A Picture on a Wall

For LGBTQ+ History Month, Professor Ronald Hutton reflects on the life and legacy of Dr John Leslie (1947-1994), a former colleague and historian at the University of Bristol. 

Against one of the walls of my university office sits an oil painting. It is in the German Expressionist style and shows a man in his early thirties, with short, light brown hair and clean-cut features, conventionally dressed in a brown tweed jacket, matching tie and white collared shirt. This is Dr John Leslie, who was a member of the History Department when I arrived in it at the opening of the 1980s. He was an expert on the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and taught the history of modern central and eastern Europe. He was also one of the members of the department at that time – amounting to four out of fourteen – who were gay. All were men in their thirties and forties, with bachelor lifestyles, who contributed much to the convivial atmosphere of the department at the time, marked by constant reciprocal wining and dining. None of them ever referred to their sexual orientation and nobody in the department ever mentioned it or asked them about it. It was instead inferred from acquaintance with them and/or confirmed by less discreet members of Bristol’s gay community. There seemed to be an unspoken agreement in the department that silence on the matter made life easy for everybody: that it was something that could be completely accepted as long as there was no evidence that there was anything to accept. It was rumoured that at one point somebody had been injudicious enough to ask our head of department, an old dear who had fought in Burma in World War Two, what he thought of having so many reputed homosexuals in his department. He was said to have replied that once a person has served east of Suez, these things lose their capacity to shock, and that this was all he would say on the matter. I had a feeling that things had been this way in the university for decades, and perhaps in polite and professional British society for much longer.

John however had an additional reason for keeping his closet door firmly closed against the world. His parents and wider family were devout evangelical Christians, and he retained a vague, residual and guilty attachment to that faith: his friends teased him with having been a church mouse. That family, to which he remained affectionately attached, would have been horrified to learn of his sexual alignment, and this need for secrecy kept him aloof from even the local gay community. Instead he enjoyed holiday adventures abroad: another wholly traditional British way of dealing with the issue. In the mid-1980s he was diagnosed as HIV positive. In this predicament, he could confide in nobody around him, and plunged into a prolonged depression. His baffled friends rallied round: I took him to films and on picnics in an effort to bolster him. After a time he did stablise,and appeared to return to his usual bouncy self. Perhaps he had realised that he still felt fit, and had a small chance of survival, and probably some years still ahead of him. He remained more withdrawn than before, but then the close and familial social life of the department had in any case dissolved in the harsher instititional environment of the 1980s. I myself married, and submerged in the pleasures, and then problems, of domesticity and parenthood. By imperceptible stages, John and I grew amicably apart.

In the early 1990s he suddenly developed AIDS. He resigned precipitately from the university, claiming that he could not bear the changes in British higher education: even now he would not admit the truth. He completely disappeared from our view, having retired into a Bristol hospice, alone and unvisited, where he died a short time later. He spent much of his declining time there listening to classical music, which he loved, on headphones. It was at his funeral, in a local church, that his real story came out, mostly through the hospice chaplain who had tended him during his final weeks. His family wanted nothing to do with his personal possessions, and the university cleared his office. It offered his portrait, painted in Vienna and of which he had once been so proud, to anybody who would take it. John had abandoned it with the other trappings of the office, perhaps because it reminded him of a different time, when long life and academic success still seemed to beckon. Nobody else was interested, and so I volunteered to take it, in memory of my lost friend. I have kept it in my own office ever since, which has been more than thirty years. When people who notice it ask after the identity of the person in it, I tell them John’s story, so that he can be remembered and honoured; and I tell it now, because Richard Stone walked into my office, asked the question, and on hearing the answer persuaded me to mark LGBTQ+ history month by sharing it more widely in the department. Perhaps in the process it is also possible to reflect on the mercifully changing nature of British society and culture, and be grateful for the passing of a traditional world that we may have lost forever.

If you would like to see the painting of John, Professor Hutton invites you to visit his office, 1.44, 13 Woodland Road. 

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