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Rodin in Lewes - Issue 6 . Summer 1999
Edward Perry Warren, so rumour had it among the people of Lewes at the turn of the century, was a collector of fine art and young men. In 1890 Warren, a wealthy American expatriate, had moved to Lewes House on the High Street and installed his collection of antique furniture, carpets, books, paintings and the first of his young men - John Marshall, an Oxford graduate who quickly became known as 'Puppy'.
Ever since he had wandered the fields outside Boston as a oby, dressed in a toga of his own making, Warren had felt drwan to the art and literature of ancient Greece and Rome. Like many gay men of his generation, Warren was fortified by the notion of an ancient world where homosexuality was accepted and 'the severe beauty of manhood was enthroned' - this in contrast to an England which Oscar Wilde described as a strange and hated land 'where the worship of beauty and the passion of love are considered infamous'.
Warren's response to the hostile moral climate in the years following Wilde's trial was to withdraw behind the walls of Lewes House, gather his precious things around him and attempt to create a brotherhood of like-minded gay men worshipping at the shared altar of Greek Love. 'Be strong', he urged in a poem he wrote at the time. 'We have endured as they who suffered wrong; Love can revive the old Hellenic day'. For a while it seems that life in the Lewes House family was a dream. Days were filled with studying, entertaining famous visitors, riding, chatting, eating well and photographing naked men at the Lewes Corporation Swimming Baths (now the Pells).
Inevitably the expectations and pressures of heterosexual life outside the walls were felt. Disciples, lacking Warren's commitment to a loving circle of companions, left to pursue independent careers and to marry. John Marshall himself 'took the veil' in 1907 and (a cruel blow this) married Warren's cousin. Warren was left in a frenzy of agitation and never put quite the same energy into collecting art again. A book of Warren's poems published under a pseudonym two years later contains many love poems addressed to Marshall and to his successor in Warren's affections, a Harry Thomas.
The latter part of Warren's life was largely engaged in writing A Defence of Uranian Love, a complex and densely-written three volume hymn to the glory of adolescent boys. Closeted friends were disturbed and embarrassed by the book. Warren regarded it as his magnum opus.
Today Lewes House is not, sadly, home to a nest of buggery but belongs to Lewes District Council. However a new exhibition at Lewes Town Hall aims to acknowledge and celebrate 'the vision of one of [the town's] most remarkable men and his unique contribution to the cultural life of Britain'. The exhibition returns Rodin's famous sculpture The Kiss to Lewes after an absence of seventy years. The Kiss was commissioned in 1900 by Warren who particularly specified that the male genitals should be visible and pronounced. Perhaps disappointed that the very heterosexual Rodin had modelled a vague sausage and not the distinct dick required, Warren offered the scultpure as a loan to the Town of Lewes but such a fleshy monument was not long considered suitable for public display and it stood in Warren's coach house until his death in 1928.
Rodin in Lewes shows in company with twelve other Rodin scultpures (including two titivatingly entwined lesbian couples) but unfortunately, far from acknowledging and celebrating Warren's vision, the exhibition displays no material on the fascinating old pansy at all. A wall caption refers to John Marshall as Warren's 'close friend and lifelong companion'. But that's all. When Warren died The East Sussex News referred to Marshall in almost exactly the same language as his 'lifelong friend'. It seems that the prudish attitudes which led to The Kiss being removed from public display in 1915 are alive and well and being carefully maintined in our lovely county town.
Happily the exhibition catalogue (available for £5) is more forthcoming, containing an informative essay on Warren and his friends by John May. And Edward Reeves has newly printed an enchanting picture of Warren and Marshall as a postcard for 50p. Otherwise the exhibition is supplying an authentic taste of the prewar closet every day at Lewes Town Hall until 30 October.
All text and images copyright Brighton Ourstory, a registered charity, number 1106242.