Growing up with a bisexual father

BCN 129 cover

This originally appeared in BCN issue 129, February 2015

Humphrey Spender (1910-2005)  is best known for his work as an early documentary photographer he had a key role in the 1930’s worktown project recording the lives of working people.

Rachel Spender, Humphreys 3rd wife & surviving widow describes Humphrey:
“Humphrey was a beautiful, sensitive, highly creative and loving person and as you probably know was also a successful and renowned painter, textile and wallpaper designer.

“He was a highly regarded tutor at the Royal College of Art for 20 years teaching in the textile school and gave lectures on colour.

“Humphrey was also deeply involved with conservation of the natural environment and with CND.

“Through his photographs of people – all taken in the 1930’s and 40’s – he hoped to bring about awareness of poverty and hoped above all to make the world a better place.

“I think he felt as I do, that if you really love someone it doesn’t matter what sex they are or indeed what age they are.”

history-monthWhen my father told me the ‘facts of life’, he skimped. I don’t remember what he said about heterosexual sex, which suggests it might have been rather boring (either his experience of it, or what he told me about it, or both). I do remember exactly where we were: on a fibreglass rowing boat on our local estuary. And I also remember him discontinuing his talk with a pained silence, which I later interpreted as a reflection of his ambivalence in being open with me about his homosexual relationships. What my mother told me about sex was more interesting, but she didn’t mention my father’s young male lovers. Only much later did she say, assuming that someone must have told me, which no-one had: “You do know about Humphrey’s boyfriends, don’t you?” Which by then I kind-of half did, having visited my parents’ London flat, without pre-announcement, to find him in some sort of flagrante with a young man I had not met before. The thing that struck me was not what they were doing, which I colluded in not recognizing, but my father’s fluster and discomfort at my unexpected presence. There was also the time he came back from the Philippines, which he had visited with a close male friend of his who was openly homosexual, having caught gonorrhoea. And then there was a throw-away remark by a porter at the Royal College of Art, when I met my father at his work-place to be taken out for dinner, which was something like: ‘Oh, I see you’ve got another of them!’

On my father’s Wikipedia page, it is stated that Humphrey ‘…told his wives before marrying them that he was bisexual.’ The extent of his openness was necessarily context-dependent, and seems not to have extended to his sons. Born in 1910, he would not have had the choice of ‘coming out’, since homosexuality remained illegal in England until 1967, and it was not that long since Oscar Wilde had been imprisoned for sodomy (in 1895). He told me that his first sexual awareness was at the age of eight years, with an adult woman. There would have been the usual sexual experimentation at boarding schools (modelled as they were on Spartan culture), although he never told me much about this. It might have been what he was referring to when he mentioned being urged by the school chaplain to pray for forgiveness in the school chapel.

spender worktown 600He went from school to a German University (in Freiburg-im-Breisgau) to study art history, and fell in love with the daughter of the family with whom he lodged: he was rather vague with me about how far this relationship went. Perhaps his love was unrequited, but it certainly improved his German. He did tell me about his ‘very good friend’, Bill Edmiston (reported by the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Online to be his lover), whom he met at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, where he also met his first wife, Margaret (Lolly) Low. They all qualified in 1933, when there was no work for architects, so my father and Bill Edmiston set up a photographic studio in the London Strand. Surviving photographs from this period include a series of the unemployed ‘hunger marchers’, who walked all the way from Jarrow in Newcastle to London, to convince the government (and perhaps rich Londoners) of their plight. Despite having a private income deriving from his German banking great-grandfather, my father seems to have struggled financially too: he regaled me with stories of begging at restaurants for left-over chicken carcasses, which the kitchen staff willingly gave to the two hungry photographers to pick bare (this was before the days of health and safety regulations, which force truckloads of edible food to be thrown away). He taught me how to detach the most delectable bits of meat from next to the bone.

My father then wandered around continental Europe, mainly Germany, with his brother Stephen and Stephen’s friends Christopher Isherwood, and, part of the time, Wystan Auden. Possibly Humphrey’s best photo-portrait dates from this time: of Isherwood leaning against an internal window, with a wonderful medley of reflection and light. It seems all four went to Berlin for the sexual freedoms on offer, in search of younger boyfriends. My father never told me who his boyfriends were during this period. He did tell me that Isherwood, contrary to his subsequent reputation as exclusively homosexual, had a sexually intimate relationship with Jean Ross, allegedly the original of Sally Bowles. She was the fictional heroine of Isherwood’s novel Goodbye to Berlin, which was subsequently adapted to the play and film I Am a Camera, and then the musical and film Cabaret, making a star of Liza Minnelli. Although Humphrey, Stephen, Christopher Isherwood and W H Auden (who went to the same Public School as my father: Gresham’s in Norfolk) were friendly because of their shared homosexual leanings, they did not as far as I know have intense sexual relationships with each other (although Auden’s Wikipedia entry implies that he and Isherwood did), but rather (or at least more intensely) with younger men with whom they became infatuated. I wonder if they were more in love with the feeling of being infatuated than with the boys themselves? For instance, Stephen went to Valencia in 1937, not to fight in the Spanish Civil War, as many of his friends were then doing (with the International Brigade), but to rescue his boyfriend Tony Hyndman, who had done just that. Isherwood’s boyfriend Heinz Neddermeyer was imprisoned by the Nazis in 1937 for being a draft evader and participating in ‘reciprocal onanism’,—a rather uni-dimensional description of homosexuality. Humphrey (whose mother was of Jewish origin) told me about seeing the signs saying Juden verboten (Jews forbidden) in the mid-1930’s, but meeting a wall of disbelief when he tried to tell others in England about the rampant anti-Semitism developing in Germany: nobody then wanted to acknowledge the evil of anti-Semitism, which had been prevalent in most European countries for centuries, as reflected, for instance, in the quotas limiting Jewish emigration from continental Europe to the UK and USA for most of the Second World War.

So my father told me about some of his male friendships, and some of the interesting bits of his life in Germany, but left out the sexual bits. Unlike their eldest brother Michael, who was a consistent womanizer, both Humphrey and Stephen were sexually interested in both males and females, probably throughout their lives. Stephen’s male love affairs were kept as secret as possible by his wife Natasha, who outlived him; leading to his being criticized, in my view justly, for being far less open about his homosexual side than many of his gay contemporaries. Maybe I should be as critical of my father; or maybe he was just trying to protect me. I never asked my mother whether she minded Humphrey having affairs (with both sexes), but I suppose she must have. She reciprocated by having her own (exclusively heterosexual, as far as I know). Humphrey’s first wife Lolly was very beautiful, as I know not only from contemporary photographs, but also from a stunning portrait, (still in my family’s possession) of her by a surrealist (probably bisexual) painter called John Banting, which shows her in a translucent smock with large erect breasts. She chose to marry Humphrey in preference to her upper-class family’s choice of husband (a titled member of the aristocracy, so my father told me). So presumably she valued the exciting over the mundane, and perhaps she regarded Humphrey’s bisexuality as part of his interesting Bohemian-ness. I was never able to ask her whether she minded the periodic diversion of his sexual attentions, since she died in 1945, of Hodgkin’s disease, which was then incurable. Her father, who was a renowned Harley Street surgeon, and his medical colleagues (including I think the   physician to the Royal Family), recommended as cures firstly a pregnancy (which led to a stillbirth); and then an adoption, which was equally doomed to failure. This meant that not only was I left with a dead half-brother, whose grave my father was never able to find; but also with a living adopted half-brother, who was six when my parents married in 1948, and about ten years’ older than me. He emigrated as soon as he could, first to Australia, then settling in Michigan.

My father idealized Lolly, which must have been very difficult for my mother, who of course could never live up to her. Bizarrely, both the stillborn child and Lolly died on Christmas Day, so Christmas was always a very difficult time for the three of us. My mother and I tried to distract my father by taking him on picnics (not a common Christmas Day activity in the UK), which mostly seemed to work. Given my father’s evident infatuation with a dead female, I would have found it hard to comprehend his infatuations with younger men. It became even easier for me to ignore my father’s bisexuality when his infatuation with a much younger woman persisted for many years, leading eventually to his third marriage, after my mother’s death, which sadly was only two years before his own.

Quentin Spender

Photos by kind permission of The Humphrey Spender Archive. 

Further information about Humphrey Spender and his photography can be found at
Spenders archive and studio in Essex can be visited on study days: for details email
Bolton Museum has a Worktown Gallery with changing exhibitions of Spender’s photography.