Oscar Wilde Tours is just about to announce its new season of European gay history tours, with London, Paris, and Amsterdam in August, and tours (which can be combined) of Greece and Italy in September. And as I plan them, the things that stick with me most are the fun new things that I discovered this year or have added to the tour.
Gay London: the National Portrait Gallery
As always, the tour of the National Portrait Gallery in London is a highlight of our European season. It’s a very active museum, and they often change their displays. But the density of gay—or LGBTQQIA etc.—personalities is always so high that you could call it the British Queer Museum. I always wonder why that is: is British history really gayer than other countries’? Given the tradition of bisexual carryings on in the British classes, it might be. Or maybe it’s just an illusion, because we know more about British personalities.
In any case, there have been a lot of changes at the museum this year. Edward II is no longer in the row of statues at the door of the permanent collection for instance. So my tour will start with James I instead, and the dishy portrait of his “favorite,” George Villiers, whom he made the Duke of Buckingham. Oh, and Shakespeare, our bisexual bard, is in the same gallery. But there are also new gay faces on display. For instance, there is a show about nude portraits, including a great portrait of Charles II’s wonderful mistress Nell Gwyn with her shirt open. And several gay or bisexual people are there as well. One will fit particularly well into our tour: this portrait by Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s sister, of her lover Duncan Grant’s lover David “Bunny” Garnett, nude from the waist up.
The portrait is from World War I, when Grant and Garnett were working as farmhands as a pacifist alternative to the draft. It portrays Garnett as an oversized, innocent child. Perhaps he seemed that way to Bell, who was in her mid 30s, while he was only in his early 20s.
Yet what is most striking to me is the friendliness of the portrait: not many people paint their lover’s lover at all, and certainly not many women could paint their male lover’s male lover in a positive light. But that is perhaps typical of the Bloomsbury group, in which almost every member was involved in a bisexual love triangle.
They were breaking free of Victorian “straightness”—and I often think they had got farther away from it than we have today (and we see much evidence of this on this year’s gay history tours, particularly on our visit to their magical country group retreat, Charleston Farmhouse).
Gay Greece: the Royal Macedonian Tombs
Another novelty on this year’s tours is the royal Macedonian tombs at Vergina, in Northern Greece, which we have added to the tour, to bring ourselves closer to Alexander, one of the greatest of Antiquity’s gay heroes. Amazingly, in 1977, archaeologists found the unplundered tomb of Alexander’s father, Phillip II, with one of the very few preserved ancient wall paintings and phenomenal golden grave goods.
Phillip is not as widely famous as his son, nor was he as romantic or handsome. But it was he who turned Macedon into a great military power and conquered (or “united”) Greece. His same-sex loves follow the same pattern: his gay side is not as famous as Alexander’s (maybe because Oliver Stone hasn’t made a movie about him!) but it was also prominent.
In fact, he was killed in the stadium at Vergina by a cast-off lover who was angry at him for not protecting him from humiliation (being gang-raped by his successor’s buddy’s slaves, actually!). In short, there’s lots of great stuff to see, and lots of interesting stories to tell: the days in northern Greece should be a delightful addition to our 2017 gay history tours!
Intrigued? Check out our itineraries: https://www.oscarwildetours.com/gay-londongay-paris/
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