…by linking their love to the past he linked it to the present…
~ E.M. Forster, Maurice
Between 1985 and 1992 director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant made three E.M Forster novels into films. They began with A Room with a View starring Helena Bonham Carter and concluded the trio with Howards End, which won Emma Thompson an Oscar. I remember watching both of these films on television as a child. They were shown on mainstream channels. What I missed, what I didn’t watch until I was 32, was their 1987 film Maurice. I’d never heard of it, I didn’t know its name and to that end I believe it was blocked from my view.
Written by Forster in 1913, Maurice chronicles the love between two Cambridge students, Maurice Hall and Clive Durham. It is a tender, dynamic and emotional love story – exploring class, masculinity and desire. Crucially, the novel has a happy ending and although Hall and Durham don’t end up together both find love. Maurice enters a loving relationship through darkness and surrounded by the scent of evening primroses.
In the film Maurice is portrayed by actor James Wilby and Durham by a fawn-like 27 year-old Hugh Grant. Grant’s performance is particularly mesmerising; his soft skin and femininity creating an alluring screen presence. But why is Maurice a lesser known Merchant Ivory film? In fact, why is Maurice a lesser known E.M Forster work? Well, the answer may lie in the fact that it is about love between men. For centuries, for decades, forever really, same sex lives have been pushed to the margins, our stories not held up, our films have been ignored, our novels ousted by those deemed to be more mainstream.
As a gay person, I’m endlessly filling in the gaps in my knowledge. I am endlessly asking myself questions like: how could I miss this great page-turning romp? How had I not seen such a beautiful film? I suspect the answer is Margaret Thatcher. But I don’t have time to waste worrying about her. There is simply too much art for me to enjoy and find.
Forster died in 1970 and Maurice was published in 1971, leaving his great gay love story to be published beyond the grave. Perhaps it was an act of cowardice. But I don’t blame Forster; I love Maurice and it’s an important document that shows the dynamic and explosive love between men at the turn of the 1900s. It is a frank, clear and palpable book.
Cambridge is where Maurice and Durham first meet: “They kissed, scarcely wishing it. Then Maurice vanished as he had come, through the window.” Cambridge was one of the four places whose queer histories I attempted to map as part of New Geographies – a programme of artists projects which explores new ways of mapping the east of England through events, artworks, films and public discourse.
Besides fictional characters like Maurice Hall and Clive Durham, Cambridge has a rich history of important LGBTQI+ figures – if only the locals would tell you about them.
For example, it was only after a 40-minute meeting, packed in like sausages inside the smallest room in the shiny new wing of Kettle’s Yard, that someone said something along the line of:
“Yeah, I don’t know how much gay history you will find in Cambridge.”
Nervous glances, trying to be helpful.
“Well, I guess we should mention that Jim Ede, [founder of the very gallery said sausage sizzle was taking place in] had same-sex desires and possibly relationships. But we tend not to talk about it… because, you know, it’s a difficult topic to address with our visitors…”
This felt like a helpful gut-punch.
I soon learnt that Ede’s personal letters dealing with his same-sex relationships were left to the public but are currently marked as “restricted access”. After some graft I was granted access to these tender letters that speak of desire, awakening and compassion. There’s nothing explicit; rather, the letters help to open up the past and clear a path for a more diverse reading. We are always presented with the past through a heterosexual lens. What would happen if we saw that LGBTQI+ people have always been here? It could only help us in the present.
“Oh yes, everyone knows Jim was gay,” said a local artist that I met for lunch in the gallery café. ‘It’s an open secret.”
“Now there’s a phrase,” I thought to myself: “open secret.” I am too old for those – I don’t have the time. We have too much erasure to bring to the surface already. This type of secrecy is precisely what my whole project was looking to challenge and update.
Kettle’s Yard had already pricked my queer eye. I knew the collection, I’d clocked the nude wrestling men and I’d seen the tender portraits by Christopher Wood, ‘Boy with Cat’ and ‘Self Portrait’. I felt my eyes reflected back at me.
Kettle’s Yard became the first dot on my queer map of Cambridge and I did my best to bring to the surface mentions of Jim’s sexuality that had been uttered in the building from time to time. In the printed maps that I published the entry reads:
Kettle’s Yard – Castle Street, CB3 0AQ
Founded by British collector and friend to artists, Jim Ede, the house has a number of works by notable LGBTQI+ artists including Christopher Wood, William Congdon and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska.
In a lecture given during Kettle’s Yard’s 50th anniversary commemoration, Director Andrew Nairne spoke about Ede’s unpublished autobiography ‘Between Two Memories’, saying “looking back at his life, Ede is explicit about his sexual leanings. They were not towards women, despite his happy life with Helen. If, as a number of passages strongly infer, he was homosexual, he appears to have decided, however difficult this was at times, not to express this physically.”
The public walks that I went on to organise in east anglia as part of my commission for New Geographies utilised techniques that I often put into play: my research was hands-on and conversational. An extensive part of my process involved spending time in each town and city, meeting people and teasing out LGBTQI+ histories. From my initial one-on-one conversations, I’d ask who I should talk to next. I slowly got to the point where I’d built up a small network of people who felt connected to the research that I was doing.
We then held open public meetings in Norwich, Colchester, Cambridge and Great Yarmouth. These allowed me to gather a wider range of information and it was also an opportunity to be social. They were about sharing information, facts and happenings within each city in relation to LGBTQI+ pasts and contemporary groups, places and people. Paper maps were dotted with red stickers, which pinpointed possible routes for collective rambles. People offered what they knew and we built our collective resource from there.
Within the walks I organised micro-projects; I worked with local artists to build in content and interactions between people who came on the walks. In Cambridge, artist Paul Kindersley made maps that encourage people to do rubbings and sketches while we walked. Artist Rachel Pimm made packets of wildflower seeds to sprinkle along the walk in honour of Alan Turing who was convicted for being gay in 1952, a conviction that was posthumously pardoned in 2013. These works added conversations, they offered nervous newcomers something to do with their hands, and they united us. Paul asked everyone to swap maps at every marker point – these exquisite corpses became our social glue.
We did the walks in April and May in beautiful weather. After each, there was time to hang out informally. I didn’t want to direct what interactions or conversations took place; rather I saw my role as offering a platform for people to be together and feel provided for.
The next layer of the project was a touring gallery exhibition in the autumn. ‘Outhouse’ was a mobile queer space that started at Firstsite Gallery in Colchester before travelling across East Anglia. Working with a local welder, I designed a cylindrical structure that visually referenced noticed boards or civic information stands. I painted the metal structure in a deep park green and replaced what would normally be cork pinboards with transparent Perspex. On to this I collaged photographs and ephemera related to historic and contemporary LGBTQI+ culture from the east of England.
The circular space hosted social gatherings, a disco, talks and meetings during its time at each gallery or library.
Exploring queerness, local histories and the natural world, the installation offered glimpses of proto-gay couples from the seventeenth century, queer symbolism and a rereading of landscape through an LGBTQI+ lens. Images from the communal walks in Cambridge, Colchester, Norwich and Great Yarmouth were mixed with material from the Gay Outdoors Club archive, a national rambling group founded in 1973.
In squashing all these images together I was interested in what it means to be queer in a regional setting and questioning an evolving status of queer people within society across the decades. The installation’s title ‘Outhouse’ was a nod to Outhouse East, a Colchester charity offering support and information to LGBTQI+ people in Essex.
In touring the work I was actively asking each gallery to acknowledge that queer lives and achievements have often gone unrecorded within their regional settings. The project was part of a wider invitation to correct this.
One of the shimmering examples of a widening sense of dynamic inclusion was Kettle’s Yard’s invitation to artist Rachel Pimm to contribute to a Saturday family workshop day at the gallery. This was not a special or token LGBTQI+ family day; rather, it was an active jumble of craft and art activities for young kids and their families. Mixing LGBTQI+ content into a loose open-access day was a chilled and active way of blending queer history into a wider programme of events – dynamic in its blaséness.
Amid what Forster describes as the “darkness and perishing flowers” of our current climate, I take warmth in the collective efforts of people who shared their knowledge with me and those who pointed out queer forefathers, mothers and others. Together we looked at towns and cities through our queer eyes. We walked, talked and congregated in a way that perhaps we hadn’t before.
A legacy and lovely memory of our queer walks are the poems of Alison Graham who I invited to respond to each meet up. Below is her poem from Cambridge. John Finch and Thomas Baines, who Alison refers to, lived together in the seventeenth century and were described at the time as ‘two inseparable friends’. They are memorialised together in a marble ‘marriage’ tomb next to the altar of Christ’s College chapel. While today’s language was not accessible to them, John and Thomas are what we would now call a gay couple. They spent 36 years together in mutual devotion and benefited from public acceptance and acknowledgement of their lifelong love.
Getting away from distant things
In the morning it is fruit and the wind peeling and it is Alan Turing who would be in a good shirt that smells of a place in the distance and it is runoff water and any other or it is Finch and Baines done up marble watching the same direction to a place at a distance or it is a white grass-stained shirt or it is that the inscription tells by not telling and that if it were their bodies entire and not only heads you just actually know John and Thomas would be leaning on each other or it is carrying the runoff water any way it is all of this at a distance I walk to and it is my sketching never merely loving someplace.
New Geographies is a three-year project, funded by the National Lottery through Arts Council England and working in partnership with the East Contemporary Visual Art Network, to create a new map of the East of England based on personal thoughts, reflections and stories of unexplored or overlooked places, rather than on historic or economical centres.
Ian would like to thank and acknowledge the work of Kaavous Clayton and Orginalprojects for their vital support and collaboration in researching, staging and making the Open Ramble East walks and Outhouse touring exhibition possible.
You can click here to view all four walking maps.
Image credits (from top):
1. Ian Giles, Open Ramble East, Cambridge, Walkers holding maps by Paul Kindersley. Image © Wilf Speller
2. Ian Giles, ‘Outhouse’ on show at Kettles Yard in Cambridge. Image © Rob Harris
3. Ian Giles, ‘Open Ramble East’, Cambridge. Image © Wilf Speller
4. Ian Giles, ‘Open Ramble East’, Great Yarmouth, Image © Ian Giles
5. Ian Giles, ‘Outhouse’ on show at Kettles Yard in Cambridge. Image © Rob Harris
6. Ian Giles, ‘Open Ramble East’, Cambridge. Image © Wilf Speller
This is part of ROOT MAPPING, a section of The Learned Pig devoted to exploring which maps might help us live with a clear sense of where we are. ROOT MAPPING is conceived and edited by Melanie Viets.