Features Published 10 February 2015

Living History

Alice Saville on Hackney's Sutton House and creative ways of marking LGBT History Month.
Alice Saville

Sutton House isn’t your average National Trust property. It’s got a multi-storey caravan sculpture in its yard, lives in Hackney, charges well under a fiver in admission and spent the 1980s being squatted by artists, not being fitted for new swag curtains. It’s also the first NT house to reflect February’s LGBT history month with a similarly rule-breaking two month long Queer Season of events.

Valentine’s Day is being taken over by alternative cinema mavens Amy Grimehouse, who’ll be screening queer subtext-heavy 90s teen film The Craft: also starring black magic, freak storms and several studded chokers. Other attractions include ‘Hex-Your-Ex’, drawing with Art Macabre, and a show from the enigmatic (or at least, unGoogleable) Bitches of Eastwick. It’s hard to imagine witchcraft-themed balls at night at your average National Trust property; unsurprisingly, serial cinematic offender and Hammer favourite Oakley Court remains in private hands. But Sutton House is allowed to let down its hoary locks a little more than most, because its bare rooms are free of epergnes, antimacassars, quarterstaves, and all the other gew gaws that most houses accrue over the odd century or four. At the moment, they’re enlivened by works by queer artist Nick Fox‘s exhibition BadSeed: he’s inspired by historical sources including floriography, or the Victorian language of flowers, the writings of Oscar Wilde and Joris-Karl Huysmans, Greek mythology and traditional folklore.

Sutton House’s chapel is playing 126, an exhibition of film footage that’s the centrepiece of Queer Season. It’s made up of crowdsourced snippets queer volunteers reading all 126 of Shakespeare’s sonnets, accompanied by 10-second filmed ‘selfies’. Volunteer curator Sean Curran, who’s also writing up their PhD on how institutions should tell queer stories, explains that ” the name for the exhibition sprung from the fact that “up to number  126, Shakespeare’s sonnets were argued to have been written to another man, and the next 16 to a woman. In 1640 a publisher changed all the pronouns to suggest the addressee was a woman. Even then there was an anxiety about the queerness of the sonnets, which we’re trying to challenge.” The sourced selfies range from “everyday things like reading or smoking to more performed things. One queer guy made his video as a reaction against marriage. The sonnet ends by saying that being single is a bad thing, and he holds up a sign saying ‘WTF would Shakespeare know?'”.

In keeping with the film’s un-upholstered take on Shakespeare, Sean explains that “my exhibition is an official National Trust exhibition but it’s very un-National Trust: it’s got a real DIY feel. The poster is illustrated and made to look more like a club poster. The project is also emphatically homemade because people have recorded themselves. Some are really crisp, in some they’ve made mistakes, or the sound is bad quality.” 

Apart from being Tudor, Sutton House doesn’t have a special connection with Shakespeare. It’s a place to challenge perceptions of his work mainly because of its “unusual demographic for a National Trust space. It doesn’t have a lot of original furniture, it’s very beautiful but very barren, and it’s also easy to get to so they have more freedom to do exciting stuff with communities, and to work with local schools.” As Sean Curran points out, houses with clearer queerer histories are doing less to emphasise them. Vita Sackville-West’s Kentish castle Sissinghurst is only starting to admit that her love for Harold Nicolson was a little more complicated than her romance with her gorgeous 16th century home. And Kingston Lacy was called out by QX Magazine for describing its owner William Bankes, subject of a notorious Victorian sodomy trial, as “artistic, adventurous and charming.” Anything but gay.

Sutton House

Sutton House

Its permeation might be moving at the speed of dry rot for now, but there’s still something nice about the thought of libraries and country house museums up and down the country neatly filing “LGBT History Month” into their lists of themes for rotating displays. As Sean Curran points out, “we need to move towards a post LGBT history month world were we challenge things throughout the year. The worry is that it’s given institutions a lazy impetus to only do this kind of thing once a year. It’s also easier to get funding in history month and that’s a problem.” Sean Curran compares it to the longer established Black History Month, which has attracted criticism for squeezing what should be a reassessment of the way history is taught and understood into a month of events focusing on the same old easily identifiable heroes.

Perhaps the month should be a time for looking inwards, and for institutions to think about how they acknowledge LGBT lives during the rest of the year. The idea of pulling out queer strands from existing collections and weaving them together is  a satisfying one. The Cinema Museum in Waterloo is doing so with an evening of archive footage called Gay Entertainers: An Appreciation. As it promises: “From Cole Porter to Lily Savage, from Rock Hudson to Danny LaRue, from Rudolph Nureyev to kd lang, from Marlene Dietrich to Irene Handl – the diversity and variety of gay entertainers is as long as your arm. ” The V&A is taking a similar approach at the end of the month, in a free Saturday morning invite to “join curators, guest speakers and filmmakers to explore alternative queer readings of museum objects, discover queer histories and consider how sexual identity can inform how we interpret the past.” There’s a dedicated late night opening on although they’ve been less expansive about what it will involve, promising a late night special focusing on the queerer corners of their collections.

We don’t always put curators under scrutiny in any consistent way, but they have astonishing freedom in choosing what stories to tell, as they pluck some items from obscurity and mothball others in dustless formaldyde. LGBT history month risks producing formulaic, tendentious results – but it also has the potential to be a creative restriction that draws a human, hidden thread through decades or centuries of documented living.

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Alice Saville

Alice is editor of Exeunt, as well as working as a freelance arts journalist for publications including Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine. Follow her on Twitter @Raddington_B