A Day at the Archives, Ep. 2: National Portrait Gallery

Last Thursday, I was able to make an appointment to visit the National Portrait Gallery’s Heinz Archive on Orange Street off of Trafalgar Square. I was visiting NPG 59/1/93 and 32/178/1–3, all of which constitute the institutions preservation of material relating to their ‘Mapplethorpe Portrait’ – the first solo Mapplethorpe exhibition in the UK and the only in his lifetime – open from 25 March to 19 June 1988.

This includes a proof copy of the original poster that lined the escalators of the Tube, images taken of the exhibition space, a notebook of news clippings bursting at its spiral and correspondences between those in charge of logistics namely Robin Gibson (NPG Curator, 20th Century Department) and Alexandra Knaust (Representative of Mapplethopre’s New York Studio).

Close but no cigar!


These resources, which I do not have the right to publish online, will be invaluable to our project and specifically how to understand Mapplethorpe’s popular reception this cultural moment.



A Day at the Archives, ep. I: Tate Britain

I am now a Tate Britain Archive Reader!

One of the areas we identified as needing greater support was Mapplethorpe’s immediate reception. I was a bit overwhelmed by the many routes that my archival research could take and I realised I had to narrow my scope if I wanted to have a productive and efficient time in the archives. My goal was to find primary material that related directly to how Mapplethorpe’s exhibitions were received in London in terms of the homosexual content.

The item I was most excited to examine was the Institute of Contemporary Arts’ catalogue from Mapplethorpe’s first solo exhibition in the UK from 1983. In addition to providing high-quality reproductions of the selected photographs displayed in the exhibition, it was prefaced with an essay by Alan Hollinghurst. This to me was an invaluable source as it can help us to observe how Mapplethorpe was interpreted by Hollinghurst as an emerging homosexual Londoner artist and what values he takes away from Mapplethorpe.

‘There is nothing here of the hungry fascination and mastered revulsion of Diane Arbus’s photographs of the bizarre. Mapplethrope’s pictures are, with all naturalness, an account of a world in which he was himself involved; they gain their éclat from his instinct for what, purely in terms of subject-matter, was both personally important to him and rivetingly new in the world of photography. A picture such as Bobby and Larry Kissing is important not only for itself but as perhaps the first time such a subject had been photographed.’

from Alan Hollinghurst, Robert Mapplethorpe, 1970–1983 (London: Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1983)  p. 14.

Hollinghurst goes on the write, among others, The Swimming Pool Library (1988) and The Line of Beauty (2004) which deal extensively with homosexuality and privilege – themes which he comments on in the 1983 exhibition catalogue. What conclusions we will draw from this is a question we are still fleshing out, but I think this primary resource will prove to be a very useful and insightful document for us.

Cartoons and homosexuality

Being inspired by our today’s conversation, I started looking for some more visual sources pertaining to homosexuality. I came across a website that offers a range of cartoons and other materials representing Jeremy Thorpe as a politician wanting to stay in power even if it meant using Machiavellian solutions. ( https://ukjarry.blogspot.com/2008/11/jeremy-thorpe-0.html ). Ultimately, he didn’t manage to continue his leadership over the Liberal Party because of being accused of incitement to murder of his ex-partner Norman Scott. Some of the cartoons create a derogatory image of homosexuals by comparing them to dogs (during the planned assassination of Scott, his dog Rinka was shot which needs to be taken into consideration while analysing these sources). According to the website mentioned above, there are numerous cartoons concerning this scandal. ‘Most of them are about the Liberal Party’s machinations to evade the embarrassing Thorpe, but not actually confronting the whole murder and homosexuality thing, which is of course why Thorpe was such a liability’. This could connect with our subtheme of censorship.

by Michael Heath in “Punch” 29 November 1978
by Marc in “Private Eye” 20 February 1976

There are also some cartoons about Chris Smith who was the first MP who came out as gay while still in office.

Another public figure that attracted cartoonist’s attention was Kenny Everett who was openly gay for most of his career. He also tried to change the general opinion on homosexuals by being funny and human.

And one of the most shocking cartoons relating to homosexuality that I have seen so far is the one

Within the next few days I will write more on these sources.

The Relationship Between Homosexuality and Censorship

What story are we telling? I think we are engaging with the relationship that homosexuality has had with censorship.

Kerry Allen and Chris Bell, ‘Chinese broadcaster censors Rami Malek Oscars speech’, BBC News, 26 February 2019 <bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-trending-47370948> [accessed 27 February 2019]

This is an ongoing story. As opposed to the UK today, censorship was politically sustained by the government. We could possibly look at the institutional changes that has occurred in the UK between the 1980s and today. Which UK institutions: centralised politics, media and art.

But why the 1980s is a question which we are still thinking about, in addition to why we’ve used ‘homosexuality’ rather than ‘LGBTQ+’ (or any anagrammatic variant thereof).

Mapplethrope was possibly able to contribute to the UK homosexual cultural and political movements which were different than in the US. Alan Hollinghurst and David Hockney—two successful gay UK artists—are who largely affected how his works were framed and received by public audiences in the UK. What does the reception of Mapplethorpe reveal about cultural movements in the UK 1980s.

How does this fit into the historical context of AIDS, and how does that informs responses to homosexual cultural objects?

Our new research question might rather then concern the impact of Mapplethorpe’s documentation of homosexuality in 1980s UK culture—ie an age of censorship in which homosexuality was represented as subversive.

Possible structure:

Introduction:  censorship as the antithesis of documentation, censorship as suppression.

Part I:

Establishing in what ways 1980s UK agents censorship homosexuality and presented it as subversive. Document’s meaning is two-fold: 1) Mapplethorpe his artistic works are documenting homosexual experience 2) how Mapplethorpe’s works themselves were documented

a) Politics: the laws (ie section n ). Jeremy Thorpe: merging homosexuality and subversive actions (ie same-sex, extra-marital affair plus murder)

b) Culture: Music Frankie ‘Relax’. Gays the Word raided by the government. 

With the desire to suppress ‘subversive’ documents, it is easy to see what work agents of censorship had cut out for themselves.

Part II: Mapplethorpe intro

a) photography as a utilitarian medium. Using it to document homosexuality.

b) analysing his works themselves

Part III:

What Mapplethrope reveals about this culture

a) his reception in the UK

i) Alan Hollinghurst and David Hockney

Reflection on the project

Since our last meeting I have been thinking about our preliminary research question. So far, we were focusing on censorship in activities connected with homosexuality in Britain in the 1980s. I think that our case studies circulating around the negative reactions towards homosexual activities and their suppression, exclude a wider understanding of the topic. 

Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s single Relax and Robert Mapplethorpe’s photos (banned from being exhibited in some British galleries) show anti-homosexual reactions on the macro level. On the micro level I found some intriguing information which shows that there were also very positive and open-minded approaches to the topic.  

Gay’s the Word bookshop founded in 1979 thanks to Ken Livingstone who ended impasse with Camden Council. Interestingly, the shop was raided in 1984 by HM Customs and Excise under the assumption that it was a porn store. Some books were seized (Christopher Isherwood and publications such as the Joy of Gay Sex and Joy of Lesbian Sex) due to their alleged obscene content.

London Lesbian and Gay Centre established in 1985 nearby London’s Smithfield marketby the Greater London Council. In conjunction with the GLC’s publication of Changing the World: A London Charter for Gay and Lesbian Rights, we could look at the activity of the “Loony Left” that was attacked by numerous tabloids. It would be interesting to look at some caricature’s like this one:

Michael Cummings, Sunday Express, 8 Feb 1987 © Express Syndication Ltd, British Cartoon Archive, University of Kent

(on Margaret Thatcher and her attitude towards LGBT+ issues: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/apr/10/margaret-thatcher-poster-girl-gay-rights

1980-81 London Weekend Television broadcasts a television programme Gay Life(three episodes can be found here: https://player.bfi.org.uk/free/collection/lgbt-britain) Atwell, one of Gay Life’s producers said that Gay Life could be “the first time in the world that a major national TV company has given a whole series to gays”. 

However, in 1981 The Spectator’s television critic – Richard Ingrams criticised the programme by saying:

Nothing was said by anyone about the dangers involved in all these experiments in eugenics, the deliberate breeding of children—who are almost bound to grow up as neurotic misfits—simply to gratify the selfish urges of a lot of perverts. There might be someone at London Weekend Television who would see that even in our wonderful new permissive society there were good grounds for not allowing this sort of propaganda to be made without giving some indication of the perils attached

and added: 

A few years ago lesbians were rightly regarded as subjects for humour or else sympathy. Now, if people like LWT have their way, we are expected to treat them as a quasi-political movement with ‘rights’. Most of this is the fault of the so-called Women’s Movement, of which the lesbian activists are the extreme wing.

Also, I am not sure to what extent we should rely on the case study relating to Thorpe affair as it took place in the 1970s. Instead, by using this info, we could demonstrate the political climate preceding the events from ‘80s. Another possibility is changing the time-span of the whole project so the choice of Thorpe affair is justified. 

Glyn Davis and Gary Needham, Queer TV: Theories, Histories, Politics, (Routledge, 3 December 2008), p. 109.
Richard Ingrams (10 July 1981), “Television” in The Spectator.

Group Notes – Week 4

Project Title: Documenting Homosexuality: A Survey of UK Media Censorship in the 1980s

Research question: How was homosexuality documented by the media in 1980s: A Survey of Censorship in the UK

Theoretical framework: Defining censorship and homosexual in 1980s and contemporary contexts

Questions this topic allows us to ask and answer:

  • How was homosexuality censored?
  • How was various media censored?
  • Why was homosexual media content being censored?
  • What impact did efforts to censor homosexual media content have on their reception/afterlives?

Media case study components:

  • ‘Relax’, Frankie Goes to Hollywood
    • Its censorship had the inverse effect. Lyrics were ambiguous, censorship
  • Robert Mapplethorpe
    • One of the first people to use photography as an artistic medium as opposed to a utilitarian medium
    • Debates on his work being banned
  • Jeremy Thorpe
    • How newspaper formatting prioritises and suppresses information and ideas
    • Homosexual affair by a public figure plus murder allegations: linking homosexuality with subversive acts
  • Animation


  • Censorship/suppression was often either ineffective or had the inverse effect of the intent
  • Contributed to a contemporaneous characterisation of homosexuality as subversive
  • Censorship as a subject of
  • Censorship is decisive or rather definitive, yet sexuality is ambiguous. At the time especially legislatively, there was not as much room for ambiguity, sexuality as a black or white topic?
  • What does the fact that we’ve focused on gay men tell us? Compare how gay men and gay women were perceived in the 1980s?
  • Looking at power dynamic behind censorship?
  • To answer: what impact today? Our conclusion could be a comparison with today. Commodification of homosexuality has maybe changed the power dynamics.

Homosexuality and its historical aspect

Last week we spoke about censorship and documentation of homosexuality in the 1980s. However, to understand the position of homosexuality in the twentieth century, one needs to go back in time and see how the attitudes towards same-sex relationships changed from acceptance and normality, to repression and penalisation.

My first point of reference was Craig Williams’s Roman Homosexuality where he says that in the Ancient Roman Empire no differentiation between ‘homosexual’ or ‘heterosexual’ existed. This is mirrored in Latin which does not contain any words specifically expressing these concepts.

From this I moved on to a Renaissance text Dialogue on the Beauty of Women written by a Florentine intellectual – Agnolo Firenzuola. Generally his treatise focuses on beauty and the features desired in a woman. However, he also dedicates a few pages for a summary of an ancient myth on Jupiter’s creation of women and men.

When Jove created the first men and the first women ha gave them twice the number of parts they now have, that is to say, four arms and four legs and two heads; and hence. Having double parts, they had double powers; and they were of three sexes: some male in both halves, other female; but these were few; and the rest, who were the greater number, were one half male and the other female. (…) They took thought together to overthrow Jove (Jupiter) from heaven. And he, being warned of the matter (…) determined to divide them all into two, and so to secure his estate. (…) And thus, everyone thenceforth was male or female, save a certain small number who escaped, but who by too much running wasted themselves away and were of no more use. These were named Hermaphrodities, which signifies fugitives from Hermes that is Mercury. Some which were, or had descended from, males in both halves, desiring to return to their former state, seek their other half and contemplate each other’s beauty. (…) Those which had been female in both halves, or are descended from such, love each other’s beauty. (…) These by nature scorn marriage and flee from converse with men. (…) The third kind, who were both female and male, and the most in number, were those who have husbands and hold them dear (…).

This fragment shows how the ancients understood and explained different sexual orientations. However, what does this reference signal about the Renaissance? During this period, it was a common practice to seek information and inspiration in the texts of the ancients who were viewed as the ultimate possessors of wisdom and knowledge. By this reference, Firenzuola might have expressed his opinion on the matter, in this way accepting homosexuality of Renaissance geniuses such as Michelangelo, Caravaggio or Leonardo da Vinci. Nevertheless, one needs to be aware of tension between homosexuals and the officials who at the time were fining a large part of this population.

Despite this, “at the beginning of the seventeenth century, a certain frankness” about sexual expression and orientation  “was still common, it would seem”, says Michel Foucault in The Will to Knowledge. “Sexual practices had little need of secrecy (…), one had a tolerant familiarity with the illicit.” But this changed in the Victorian times when “silence became a rule” in any disputes relating to sex. “Sexuality was carefully confined; it moved into the house”. This repression of homosexuality, in legal terms in Britain ended in 1967 with the introduction of Sexual Offences Act 1966. This act while marking the end of the repression, created a beginning for gay rights campaigns.



Agnolo Firenzuola, Dialogue on the Beauty of Women, p. 38-41
Craig Williams, Roman Homosexuality (Oxford University Press, 1999, 2010), p. 304
Michel Foucault in The Will to KnowledgeThe History of Sexuality, volume 1 (1976), p. 3


Control of Expression

Control of expression that is regarded as outside of and a threat to the religious, political, and social orthodoxy of the time.


This is one definition of censorship offered by Barbara Hoffman (2003). Furthermore, Hoffman stipulates that ‘Manifestations of the control of artistic expression are historically and culturally specific’ (Hoffman 2003). The theoretical framework illustrated here provides a considerably sound foundation for building on how homosexuality was documented in the 1980s—specifically the suppression of efforts to document a specific facet of the human experience in a specific time and place constituting a definition of censorship.

This approach to documentation is particularly interesting in light of the BBC’s broadcasting history. Lord Reith, first Director-General of the BBC when the post was formed in 1927 by Royal Charter and to whom Reithianism refers, set an agenda of widening what content was broadcast to be universal, representing all points of view. He famously said, ‘All that is best in every department of human knowledge, endeavour and achievement […] The preservation of a high moral tone is obviously of paramount importance.’ (Mowat 1955, p. 242). And yet, despite the moralistically egalitarian sentiment, the ‘high moral tone’ characterises the institution as one which would no surprisingly take issue with explicitly sexual and, in Hoffman’s words, ‘outside of […] religious, political and social orthodoxy at the time’. This hypocrisy might be useful to consider in light of further research for this project in light of the perception of homosexuality as subversive in the 1980s UK and US.


Hoffman, Barbara, ‘Censorship’, Grove Art Online, 1 January January 2003 <oxfordartonline.com/groveart/view/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.001.0001/oao-9781884446054-e-7000015205> [accessed 29 January 2019]

Mowat, Charles Loch, Britain Between the Wars (London: Metheun, 1955)

Scannell, Paddy and David Cardiff, A Social History of British Broadcasting, Vol. I: 1922–1939 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Press, 1990)


One theme I thought of which could tie together a wide range of disciplines while still relating to our theme of ‘Document’ was censorship.

My initial question was in what way does censorship obstruct the process of documentation.

The first example that came to mind was Allegri’s 17th-century setting to Psalm 51 Miserere Mei, Deus.

King’s College Choir, Allegri’s Miserere Mei [YouTube video], King’s College Choir, Cambridge, 20 February 2015 <youtube.com/watch?v=IX1zicNRLmY> [accessed 23 January 2019]

The composition which has been played in the Sistine Chapel since its creation was not allowed to be transcribed and was thus limited to only the Vatican. As the apocryphal story goes, Mozart upon visiting the Sistine Chapel with his father was able to later transcribe the piece my memory thus leading to the propagation of the now standard liturgical piece (Emily Anderson, The Letters of Mozart and His Family, 3rd ed. (London: Macmillan, 1985)).

The main point I think I got from this is that despite efforts of censorship, it can be very difficult to contain a cultural artefact from organic means of distribution.

This links to the other example in music which came to mind. Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s 1983 record ‘Relax’ is often received today as a staple of 80s pop music. It appears in the soundtracks of many films such as the recent Johnny English Strikes Again (2018) and had featured as a contestant song in ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ in 2014 – though a possibly more critical use of the song comes from 2014’s Pride.

Electrify001, Frankie Goes to Hollywood – Relax (Original 7″ Version) ((P) 1983) [YouTube video], 21 August 2014 <youtube.com/watch?v=Pcjb659h6jM> [accessed 23 January 2019]

What is not so well-known about this song is that it was banned by the BBC in 1984 following Mike Reeds refusals to air it due to its ‘overtly obscene’ lyrics. (BBC News, ‘Banned Frankie Tops Charts’, BBC, 6 October 2000 <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/959284.stm> [accessed 23 January 2019]). The song’s music video was also banned as it depicts an erotic orgy. Yet, the banning of the song only increased its popularity.

How was homosexuality documented in the 1980s?

  • Riddled with censorship/debates on censorship
  • Anglo-American context, AIDS
  • Honing the idea that censorship has been a prevalent force throughout history to this specific cultural moment
  • We’ve decided to look at this in popular culture/prominent examples in music and visual art and how they have entertained interest in the topic in politically and in news media.
  • Censorship often has the opposite effect which is why it is important to look at pop culture.
  • How are these cultural artefacts received today? Was their censorship effective? What did the censorship affect them/change them?