This online exhibition showcases the voices of Museum staff and uncovers some of the queer histories hiding in plain view at Sir John Soane’s Museum.

In February 2024, Museum staff were invited to contribute to an evening of discovery hosted by Ms Timberlina, who has been queering museum spaces for the best part of two decades. Each staff member selected objects from the collection which illuminate forgotten stories and queer histories. This online exhibition records the objects and stories showcased at this event. Together, they enrich our understanding the Museum and its collections and highlights the ways queer people and their stories have been present historically.

Discover these objects first hand and explore more queer history at our upcoming Pride Celebration Late on Friday 28 June. 
 

Hadrian and Antinous

A bust of Antinous, atop a cabinet in Sir John Soane's Museum.

Words by Honor Sandiford

Soane’s collection includes many objects which represent figures regarded as prime examples of Classical beauty. One such character was the Roman emperor Hadrian’s (c. 76–138 AD) ‘favourite’, Antinous (c. 111–130 AD), believed to have been Hadrian’s lover and deified after his early death. At the time of Soane’s death in 1837, the Museum contained seven works depicting Antinous. One example includes a plaster cast of a bust of Antinous as Bacchus (on display in the Dome Area). This bust is a cast of the celebrated ‘Lansdowne’ Antinous which was originally on display at Hadrian’s villa, Tivoli, near Rome. The Museum also contains three casts of a roundel from the Arch of Constantine (on display in the Dome Area, Drawing Office and Staircase). The roundel, known as ‘Trajan departing for the chase’, actually depicts Hadrian and his travelling party, including Antinous. 

The existence of multiple examples of Antinous in Soane’s collection illustrates his significance in nineteenth-century collections of antiquities. The presence of these objects allows us to infer that there was, at the very least, tolerance for displaying queer figures. One potential reason for this is the inclusion of Antinous in the painter William Hogarth’s The Analysis of Beauty (1753), a book which describes the artist’s theories of beauty. Figures mentioned in this text, such as Antonius, can be seen throughout Soane’s collection and exemplified the aesthetic ideal of the Ancient World. It could also be ventured that, due to the educational nature of Soane’s collection, perhaps as long as the display of a queer image was academically relevant, then it could be socially accepted.

Polydukes

A bust of Polydukes on a pedestal in the Sepulchral Chamber.

Words by Roxy Glad

Like the cast of the ‘Lansdowne’ Antinous, Soane’s marble bust of Polydeukes (on display in the Sepulchral Chamber) immortalises a homosexual relationship from the Ancient World. Sexual relationships between a wealthy older Greek man (the erastes) and a young male (the eromenos) have been depicted widely in classical art and literature and were an important part of educating younger men in art and society within the hierarchical culture of Ancient Greece. Polydeukes (sometimes referred to as Pollux in literature) was believed to be the young male lover, or eromenos, of Herodes Atticus (101–177 AD), a Greek politician who served as a Roman senator and Consul in 143 AD. Little is known about their relationship now, but when Polydeukes died, Herodes was reported to be devastated. In his mourning, Herodes commissioned works of art showing a heroic depiction of the young man and put on commemorative games at his estate in Cephissia (north of Athens). While the public never took to seeing Polydeukes as a deity, as perhaps Herodes had hoped following Hadrian’s success with Antinous, his commissions were such that several busts of the young man survive today. 

A close-up shot of the face of a bust of Polydukes, which sits on a pedestal in the Sepulchral Chamber of Sir John Soane's Museum.

The evidence of erastes-eromenos relationships in classical history contribute to queer history, shedding light on how they were viewed in society. While some primary source material indicates that the eromenos felt pleasure and affection, there aren’t significant accounts from their perspective. As part of Soane’s collection, the bust of Polydeukes offers a glimpse into the interpersonal relationships of the Ancient World, perhaps paralleling Soane’s own history of grief following the loss of his wife, Eliza, in 1815.

Two Corybantes

A relief of two gladiatorial male figures, wearing only helmets and carrying swords and shields, as they do battle.

Words by Miha Lužar

Soane’s collection includes a cast of an Antique relief of two Corybantes (on display in the Dome Area). Sons of the god Apollo and the muse Thalia, the Corybantes were armed and crested youthful male dancers. They protected the infant Zeus from his father, Cronus, by dancing around the baby and clashing their arms to create noise which would make it impossible for Cronus to hear his son’s cry. The Corybantes similarly protected Dionysus when he was a baby, and their behaviour later established a connection to wild Dionysian rites that involved frenzied dancing and drumming. 

A relief depicting two nude gladiatorial male figures doing battle with swords and shields.

With their drumming and dancing, the Corybantes also attended and worshipped Cybele, the Phrygian Great Mother of the Gods. Cybele’s cult started in Anatolia (now Turkey) before spreading throughout the Roman Empire in the 3rd century BC. Her priests, called Galli, practised castration, which was forbidden for citizens of the Roman Empire until its ban was lifted in the 1st century AD. This brutal act of ritualistic self-mutilation was understood as re-enacting the myth of Attis, Cybele’s lover and consort, who castrated himself in a divine frenzy and bled to death. After their initiation, the Galli, referred to as ‘half men’ in literary sources, kept their hair long and dressed themselves in women’s clothing, makeup and jewellery. By following such practices, they challenged the Roman conception of masculinity. Therefore, as a social and sexual minority, they would represent one example of what we now call transgender in the Ancient World.

Sappho

A bust of Sappho sits within a recess high in a corner of the Library-Dining Room, positioned next to a radial convex mirror that reflects her.

Words by Tallulah Smart

Sappho (c. 630–570 BC), one of the Nine Lyric Poets, said to be the 10th Muse, is one of the most iconic queer women in history, after whom we get the words ‘Lesbian’ and ‘Sapphic’. She was born into a wealthy family on the island of Lesbos. Her mastery of lyric poetry was highly celebrated, but it was her poems reflecting her eros/erotic love for other women that gained her notoriety. She would have sung her poems at Symposiums – ‘drinking parties’ where performances were held – and accompanied herself on the lyre. She had an extensive body of written work: by the 3rd century BC, the Library of Alexandria in Egypt held a collection of nine scrolls of her work. Sadly, only 1% of her work now survives. However, those excerpts that still exist resonate deeply with the queer community today.

Sappho is represented in a plaster bust in Soane’s collection (on display in the Library-Dining Room). We know little about the bust, which is probably an eighteenth-century cast of a Graeco-Roman original. Soane has positioned the bust in such a way that Sappho’s downturned face reflects in a nearby convex mirror, casting her gaze down upon visitors to the Soane Museum. Soane was given an edition of the works of the Nine Lyric Poets, including Sappho, translated by John Taylor, who sent and inscribed this copy for Soane on account of his ’refined taste and knowledge of the arts of Ancient Greece’. 

Chevalier D’Eon

A painting of the Soane family tomb in a golden frame, positioned high in the Breakfast Room at the Museum, behind a statue of the winged figure of victory, Nike.

Words by Tallulah Smart

Soane was buried at the burial ground of St Giles-in-the-Fields, now St Pancras Old Church Gardens, alongside his wife Eliza and his eldest son John Jr; the family tomb is depicted in the above work, displayed in the Breakfast Room. This burial ground is also home to other graves of note, including the lost grave of Chevalier D’Eon (1728–1810), whose name appears on the Burdett-Coutts Memorial Sundial in the churchyard (see below). A contemporary of Soane’s from a wealthy Burgundian family, D’Eon rose to prominence in the French military and became a spy in Louis XV’s Secret Du Roi, a secret service that was not even known to the French government at the time. D’Eon liaised with Tsarina Elizaveta on the king’s behalf, fought in the Seven Years’ War, and drafted the Treaty of Paris in London, the latter achievement granting D’Eon the title of chevalier, or ‘knight’. 

Burdett Coutts Memorial Sundial.

Acting as interim diplomat in London, D’Eon’s relationship with the French government soured over a huge wine bill, blackmail, and an attempted assassination, and D’Eon was eventually exiled from France. Around the same time, rumours began that D’Eon was actually a woman, a tale that was so sensationalised that bets were made on the London Stock Exchange. D’Eon confirmed those rumours, and when agreeing terms with Louis XVI for repealing her exile, requested that she be formally recognised as a woman by the king. Once those terms had been agreed, D’Eon lived as a woman from 1777 until her death in 1810, spending her time fighting in sword fencing competitions, and writing about her experience of gender in society. D’Eon’s celebrated story is one that resonates with many queer experiences across the spectrum.

Talking about D'Eon's gender is complex, especially as it was a sensationalised topic both during her life and after her death, and it goes without saying that there are issues using modern terminology. I use she/her pronouns as she fought for her identity as a woman.

 

Image: St Pancras Old Church, Burdett-Coutts Memorial Sundial, by Andy Scott, via Wikimedia Commons, shared under CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED license.

Queer Royalty

A painting in the Picture Room, depicting a desolate Richard II upon landing at Milford Haven.

Words by Jonty Stern

If you wanted to tour English royal connections at the Soane Museum, you would be there for some time as you would find much to hold your attention. Indeed, if you wanted to limit your tour to monarchs generally believed to be LGBTQ+, you would still spend a significant amount of time at the Museum. 

In the Picture Room, for example, you would find a wonderful painting of an utterly desolate King Richard II (1367–1400), see above. Generally believed to have been bisexual, Richard II worked hard to canonise his great-grandfather, Edward II (1284–1327), who is believed to have been gay.

In the Library you would find a book on the Progress of James VI (1566–1625), King of Scots, on his way south to become England’s James I. That king, rather like his Scottish second great-grandfather, James III (1452–1488), is believed to have been homosexual. Like his grandson, Charles II (1630–1685), James I seemed to delight in the intimate company of a member of the Villiers family. In the case of Charles II, that was Barbara Villiers, while in the case of James VI it was George, who described himself as the ‘lover’ of the Scottish king.

A relief positioned on the wall of the Breakfast Room.

In the Breakfast Room, you would find the above tableau of the defeat of the French at the hands of John Churchill (1650–1722), a battle only allowed to happen thanks to the hoodwinking of parliament by Queen Anne (1665–1714). Anne was widely believed to have been in love with Churchill's wife, Sarah (1660–1744), sending her secret love letters using the pseudonym ‘Mrs Morley’ to which Sarah would respond as ‘Mrs Freeman’.

Celebrate LGBTQ+ Pride Month with us! Our June Soane Late will feature performances, workshops, spotlight talks and a complimentary G&T for every guest.