Until recently, the lives of LGBTQ people (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) were largely invisible, or untold in museums. Selected by our LGBTQ Working Group and LGBTQ Volunteer Tour Guides, the objects in this trail reveal stories of diverse gender and sexual identities across time, place and culture.
The trail starts in our Buddhism Gallery, Room 18. Simply click on the links to find each object on our digital map.
Stop 1: Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara figure, 1300 – 1400
Map link: Buddhism, Room 18, Level 0
This serene and sensual interpretation of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, the Buddhist Lord of Compassion, transcends binary constructs of gender. Depictions of this Buddhist icon originated in India and journeyed over the Himalayas into China, and then eastward. In South-East Asia, portrayals of the figure became increasingly fluid and androgenised, incorporating male and female characteristics, and also took the female form of Guanyin, sometimes called the Goddess of Mercy. Some modern transgender and non-binary people have likened this transition to their own lived experience.
Stop 2: Scandal, by Charles Sargeant Jagger, 1930
Map link: Sculpture, Room 21, Level 0
In 1930, the British politician and industrialist Henry Mond and his wife, Gwen Wilson, commissioned this fireplace for their London home, Mulberry House. The design, created by the artist Charles Sargeant Jagger (1885 – 1934), referenced the Monds' polyamorous relationship with the author Gilbert Cannan. It shows a pair of lovers standing proudly naked before a group of shocked onlookers. Jagger arranged the figures in a zigzag composition, which was typical of the Art Deco style of the time. The design challenged conventions by poking fun at the gossip and outrage caused by this non-traditional relationship structure.
Stop 3: The Metamorphosis of Ovid, by Rodin, about 1886
Map link: Sculpture, Room 21, Level 0
This erotically charged plaster model explicitly depicts same-sex desire. Auguste Rodin (1840 – 1917) sought to evoke the spirit of Ovid's epic poem, Metamorphoses, when creating these embracing female figures. The Metamorphoses contains a potential transgender tale about the love between the mythological figures Iphis and Ianthe, with Iphis changing her gender so she can marry another woman. The sculpture was originally owned by the painter Charles Shannon, who had a lifelong relationship with the artist Charles Ricketts.
Stop 4: Evening dress, by Charles James and Jean Cocteau, 1938
Map link: Fashion, Room 40, Level 0
At first glance, the playful print on this vivid evening gown seems to show a swirl of disembodied faces, tumbling over the fabric in the Surrealist style that was popular in the 1930s. But there is more to this story. The faces are portraits of the French writer and artist Jean Cocteau and his lover and muse Jean Marais. The fabric was designed by Cocteau along with his friend Charles James, who used it to create a subversive and witty love letter to the couple. The gown was donated to the V&A by the gay photographer and costume designer Cecil Beaton.
Stop 5: Hindu God Shiva as Ardhanarishvara (Lord Who Is Half Woman), AD 150 – 200
Map link: South Asia, Room 47b, Level 0
The figure of Ardhanarishvara is formed of both the Hindu god Shiva and his female consort Parvati. One side of the deity is masculine and the other feminine. Here they are depicted standing against an upright linga (Shiva's emblem), with phallic markings on the reverse. Ardhanarishvara reminds us that ambiguities around sex and gender have existed for centuries. The figure remains one of the most popular iconographic forms of Shiva and can be seen on countless shrines throughout India and South-East Asia.
Stop 6: Snuffbox associated with Frederick the Great, about 1765
Map link: Gold, Silver and Mosaics, Room 72, Level 2
As a young man, Frederick II, King of Prussia from 1740 until 1786, was mocked by his father for his "effeminate, lascivious and feminine occupations", which included a fascination for extravagant snuffboxes like this one. Snuffboxes, used to store powdered tobacco, were valued as supreme luxuries in European courts at the time, and were often presented as gifts to friends and lovers. In a curious twist, a pocket snuffbox probably saved Frederick's life during a bloody battle, deflecting a bullet away from his chest.
Stop 7: Sappho, inspired by Love, Composes an Ode to Venus, about 1800
Map link: Jewellery, Room 91 (mezzanine), Level 2
This pendant is enamelled with an image of the poet Sappho, one of the most celebrated writers of antiquity. Sappho was born on the Greek island of Lesbos around 620 BC. Today, not much is known for certain about her life, and little of her work survives. The fragments that do remain passionately express love for a variety of people of all genders, including women and girls. Sappho's name is the origin of the word 'sapphic', and the term 'lesbian' derives from the name of her birthplace.
Stop 8: Peeling off the bitter rind, by Keith Lewis, 1993
Map link: Jewellery, Room 91, Level 2
Keith Lewis (born 1959) is an American jeweller, metalsmith, activist and teacher. His jewellery is self-consciously political and deals mainly with ideas of sexuality and gender identity. This brooch is one of a series he made in the mid-1990s in response to the AIDS crisis, confronting the anguish of survivor guilt. In 1993 Lewis wrote: "My work has two, sometimes overlapping, purposes; to commemorate grief and to chastise self-pity. Peeling off the bitter rind spoofs my own self-absorption and sense of mission, while (I hope) offering itself as a coat hook for other histories, phobias and fantasies."
Stop 9: Léonide Massine waiting for his cue to go on stage in 'On With the Dance', by Gluck, 1925
Map link: Theatre & Performance, Room 104, Level 2
Born into a deeply conservative family, the British artist Gluck (1895 – 1978) rejected their given name and expected femininity, choosing instead to wear exclusively male clothing. Despite objecting to Gluck's appearance and relationships with women, the Gluckstein family financially supported the painter, allowing Gluck greater artistic freedom. This painting shows the dancer Léonide Massine about to make his entrance in a revue by Noël Coward and Philip Braham. In the gallery it is displayed in a 'Gluck frame' – a type of stepped frame, designed and patented by Gluck, that became an integral part of Modernist and Art Deco interiors of the 1930s.
Stop 10: Set model for Don Giovanni, by Derek Jarman, 1968
Map link: Theatre & Performance, Room 104, Level 2
Although better known as a filmmaker, Derek Jarman (1942 – 94) originally trained as a painter and spent part of his early career designing theatre costumes and sets. The director John Gielgud asked Jarman to design the set for his 1968 production of Don Giovanni at the Sadler's Wells theatre. Jarman drew on his interests in architecture and gardening to create striking non-figurative style designs. Throughout his career, Jarman's work explored homosexual themes, in films like Caravaggio (1986) and Sebastiane (1976). His final and most personal work, Blue (1993), frankly discussed his experience of living with an AIDs-related illness.
Stop 11: Hercules and Antaeus, about 1520s
Map link: Sculpture, Room 111, Level 2
The Classical myth of a wrestling match between the divine hero Hercules and the giant Antaeus was extremely popular among Renaissance artists. This gleaming statuette shows Hercules defeating Antaeus by holding him aloft and squeezing him to death in a bear hug. When found in the homes of private collectors, statuettes like this – along with representations of other mythological male youths admired for their beauty, like Ganymede or David – were often used to signify same sex attraction, as Hercules had relationships with both men and women.
Stop 12: Reliquary of Saint Sebastian, 1497
Map link: Medieval & Renaissance, Room 10, Level -1
With so many sensual representations of Saint Sebastian created from the Renaissance onwards, it's no surprise that over time he has become a gay icon. The young martyr lived in 3rd-century Rome and was condemned to death for his Christian beliefs. Lashed to a tree and shot with arrows, he miraculously survived the ordeal. The image of his writhing, near-naked body and the symbolism of the penetrating arrows contribute to the saint's homoerotic appeal, which was strongly emphasised by filmmaker Derek Jarman in his 1976 film Sebastiane.
Stop 13: Anthropomorphic jug, about 1280 – 1320
Map link: Medieval & Renaissance, Room 10a, Level -1
This jug intentionally combines a mixture of typically male and female traits and was probably meant to cause surprised amusement at the dining table or tavern. Combining different gender traits like this was often intended as a joke or as sexual innuendo. Yet however crude their initial intention, today objects like this medieval jug can be seen to demonstrate a long history of playful challenges to the notion of binary gender.