Kabuki actor in female attire, holding flowers next to an empty vase

Eight LGBTQ objects to celebrate Pride

Publication date: 26 June 2020

June is Pride month, we're celebrating LGBTQ stories from the collection picked by our LGBTQ tour volunteers, colleagues from partner museums and people who've worked with us recently.

Figures of Castor and Pollux

 Figures of Castor and Pollux

– Chris Weston, LGBTQ Tour Volunteer, British Museum

I am fascinated by this little 1780s Meissen porcelain group, which, beneath its unimpeachable credentials as fine art copied from a classical original, seethes with queerness. The Prado Museum in Madrid calls the life-sized original that inspired this work Orestes and Pylades after an 18th-century interpretation of the work as two mythical Greek princes. The 2nd-century poet Lucian (c. AD 125–180) viewed them as ideal lovers, who 'taking a god as witness of the passion between them, sailed through life together as though in one boat'. 18th-century composers George Frederick Händel (1685–1759) and Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714–1787) popularised the story with audiences through sympathetic operas.

It's easy to suppose this homoerotic interpretation of such a sensuous object appealed to gay 18th-century collectors. Sadly, modern scholarship identifies the young men not as lovers, but as the twins Castor and Pollux, but the original sculpture has further LGBTQ connections. The left-hand figure's head is a restoration using a portrait of the Roman emperor Hadrian's lover Antinous, whose death in AD 130 so grieved his partner that he had him declared a god (read more here). Moreover, the sculptural group featured in the collection of the brilliant Queen Christina of Sweden (1626–1689), whose flouting of 17th-century convention included adoption of masculine dress and manners, not to mention passionate attachments to other women.

Dish depicting Queen Anne

Dish depicting Queen Anne

– Jack Shoulder, Museum Education Specialist and LGBTQ Historian

Queen Anne (1665–1714), seen on this delftware plate, is perhaps not as well-remembered as other Queens of England or Great Britain. Or rather, she was barely remembered until in 2018, The Favourite, starring Olivia Coleman, was released and we encountered a new side to Anne and her court.

We saw the queen navigating perilous political situations and take council from savvy women in her court such as her close companions, the powerful Sarah Churchill (1660–1744) and the wily Abigail Hill (1670–1734). Terms such as 'favourite' and 'close companion' have often been used to euphemistically describe same-sex relationships, and these types of relationship are at the heart of The Favourite. But is all of this fiction to win an Oscar, or is there basis in fact?

What we do have are letters and reports and a long history of biographies of Anne littered with terms full of double meaning, such as 'passionate friendship'. The queen's contemporaries even spoke of her 'unnatural attachments' to other women. After Anne and Sarah Churchill's relationship turned sour, Sarah wrote that Anne had 'no inclination for any but her own sex' despite the potential damage this might have done to Sarah's own reputation. Historical hearsay to some, perhaps, but it is by no means a phrase that only carries Sapphic connotations to modern eyes. Sarah knew the power of her words.

Anne may not have acted on her desires, but there is significant evidence that Anne, like her great grandfather James I/VI (1566–1625), felt a strong attraction to her own sex.

Bank of Duckie 9 Bob Note

Bank of Duckie 9 Bob Note

– Peter O'Hanlon, LGBTQ Tour Volunteer, British Museum

Who remembers the ten shilling note or the 'ten bob note' as it was once known? The note was withdrawn from circulation in 1970 and disappeared in tandem with the popular expression with which it was so closely bound, 'as queer as a nine bob note'. In 2008 the Museum's 9 Bob Note was issued by Duckie for use during their club event Gay Shame goes Macho. It reads: 'The Bank of Duckie promises to pay the Bearer on Demand the sum of Nine Shillings' – a rubber duck has replaced Britannia and most surprising of all a portrait of Ronnie Kray occupies the spot where we might anticipate the Queen. In the margin of the cameo the image asks 'Do you know my face?'. Yet, for all these changes the design skilfully evokes the appearance of the original ten shilling note.

Ronnie Kray (1933–1995) together with his twin Reggie (1933–2000) was imprisoned for life in 1969. The East End gang leader was acknowledged by many, including himself, to be gay. With its combination of wit, audacity, and humour the note is easily my favourite object on the current LGBTQ tour and I suspect a particularly memorable object for many of those visitors who have enjoyed it with me.

The Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone

– Jack Shoulder, Museum Education Specialist and LGBTQ Historian

The Rosetta Stone is the most-visited object in the British Museum. People travel from all over the world to cast their eyes in wonder over the inscriptions that unlocked the ancient world. It tells a powerful story about international co-operation, with French and British scholars pooling their knowledge to solve the mysteries of the languages scratched into the stone.

It is well known that the Rosetta Stone has two languages and three scripts – hieroglyphs, Demotic and Ancient Greek. Walk around the Stone and you will find: 'CAPTURED IN EGYPT BY THE BRITISH ARMY IN 1801 PRESENTED BY KING GEORGE III'. Another language.

The Rosetta Stone still has the power to surprise us. Allow me to reveal to you its LGBTQ connection, highlighted by former British Museum curator Professor Richard B Parkinson in his book A Little Gay History. Jean-François Champollion (1790–1832) and Thomas Young's (1773–1829) correspondence in cracking the cryptic code is famous. Less well-known is the impact of a third contributor – William John Bankes (1786–1855), christened by poet Lord Byron (1788–1824) as ‘the Father of all Mischief’! 

Bankes made important breakthroughs in the understanding of the stone. He discussed the possibility the texts might all say the same thing, and he correctly supposed that a recurring cartouche represented a royal name. While travelling around Egypt, he made several studies which informed Young's work. Without Bankes' input our understanding of the stone, and ancient Egypt, would be significantly less.

But why don't we know about Bankes and his contribution? Possibly because of his ‘mischief’.

In 1833 Bankes was tried for soliciting a guardsman in a public toilet. He was acquitted but retired from public life. In 1841 he was forced to flee England after being committed for trial for 'that detestable & abominable crime (amongst Christians not to be named) called Buggery…' – Bankes was gay, and committed the crime of getting caught. His punishment was exile, and his achievements unfairly obscured.

Print depicting the Chevalier d'Eon

Print depicting the Chevalier d’Eon

– E-J Scott, Queer History Curator, DUCKIE, Museum of Transology

This etching from 1771 is an astonishing example of the enduring relevance of the British Museum's collection to LGBTQI+ lives today. The trial of M. D'Eon by a Jury of Matrons, depicts the Chevalier d'Eon (1728–1810) stationed on a plinth akin to an ancient Greek statue. Despite being shown to be a decorated soldier wearing the Croix de Saint-Louis, a French military medal, the Chevalier is ironically reduced to half the stature of the jurors, suggesting their body did not reach full development. The tiny D'Eon is scantily draped in cloth, a bare buttock revealing them to be stark naked underneath. The twelve onlooking matrons whisper and gawp, anticipating the 'big reveal' that will allow them to cast judgement, once and for all, on whether or not the Chevalier's anatomy is aligned with their gender presentation.

D’Eon's sex was a source of fascination for the British press and its public throughout the last half of the 18th century and beyond. They were repeatedly ridiculed as half-man, half-woman, as can be seen in engravings from 1777 and 1778. The British Museum's collection reveals d'Eon occupied both male and female gender identities in both public and private life, living in older age – and dying – as a woman. Even their corpse was subjected to public scrutiny, with a post mortem enabling a medical illustrator to draw their shrivelled genitalia in minute biological detail. The drawing was even engraved for the purposes of reprinting – one of the prints is preserved in the Museum's collection. It should serve to illustrate to us that 250 years later, trans, non-binary and intersex lives and bodies continue to be subjected to the same brutal, invasive and demeaning public scrutiny. This Pride, we should reflect upon the fact that this 18th-century jury could just as readily be assembled today.

Read more about the Chevalier's story.

The Justin Fashanu Story

The Justin Fashanu Story

– Rachel Ridealgh, Community Librarian for Local Studies, Norfolk Library and Information Service

These objects represent the story of Justin Fashanu (1961–1998), a British footballer who began his career with Norwich City Football Club in the late 1970s. Fashanu was the first professional footballer in England to come out as gay and to this day is the only British male professional player to have done so. These objects were chosen for inclusion in the Desire, Love, Identity exhibition by Norfolk Heritage Centre's young Community Curators group because of the challenges faced by Fashanu as a gay, Black professional footballer, and his inspiring legacy.

Fashanu transferred to Nottingham Forest from Norwich City in 1981 and was the first Black footballer to command a one million pound transfer fee. His time at Nottingham Forest was fraught, clashing with manager Brian Clough (1935–2004) over his sexuality. In October 1990 Fashanu came out as gay in an interview with The Sun newspaper, after which he suffered homophobic backlash. Eight years later, Fashanu was accused of sexual assault while living in the United States. He returned to England and died by suicide two months after the accusations were made. 

The Justin Fashanu All-stars was a football team formed in 2009, supported by the FA. The team was created by the Justin Campaign, which is a campaign against homophobia in football and promotes the inclusion of openly gay footballers. Also inspired by Justin Fashanu and his legacy, the Proud Canaries LGBTQ+ supporters group was launched in Norwich in 2014. They promote inclusion and challenge discrimination in football, as well as having their own Proud Canaries football team.

The Bolton Whitman Fellowship, 1894

The Bolton Whitman Fellowship, 1894

– Matthew Watson, Curator of art and social history, Bolton Museum

This photograph featured in Bolton Museum's version of Desire, love, identity, in a section called Friendship as a Way of Life, which explored some of the friendship networks that helped to sustain local LGBTQ people in difficult times.

The Bolton Whitman Fellowship began meeting in the terraced house of the group's guiding spirit, James William Wallace (1853–1926), in the 1880s. Early on, the Fellowship was a band of mainly working-class young men whose sense of group identity was fostered through a shared love of American poet Walt Whitman (1819–1892). News of the group spread around Britain and in the United States, and its network began to widen, encompassing such figures as writer and campaigner for homosexual equality Edward Carpenter (1844–1929), and Katharine Glasier (1867–1950), a founder member of the Independent Labour Party. 

This photograph of the Bolton Whitman Fellowship enjoying what looks like a tea party was taken in July 1894, when they had gathered to welcome the American Whitmanite, singer and composer Philip Dalmas (1870–1925). Dalmas seems to have aroused strong feelings among certain members of the Fellowship, and there is evidence to suggest that he had an affair with at least one of the group – Charles Sixsmith (1871–1953), who worked in a local textile mill. Dalmas is second on the left, in the middle row (with a moustache, looking at the camera), while Sixsmith is sitting in the front row on a winged-back chair, in profile. 

We hold numerous photographs of the Bolton Whitman Fellowship in our collections, but this is my favourite. For me, it captures something of the spirit of the 1890s and early 1900s, when, for a brief period, boundaries began to break down between people of different social and economic backgrounds and between the sexes. It was an incredible, though short-lived moment of hope, tolerance and openness (including towards sexual difference) in which socialists, feminists, religious dissenters, and campaigners for sexual equality were united in common cause. 

Woodblock fan print depicting Iwai Hanshirō V

Woodblock fan print depicting Iwai Hanshirō V

– Stuart Frost, Head of Interpretation and Volunteers, British Museum

This woodblock print from the 1820s, designed by the artist Utagawa Kunisada (1786–1864), is a recent acquisition that was put on display in late 2019.

The Museum's collection of Japanese woodblock prints and illustrated books produced between 1600–1900 contains numerous important works that reflect LGBTQ themes. These works are sensitive to light which means that they can't be on permanent display, but our curatorial team ensures that there is always at least one work with an LGBTQ connection on display at any given time in Rooms 92–94.

A print like this shouldn't really have survived. It was designed to be cut out and mounted onto a round summer fan with a bamboo handle and then thrown away. Hardly any of these types of print survive, and this is the only known example of this one. It depicts the male kabuki actor, Iwai Hanshirō V (1776–1847). In around 1629 women were banned from appearing on the kabuki stage, and from that point onwards men performed female roles. Some actors, like Iwai Hanshirō V, specialised in female roles and they are frequently shown living their lives outside the theatre in feminine clothing. Here for example, Hanshirō is shown off-stage, arranging flowers.

Moving beyond this particular print, Utagawa Kunisada produced thousands of designs for actor prints over his career, including some sexually explicit shunga books that featured scandals about the private lives of actors. Young actors of female roles would sometimes provide sexual services to older male – and occasionally female – patrons.  

Find other LGBTQ stories from the collection, including more blogs posts, objects in focus and an online trail of objects with LGBTQ connections around the Museum.

See our events and exhibitions page for volunteer-led LGBTQ tours with new highlight objects.