Monday 6 August 2012

A Queer Achievement

Heraldry has been called the floral border in the garden of history. Its an art-form that has always appealed to me because of its use of symbolism and “secret” signs. First I’ll explain the title “Queer Achievements”. A coat of arms consists of more than a shield - there is a helmet, a crest and a motto, amongst other things. What the media always wrongly call a crest is actually a shield. All the various parts of a coat of arms put together as pictured here is called an “achievement”. Unlike a logo or trademark a coat of arms can be depicted in any style – traditional, art nouveau, cubist, street art – as long as the right objects are in the right position in the right colour.

For several years I’ve been looking for specific lgbt symbolism in heraldry, but there’s very little. There’s plenty of lgbt people with coats of arms (e.g. Elton John, Lord Byron and Michelangelo) but no specific use of the rainbow or pink triangle as lgbt symbols – until now.

The full coat of arms – the achievement – I’ve painted here belongs to the current Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow. Being Speaker means you need a coat of arms – it goes with the job (like the official suits of the Olympic teams - you don't need them to play their sport, but need for formal occcasions). The British press conformed to their usual standard of inaccuracy by criticising the total cost of £37,000 to the tax-payer (which includes painting the panel mentioned below and other artistic expenditure). All wrong, of course. The whole thing was paid for out of Parliament Art Collection funds which has never received public or tax-payer’s money.

John Bercow isn’t gay, but he is one of the many unsung gay allies in parliament. When he was Shadow Minister for Work and Pensions he went against his party’s instructions and voted in favour of allowing unmarried couples (lgbt and straight) to adopt. He resigned as Shadow Minister afterwards. He continues to champion equal rights in parliament.

Bercow’s arms follows convention as well as sets a new trend. The symbolism is fairly traditional and straight forward – the ladder symbolizes his rise from MP to Speaker, the gold balls represent his love of tennis, the swords feature in the arms of Essex University which he attended, the portcullis represents parliament, and the motto speaks for itself (I’m not sure how the swan fits in). In support of the lgbt community the swan holds a pink triangle in its beak and stands in front of a rainbow.

Bercow’s shield was painted on a wooden panel on the wall of the State Rooms in Westminster beside those of 97 previous Speakers. Unfortunately the panels only have room for the shield and none for the helmet and crest. Bercow’s shield doesn’t show his support for lgbt rights so the College of Arms (who designed it) suggested a break from tradition. A rainbow is painted on the reverse of the motto scroll, and pink triangles are placed between the words. This is the first time this had happened in world heraldry.

Perhaps John Bercow has set a new trend. With the motto scroll there aren’t many rules, so the triangle and rainbow didn’t really break tradition. It’ll be interesting to see if other openly lgbt people who are granted new coats of arms will ask for the same, or even if people like Elton John will start putting triangles and rainbows into their motto scrolls.

Whatever they decide I’m going to go through my portfolio and repaint all my versions of lgbt armigers (people with coats of arms) with triangles and rainbows.

With a good handful of lgbt heraldry to chose from I may begin a short series on the coats of arms of famous lgbt people. Perhaps they’ll reveal more than we actually see (I’m thinking specifically of a certain archbishop who has butterfly wings on his shield).

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