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Publishers of award-winning illustrated books on art, history, archaeology, world cultures and more.

A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity across the World

A Little Gay History 3D mock-up - high-res

How old is the oldest chat-up line between men? Who was the first ‘lesbian’? Were ancient Greek men who had sex together necessarily ‘gay’? And what did Shakespeare think about cross-dressing?

This week, we are excited to be publishing A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity across the World by R.B. Parkinson. This exciting book draws on objects ranging from ancient Egyptian papyri and the erotic scenes on the Roman ‘Warren Cup’ to modern images by artists such as David Hockney and Bhupen Khakhar to consider questions like these.

The concepts of human desire and gender have never been straightforward and have been shaped in many different ways, both throughout history and across the globe. This book takes over 40 artefacts from many cultures and from all periods to look at the intimate issues behind these objects and to ask a question that concerns us all: how easily can we recognize love in history?

Concise and beautifully illustrated with objects from the British Museum’s far-ranging collection , A Little Gay History provides an intriguing and valuable insight into the range, diversity  and complexity of same-sex desire.

Author R. B. Parkinson, a curator of ancient Egyptian culture at the British Museum, has chosen his three favourite objects from the book.

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Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720 – 78), Avanzi del Tempio del Dio Canopo nella Villa Adriana in Tivoli. Rome, c. 1760 – 78. Etching on paper, 45.5 x 58.5 cm.

R.B.P.: This etching by Piranesi has great personal resonance: it shows the ruins of the emperor Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli was one of the inspirations for Marguerite Yourcenar’s poetic novel, Memoirs of Hadrian (1951), and a print of it hung over the fireplace in the house in Maine where Yourcenar lived with her translator and life-partner Grace Frick.  Whenever I travel, I take a copy of the novel with me.

R.B.P: One favourite object is the British Museum itself, which provided the setting for one of the greatest gay romantic moments in English literature: the scene in E. M. Forster’s novel Maurice, where the two heroes finally realise they are in love, superbly filmed by Merchant Ivory Productions in 1987.  Gay romance on a grand scale and with a happy ending.

You can view a clip from Maurice on the British Museum’s YouTube channel.

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R.B.P.: This badge from the 1980s by the wonderful cartoonist and illustrator Kate Charlesworth wittily caricatures stereotypes and assumptions about LGBT identity.

Images © The Trustees of the British Museum.

A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity across the World (£9.99) is published by the British Museum Press, and is available now in all good bookshops. For more information and to look inside the book, visit the British Museum shop online.

Author Q and A: David Stuttard

In anticipation of the release of our new title Power Games : Ritual and Rivalry at the Ancient Greek Olympics we spoke to author,  playwright and classicist David Stuttard about Ancient Greece, London 2012 and which historical figure he most identifies with.

David Stuttard

David Stuttard

What did you find most exciting about embarking on Power Games: Ritual and Rivalry at the Ancient Greek Olympics?

There have been lots of books written about the Ancient Olympics, but what I was really excited about doing was trying to capture what the atmosphere might have been like at one particular Games.  To do this, I had to know not only exactly what was going on at the time I’d chosen (416 bc) but also precisely what the actual site at Olympia looked like in that year.  I wanted to be able to take the reader on a journey through Olympia with all its temples and statues and administrative buildings, so I needed to be able to build my own 3-D map of the site (albeit in my head).  That meant reading ancient accounts and getting to know as much as I possibly could about the physical geography – and revisiting the archaeological remains at Olympia, too, which (although I’d been several times before) came as something of a shock.  I’d created a really vivid mental picture of the site as it existed in all its glory in 416 bc and today, of course, it’s in ruins.

The first recorded Olympic Games took place in 776BC; can you tell us why you chose the events of 416BC as the focus for Power Games?

416 bc was a pivotal year for the ancient Olympics.  For one thing, it came at the end of a few years of phoney peace in the middle of a war (the Peloponnesian War) which involved pretty much the entire Greek world, stretching from modern Turkey to Sicily, as well as the Aegean islands and the Greek mainland itself.  For another, it involved big personalities, and the biggest of them all was Alkibiades.  In the 416 bc Games he entered a staggering seven teams in the chariot race, so that he came first, second and (depending on who you believe) either third or fourth. He was, in fact, using the Games as a vehicle for propaganda – not only for himself but for his city, Athens. We know that other important politicians from all over the Greek world were at the Games, too, using the occasion as an opportunity to hold talks and broker deals, so, given the fact that the book explores not just the athletic side of the Festival but the political and religious aspects too, it really did seem that 416 was the ideal year to focus on.  And it was.  I didn’t once regret the choice.

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Author Q and A: Jenny Balfour-Paul

In the first of our new series of author interviews we spoke to Jenny Balfour-Paul, author, artist and intrepid traveller, about her new book Indigo: Egyptian Mummies to Blue Jeans, the organic dye revolution and the differences between writing and film-making.

Jenny Balfour-Paul

How did you first become involved in the study of Indigo?

I always loved textiles and colours, especially after travelling around India in my late teens.  When living in the Arab world in my early twenties I became fascinated by local textile skills and learnt weaving and batik.  Back in UK, and by this time a practicing batik artist and teacher, I worked with the late Susan Bosence, renowned block-printer and dyer. She was passionate about indigo dyeing and encouraged me to return to Yemen in 1983 when I told her its age-old indigo traditions were on the verge of collapse. (I had visited the country earlier that year with my husband when he was organizing a conference on Yemen for Exeter University’s Arabic dept).  A first field trip to Yemen led to many more such studies all over the Arab world, resulting in a PhD (later published) at Exeter University called ‘Indigo in the Arab World’ and then to research worldwide for ‘Indigo: Egyptian Mummies to Blue Jeans’.

How have developments in the last ten years changed the way we should look at natural dyes? Is the study of indigo more or less relevant to the world today?

It is far more relevant today.   The importance of sustainability is obvious because over-consumption is affecting us all – humans, animals and the whole planet.  The textile and fashion industries are enormous and cause huge amounts of pollution and waste.  Dyes form a large part of this.  Synthetic indigo is made from toxic ingredients whereas natural indigo from plants is non- toxic, enriches the soil, and in hotter climates indigo can be farmed in rotation with other crops, or on waste land. It also provides employment in rural regions.

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