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Alexander Turnbull - we wish!


Alexander Turnbull was born in Wellington on September 14, 1868 (one year before Frances Hodgkins, who belongs to a later age), the sixth of seven children, but three of his four older brothers died young. His father, Walter, was a founder of the merchant firm W & G Turnbull, but he was named after his mother, Alexandrina Horsburgh.

In 1875 Walter took the family back to London. Alex began a coin-collection the next year, and went to school at Dulwich. From there he went straight into the family drapery firm, but he visited New Zealand twice in his teens and began collecting books in 1885.

In 1892 he returned to run his father's firm and look after his alcoholic father, whose death in 1897, and that of his uncle four years later, left him with ample means to pursue his other interests - golf, yachting and collecting books. (Just as well, because W & G Turnbull's business did not thrive under his half-hearted management.)

In 1916 he had the handsome brick building built in Bowen St that housed his collection for the next five decades. He died on June 28, 1918 after an operation on his sinuses, leaving his collection to "the King".

He never married and his sensitive eyes, bushy moustache and clear brow would make anyone's gaydar ping. There is an oral tradition that he was "a screaming queen", but his biographer, Eric McCormick, himself gay, said there was no clear evidence. He is known to have used cocaine. He was a dandy, having his clothes tailored in England, and an aesthete. With one of his best friends, Percy Buller, he visited Algiers (but also shows in Paris with dancing girls) probably in 1890, and their relationship has some curious features: in London in 1891 during a "pretty gay" weekend he was "... Sorry to Say did not go home that night..." At the end of 1893, he wrote to Percy's brother Leo in the Manawatu that Percy was "as 'gai' as ever" and signed himself "ever thine Alex." (Leo later married.) The secondary meaning of "gay" was then "immoral, dissolute, befitting a prostitute" but had the present meaning begun to emerge that early, and was Alex writing in code?


At his death, the collection housed 55,000 books, with specialised collections of Milton, New Zealand and Pacific books of international standing. His library is now housed within the National Library / Te Puna Matauranga o Aotearoa, and within it is housed LAGANZ, the Lesbian and Gay Archives of New Zealand.



Adapted from the biographies by E H McCormick and Jim Traue.





Eric H. McCormick - biographer


Eric McCormick, biographer of Frances Hodgkins and Alexander Turnbull, was born in Taihape in 1906. He became aware of his homosexuality at an early age: he was bullied for his effeminacy, once having his arm broken, and one of the names that did hurt him was "Girlie".

He boarded in Wellington while he went to Wellington College and Wellington Teachers' Training College, in 1924-5. There he had one of his longest-standing "crushes", on another student his own age, "R.G." This love, unexpressed and probably unrequited, lasted for over a year. He writes of awkward encounters, such as the man in Sydney who found his kissing unsatisfactory, but if he had consummated relationships, he did not write about them. In some cases he would remember a man he had no more than exchanged glances with, long after the event.

One of his essays is a wistful investigation into the visit of Rupert Brooke to New Zealand.

He died in Auckland on March 25, 1995.

Adapted from the biography by Denis McEldowney




Charles Brasch - poet, editor


Charles Brasch was born in Dunedin in 1909 of a large and well-known family. His great-grandfather, Bendix Hallenstein, founded the drapery company of that name, as well as the Drapery Importing Company, (D.I.C.). His grandfather, Willi Fels, was the greatest influence in his life, his mother having died when he was five.

His literary executor has refused to allow any of his work to be included in a recent anthology of gay writing, because he did not come out in his lifetime.

As its name "Indirections" implies ('By indirections find directions out' - Hamlet), his memoir tells us little about his sexuality. However, in it, he writes lyrically about his schoolmates' nudity:

"We were sun-worshippers...the sun was never too much with us. We loved baring our bodies to it and to each other...naked, we were fully clothed in nakedness, which was perfectly natural to us.

"We knew one another's bodies from summer hours of swimming and lying in the sun by the baths, where we wore nothing, better than we knew one another's minds.... For years after I left school it seemed to me that I did not know my friends properly until I knew their bodies too, from swimming and sunbathing with them."

He is vague about his special friendships, such as with George Menlove (!), "richly brown-skinned, soft-featured..., strong and fearless... his red cheeks under the permanent tan and warm smiling mouth,...a lover of the sun; we spent long hours lying together beside the swimming pool and basking in hollows among the gorse on the foreshore."

He had some kind of romantic infatuation with Winsome Milner, daughter of Waitaki Boys' High School's Rector Frank Milner ('The Man") - but then, so it seems did every other boy at the school.

He studied at Oxford (passing through London at the same time in 1927 as Frank Davey, later Frank Sargeson) with Senior Scholar Colin Roberts "deeply loved and looked up to."

After Oxford he worked as an archaeologist with Roberts in Egypt, taught at an A.S.Neill-style school in England, and during the war worked in the Italian section at Bletchley Park. If he knew Alan Turing (who was breaking the Enigma code there), he does not mention him.

As well as his own poetry, he will be remembered as a founder in 1946 with Denis Glover, of the literary quarterly Landfall, and its first editor.

His life-long special friends were James Bertram and Rodney Kennedy, and he knew Toss (later Sir Tosswill) Woollaston, Mary Ursula Bethell, James Courage and D'arcy Cresswell

He never married, and died in 1973.



Quotes from Brasch's memoir, "Indirections", edited by James Bertram.





Sir Mountford Tosswill Woollaston - Artist

"Toss" Woollaston was born in Toko, Taranaki on April 11, 1910, and decided at the age of five that he wanted to be an artist. He moved to Nelson in the 1920s to protect his parents from the shame of his conscientious objection to military training,.. In Christchurch, studying painting, he gardened for Ursula Bethell who introduced him to D'Arcy Cresswell. In Dunedin, he became a close friend of Rodney Kennedy.

He survived as a Rawleigh's (travelling pharmeceutical) salesman until 1966, when he was able to support himself by painting alone. His paintings are generally large, with broad strokes in muted, earth colours, many of the same scenes near his Mapua home. Charles Brasch called him "one of the first to see and paint New Zealand as a New Zealander."

After turning the honour down twice, he was knighted in 1979 "to prevent it going to some popularity monger."

He was notably honest about his sexuality, freely allowing part of his autobiography "Sage Tea" to be used in an anthology of gay writing. He saw himself a "a sexually fluid being" who had been more homosexual than heterosexual in his youth. He he tells of meeting an older man on a walk between Rona Bay and Days Bay, who invited him to walk over the ridge:

When we came to Butterfly Creek we both felt the need to make water. We had listened to the riroriro singing in the silence of the bush and the creek rattling over its stones before we confessed this need to each other and turned away politely to do it. Or at least, I had. But when I turned to him again, he was still exposed, and invited that we should introduce our penises to each other - just a touch - so that they should be friends as well.

Just that, and no more.

With boys my own age I had done so much more.

Yet this shocked me more.

Perhaps because of his age? (As I have said, he seemed to be about as old as my parents.)

While I hesitated, my mind rushing about to see if I could find any justifiable, non-hypocritical reason for refusing, he waited patiently. When I couldn't and complied, he was satisfied.

We began our walk back. It was much more silent, with what I had to digest. I might even have been disappointed after all at the extreme gentleness of our contct, being used to so much more violence and excitement. If I was, the question remained below the level of articulation. The ground between us was changed and I hadn't rejected him. We were going to have a friendship.

[When he told the aunt and uncle with whom he was staying in Lower Hutt that he] was going into Wellington the day after next (his next day off) to see my new friend, and saw them exchange glances full of meaning, I wondered whether they were going to warn me.

(But of what? The vices of the city?)

They didn't quite manage it. I saw the thought die in their eyes before it could become words on their lips.

[He stayed with the man (a writer and part-time accountant with the Wellington City Milk Department) for a week the next time he was in Wellington, and introduced him to his aunt who said,] "I didn't think much of the little man. If he ever shows the slightest sign of familiarity, drop him like a hot potato."

- Sage Tea p137

In 1927 he and his lover Ossie (19) stayed with Norman Gibson and Roy Ayling, sharing a double bed in their farmhouse on the slopes of Taranaki.

In 1936 he married. (When he told his intended, Edith, he was bisexual, her reply was that they both needed a couple of stiff whiskies.) He had three sons and a daugher. While Edith was still alive he met the former US Ambassador Anne Clark Martindell, and after Edith's death they become lovers, until his death on August 30, 1998.




Norman Gibson and Roy Ayling 

Norman Gibson (1895-1964) and his lover Roy Ayling (1886-1950), farmed together at Kaimiro, up Mt Taranaki from Inglewood.


Roy Ayling, the elder man, had told me how he had seen the younger Norman Gibson while at the war, poised for a dive when they were swimming, and loved his beautiful body. When they came back he had left his accountancy business in Auckland and put his money into this farm with his friend. In those days homosexuality wasn't mentioned, and I am sure there was none in a physical sense between these two men. Brought up as we were on the story of David and Jonathan, whose love 'exceeded the love of women', the relationship between them was perfectly natural and even admirable to us and our parents.

- Sage Tea p187

They lived as nudists and had a circle of nudist friends, including Rewi Alley (1897-1987) and his partner Jack Stevens, who subsistence-farmed at Moeawatea, 30 km up the Whenuakura valley from Waverley, from 1920 to 1927, when Alley went to China.

Roy left Norman in 1931 and both married, though they stayed in touch. Norman's daughter became lesbian activist Miriam Saphira. In her biography of her father, A Man's Man - which includes a series of nude "physique" photographs of him - she is convinced their relationship was physical.

The quotes are from Sage Tea by Toss Woollaston, Collins, Auckland, 1980, ISBN 0 00 216982 7 (Gibson & Ayling, p 187)

Written by Hugh Young. .

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