April Ashley: Portrait of a Lady at The Museum of Liverpool

Portrait by Ben Youdan
Portrait by Ben Youdan

Review by Rachael Gardner

With the ten year anniversary of Homotopia, the Museum of Liverpool kick-starts the festival with this exhibition of Trans history, by displaying a private archive collection of April Ashley portraits.  Also adjoining are twenty other new oral histories from individuals: ‘across the gender spectrum to explore changing social and legal conditions for all British transsexuals’. While being a tireless campaigner for transgender equality, April Ashley has become an icon and an inspiration to many, not just by being one of the first people to ever undergo pioneering gender reassignment surgery, but through her support of gay men and women in difficulty with coming to terms with their lives in an un-accepting society.

Liverpool born and bred (1935), April Ashley was a former Vogue model and actress and now is one of the most famous transgender individuals, with an inspirational story to tell.

Before entering the exhibition, one is greeted by a large wall plated with April’s iconic image, the city of Liverpool, the basic facts of her life and one single door as if to demonstrate her mask to the world’, the hard shell she must use to protect herself.  It depicts a world that likes the black and white and almost fearful of the messy grey area of the uncertain or different. It asks the question to the viewer ‘do you dare to enter?’

The exhibition follows the flow of the transgender timeline which is set at eye level along the walls, starting from what is known of the beginning of transgender history, to the present day, ending at a twenties style jazz show room, showing interviews and video clips of April Ashley’s thoughts about her life.

The exhibition documents her distressing and troubled childhood: her miserable family life and the bewilderment around her gender, and knowing that she was in born in the wrong body. After joining the Navy at the young age of 14, she attempted suicide twice, and the story tells the terrifying tale of April being admitted to a mental institution for electric shock treatment. This is followed by her move to Jersey and Paris, her sex change and her fight to made a differences for all who just want to be happy with themself.


The art work invites the viewer out  of the humdrum life of ‘its black and white’ to witness the wonderful and the weird: to gaze upon the work of broken glass and the images of that icon woman. Glimpsing the overwhelming use of colour exploring the fact the future is bright and the future is colourful, there is an overly glamorous feel to the whole exhibition.

Encouraging’, ‘inspiration’ and ‘wonderful’ – these are just some of the many words used to describe the exhibition. Even though this isn’t the first LGBT history exhibition, this exhibition shows the growing empowerment that April has inspirited within the transsexual, lesbian and gay communities and how far things have come.

The Museum of Liverpool is the first gallery to showcase the exhibition ‘April Ashley: Portrait of a Lady’, and the show has been met with an overwhelmingly positive attitude, with support from Lord Prescott, human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, Hugh Grant, Stephen Fry and the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg MP, who all attended the private opening. Trans pioneer April Ashley also met Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg MP earlier at the Admiralty House Equal Marriage Reception in London on September 11 2013 to discuss her views.

This exhibition is just one element of an on-going project by Homotopia in which they are hoping to document the shifting social attitudes and demonstrations of gender and sexuality.

April Ashley continues at Museum of Liverpool until 21 September 2014

Find out more about Homotopia 2013 here: www.homotopia.net