How much does the Historic Royal Palaces (hrp) collection tell us about the LGBT+ community?

There are traces of LGBT+ lives everywhere in the architecture of the palaces and the collections. I’d recommend walking through somewhere like Hampton Court Palace with your eyes open for LGBT+ histories. You’ll be surprised by what you see. From the bust of the Roman Emperor Hadrian - who made his lover Antinous a god - that greets every visitor in the first courtyard, to overlooked eroticised paintings of two women, examples of same sex-love and desire are everywhere. Queer lives are built into the architecture, with the apartments of the royal favourite the Earl of Albemarle right next to King William III’s private rooms. We’ll never know the truth about that relationship, but it gave rise to rumours of same-sex love at the time. We also have incredible objects made by LGBT+ people. We care for the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection – an internationally significant collection of over 10,000 items of royal and court dress – which contains remarkable items by gay designers, including Norman Hartnell.

Portrait of the first Earl of Albemarle, Hendrik Carre.
Portrait of the first Earl of Albemarle, Hendrik Carre. (Photo by: Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

How did you begin in this field?

I’m an art and design historian by training. About a decade ago, I started to realise that the artists I was researching – the 20th-century British Neo-Romantics – were mostly gay men. The only way to understand their artistic circle was to understand the gay subculture they were part of. I got involved in my museum’s LGBTQ Working Group to pursue this idea, and it took off from there. I’m endlessly fascinated by seeing how LGBT+ people have lived in every human society and how they managed to thrive, despite often being denied and erased. It’s personal too: it’s the story of my own community, and I want to use my role as curator to share that history. I’m lucky to work for Historic Royal Palaces, an accredited Independent Research Organisation. We’re committed to telling truly representative and inclusive stories, so there’s huge support.

What reactions have you had to your field of history?

Every curator needs a specialism, but I’ve never wanted to focus on just one historic period or type of object when so much out there is interesting. LGBT+ history allows me to look at different time periods, people and places. People now come to me as an expert in the field, and it’s very flattering to be asked for advice or to speak at conferences. A lot of my work is public facing, and the response has been great there, too. This is a history people want to know about, and we get great feedback from our LGBT+ events. While you can’t please everyone, especially on social media, overall the reactions are very positive.

What’s the most interesting piece of research you have uncovered?

My favourite story is of the court musician Arabella Hunt. In 1680, Arabella married a James Howard, who was in fact a woman called Amy Poulter. Amy had courted Arabella in male and female clothes, and when the case was brought to court, she claimed it was a joke that had got out of hand. To me, marriage seems to be taking a joke very far indeed, so I’m not convinced by Amy’s defence. The story raises so many questions of how and what Amy and Arabella felt or knew about each other. It’s a story that’s been published before, but we’ve never told it as part of the royal histories of the palaces that HRP cares for until now.

Mrs Arabella Hunt singing to Queen Mary.
Mrs Arabella Hunt singing to Queen Mary. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

In your opinion, what has been the biggest event in LGBT+ history?

The 2017 celebration for the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act was huge. The 1967 act partially decriminalised homosexual acts between men – itself a watershed moment for LGBT+ history. The celebrations were marked by museums and heritage sites across the country, including Historic Royal Palaces. I’d been advocating LGBT+ histories for years, but suddenly everybody realised it was important to put these stories front and centre as part of a major national anniversary. There were so many special events, exhibitions, publications and conferences – I couldn’t keep up! Its legacy is that the sector understands that it’s important to tell these stories, and curators have searched for them in their histories and collections. The challenge now is to keep up the momentum and work out how we can build on our successes.

How important is it that LGBT+ stories from history are told?

People need to know their heritage to have a sense of belonging. So many LGBT+ people face exclusion and rejection every day, and it’s important to show them that they belong. There’s a great film from 1996 called The Watermelon Woman by Cheryl Dunye – it looks like a documentary, but it’s actually a fictional account about Dunye discovering the life of a black lesbian actress from the 1930s. It was the first feature film made by a black lesbian, and it’s helped me understand how important it is for people to be able to find others who looked and felt like them in the past. If we ignore the lives of LGBT+ people in history, we’re only ever going to get part of the picture. To properly understand the past, we have to understand the lives of everybody who has come before us, not just those people who looked and acted in a certain way. There’s now an understanding that we need to know more about the people in history whose voices have been silenced, and this can transform the lives of people living today.

Matthew Storey is Collections Curator at Historic Royal Palaces


This article was first published in the July 2020 issue of BBC History Revealed