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Five stories in five rooms

Written by Indigo Dunphy-Smith, Visitor Services Assistant at the Georgian House
Looking straight on at the exterior of the Georgian House in Charlotte Square, Edinburgh. It is part of a terrace of other town houses, all symmetrically designed.
The Georgian House in Charlotte Square, Edinburgh
We have linked stories and objects at the Georgian House to illuminate elements of LGBT+ history in the Georgian period.

Hidden in plain view across the restored rooms of the Georgian House are histories that may not be immediately apparent. As a queer woman working in heritage, I am always on the lookout for glimpses of LGBT+ lives and stories within the collection. Sharing the history of people from the past who may today identify as LGBT+ is not just a personal passion; it’s also an opportunity for the Georgian House to diversify the stories we tell and reach out to a wide range of audiences.

Dating back to 1796, the restored Georgian House offers an authentic and immersive experience of domestic life in Edinburgh’s UNESCO World Heritage Site of the New Town. The house contains hundreds of objects from the Georgian period that have the potential to tell many stories and represent many experiences of life at the turn of the 19th century.

The Bedroom

Classical mythology was popular during the Georgian period and its influence can be seen throughout the house. Hanging to the left of the fireplace in our bedroom is a stippled engraving of two women embracing, titled ‘Classical scene with Sappho’. However, neither of the women who appear in the image are Sappho! Instead, we have Artemis, goddess of the hunt, identified by her moon-shaped tiara. She embraces the hunter Atalanta, clutching her arm and pulling her close. It is an intimate moment that immediately caught my attention. Further research into Greek mythology revealed that Atalanta, as a mark of devotion to Artemis, vowed to remain unmarried. Both women lived in an all-female community of virgins – this word, in the ancient world, was used interchangeably with unmarried.

So why does the title of the engraving reference Sappho? Sappho of Lesbos also lived in an all-female community around 2,500 years ago in Greece. Within the LGBT+ community she is remembered for the contents of her lyric poetry, which hints at desire between women. Her name is also the origin of many words relating to women who love women, some of which are still in use today. The word lesbian stems from the name of the Greek isle of Lesbos, where she lived, and the word ‘sapphick’ or ‘sapphic’ first appeared in English texts in 1732 to describe same-sex desire between women.

The Drawing Room

Another famous woman in lesbian history is regency heiress Anne Lister, who recently became a household name after the hit BBC/HBO show Gentleman Jack aired back in 2019. If you look out the window closest to the piano in our Drawing Room, you’ll see the dome top and stone columns of the National Records of Scotland building, originally St George’s Church. Anne Lister visited this church during her tour of Scotland in 1828. I like to think she passed by the Georgian House on her way to the church. Or perhaps she cut through Charlotte Square to Melville Street, where she stayed in a townhouse that looks almost identical to ours while visiting Edinburgh.

Anne was often nicknamed ‘Gentleman Jack’ because of her masculine appearance and behaviour. This led to rumours she had affairs with women. We know so much about Anne’s personal life because of the 5 million-word diaries she wrote, a fifth of which was written in a code of her own devising. These coded sections confirm the gossip: Anne did have intimate encounters with other Regency women.

Anne was in Scotland to meet the Scottish heiress Sibella Maclean. However, she eventually committed to another woman, Ann Walker, in 1834 in what historians agree to be the UK’s first lesbian wedding.

The Dining Room

When you enter the dining room, its dark furnishings and grand appearance give it an unmistakably masculine demeanour. But what did masculinity look like in the Georgian period? A little different to how we might visualise it today! It was common and fashionable for adult men to have long hair tied back in a pony tail, or they would cut it short and wear a wig. Men’s clothing was often decorated with lace or embroidery and shoes were made of silk with jewel-encrusted buckles.

Pink was also a masculine colour during the Georgian period as it was a shade of red, a royal colour associated with power and virility. Letters written by Robert Adam (the architect who designed this house) recorded that, on a trip to Italy, he ordered a pink silk suit. Mount Stuart, the ancestral home of the family who donated the Georgian House to the National Trust for Scotland, also houses a collection of portraits of 18th-century men, dressed head to toe in pink silk.

Our portrait of Helen Colt with her son Adam nods to the Georgian tradition of ‘breeching’, which was the time when a young boy moved from wearing a dress to trousers. In the portrait you can see Adam in a white dress with a blue sash, meaning he is under the age of 5 or 6. After this, boys would start to wear trousers and had their hair cut short.

Some of the associations we often make today regarding masculine or feminine appearance were markedly different in the Georgian period.

The Parlour

We often describe the parlour as an educational room in the house, indicated by the large bookcase and the globes with celestial and terrestrial maps. The labelling on these globes would have changed a lot during the Georgian era, a time in which Britain’s colonial power expanded exponentially. One industry at the height of its production was whaling. The walking stick next to the fireplace is made from a narwhal tusk and is an example of a common crafting activity produced by whalers and other seafarers at the time. Along with whalers, those who worked in other parts of the merchant navy would have been introduced to the ideas and customs of other cultures in different parts of the British Empire.

On the theme of LGBT+ history, I was interested in how this related to non-western experiences and practices of gender and sexuality. I found out that, in the aftermath of these voyages, people who lived outside the binaries of sexuality and gender we are familiar with – such as people who describe themselves as ‘two spirit’ in North America or the hijra communities in southern Asia (identities similar to what we would consider transgender) – faced pressure to assimilate into binary identities.

The Kitchen

Down in the Georgian House kitchen, among the cooking utensils many of us are familiar with today, lies our spice box, complete with individual sections for nutmeg and cinnamon. This six-section tin box evokes an unending list of histories relating to trade and cultural exchange. When the British Empire was at its height during the Georgian period, importing ‘exotic’ goods like sugar and spices was a popular way to show off wealth among the upper classes. Along with these imported goods also came new ideas, cultures and customs, including language.

In relation to LGBT+ history, a language I am particularly interested in, whose origins stem from the Georgian period, is Polari. With roots in the merchant navy, this subculture dialect is riddled with code and metaphor, made up of words from cockney rhyming slang, French and even Yiddish.

Polari made its way to Scotland via the theatres and bawdy houses of British ports. Passing from deck hand to first mate, the language was a safe form of communication through which men seeking intimacy with other men could identify each other. It was a chance for them to speak openly without the risk of being understood or overheard by others.

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