After studying at Harvard, wealthy art collector and writer Edward (‘Ned’) Warren (1860-1928) studied at New College from 1883 where he met his lifetime partner John Marshall. His writing, including A Defence of Uranian Love (1928-1930), proposed an idealised, classical view of male homoeroticism as that between an older and younger man; rare copies of all three volumes are housed at the Bodleian. His greatest legacy to gay life and culture, however, was his acquisition of a Roman silver drinking vessel depicting male-male lovemaking. The Warren Cup, as it is now known, can be seen in the British Museum (a copy is housed at the Ashmolean). The British Museum’s guide The Warren Cup (2006) by Dyfri Williams contains a biography of Warren and is recommended. A fuller description of Warren’s time at Oxford, including a reproduction of an autobiographical account, can be found in Edward Perry Warren: The Biography of a Connoisseur (1941) by Osbert Burdett and E. H. Goddard.
One of the most prominent literary critics of the twentieth century, Francis Otto Matthiessen (1902-1950), studied English at New as a Rhodes scholar, receiving a B.Litt. in 1925. Matthiessen was integral in establishing gay and lesbian writers such as Walt Whitman and Sarah Orne Jewett in the American literary canon. While sailing for Oxford, Matthiessen met the painter Russell Cheney (1881-1945). They remained lovers until Cheney’s death in 1945. Distraught, Matthiessen committed suicide five years later.
New College was the setting of some of Virginia Woolf’s occasional visits to Oxford where she stayed with Herbert Fisher, Woolf’s cousin and eventually Warden of New College, and his wife. Woolf enjoyed little about these visits. After one such visit on 30 Nov 1933 (staying the night in the Warden’s Lodgings), she wrote in a letter ‘150 boys with some literary tendency (concealed) shook my hand at New College each led like a victim to the altar, by my old bald white priestly cousin Herbert Fisher. We stood in a long gallery, and so it went on till midnight, and I ran out of small talk, and could only think of bargain sales in Selfridges basement to talk about. . . . why is human society organised on lines which inflict acute agony on the giver and receiver?’ She continued: ‘But there was a certain monastic dignity about the cloisters in moonlight (not that I like colleges) and the young are cool faced and pinked lipped, if only I could have lain on cushions and shied roses at them—instead of standing in a draught handing penny buns. No I dont like institutes where dressing bells ring for dining, and praying bells ring for prayers, and all hours have their duties, which one pretends to observe, but with a lie in ones heart—so that even my kind old cousin, who once loved cricket, I think, is now as hollow as a corn husk.’
Edward Douglas-Scott-Montagu, 3rd Baron Montagu of Beaulieu, (b. 1926) attended New College. Along with Peter Wildeblood and Michael Pitt-Rivers, Montagu was caught up in one of the most significant sexuality-related trials of the 20th century. Unlike the other defendants, Montagu protested his innocence.
Neil MacGregor (b. 1946) read Modern Languages at New College. MacGregor was the Director of London’s National Gallery from 1987 to 2002 and then became Director of the British Museum, a post he still holds. Under his auspices the British Museum has become Britain’s biggest attraction, beating off Blackpool Pleasure Beach.
Labour politician Gordon Marsden MP (b. 1953) got a First in Modern History at New College. Before entering Parliament he had been a tutor for the Open University as well as a public affairs adviser to English Heritage. For twelve years he was editor of History Today and New Socialist magazine. Marsden has been Member of Parliament for Blackpool South since 1997. He serves on the House of Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee. In 2003 he was made a Visiting Parliamentary Fellow of St Antony’s College, Oxford.
Image: New College, LGBT History Month 2012 (photograph: Ross Brooks)