Friday, 24 February 2017
Time Lords, lovely buttocks, ancient pin-ups, a Dame's frock and the Wild Old Woman of kitsch
On Wednesday evening Hils, History Boy and I ventured to one of my favourite of all venues in the LGBT History season of events, the fascinating and quirky Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, for another outing for a familiar format - Objects of Desire, an evening that provides notable individuals from the world of arts and culture to talk a little about prize LGBT-related items from the museum's vast collection, "in conversation" with our fabulously erudite host and "superstar" in the Egyptology world John J Johnston. And what a fascinating panel of guests he had accumulated...
The format was slightly tweaked this year, to allow not only a discussion about the chosen artefacts but also a little more about the lives of the guests themselves.
Sarah Groenewegen from the Sexual Orientation Network and Resource Group of the National Crime Agency was our opener. Combining neatly her interest in gay history and Doctor Who [one of her essays/short stories was published in the compendium Queers Dig Time Lords], her conversation with Mr Johnson focused around a familiar object. She and "JJJ" spoke admiringly of one of the museum's most famous gay-themed items, the 4000-year-old papyrus that charts the seduction and sexual liaison between the eternally warring deities Horus and Set (also known as Sutek) that contains the fabled (and earliest recorded) chat-up line ‘How lovely are your buttocks! And how muscular your thighs…’. Inevitably, the discussion wove the character of Sutek in the papyrus to his portrayal in the (exceptionally camp) much later Doctor Who adventure Pyramids of Mars. In closing their chat, and in due deference to Sarah's own achievements in her field, John encouraged Sarah to show us in the audience the well-deserved British Empire Medal she was awarded in HM the Queen's Birthday Honours last year.
Actor William McGeogh chose as his piece another familiar object - the Roman-era-Egyptian funerary portrait of a "young man from Hawara", also known as "the Red Youth". He was honest about the reason for his choice - largely based upon the fact he rather fancied the deceased youth depicted in the portrait - and when he pointed out his partner in the audience it was easy to see the similarities... Mr Johnson steered us slightly back to the historical perspective, but observed that "the Red Youth" was not alone in his portrayal (naked - well shoulders, anyhow - and flatteringly painted); several such examples of beauteous lads are also in the collection. Were they the "pin-ups" of their day, gladiators or heroes perhaps, or - as in the case of the famous funerary portrait found at Antinoopolis (a city founded for the worship of Emperor Hadrian's gay lover) that features two young men together with images of Antinous the God behind them as protector - "gay icons"? We will probably be debating this for years to come, but the discussion was entertaining nonetheless!
Anthony Harrison from the National Theatre Costume department understandably, given the fact he expressed his love of "blingy" gowns, passed over such historically valuable treasures as the "World's oldest frock" the Tarkhan Dress (which is, after all, just a plain white garment) in favour of the magnificent Amarna necklace, a collection of exquisitely-crafted beads that would have made up a five-tiered "head-turner" in the age of Tutankhamun. He and Mr Johnson explored the subject of Egyptian adornments, and how such finds would have, in truth, only ever been worn by the royals and mega-rich of their day - with the "little white dress", a functional item in the heat, as merely the backdrop. To "gild the lily", however, Anthony then proudly showed off something from his own collection in the NT, the ornate gold frock worn by none other than Dame Helen Mirren when she played Cleopatra. Gorgeous!
Speaking of gorgeous, the star of the night's event was most definitely the wonderful Sue Kreizman [about whom I have, inevitably, blogged before], arch-admirer of all things kitsch and self-styled "Wild Old Woman", looking as extravagant as always in a robe and jewellery that she had only adorned with a little "extra Egyptian magic" that morning. "Sorry if I smell of glue", she said. Her choice from the Petrie collection was a pair of 3000-year-old necklaces - much more modest than the Amarna one - to which she was strangely drawn, mainly because of the prominence of the "Eye of Horus", a favourite icon in her decorations, in their design. Miss Kreizman entertained the audience with her early memories of taking solace (from what sounds like a bit of a sad childhood) in the wonders of New York's museums, where the bold, extravagant and often grotesque displays became "her friends" - and remained ever since, it would seem. She and "JJJ" went on to discuss the custom in various cultures of creating a "memory jug" for display at funerals (a simple pot covered in putty which would then be studded with small ephemeral personal items of the deceased) - modern versions of which Sue continues to make today.
I was enchanted by the evening, and by Miss Kreizman in particular - and, after mingling with and chatting to guests and audience members, we were honoured to continue the "complimentary wine course" behind the scenes in the "Green Room" (aka the Petrie's office) before trolling off to the pub for more...
Camden & Islington LGBT History Month continues until the end of February.