Cylinder seals, £90.00
The term ‘sodomy’ covered many practises often deemed irregular and unnatural by Christianity and Judaism, and carried the death-penalty in many countries. The eighteenth century saw the rise of a distinct sub-culture, and secular law changes in the Enlightenment period began to improve the legal status of ‘sodomites’ in some European countries.
In 1730, 75 men were executed in the Netherlands because of their sexuality and it is estimated that up to a thousand trials were held there in the following 80 years. In this broadside print there are six scenes showing ‘sodmites’ being persecuted and executed in Amsterdam.
A letter to a gentleman abroad
Persecution in Europe affected many , establishment figures. In nineteenth century England, sodomy remained a capital offence and one individual whose life was wrecked was the British dilettante, antiquarian, MP and close friend of Lord Byron, William John Bankes (1786-1855).
In this letter of 1818, the English polymath Thomas Young (1773-1829) writes to the father of Bankes asking it to be forwarded to his son who was travelling in Egypt. Young asks the gentleman traveller to look out for the missing fragments of the Rosetta Stone. In 1815 Bankes discovered an obelisk which later played a significant role in the decipherment of hieroglyphs.
In 1841 he was tried for soliciting a guardsman for sex in a public toilet. He was acquitted but retired from public life. Then, 11 years later, he was committed for trial for indecency with another guardsman: ‘against the order of nature to commit … the detestable and abominable crime of Buggery’. He fled into exile to avoid trial, and died in Venice in 1855.
A print by David Hockney
In Western Europe during the twentieth century, attempts were made to reach into the past to identify ‘homosexuals’ in order to combat the oppression of the modern age. For many men, the ancient Greek world seemed freer and provided a medium for talking about same-sex desire.
This print is by artist David Hockney (born 1937) and shows two men lying in bed. It is an illustration for a poem by Greek poet C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933), called In the Dull Village. Another poem in this series, entitled 'Two Boys Aged 23 and 24' includes the lines:
And once they’d run out of
And since, by then, it was nearing four o’clock,
They abandoned themselves blissfully to love.
(translated by Evangelos Sachperoglou)
C. P. Cavafy lived and wrote in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. His verse often evoked the world of the Hellenistic Mediterranean with vivid recreations of ancient Alexandria, including erotic desire between men in both modern and ancient settings. Cavafy was one of the earliest modern authors to write openly about same-sex love.
The print was made in an age of liberal attitudes, when such desire could again be celebrated.
LGBT History Month badge
Western society in the mid-twentieth century was increasingly homophobic, but political activism tried to combat various forms of social oppression. In many countries gay liberation movements fought – and continue to fight - against discrimination and prejudice. In the academic world, studies on gay history and gender studies have risen in importance.
Law reform decriminalised ‘homosexual’ acts in private in Britain in 1967, following the recommendations of a government committee in 1957 which was chaired by Lord Wolfenden – who was later a director the British Museum (1969-73). Full equal rights are still not yet achieved.
LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender) History Month takes place in the UK every year in February and celebrates the lives and achievements of the LGBT community. This badge was donated to the British Museum in 2009.
More information about the objects featured here:
- Broadside on the persecution of sodomy in Amsterdam
- David Hockney, In the dull village, from illustrations for 14 poems from CP Cavafy, 1966/67. Etching. 22 1/2 by 15 1/2. © David Hockney