Wednesday, August 8, 2012

54. Queer domesticity

The July 2012 issue of the Journal of British studies (available through JSTOR) features an essay by Matt Cook, senior lecturer in history and gender studies at Birkbeck, University of London, about the 'domestic passions' of Charles Shannon and Charles Ricketts. An earlier presentation on the subject was given on 28 October 2010 at the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research and can be heard on the website of the Backdoor Broadcasting Company (BBC).

Homosexuality and home life in the twentieth century is one of Matt Cook's current projects, he is now writing a book on Queer domesticity, and he has published London and the culture of homosexuality 1885-1914 (2003) and A gay history of Britain (2007).

His article, 'Domestic passions: unpacking the homes of Charles Shannon and Charles Ricketts', opens with a description of their activities at Chilham Keep in Kent, which they used as their country retreat.
The interior of the Keep at Chilham Castle
Their redecoration of the Norman tower was illustrated in an article in Country life (June 1924) written by Christopher Hissey. Matt Cook analyzes Hissey's words:

'Shannon and Ricketts aligned themselves with [...] a particularly British and especially late Victorian and Edwardian middle- and upper-class domestic culture. If their investment in the home was in many ways typical of their class and of this period, however, it also spoke of them a little queerly - and not only because the home was increasingly seen as a feminine preserve and passion. Hussey hints at this in his mention of the keep's association with Edward II and the final (unnamed but notorious) "crisis" of his reign (the king was purportedly murdered by the anal insertion of a hot poker [an uncorroborated story]). This was, it seemed, an appropriate domestic heritage for the new residents. By imagining them in a "peacock bower," meanwhile, Hussey nodded to late nineteenth-century Wildean aestheticism. Having established the couple in their ancient setting and rendered them respectable in that way, he then signals and also legitimizes their queerness. The couple, I argue in this article, did something similar for themselves in the way they decorated, furnished, and lived at the keep and in the London homes they shared from 1886 in Kennington, Chelsea, Richmond, Kensington, and Regent's Park.'

Art reproductions pinned on the wall of Ricketts and Shannon's home at Kennington Road
One might have issues with the argumentation, and Matt Cook seems to realize that when he says:

'Neither Shannon nor Ricketts described themselves as homosexual, Uranian, or inverted, nor did they allude to the sex they might have had together. Ricketts playfully refused to answer the classicist John Addington Symonds's pleading questions on the subject, though in relaying the anecdote down the years indicated an ease and a certain mischievousness about the topic. Instead, Shannon and Ricketts's bond and relationship was articulated by the men themselves and by their circle of friends in terms of their coresidence; their emotional, practical, and aesthetic investment in their homes; their vast collection of art and antiques; and the artistic and design work that was closely identified with the places where they lived (their Vale Press, for example, was named after their first Chelsea home). [...] I examine some of the ways in which home functioned for the couple as a symbol and material indicator of queer alienation, belonging, difference, and normalization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.'
Original prints or drawings hanging on a door in the dining room of Lansdowne House (enlarged)
Cook realizes that we know little of Shannon's sexual tastes, apart from his heterosexual adventures and his contemplating marriage on several occasions. The intensity of their bond is of course difficult to understand. Ricketts and Shannon had an unconventional life, certainly, but that their connections and affections 'cut across gender, sexuality, age, and class divisions' can not be seen as typical of homosexual or homosocial couples alone, as a lot of artists gave over to a nonconformist way of living.
A table with objects in Lansdowne House, drawing room, c. 1907
Cook has a tendency to interprete all Ricketts's sayings as official communications of the couple, while he also goes back and forth in time, negating the different circumstances of their lives, that underwent some radical changes after 1900. However, Cook belongs to a group of scholars that have come to study Ricketts and Shannon's work and life from an angle that may well lead to new discoveries, and the rearrangement of known facts brings up to date insight in the extraordinary lives of both artists.