Thursday, 15 January 2015

Heritage Spotlight : London Has The Blues

On my tours of lgbt Nottingham I talk about several well-known people associated with the city. Sometimes I stand near the site of a significant event in that person’s life, whether it’s the car park on the site of the home of the Masquerader or the pub that sits on part of the site where a huge mansion once stood and on about a dozen occasions housed King James I (or “Queen” James) and his court.

Fortunately there are 4 or 5 places on my tour where my task is already half-explained. There are plaques on the walls of buildings which tell my tourists why I stop there. There’s 2 for Lord Byron, 2 for J. M. Barrie and 1 for D. H. Lawrence.

In the UK people often think a dead celebrity has really made his/her mark in the world when they get a blue plaque (similar to the Hollywood Walk of Fame). Strictly speaking these blue plaques only apply to Greater London. Any building where a famous person stayed or lived often gets a plaque. I’m sure you’ve all seen at least one of these if you’ve visited London. Nottingham, by the way, has green plaques. Other cities also have their own but I want to concentrate on the London blue plaques and some people in the lgbt community who have been commemorated with one. There’s no way I can list all of the blue plaques to lgbt people so here’s three of them.

I’ll begin with 34 Tite Street in Chelsea and the plaque to Oscar Wilde. This house was where Oscar lived with the portrait artist Frank Miles from 1880. They weren’t lovers though they were very close. They had met at Oxford, where Frank introduced Oscar to his then boyfriend Lord Ronald Gower. Frank and Oscar asked architect Edward Godwin to design a house on Tite Street for them. The result is the house which bear the blue plaque. Oscar named his new residence Keats House, and it was where Frank’s most scandalous sexual interests were expressed freely. He was very “fond” of under-age girls. One night some policemen arrived at the front door with a warrant for his arrest regarding this. Frank dashed up to the roof and made his escape across the roof-tops of London. Oscar, in the mean time, was waiting until Frank was clear before opening the door to the police. Oscar charmed them into believing that Frank wasn’t in the country at the time and they left. Oscar and Frank had a big row shortly after this (over something else completely) and Oscar stormed out of the house and never spoke to Frank again.

We move to fashionable Fitzrovia next and a tale of a “Woolf in Sheik’s clothing”. Writer Virginia Woolf moved into 29 Fitzroy Square with her brother Adrian in 1907. It was far from being a fashionable area at the time but Virginia and her Bloomsbury Group colleagues soon made it so. Most of the Bloomsbury writer and artists were lgbt and visited Virginia at her Fitzrovia home often. Virginia herself felt uneasy at the late night discussions and closeness to central London though she enjoyed the partying. It was while she was living at 29 Fitzroy Square that Virginia and some friends pulled off one of the most imaginative cons of the 20th century. Dressing up as Arabian sheiks and princes, she and the group travelled down to Weymouth by train and succeeded in persuading Royal Navy officials into giving them a tour of a battleship! They even had a naval band play the national anthem of Zanzibar for them! All through this deception Virginia revelled in the escapade, complete with turban and false beard.

Sometimes the home of a famous person also becomes a museum. This is the case with George Frederic Handel. In 1723 he rented the newly built 25 Brook Street in Mayfair and lived there for the rest of his life. With the Christmas season being celebrated (Christmas actually officially lasts until 2nd February) its appropriate that Handel’s most famous work, that Christmas and Easter favourite “Messiah”, was probably written here as well as many of his other famous works. The location was spacious enough for Handel to hold rehearsals of some of his operas and oratorios, including “Messiah”. After Handel’s death this property went through phases of alteration under various owners. The ground floor was a shop for a time. It was the musicologist Stanley Sadie who suggested the house be turned into a museum in 1959. He formed the Handel House Trust which bought the property and in 2001 opened the museum you can visit today. Its one of the places my brother and I have plans to visit on one of our annual London gallery trips.


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