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Creative Lesbians and Gay Men

Lesbians, bisexual women and homosexual men were prominent among the designers, artists and architects who shaped the material experience of modern 20th-century England. Many of them are still under-recognised. These men and women were part of overlapping cultural circles. Although they preferred same-sex intimate relationships, their wider friendships were mixed.

March of the women

Ethel Smyth was a suffragette, author and composer. Smyth had become involved in the women’s movement through her friendship with Emmeline Pankhurst. Among her compositions was ‘March of the Women’, which became the anthem of the women’s movement. When Smyth was imprisoned at Holloway in 1912, she led an impromptu rendition of ‘March of the Women’, conducted with her tooth brush. Smyth is also said to have stormed 10 Downing Street while the Cabinet was in session and played ‘March of the Women’ on Prime Minister Herbert Asquith’s piano.

Cover of 'The March of the Women' songsheet with illustration of women marching with a 'votes for women' flag and dedication to 'The Women's Social and Political Union'.
Front cover of Ethel Smyth's composition 'The March of the Women', dedicated to the Women's Social and Politucal Union (WSPU), 1911 © Surrey History Centre SHC 9180/9/5.

Smyth had relationships with both men and women, and described her sexuality as an 'everlasting puzzle'. Among her companions, lovers and unrequited loves were Emmeline Pankhurst, Henry Brewster, Edith Craig and Virginia Woolf. Woolf, with whom Smyth became good friends, described her unrequited love as 'like being caught by a giant crab’.

Smyth lived in Surrey for most of her life, having grown up in Frimley Green, and settling at Brettanby Cottage, Hook Heath in Woking. She was a member of the Woking Tennis Club and regularly played golf at Woking Golf Club. Her ashes were scattered next to the golf course after she died in 1944.

Emmeline Pankhurst was arrested outside Ethel Smyth's home in Hook Heath, Woking, Surrey on 26 May 1913. Pankhurst is sitting on Smyth's knee, while Smyth shields her with an umbrella
Emmeline Pankhurst was arrested outside Ethel Smyth's home in Hook Heath, Woking, Surrey on 26 May 1913. Pankhurst is sitting on Smyth's knee, while Smyth shields her with an umbrella © Museum of London

Modern design

Enid Marx was a successful book illustrator and designer of fashionable hand-printed textiles from the 1920s. She was commissioned in 1936 to design the seating fabric for London Underground trains and buses. These patterns remain familiar to Londoners today.

In the 1940s she was in charge of fabrics for Utility furniture. This was a scheme for low-cost modern furniture to help households get back on their feet after the Second World War.

Grey haired woman looking out of the picture, sitting in front of large chest of drawers piled with papers on top and underneath wooden print blocks stored on the wall behind.
Enid Marx was a successful book illustrator and designer of fashionable hand-printed textiles from the 1920s. She was commissioned in 1936 to design the seating fabric for London Underground trains and buses. These patterns remain familiar to Londoners today © National Portrait Gallery

She and her long-term partner, the historian Margaret Lambert, were concerned to preserve English material heritage. They published books on popular English folk arts and left their own collection to the public at Compton Verney, Warwickshire.

Two seats decorated with geometric patterned fabric on an empty train.
Enid Marx was commissioned to design the seating fabric for London Underground trains and buses in 1936 © TfL from the London Transport Museum collection

Feminist fiction

Sylvia Townsend Warner, one of the most significant British literary figures of the 20th century, developed a powerful connection to the landscape of south Dorset.

She became well known as a writer in the 1920s, following the publication of her first novel, Lolly Willowes (1926). During this time she lived in London, at Inverness Terrace in Bayswater, and had a ten-year relationship with a married man.

Her growing friendship with the poet T F Powys and his circle led her to spend time in Dorset, and she bought a cottage in East Chaldon. It was here that she met poet Valentine Ackland, with whom she lived in a challenging but rewarding relationship until Valentine’s death in 1969.

Stone memorial set flat in grass showing wording: 
Valentine Ackland 1906-1969
non omnis moriam
Sylvia Townsend Warner 1893-1978
Memorial to Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland in St Nicholas's churchyard, East Chaldon © Creative Commons https://flic.kr/p/cVkvE3

Sylvia and Valentine were deeply engaged in politics. Fearing the threat of fascism in the 1930s they joined the Communist Party. Sylvia Townsend Warner’s fiction was bold and experimental, but returned to a number of themes. These included love between women, the position of women, the rejection of religion, and lyrical descriptions of landscape.

From 1937 the couple lived in Frome Vauchurch, in Dorset. They are buried together in the churchyard of St Nicholas’s, East Chaldon.

Hearts and flowers

Artist Gluck (Hannah Gluckstein) dressed in male attire and lived with women lovers throughout her life. She worked with the Newlyn colony of artists in Cornwall, where she met American artist Romaine Brooks. The two lesbian artists painted each other’s portraits.

Painted self-portrait of Gluck 1942.
Self-portrait of Gluck © National Portrait Gallery

From the late 1920s to the outbreak of war, Gluck lived in Bolton House, Hampstead. Between 1932 and 1936, Gluck had a relationship with decorator and high society florist Constance Spry. This influenced the subject matter of her painting. From the 1940s she had a long (and difficult) relationship with Edith Shackleton Heald, living at Heald’s family house, Chantry House in Steyning, Sussex.

Chantry House, Steyning, front elevation of red bricked and red tiled three-storey building.
Chantry House, Steyning, where the artist Gluck lived with her partner Edith Shackleton Heald © Nigel Purdey

Men who were musical

The composer Benjamin Brittan is a central figure in 20th-century English classical music. He is particularly known for his operas and choral works, and the many song cycles he wrote for his muse and partner, the tenor Peter Pears.

Two men standing in sunshine in a field with Snape Maltings Concert Hall building in the background, 1969.
Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears at Snape Maltings Concert Hall, 1969 © Hans Wild

From the 1940s the couple settled in Aldeburgh, Suffolk. With the aim of making music accessible to the public they initiated the Aldeburgh music festival and the building of the Snape Maltings concert hall.

Benjamin Britten and friends
Benjamin Britten at home in Adleburgh, Suffolk, 1949. He is pictured working on his new opera 'Billy Budd' with E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier © Granger Historical Picture Archive/Alamy

The highly-regarded composer of piano music, Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji was also an acidic music critic. Of Indian heritage, he lived in London. From 1956 he lived with his partner Reginald Norman Best in Dorset.

Black and white head and shoulders portrait of Sorabji in pin stripe suite.
Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji was a composer and music critic of Indian heritage. He lived with his partner Reginald Norman Best in Dorset © Joan Muspratt

His reclusive life may have been a means of guarding his homosexuality. He was once blackmailed over it. ‘The Eye’, Sorabji's home in Corfe Castle, Dorset, had a sign at the gate stating: ‘Visitors Unwelcome’.

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Creative Lesbians and Gay Men Photo Gallery

Please click on the gallery images to enlarge.

  • Page from letter
  • Piano in Britten's Studio
  • Watercolour of front of house
  • Watercolour of buildings on street
  • Stained glass window
  • Stone cottage
  • Black and white photo of Ethel Smyth
  • Path leading up to the Church of St Nicholas and graveyard
  • Seating fabric design
  • Interior of tube carriage
  • Seat in tube carriage
  • Black and white photo of Sylvia Townsend Warner

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