Archivist Kirstie Meehan discovers some of the LGBTQ+ voices in our archive.
It’s scruffy, a little smaller than A4, with ragged edges and patches of degradation all over, but this photo tells two important stories: one, a personal story of the love between two men and the other one of societal discrimination and oppression. It shows the Scottish artists Robert MacBryde (with cigarette in mouth) and his lover Robert Colquhoun in the early 1950s, when they lived at Tilty Mill in Essex. The Two Roberts, as they were known, had found significant success when living in London, but moved to Essex to act as caretakers for the children of their friend, Elizabeth Smart. They lived together from 1933 until Colquhoun’s death in 1962, during a period when homosexuality was a criminal offence. It’s a powerful example within the archive of a lifetime of love between the two men and, in a wider sense, testimony to LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) lives preserved in institutions like the National Galleries of Scotland (NGS).
The archive at NGS is filled with such everyday stories of love, banality and suffering. Archives – by which we mean the letters, sketchbooks, ephemera and photographs that a person accumulates over the course of their life – are powerful places, and never neutral ones. What we choose to preserve for the future tells us much about a society’s priorities and prejudices and, historically LGBTQ+ lives have been purposefully overlooked or actively repressed within archives. The National Galleries of Scotland, like many other institutions at the present time, is attempting to address this historical imbalance, both through examining our existing holdings to tell the stories of LGBTQ+ people, but also through actively acquiring artworks and archives which represent such experience.
But what does it mean for these lives to become more prominent in both the gallery and archive spaces, for NGS to explore our collections through a queer lens? It serves a political purpose: representation matters, and increased visibility of LGBTQ+ lives in institutions such as ours can, we hope, help combat discrimination, especially in a wider world where many such communities are persecuted.
It also works towards expanding the existing art historical canon that has been constructed, book by book and exhibition by exhibition, over the centuries. Through researching, exhibiting and shaping our collection out beyond the predominantly white, cisgender and heteronormative – widening our focus beyond the big names of art history, Matisse, Picasso or Dalí – we can show a multiplicity of experience.
New acquisitions come to us in a variety of ways, and invariably shape the archive: we’re highly dependent on gifts or bequests from donors, often the families of artists. Generous donations relating to the Scottish artist Joan Eardley have been made over the years from both her family and friends, and each letter, photograph or sketch increases our understanding of Eardley’s art, but also the interconnection between her art and her personal life. She writes movingly to her friend Frank Stephen about a painful love affair with a woman, and the effect it had on her painting.
A more active approach to acquisitions – pinpointing artists that we want to represent and acquiring their work at auction or from dealers - is opening up new stories of LGBTQ+ lives. Recent acquisitions include an artist book by Anton Prinner, entitled Le Femme tondue (The Shaven-Headed Woman). Prinner was born Anna in Budapest in 1902, but identified as a man when he moved to Paris in 1927: he was addressed by Picasso as ‘Monsieur Madame’ and produced sculpture, prints and drawings until his death in 1983. He was at the centre of the European avant-garde in the 1930s and 1940s, but there is still much research to be done on both his artistic output and his biographical story. We’re also looking beyond the confines of the West, and to expressions of LGBTQ+ experience further afield: Eikoh Hosoe and Yukima Mishima’s 1963 photobook Barakei (Killed by Roses) is an examination of desire, eroticism and death.
We can do a lot with material like this: show them in exhibitions (both La Femme tondue and Barakei will be included in our forthcoming New Arrivals exhibition at Modern One), lend them to other institutions both in the UK and abroad, discuss them in the outreach sessions we do with student and public groups, and encourage researchers to come and view them. And there is more we hope to do with the archive – to invite LGBTQ+ artists, activists and facilitators to explore it with us, and help us broaden the stories we tell.
When I sit in the archives stores reading a letter from sixty years ago, with inky fingerprints and bad handwriting, in which love is declared or pain expressed, it seems obvious that all such experiences deserve a place in our collective memory.