Homosexuality in Britten’s Britain: Five must-see objects

Queer Talk: Homosexuality In Britten’s Britain is at The Red House from 1 February until 28 October 2017. Get 50% off admission with a National Art Pass.


LGBTQ History Timeline

  • © Britten-Pears Foundation

This seven-metre double timeline [above] shows the last 130 years of LGBTQ history in the UK, from the criminalisation of homosexuality in 1885 through to decriminalisation in 1967 and the continued journey towards equality. The bottom half tells the story of Britten and Pears within this context and highlights the compositions Britten wrote for Pears at a time when their relationship was still illegal. Running along the top are flags from countries around the world and the year in which they decriminalised homosexuality (in France it was as far back as 1792); while at the end is a list of countries in which it is still illegal, showing how far there is to go before reaching true, global equality.


Press Conference: Sir John Wolfenden, 6 September 1957

On 4 September 1957, the Wolfenden Report was published. The Wolfenden Committee had been commissioned by the government to consider whether the laws relating to homosexual ‘crimes’ should be reviewed. Their recommendation, after deliberating for three years, was that homosexual acts in private between men over 21 should not be illegal. This clip from the BBC programme Press Conference, broadcast two days later, features Sir John Wolfenden presenting his reasons for recommending a change in the law. The full programme is available on the BBC’s online archive.


Canticle I: ‘My beloved is mine, and I am his’

  • The front page of the composition draft in Britten’s hand © Britten-Pears Foundation

Britten composed this beautiful vocal piece for Pears in 1947. Its subtitle presents a remarkably forthright statement of love from one man to another for the time. The text is by 17th-century poet Francis Quarles and was based on the Song of Songs from the Old Testament. It's possible that 1940s audiences would have interpreted the ‘beloved’ as God. The beauty and symbolism of the work is brought vividly to life by the tenor John Mark Ainsley in an accompanying video piece. He points out that the lyrical refrain ‘I my best beloved’s am, and he is mine’ is highlighted very deliberately every time it is heard, to make sure it has absolute prominence. Pears performed it for the first time at Central Hall in Westminster, with Britten at the piano, on 1 November 1947.


Letter from Britten to Pears, 21 March 1943

  • © Britten-Pears Foundation

In 2016, the complete existing correspondence between Britten and Pears was published and the exhibition features a number of their letters. The letters are notable for how affectionate and sentimental they are: ‘My beloved darling, my pussy-cat’, ‘My darlingest old honeybunch’. No less romantic are their sign-offs: ‘Much much love to you, my honey – I count the hours’, ‘My darling – I love you. P’. That they thought of themselves as no different from any other couple is clear, in particular when Pears signs himself of as ‘Ever your loving hubbie, P.’ It would not be until 2014, long after both were dead, that two men could describe themselves legally as ‘married’ – but there is no doubt Britten and Pears considered themselves to be, effectively, a married couple.


Letter from Alan Turing to Norman Routledge, February 1952

  • Unpublished writings of A.M. Turing © The Provost and Fellows of King's College, Cambridge 2016

While Britten and Pears did not face prosecution during the period when their relationship was illegal, Alan Turing suffered hugely due to his relationship with a young man. In 1952, he was charged with ‘gross indecency’. As a result, his security clearance was revoked and he was unable to continue his work for the government. He also underwent chemical castration, as an alternative to prison. The letter he wrote to his friend Norman Routledge clearly shows how much pain he was in. His syllogism ‘Turing believes machines can think/ Turing lies with men/ Therefore machines do not think’ makes it clear that he believed his reputation was in tatters. He was found dead in 1954, having taken cyanide. In 2009, the British government apologised for its previous treatment of Turing, and he was granted a posthumous Royal Pardon in 2013. In 2017, the Alan Turing Law was given Royal Assent, allowing similar pardons for historical offences relating to homosexuality.

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