frost, the co-curators of Desire Love Identity: exploring LGBTQ histories, speak about the exhibition. Babs Guthrie, heritage consultant, will also conduct a number of tours, highlighting LGBTQ Objects of Desire, and Jennifer Ramkalawon, curator of Western Modern and Contemporary Graphic Works will give a talk on David Hockney: from poetry to print.

Hadrian Coin

Silver medallion with the bust of Hadrian (r. AD117-38). Minted in Rome, AD119-122. © Trustees of the British Museum

David Hockney: Fourteen Poems by C P Cavafy, and Desire Love Identity: exploring LGBTQ histories are two important exhibitions, both vital viewing in these times – to recognise what has previously been hidden, to acknowledge that the LGBTQ community has always been a part of life, to celebrate what has been achieved, and to ensure that it does not become hidden again.

Belinda McDowall, Deputy Editor and Special Features, The Culture Concept Circle, 2017

David Hockney: Fourteen Poems by C P Cavafy
March – May 2017

Desire Love Identity: Exploring LGBTQ Histories
11 May – 15 October 2017

British Museum
Great Russell Street, London, WC1B 3DG, United Kingdom






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