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 College 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 November 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?
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 (1926-2015) 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.
Author Patrick Gale (b. 1962) read English at New College, graduating in 1983.
His website says of him: ‘He has never had a grown-up job. For three years he lived at a succession of addresses, from a Notting Hill bedsit to a crumbling French chateau. While working on his first novels he eked out his slender income with odd jobs; as a typist, a singing waiter, a designer’s secretary, a ghost-writer for an encyclopedia of the musical and, increasingly, as a book reviewer.’ He now lives with his partner on a farm near Land’s End where they raise beef cattle and grow barley. Gale’s many published works include a biography of Tales of the City author Armistead Maupin (Outlines, 1999) and the brilliant novels Rough Music (2000), Notes from an Exhibition (2007), The Whole Day Through (2009), A Perfectly Good Man (2012), A Place Called Winter (2015), and Take Nothing with You (2018).
I am extremely grateful to Patrick for his ongoing engagement with my Queer Oxford project.
Patrick Gale writes for Queer Oxford:
I’m sure I wasn’t the first gay student to have a remarkably unsexy time at Oxford. I arrived brimming with romantic expectation, head full of imagery from Brideshead Revisited and Maurice. This was 1980. The era of floppy hair, untucked big white shirts and posing. I even had Hugh (he was Hughie then) Grant reading English in the year above me. I was so ready for a great student love affair, all Plato and punts. I furnished my room with the self-consciousness of a bower bird on heat. I took care to give out all the right signals – growing a mop of hair, riding a chicly antique bicycle, enraging my rugger hearty neighbours by practising the cello all afternoon – but it simply didn’t happen. There was a vaguely ambiguous boy with a Spandau Ballet mullet who visited night after night to mope and eat the contents of my fruit bowl but otherwise nothing. Instead I threw myself into acting. I drew far too much of the wrong sort of attention, stiffening my hair with silver lacquer (in the name of preparing for a role), wearing bright red (home dyed) dungarees which might have made me look like a backing singer for Bananarama only they were far too short, hanging out with a noisy crowd who were the antithesis of my public school contemporaries. Still no great student love affair. Not even a little one. I did have fun, though. I was taken up by a gang of girls who dressed like lesbians and vaguely were, although only one of them has stayed true to the cause. I discovered the delights of Motown. I discovered the compensatory delights of dancing. In those days Oxford’s only gay club was The Coven. This was then a sort of Nissen hut in a vast area of post industrial car park on the Oxpens Road. Its inside had been thickly coated with a mixture of chickenwire and plaster of Paris to create a sequence of dimly lit caverns where one could nestle and gossip. At the back there was a tiny dance floor, little bigger than one of our student rooms. To one side was a sort of yard, decked out with lights to resemble a taverna, where one could gasp freshish air. There was something somehow irregular about the Coven. We sensed it wasn’t gay owned and that we were being exploited but we didn’t care. Rumour had it that it was a squat. The weird licensing laws meant that they had to serve all punters a nominal “meal”, usually in the shape of a baked potato. Being students we were, naturally, always hungry so we would often arrive early enough to get in at the cheaper early evening rate, then sit in the otherwise deserted club actually eating this symbolic sustenance while waiting the arrival of the tough girls from the air bases and the possibility of men, preferable both real and new but rarely either. I never got laid there – I was probably far too camp and studenty and I danced like a swivel hipped beanpole – but I did get the protection of a terrifying tattooed lesbian called Jock after standing her a drink. She showed me the little dagger in her white sock and said, “Anyone ever give you any trouble, you just say the word.” Such a thrill! When I did finally have student love affairs only one was with a student, a lovely history scholar my friends made me dump because, well, I never quite worked out why. Otherwise I took refuge in Londoners, men with flats and central heating and free food. One especially cold January, when I’d arrived to find ice in the loo in my cottage in Jericho, I arranged all my tutorials for the same day then spent the rest of each week up in Camberwell along with a friend who was then being a lesbian and conveniently had a lover in the same sordid house. We seemed to live on the coach. Such a missed opportunity!
© Ross Brooks, 2020