Someone​ had emptied a dead relative’s attic and sent the contents to be valued. One drawer contained a parasol the colour and texture of a desiccated insect, a pair of reading glasses and a small stiff velvet purse, sugared with mould. Inside the purse were several greenish Victorian coins, bunched familiarly: the loose change left over from a day populated by the long dead. I was seventeen and doing work experience at an auction house. In the same week, I was sent to help pack up the last of a large collection of 19th-century Parian ware. Parian is a type of porcelain designed to resemble marble, perfect for the mass-production of affordable statuary. The owners of the collection had sold their house and it was entirely empty, except for the silent throng of politicians, authors and royalty. I lifted busts down from their pedestals, placed them carefully in boxes and poured polystyrene chips over their heads. It was winter and the house was full of large bare windows that showed the darkness outside, while the statues glimmered white within. The owners arrived to watch the last things go. The final box was carried outside and put into the lorry. I’d been told that the house and the collection were being sold because one of the owners was dying, and I remember looking at the wife, standing shrunken in the kitchen of the empty house, as the collection she and her husband had spent decades building was driven away, and realising that I had played a part in a tragedy, that the objects I had enjoyed trying to identify – was this Prince Albert or a young Edward VII? – also represented something unknowably private and painful.

Objects from the past, if they survive, lose and accrue meaning over time. Their original human associations and contexts, their given purposes and original attractions, dissolve and are replaced by others, which might be replaced again, and again, and again. Eventually, some of these objects become ‘historical’. This process can be relatively benign – a Wedgwood plate, for instance, tells us something about Georgian Britain – but isn’t always, as when a statue, simply by virtue of being old, is valued despite what it represents or the circumstances in which it was erected; or when an object in a museum is abstracted from the violence or exploitation that brought it there. Other objects don’t go through this process: they are still trapped in time (the coins in that purse), or travelling through it (the Parian busts in the back of that lorry); they have lost their old meanings, and are waiting for new ones.

Thames Mudlarking; Searching for London’s Lost Treasures by Jason Sandy and Nick Stevens (Shire, £9.99) is a brisk and breezy, profusely illustrated book that glimpses at some of the thousands of objects that have been recovered from the foreshore of the Thames. The river’s water level ‘fluctuates by seven to ten metres with the incoming and outgoing tides, twice a day’, with the result that ‘as the murky waters … slowly recede, the exposed riverbed in London becomes the longest archaeological site in Britain.’ Thick, anaerobic Thames mud is a perfect chrysalis for ‘lost objects’, keeping them remarkably well-preserved, and the book points out some of the spectacular discoveries of the 19th century – including the finely detailed bronze bust of Hadrian brought to the surface in 1853 by workmen constructing London Bridge, and the shield, beautifully worked in bronze sometime between 350 and 50 BC, found by the builders of Battersea Bridge in 1857 – while giving most of its attention to more recent finds. The original Thames mudlarks, in the 18th and 19th centuries, were usually children scavenging for things to sell. Around 1860, a 13-year-old Irish boy, ‘dressed in a brown fustian coat and vest, dirty greasy canvas trousers roughly-patched, striped shirt with the collar folded down and a cap with a peak’, told Henry Mayhew that he and his younger brother spent their days gathering lumps of coal, iron rivets, bits of copper, canvas, wood, stretches of rope, and even floating hunks of fat. Today’s mudlarks have to apply for a permit from the Port of London, costing £40, and must report any items more than three hundred years old to the Museum of London.

It is chastening to think of what has been found on the foreshore while we have been walking or riding across the bridges, looking idly down at the river or over at the needily glinting skyscrapers. Megalodon teeth, woolly rhinoceros skulls, Mesolithic cutting tools, Anglo-Saxon fishing baskets, a Roman vessel still holding its original contents (wood, leather, worked bone). Medieval shoes (complete with the owner’s footprints), swords and spears, Tudor merchant rings and ornate dress hooks, memorabilia celebrating the marriage of Charles II and Catherine of Braganza in 1662, a lead seal belonging to the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa (c.1660-75). The skeleton of a 12-year-old girl who died in the 18th century, a ball and chain (still locked, probably from one of the prison hulks that used to occupy the river), Georgian gemstone shoe buckles and fancy cufflinks, clay wig curlers, watch winders. Pots of bear grease for baldness, early lemonade bottles, ‘Frozen Charlotte’ dolls (‘little girls with arms pressed against their sides … made from one piece of porcelain or bisque with no moveable limbs’, inspired by a poem that describes Charlotte freezing to death on the way to a ball because she was vain of her dress and refused to dress warmly). Pieces of the artillery shells used to defend the city during the First and Second World Wars, a Victoria Cross awarded for service at the Battle of Inkerman and a dog tag from 1918 that was eventually returned to the descendants of its owner. And, through the ages, innumerable coins, beads, buttons, trade tokens, love tokens, toys and, most common of all, clay pipes. By 1700 there were already more than a thousand pipe-makers working in London, and by the 19th century the diversity in their design is astonishing (my favourite has Queen Victoria’s head as its bowl). Also astonishing is the fact that some slender 18th-century ‘alderman’ pipes, between twelve and twenty-six inches in length, have been recovered intact (there are videos of them being carefully whittled from the mud).

That pipe has been very patient, I thought, as I watched one being held up to a phone camera, shining wetly in the light. The everyday nature of most of the found objects and their sheer quantity testifies to the plenitude of the past, contrary to the impression of scarcity and rareness created by museum exhibits. History exceeds the limits we place on it. It escapes us in other ways too. Sandy and Stevens’s book is an invitation to speculation. Confronted with these objects, we wonder how they came to be in the Thames. Was the gold ring made between 1640 and 1680, inscribed ‘no heart more true than myne’, with a bezel ‘formed in the shape of two clasped hands with a projecting heart between them’, hurled into the river ‘in frustration after the relationship ended’? That ball and chain, still locked, ‘could indicate that a prisoner may have somehow escaped – but it is also possible that they perished while still wearing it, or that it was simply discarded.’ Even a more humdrum discovery, such as a clothes pin, makes us think of the woman who was wearing it as she crossed the river. We picture the children who dropped their lead animals into the water. The physical proofs of past existence set our imaginations running – the quick in the pursuit of the dead, to borrow Elizabeth Hardwick’s description of biography.

In their introduction to Loving: A Photographic History of Men in Love 1850s-1950s (Five Continents, £52), Hugh Nini and Neal Treadwell note that their collection came about accidentally, when twenty years ago they found a snapshot of ‘two young men embracing and gazing at one another … bundled together with a stash of otherwise ordinary vintage photos’ in a Texas antique shop. It grew as they visited more such shops, as well as flea markets, and explored the far reaches of the internet. They explain their criteria: ‘We call it the 50/50 rule: we have to believe that it’s at least 50 per cent likely that we’re looking at two men who are romantically involved … There are few 50/50 images in our collection and none in our book … There is one sure way to determine if a photo is “loving”. We look into their eyes.’ And they tell us how these photos, almost all of which remain anonymous, have come to acquire meaning:

Until recently, a loving male couple, or individuals, had their relationships described, or reported, or narrated by leaders of religious organisations, politicians and the legal system – even though they had never met our subjects … Today, for us, it’s different. As individuals, and as a married couple, we can narrate our own lives to our families, friends, co-workers and the general public … The subjects in our photos … will narrate their own lives for the first time in history. Far from being ostracised or condemned, they will be celebrated.

Many of the photographs are indeed remarkable, and some are beautiful. They range from Victorian studio portraits – men holding hands, sitting in each other’s laps, interlocking their legs, or more subtly layering their bodies, one shoulder lapping over the other – to snapshots of men hugging or lounging on boats, on the beach, on picnics, on the bonnets of cars, or, occasionally, in bed. There are some that show men kissing, including one from 1890, which seems to have been taken at a barn dance. Women are not infrequently present. There are quite a lot of men in uniform, mainly from the Second World War. Employing Nini and Treadwell’s 50/50 rule, I find myself roughly 50/50 on the collection as presented here. Some cases seem clear-cut. A more tactile mode of male friendship does not account for some of the more formalised 19th and early 20th-century portraits (men might link arms in the street, but they did not usually sit in each other’s laps in photographers’ studios – in fact, it wasn’t common for friends to sit for studio photographs together full stop). The regular appearances of opened umbrellas, used to frame the heads of a couple, does seem to suggest a gay code. But the later snapshots, capturing more transient moments and intentions, present difficulties. Nini and Treadwell place great emphasis on the eyes, but to me a significant number of these photos – especially those involving members of armed forces – look like men goofing around, aping male-female poses not in the spirit of inversion, but as a joke. Even some of the kisses look stagey and oddly tense. Other images don’t even suggest play – just two friends slinging arms around each other’s shoulders. (The locations often support this impression – how likely is it that a couple would perform for the camera on a crowded beach, or among a large group of their fellow members of the navy? Even if it is the navy).

I’m aware of the flaws in my approach, which relies slightly on my above average knowledge of 19th-century homosexual subcultures, but more substantially and unscientifically on a kind of transhistorical gaydar. Oh, he is, I said to myself, turning the pages. He definitely is. And, like Nini and Treadwell, I looked at some of these pairs and thought: yes, you are. This is experience + imagination + projection, but when it comes to aspects of the past that, for whatever reason, have gone unrecorded, or have been recorded in fleeting, private, incurious or unobvious ways, these are usually our best tools.

Nini and Treadwell are right to see their photographs as standing for something. We don’t have to go along with the gush about these men ‘narrating’ their lives or representing the triumph of love to accept that photographs of this type, precisely because of their anonymity, their everydayness, point towards a much larger uncharted territory, which is normality. A normality perhaps compromised and limited, shadowed by guilt or suspicion or fear, but a normality nonetheless. The majority of gay men in the past lived their whole lives in contravention of the law but without being caught in its clutches. They don’t show up when we flash our torch across the legal records, or over the archives of the famous. They were sitting down to have their photograph taken, putting a hand calmly on the other’s knee. They were in bed, on the beach, picnicking, posing on car bonnets. For every Oscar Wilde, there were the 27 mostly anonymous men questioned in the early 1890s for John Addington Symonds and Havelock Ellis’s Sexual Inversion, who with delightful candour describe early experiences, favourite sexual positions and relationships past and present, the great majority of them expressing an easy acceptance of their predisposition. ‘I cannot see anything wrong in practising this habit,’ Case 21 says, ‘as long as it is with entire mutual consent … I like soldiers and policemen for the sensuality of the moment, but they have so little to talk about that it makes the performance unsatisfactory.’

The possible realities of pre-liberation gay life ripple out from these photos. There are the people behind the camera – especially interesting in the studio settings, since they must have had a reputation for doing this kind of work. There are the women, who must have been in the know, or were perhaps themselves part of the culture (in the barn dance photo from 1890, just above the kissing male couple, surrounded by other men, is a grinning woman wearing a man’s suit). There are the other men shown beside a couple, or those who can be spied in the margins as elbows or the backs of knees. And there is also the intriguing fact of these photographs’ survival, their safe passage through the decades – some of them ending up in random agglomerations at flea markets, but others clearly in the hands of gay collectors. (One thinks of the recent discovery of hundreds of erotic drawings by Duncan Grant, a collection bequeathed by gay man to gay man and apparently regularly produced for the perusal of friends after dinner.) Like the objects returned to us by the Thames, they bring with them entire worlds.

These two books are the minor products of enthusiasms, but they remind us that the exercise of the imagination is fundamental to our experience and understanding of history: we mentally extrapolate from objects or photos to the people and environments that produced them. History as an academic discipline is only a professionalised extension of this effort to produce meaning out of oddments, to fill in the gaps. Historians write ‘for the joy of creation’, A.J.P. Taylor once said. And yet the effect of history’s formalisation as a subject (which has proceeded apace since Taylor’s time) has been to draw an increasingly severe distinction between the real thing – argumentative, particularised, distrustful of narrative, set behind trenches of footnotes – and other kinds of attempt to reconstruct the past, to visualise or dramatise it, which are often seen as vulgar or childish, lower order, even irresponsible. We must remember that the past is more unknown than known, that the vast majority of lived experience is penetrable only to the guided imagination. If we pursue the dead, it is because they have left so many clues behind, and because we can’t help being curious as to what they looked like before they turned their backs.

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