In 1967, San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district drew in crowds of gentle people with flowers in their hair for a summertime love-in. Artists, musicians, writers, and activists had been flocking to the area in the years before, but the summer of 1967 is considered a key moment in a period defined by experimentation and creative freedom. It has left a considerable socio-cultural legacy. Though the events of what is known as the Summer of Love centred around San Francisco, musical innovations and societal changes in keeping with the spirit of the times were taking place elsewhere. Fifty years on, a range of heritage attractions, both permanent and temporary, chart the course of this landmark period.
For many, one band conjures up the essence of the 1960s: the Beatles arguably had the greatest impact of any group on music and culture more widely. Their home city of Liverpool makes much of its most famous former residents, and away from the centre, beyond Penny Lane, the childhood homes of Paul McCartney and John Lennon still attract many visitors.
In the suburb of Allerton, at 20 Forthlin Road, Paul McCartney lived with his family from 1955 to around 1964. Designed by Sir Lancelot Keay, the house is small, neat, and typical of post-war terraced council housing (CA 154). It was acquired by the National Trust in 1995 as the ‘birthplace of the Beatles’ and has since been carefully restored. The original windows had been replaced by previous residents, but these were swapped for original fittings from another house on the road. The windows and other external features, such as the doors and drainpipes, have been repainted according to the maroon and cream colour scheme of Liverpool Corporation at the time.
As well as being an important place in terms of music history – this was where the Beatles practised their early material, and where Paul and John would compose songs while skipping school and art college – it offers a glimpse of less-celebrated everyday life in the 1950s. Though the McCartneys had moved up in the world from the humbler environs of Speke to a house with an indoor toilet, they were not a wealthy family. The living room, which with its upright piano had been the musical hub of the house, was decorated with three different wallpapers, from the ends of rolls, and carpeted with rows of narrow stair runners – all elements that have been faithfully replicated.
Nearby in Woolton, and close to Strawberry Field (a Salvation Army children’s home), John Lennon had a more middle-class upbringing in his aunt Mimi’s semi-detached house Mendips at 251 Menlove Avenue. Marked out by an English Heritage blue plaque (which, erected in 2000, was the first outside London) on its pebble-dash exterior, the house was donated to the National Trust by Yoko Ono in 2002. Mendips’ layout is typical of a 1930s interwar house, but its interior has been refurbished to a late 1950s style, so it appears as it did when John lived there in 1946-1963.
One of the house’s three bedrooms was rented to lodgers, who were all male students (thought to be cleaner than their female counterparts). Having spoken to some of them, the National Trust were able to establish details about life in the home and decorated the property accordingly. The kitchen was fitted with yellow Formica worktops in the 1960s and the crockery was green. The dining room (which now exhibits various artefacts relating to Lennon, including a replica of one of his milk teeth) was turned into a study for the lodgers. The lounge at the front of the house was reserved for special visitors and occasions, but the morning room next to the kitchen was used by the family. An interesting feature of the morning room is the electric bellboard, intended to summon staff but never used in John’s day, as the family had no domestics. Upstairs, in John’s bedroom, a poster of Brigitte Bardot hangs above the bed, a guitar rests in the corner, and Lewis Carroll lies open on a desk near the window. The details all help build a clear picture of the tastes and interests of the young musician.
Both properties have attracted the attention of fans since the early days of the Beatles’ fame, but both were vacated within a few years of Paul and John moving out. Another Liverpool attraction offers an insight into the Beatles after these beginnings. Situated in the Albert Docks, the Beatles Story – as the name suggests – is devoted to the whole history of the Beatles, from their influences and schooldays up to the split of the band and the individual musicians’ lives post-Beatles.
Instruments and other artefacts, such as George Harrison’s first guitar, John Lennon’s round spectacles, and masses of memorabilia (including some Beatles hosiery), are presented in or near reconstructions of locations and scenes that relate to them. In the Abbey Road Studios section, George Martin’s handwritten notes from the Help! recording sessions are on display. Other sites recreated include Mathew Street, with the iconic Cavern Club, the Grapes pub (where the Beatles would go for a drink, as the Cavern did not serve alcohol), and Frank Hessy’s musical instrument shop.
A set of new exhibits this year marks 50 years since the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, one of the Beatles’ best-loved albums. Precise replicas of the costumes worn by the band on the famous album cover – made by Noel Howard, part of the team behind the originals – are on display alongside charts featuring fabric samples and comprehensive measurements for each of the Beatles. These show the careful consideration that went into the creation of the album artwork. Also on show is a reproduction of the 19th-century circus poster that John Lennon bought from an antiques shop which inspired ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!’
While Sgt. Pepper was occupying the top spot in the album charts, Are You Experienced by the Jimi Hendrix Experience reached number two. The American guitarist went on to make a third-floor flat in a Georgian building in London his home in 1968-1969. Hendrix had been performing in the UK since 1966 and was at the height of his career when he moved to the flat at 23 Brook Street, Mayfair. He said of the place, ‘This is the first real home of my own.’
Next door, at no.25, is Handel’s house, which has been open to visitors for some years. Hendrix’s flat, on the other hand, was only opened permanently to the public last year after extensive restoration. There is a connection between the two musicians that extends beyond their shared wall: a copy of Handel’s Messiah, on display in the flat’s spare room, was one of his most-played records. Albums by Bob Dylan feature particularly heavily in Hendrix’s record collection, showing signs of wear on the sleeves and vinyl. Blues and jazz artists also feature – along with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
An exhibition space explores Hendrix’s life in London, showcasing the Epiphone FT79 acoustic guitar that he used for all of his UK compositions. Quotations, photographs, and videos cover the couple of years he was here in great depth, adding to an enduring image of an exciting creative hub. The focal point, however, is the bedroom – colourful, layered, and restored with meticulous attention to detail. Carefully sourced or specially made fabrics, feathers, and furniture decorate the room. Like the Beatles’ homes, so much has been achieved thanks to surviving images and recollections from people who knew the place, such as Hendrix’s girlfriend Kathy Etchingham, who lived there. Wine glasses are dotted around, ashtrays are full of cigarettes, a bag is thrown on the floor by the nightstand, and a lampshade has been knocked at an angle. The effect is a wonderfully atmospheric, almost eerie recreation of a moment trapped in time.
Beyond the music scene, major social changes were under way. July 1967 saw the Sexual Offences Act receive royal assent. This decriminalised homosexual acts between consenting males over the age of 21 in England and Wales. Though only a partial decriminalisation, a number of exhibitions coincide with the milestone.
An exhibition at Tate Britain (Queer British Art 1861-1967) explores artworks that attest to changing times and a rich diversity of experiences in the 19th and 20th centuries. In 1861, the exhibition’s starting point, the death penalty for some homosexual acts was abolished, but the years that followed still saw many persecuted and prosecuted. One of the most celebrated figures to be imprisoned as a result of his sexuality is Oscar Wilde. His portrait by Robert Harper Pennington was a wedding present. It depicts him at the age of 27, on the cusp of tremendous success. Displayed next to this optimistic portrait is a more haunting object – the door from the cell at Reading Gaol where Wilde was imprisoned for three months. While the exhibition’s focus is on art, selective use of artefacts like this add extra depth to the stories investigated.
Other objects on display include books modified by the couple Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell. They borrowed and stole books from Islington’s libraries between 1959 and 1962, taking out illustrations to decorate their flat (in which they had separate beds to keep up pretences) and to embellish covers of other books, which they then returned to the library. Agatha Christie’s The Secret of Chimneys, for instance, was given some rather large cats. As a result of these activities, the two were jailed for ‘malicious damage’ for six months; Orton felt the punishment was a reaction to their sexuality. Ultimately, the sentence destroyed their relationship, and their lives.
Also stretching back beyond 1967, the British Museum’s new display Desire, Love, Identity: exploring LGBTQ histories brings together material from a variety of its collections.
An introductory case unites two temporal extremes – a prehistoric sculpture and modern campaign badges from 1987-1993. The sculpture from Ain Sakhri in Palestine dates from c.9000 BC and is the earliest known representation of a couple making love. Though it is assumed that the figures are a man and a woman, there is nothing to distinguish their genders. The display sets out to challenge the viewer to think twice before making such assumptions.
The Classical world offers plenty of examples of same-sex relationships, one of the most famous being that between the Roman Emperor Hadrian and Antinous. After Antinous’ death in AD 130, cities issued coins featuring the youth – an honour rarely bestowed on those outside the imperial family – in an attempt to please the grieving Hadrian.
It is not all about men, however. A few intriguing objects relating to women in the ancient world raise questions. A 6th- to 4th-century BC Egyptian loom weight – usually considered a female implement, as weaving was traditionally women’s work – is decorated with a sexual scene featuring two males. Why this image was chosen for the object is not known. Mass-produced lamps, used by all genders, were more commonly decorated with risqué motifs, including same-sex female couples.
Other artefacts explore the topics of desire and identity across the centuries and across Europe. Edward II, suggested by a later medieval chronicler to have had a relationship with his friend Piers Gaveston that went beyond the platonic, appears on a coin. Another noteworthy figure is the Chevalier d’Eon, who was a diplomat and spy for Louis XV of France, and who lived as a man and then, from 1777, as a woman, attracting much public attention. Sarah Ponsonby and Eleanor Butler, known as the Ladies of Llangollen, also defied convention and were a source of fascination to their contemporaries. In 1780, they left their homes in Ireland for North Wales, where they lived happily together for 50 years.
Recent acquisitions bring the material up to the present. Though the display covers millennia of artefacts, it does not prescribe a completed history. Instead, it encourages visitors to share their responses and discuss some of the recurring themes, like what it is that defines an LGBTQ object.
Beyond the display room, the exploration of the topics concerning identity and desire continue with a trail of objects in the permanent collections. These include pieces from a range of cultures, such as a 20th-century N’domo mask from Mali, an 18th-century Maori treasure box, and a Maya stela from AD 730. Although united by a common theme, the artefacts reflect the great diversity of human experiences and loves across time and space.
The childhood homes of Paul McCartney and John Lennon can only be visited on pre-booked tours with the National Trust (www.nationaltrust.org.uk/beatles-childhood-homes).
The Beatles Story opens 9am-7pm daily (www.beatlesstory.com).
Hendrix & Hendrix in London opens 11am-6pm Monday-Saturday (handelhendrix.org).
Queer British Art 1861-1967 runs at Tate Britain until 1 October (www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/queer-british-art-1861-1967).
Desire, Love, Identity: exploring LGBTQ histories runs at the British Museum until 15 October (www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/exhibitions/desire,_love,_identity.aspx).
This review was published in CA 328.
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