Amongst the many preparations for the Coming Out exhibition, I have been hard at work creating a separate Gallery Trail . This will enable visitors to explore the exhibition’s core themes of sexuality, gender and identity in artworks in Birmingham’s collection galleries. It will include major new acquisitions, contemporary art interventions and some of Birmingham’s best-loved masterpieces. Who can resist a great gallery trail right?
Finding out more about LGBT+ histories in Birmingham’s collection has been fascinating and has brought new artists and subjects to the fore. Leading up to the opening of the exhibition and gallery trail, in this blog I’ll be talking about some of the artworks and the stories that we will be including.
This week I want to highlight ‘Portrait head of John Hampson’ by Gordon Herickx (1930-50).
This is a sculpted head of the Birmingham born writer John Hampson made from limestone which will be going on display on the Bridge Gallery.
Gordon Herickx was a Birmingham-born sculptor who studied at the Birmingham School of Art.
John Hampson was born in Handsworth, Birmingham in 1901 and is best known for his novel ‘Saturday Night at the Greyhound’ (1931) which tells the story of a pub called the Greyhound located in a Derbyshire mining village. In Hampson’s story, the pub has been recently taken over by new owners Ivy Flack, her philandering husband Fred and her gay brother Tom, who are desperate to earn enough money to keep the pub open. As they prepare for Saturday night, their busiest night of the week, they are unaware of the events and tragedy that will later unfold. ‘Saturday Night at the Greyhound’ was published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press and was a huge success, going into three print-runs during its first week.
However, Hampson’s first penned novel ‘Go Seek a Stranger’ remained unpublished by the Hogarth Press due to its explicit and undisguised homosexual content. After submitting his manuscript, Leonard and Virginia Woolf praised the novel but feared potential prosecution if they published it. Writing a time long before the partial-decriminalisation of male homosexual acts in 1967 meant that publishing this content could be punished as a criminal act.
‘Go Seek a Stranger’ told the story of a gay working class man and aspiring writer called Alec whose sexual orientation sees him forced from different jobs and cities. The novel opens with a graphic description of a humiliating homophobic assault on Alec by two co-workers at a factory, leading to Alec’s dismissal as someone deemed ‘unsuitable’ for factory work. Alec then finds solace in London with an upper-class man called Richard but again comes under attack from Richard’s homophobic nephew.
Only fragments of this novel remain in Hampson’s papers so it is not possible to know any further about the novel’s narrative; however it is plausible that Hampson was drawing partly on his own life to inform aspects of the book. Born in Handsworth in 1901, Hampson was the fifth of eight children. He worked in a munitions factory during WWI and did many different jobs including being a waiter and running a pub, however his job as a residential nurse in Dorridge offered him the freedom and security to start writing.
Gordon Herickx sculpture shows Hampson’s striking and overt features, characterised by his protruding jaw and deep-set eyes. Herickx often worked in cast bronze or stone, and was known to destroy work that he thought imperfect.
Hampson’s plight as a writer is important to include in this gallery trail in 2017, 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of male homosexual acts (Sexual Offences Act, 1967).
The Gallery Trail and Coming Out exhibition run from 2 December - 15 April 2018. The public exhibition launch will take place on 2 December at 1pm.