From JMW Turner to Duncan Grant: the secret networks that hid  'obscene' work from censors

Many of our most famous artists and writers produced erotic material that was kept hidden for decades

Secret works: this untitled drawing by Duncan Grant is among a collection of homoerotic artwork given to the Charleston Trust
Secret works: this untitled drawing by Duncan Grant is among a collection of homoerotic artwork given to the Charleston Trust

I often wonder how many important erotic artworks and texts have been lost to the purges of history. Sometimes the lost artefact becomes legendary, like I Modi (The Ways, also known as The Sixteen Pleasures), a Renaissance text depicting 16 sex positions, with explicit engravings by Marcantonio Raimondi based on privately-commissioned paintings by Giulio Romano.

You won’t be surprised to learn the censor in this instance was the Catholic Church. Pope Clement VII had Raimondi imprisoned and all the original copies destroyed.

The poet Pietro Aretino, who had seen and been mesmerised by Romano’s paintings, composed 16 sonnets for a second edition once Raimondi was sprung from jail – known in England as Aretino’s Postures. This version would also end up impounded and destroyed; just a few tantalising fragments survive in the British Museum’s collection.

So it was cheering to learn last week that, for once, some artworks which leave nothing to the imagination have surfaced intact. A “lost” portfolio of 400 homoerotic drawings by the artist Duncan Grant have been given to the Charleston Trust, so they can return to the Sussex farmhouse where Grant once lived and pursued love with fellow-Bloomsbury set members Vanessa Bell and David “Bunny” Garnett (Grant also had affairs with John Maynard Keynes and Lytton Strachey).

What’s fascinating, aside from the inventive, full-on nature of some of the coupling, is how the cache of sketches was handed from one man to another for safekeeping. When 74-year-old Grant handed over the collection to his friend Edward le Bas in May 1959, with a note stating “these drawings are very private”, homosexual sex was still a criminal offence. This wouldn’t change until the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 and the images would have been viewed as indisputably obscene for decades after that.

© The Estate of Duncan Grant, licensed by DACS 2020

It’s no wonder the custodianship was such a closely guarded secret and most believed the works had been destroyed by Le Bas’s sister.

As of last week, we know le Bas handed the folder on to gallery owner Eardley Knollys (once the lover of John Cocteau), who left his art collection to good friend Mattei Radev (a Bulgarian émigré and former lover of EM Forster), who died in 2009. The final custodian was Radev’s partner, retired theatre designer Norman Coates, who in time-honoured fashion kept the stash of erotica under his bed – bringing the drawings out occasionally at the end of dinner parties, where Coates said guests would debate whether some of the positions were anatomically possible.

It’s he who’s decided the moral climate is worldly enough for the works to go home. In many ways this convoluted tale is the story of erotic art and writing throughout history. It only survived if patrons and their intimates and heirs contrived to hide and preserve it. Creative souls who revel in sexual passion were – and are – bound to want to express desire in their work, but shame and censure meant much was destroyed.

Duncan Grant in 1933

Often, of course, artists smuggled sensuality into paintings and sculptures purporting to celebrate religious rapture, or mythological allegories. To return to Duncan Grant, one of Britain’s most famous mid-20th century painters, just look at his murals for a side room in Lincoln Cathedral. They supposedly celebrate St Blaise and the local wool trade, but only the most innocent soul could miss the provocative jut of sailors’ rounded buttocks as they load wool bundles onto a ship – or the fact one sailor’s eyes are locked on the bulging groin of a workmate lightly clad in Renaissance-style underpants.

The murals proved so embarrassing to the church they weren’t put on public display when Grant finished. One writer who visited the Cathedral two years ago said they still weren’t listed on the map you’re handed as you enter.

This dance of provocation and outrage has tangoed back and forth throughout history. At the Royal Academy’s Renaissance Nude exhibition last year there was one particularly arresting canvas. Ostensibly it was an unremarkable late 15th century portrait of a Renaissance burgher, attributed to Jacometto Veneziano. But it was displayed so you could walk round the back and view its reverse.

There, concealed from the public eye, was a shockingly intimate scene for its era. A naked couple stand in a grand chamber close to a window; the woman gazes into a small hand mirror, while the man embraces her from behind and cups her left breast. It feels like a pre-coital portrait of real lovers and its preservation can only be due to a long chain of colluding guardians.

Edith Wharton as a debutante, c.1862

Human sex drive is the propelling force of life itself, so it’s no wonder it breaks through where you least expect it. Like many people, I wasn’t aware until 2004 that Britain’s leading master of sky and seascapes, JMW Turner, had also turned his hand to nudes and scenes of energetic copulation. Nor was his devoted admirer and executor, John Ruskin, until he went through Turner’s collection of work and sketch books, which the painter bequeathed to the National Gallery following his death in 1851. Ruskin was so aghast at his discovery that he wrote to the Keeper of the National Gallery, Ralph Wornum, declaring: “I am satisfied you had no other course than to burn them, both for the sake of Turner’s reputation (they having been assuredly drawn under a certain condition of insanity) and for your own peace.”

Except, according to Turner expert and Tate curator Ian Warrell – who cross-referenced existing erotic sketches with Victorian inventories – the bonfire of obscenities never took place. There’s speculation the charade of incineration was a response to the 1857 Obscene Publications Act, which could see keepers of erotica prosecuted. Either way, Warrell’s detective work revealed that almost all the allegedly destroyed drawings were in the Tate collection and they were duly flagged up to a riveted world – quite a few of whom noted Turner’s genius resides in light and waves, not people. (Don’t even start me on his broccoli-alike trees.)

It’s not just artists who’ve had to hide their most explicit work. Fans of Gilded Age author Edith Wharton were rapt when they found out a very explicit extract of an unfinished novel had been found amongst her papers, which was rendered more salacious by the suggestion it might describe an incestuous father-daughter relationship. Suffice to say, Wharton’s The House of Mirth doesn’t have lines like, “she flung herself upon the swelling member” within its pages.

From Swiss Figures Sketchbook [Finberg LXXVIII], Nude Swiss Girl and a Companion on a Bed ,1802, by JMW Turner Credit: © Tate / Tate Images

The racy tone makes more sense when you learn Wharton wrote the work in 1919, when her marriage ended and she embarked on a passionate affair with journalist Morton Fullerton. Equally eye-opening are EM Forster’s erotic short stories collected in The Life to Come, which were only published in 1972, two years after his death. The exhortations to be true to the authentic self, which are such a theme of his more orthodox fiction – as when Lucy Honeychurch in A Room With a View comprehends “the holiness of direct desire” – take man-on-man flesh in these tales.

These hidden works make you wonder what lost erotica will be found under the bedstead next: perhaps pornographic cartoons by Gainsborough, or a thoroughly lewd poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Although, no, I don’t expect a lost erotic story by Jane Austen; to the best of our knowledge, she never had personal experience of sex and Austen did love to write about what she knew.

One thing is certain: it’s always a triumph for human sexuality when explicit artworks resurface. They’re a salutary reminder that while we fondly think we live in a bold age of sexual exploration there’s nothing new under the sun. But we are certainly privileged to live in a time and place where consenting adults won’t be punished for expressing their direct desires – and where we find artists all the more intriguing for having had interesting sex lives.