A Happy Finish: James Gillray and the Victorian Obscenity Laws

If you wanted to get your hands on the really dirty stuff in the 19th century, you had to get it under the counter. But, you could usually get it from the same people you got your finer works from: private publishers and printers.

19th century society, and the laws in force, meant that printers had to leave out many of the saucier images from collections that had been published in their entirety in a previous era. And so it is believed to be with a collection of plates by James Gillray recently unearthed in the vaults of the Ministry of Justice:

‘The folio was carefully wrapped up alongside a collection of seized material that had been handed to the old obscene publications unit over the years. That material is fairly tame by today’s standards, but when I uncovered the folio it was clear that it was something a little out of the ordinary. Even so, after some research, I was amazed to discover it had such historic value and am pleased to now see the prints kept safe in a suitable home.’

Gillray’s drawings – including his more famous caricatures of the political figures of the time – were republished in the 1840s, but like his contemporary Thomas Rowlandson – of whom we have written before – Gillray also produced a body of work of an even more controversial nature.

It’s believed that this slim volume of ‘Curiosa’ would have reproduced those engravings excised from the main 1840 editions of Gillray’s work, and privately sold to the more curious collector. Some way along the line, it fell into the hands of the Victorian Vice Squad, but it has now, to much rejoicing, been presented to the nation, and appropriately to the Victoria and Albert museum, where it is viewable in the museum’s prints room.

We’re very grateful to the V&A for supplying Bookkake with a few images from the collection – tame by today’s standards, yes, but not without charm. And we’d love to know what else a clear-out of the old obscene publications store might reveal… (Click for much larger versions).

Fashionable Contrasts; or the Duchess’s little shoe yielding to the magnitude of the Duke’s Foot, 1792

Ladies Dress, as it soon will be, 1796

ci-Devant Occupations; or Madame Talian and the Empress Josephine Dancing Naked before Barras in the Winter of 1797, 1805

All images by James Gillray, © V&A Images, reproduced with permission.

Posted January 6, 2010 | Comments Off on A Happy Finish: James Gillray and the Victorian Obscenity Laws.

Quantum Obscenity, and the networking of desire

A good, if a little vague, article by Maureen Freely in Saturday’s Guardian brings together two recent news stories in an examination of our changing attitudes to children, art and sexual offences: the arrest of Roman Polanski for a 1977 assault on a minor (on which Steve Lopez writes convincingly, and approvingly, in the LA Times) and the removal of an artwork by Richard Prince from the Tate’s new Pop Life exhibition.

The artwork in question is a reproduction of a 1975 fashion photo of a nude, oiled and heavily made-up 10-year-old Brooke Shields – the same child who appeared naked on celluloid at 12 in Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby (available on Amazon), and at 15 in a TV jeans ad with the strapline: “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” (Christopher Turner has a good history of the piece in the same newspaper.)

There’s no question as to the artistic merit of the piece: Prince’s appropriation is a direct questioning of sensuality versus sexuality, of the morality of art and the placing of responsibility for interpretation (Its title, “Spiritual America”, refers to an Alfred Stieglitz photograph of a gelded horse, referencing the breakdown of discussion of sexuality in society). Does the offence, the implicit lust, reside with the artwork, or the viewer? The Metropolitan Police are clear on the issue, or at least, on their opinion of the issue.

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Posted October 5, 2009 | Comments Off on Quantum Obscenity, and the networking of desire.

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