Portrait of the artist

On 14 June 1929, some paintings by an unknown artist were exhibited at the Warren Gallery in Maddox Street, in London’s Mayfair. Three weeks later, on 5 July, the exhibition was raided by the police, who removed thirteen of the pictures, and all the books that accompanied them, on the grounds of obscenity. A summons against the gallery was issued under the Obscene Publications Act. The case was heard at Marlborough Street magistrates’ court on 8 August.  

The magistrate was a Mr Mead. When the promoters of the exhibition offered to withdraw the images from public display, he said that ‘if the pictures were obscene it did not matter whether they were to be exhibited privately or publicly.’ To which defence counsel remarked drily that he ‘did not know that the censorship had extended to private collections.’

The upshot of the case was that the magistrate ordered the books that reproduced the paintings to be destroyed. With some reluctance, he agreed that the paintings themselves need not be destroyed, as long as they were shipped forthwith to the artist, then living in Italy, and never set foot or canvas in England again. The following year, the artist died.

Eighty years later, in October 2010, my wife and I were visiting New Mexico, staying in Santa Fé. One day, we went north to Taos and, at the Visitor Centre, tried to find out whether the ranch house where D H Lawrence lived with Frieda was still standing and could be visited. (Yes it is, and no it can’t, were the answers we got in 2010.) The visitor consultant didn’t know who Lawrence was, but told us we could see some of his paintings at a hotel in town.

I’m not sure that we believed her, but we were planning to go to Taos town centre anyway, so we called in at the Hotel La Fonda and asked. Oh yes, we were told. The hotel indeed had nine paintings by D H Lawrence. Its former owner, Saki Karavas, had known some of the women in Lawrence’s life in New Mexico and owned several first editions of his literary works. He bought the paintings from Frieda’s widower in the 1950s. Could we see them? The middle-aged woman at reception eyed us doubtfully. Possibly. We would have to make an appointment. She could fit us in at 2:30.

So we had lunch, and wandered round the town square, which was no hardship, and then went back to the hotel. We were issued with two tickets from a long roll. There were no other visitors. Our warder led us down long, dark corridors before unlocking the door of a room and leading us in. The room was largely empty. There were no paintings on the wall. Instead, there were heavy velours drapes.

We stood in front of a draped wall. A spotlight was turned on. The drapes were pulled back to reveal a few unremarkable paintings. We were allowed to be corrupted by these images for no more than two or three minutes, before the drapes were closed and we were ushered to the next wall, and then to the third and fourth. The whole viewing lasted fifteen minutes max, and not a word was spoken.

We had no idea what was going through the mind of our guide. Was she simply bored with repeating this routine for the umpteenth time? Did she fail to see why the hotel should keep these paintings, or visitors want to look at them? Had she ever heard of D H Lawrence? Or did she agree with the magistrate that the paintings were obscene, that all decent people would be repelled by them, and that our souls would need praying for on Sunday. Search me.

In as far as I am qualified to judge, the paintings were poor and lacking in skill. If they hadn’t been painted by Lawrence, they probably wouldn’t have been exhibited at the Warren Gallery, wouldn’t have been prosecuted and wouldn’t now be on (reluctant) show at a hotel in Taos. Several of them portrayed well-worn classical themes – the rape of the Sabine women and Leda and the swan, for example. There was plenty of nudity and debauchery, but no more than in much classical art. These paintings could have hung in any one of thousands of art galleries (and churches) around the world, with no suggestion of obscenity.

Presumably this would also have been the case in 1929, but it didn’t stop the exhibition being shafted by the critics. According to Andrew Graham-Dixon: “Paul Konody, writing in the Observer, condemned it as ‘an outrage upon decency’. The critic for the Daily Express declared that ‘the ugly composition, colouring and drawing of these works makes them repellent enough, but the subjects of some of them will compel most spectators to recoil with horror.’ According to the Daily Telegraph, ‘paintings of so gross and obscene a character’ had ‘never been seen in London before’.” Perhaps these critics never went to art galleries.

There has to be a doubt whether the objection to Lawrence’s paintings was that they were obscene, or that they were not very good. No one would dream, said the defence counsel, of bringing Michelangelo’s ‘Leda and the Swan’ from the National Gallery and asking the magistrate to say that it was obscene. T W Earp, writing in the New Statesman shortly after the hearing, declared that ‘the offensiveness lay in the bad painting.’

I find this a most illiberal sentiment. It contends that creative merit renders something not obscene that would otherwise, with less talent, be obscene. But who is to define creative merit? And what works would have been burnt in one generation that might have been cherished in another?

I can’t agree with the magistrate’s judgment either, but I do agree with his starting point: ‘The most beautiful picture in the universe might be obscene.’ Quite so: quality is not the issue.