A collection of paintings by D H Lawrence have gone on display, 70 years after being banned. At one point, they were inherited by a Greek hotelier in Mexico, who offered to sell them back to Britain in return for the Parthenon Marbles.
Lawrence ‘obscenities’ finally get a showing
Maev Kennedy, arts and heritage correspondent
Saturday November 22, 2003
A collection of paintings went on display yesterday – more than 70 years after the images were banned – but there is no sell-by date on obscenity.
In June 1929 a squad of embarrassed policemen raided the Warren gallery in London, and seized 13 paintings by DH Lawrence. They were spared from being burned on condition that they were never exhibited in Britain again.
The paintings were exported – “to corrupt some other poor buggers” as Lawrence remarked – but a set of replicas was on view yesterday at the Pan bookshop in London.
Neither the owner of the replicas, nor the author and publisher of a new book which reproduces dozens of the images seen as even more shocking than Lady Chatterley’s Lover, is quite sure what their legal status is.
Two other bookshops turned down the invitation to display the paintings – on space grounds, both insisted. The publishers are hoping to find a space for a longer exhibition.
“I did wonder if the police were going to rush in and seize me, or the pictures,” said Christopher Miles, who commissioned the replicas for Priest of Love, the 1982 film which he directed and which starred Ian McKellen as Lawrence. “But I gather there’s been somebody big in town, and there isn’t a policeman to spare.”
The originals were inherited by Lawrence’s widow, Frieda, then by her third husband, and most were then sold for a pittance to a Greek hotelier in New Mexico called Saki Karavas, who once offered to return them to Britain in exchange for the Elgin Marbles going back to Athens.
For the last half-century visitors to the La Fonda bar in Taos have paid a dollar to be shocked. It cost Prof Miles £100 to send in a photographer, and a scene painter in Britain then copied them on to canvas. Since the making of the film – which is about to be re-released on DVD – the replicas have been in a scenery store.
Keith Sagar, author of DH Lawrence’s Paintings (Chaucer Press), owns an original painting called Dandelions, and has first-hand experience of its continuing power to shock.
He discovered Dandelions, which he believes is the last surviving major Lawrence painting in Britain, by chance while researching an exhibition on his other passion, Ted Hughes. He was on his way to an international conference on Lawrence in Texas, and offered to try to sell the picture for the owner.
“I had Texas millionaires clustered about me, waving their chequebooks,” Mr Sagar said. “Then I took the photograph out of my pocket, and they fell back in horror. Sex they could have coped with, but urination was quite beyond the pale.”
There are dandelions, but most of the canvas is filled by a suntanned, muscly, naked young man, peeing on them.
Eventually it dawned on him that he could afford to buy the painting himself. His wife was in hospital giving birth to their first daughter, Ursula – after the heroine of Women in Love – and by the time she came home it was on the dining room wall as a surprise gift. It hung there until his children said they would never bring another friend home from school unless it was moved.
What is most shocking to some viewers of the exhibition is not the plentiful buttocks, penises and breasts, but Lawrence’s shaky grasp of anatomy. There are thigh bones which ain’t connected to the hip bones, and arms skinny as hazel twigs and bending like liquorice whips.
“He really wasn’t very good but he had a go,” Prof Miles said fondly.
Sagar will have none of this. “These are great, great paintings. You get no impression of how good they are from the reproductions. Lawrence was aware of his anatomical ignorance, but what he valued was not technique but life, and these pictures throb with life.”
Daily Telegraph 
Barely had Lady Chatterley’s Lover been banned than DH Lawrence prompted another scandal with his ‘obscene’ paintings. Andrew Graham-Dixon re-examines the pictures, now brought together in a new book
On 15 June 1929 about 20 oils and watercolours by a previously unexhibited painter were placed on display at the Warren Gallery in London. It caused a stir among the London art critics, who turned up to this debut one-man exhibition in unusually large numbers. They did so, presumably, because the painter was the well-known émigré and author of notoriously erotic novels, DH Lawrence.
Most of the paintings showed nude men and women embracing or otherwise communing with themselves and one another in Arcadian landscapes of an abstract character. Some were inspired by the Bible, or by ancient mythology. Others were drawn from modern life. Some were comical and burlesque in mood, others melancholic, others ecstatic. The style was energetic, if not terribly assured.
Taken together, the assembled works amounted to a dream of exuberant but also quaintly innocent carnality, set in a naturist idyll where men and women are free to wander naked in groves of shameless bliss. Lawrence had been writing Lady Chatterley’s Lover, his last novel, at the same time that he painted many of these vigorously naive paintings, and the paradise which many of them body forth strongly recalls the sexual Eden into which the heroine of that novel yearns – futilely, as it turns out – to escape.
What happened next was a reprise of the fate that had befallen Lady Chatterley’s Lover, banned for obscenity in 1928. The art critics were almost unanimous in their detestation of the pictures on the walls of the Warren Gallery. Paul Konody, writing in the Observer the day after the exhibition opened, condemned it as ‘an outrage upon decency’ and ‘frankly disgusting in paint’. 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’.
After a complaint had been lodged by an unnamed member of the public, the police arrived at the gallery on 5 July to close the exhibition down, although not before it had been seen by 12,000 curious visitors. Thirteen of Lawrence’s pictures were seized and the Warren Gallery forcibly closed.
Although Dorothy Warren and Philip Trotter obtained declarations of support from virtually the entire Bloomsbury group – including Lytton Strachey, Roger Fry, Leonard and Virginia Woolf and Clive and Vanessa Bell – the judge who heard their appeal against the ban, Mr Justice Mead, refused to admit evidence from any expert witnesses on the grounds that ‘the most splendidly painted picture in the universe might be obscene’.
He upheld the case of the prosecution, which was that ‘these paintings are gross, coarse, hideous, and unlovely from any aesthetic or artistic point of view, and are in their nature obscene’. Lawrence had been unable to travel to England from Italy for the exhibition because of the tuberculosis that was to kill him, just a few months later, in March 1930. On his instructions, defence counsel came to a compromise whereby the paintings were returned on the condition that they would never be exhibited in England again.
They never were. Many were lost after Lawrence’s death; a couple found their way to the University of Texas at Austin; while most of those that remained passed, via the third husband of Lawrence’s widow, to an eccentric expatriate Greek hotelier, Saki Karavas, who made periodic approaches to the British government offering to trade the pictures in exchange for the return of the Elgin marbles to Greece but ultimately contented himself with displaying them in the office of his hotel in New Mexico where they could be seen for the price of one dollar. After his death, those pictures were dispersed.
Now a new book, DH Lawrence’s Paintings, brings together all of Lawrence’s own meditations on painters and painting, including a remarkable apologia for his pictures which remains the writer’s most sustained analysis of civilisation and its discontents. Although it doesn’t establish his genius with the brush, it does show the strength of his ties with painting – his visual art was by no means as peripheral to the aims and achievements of his mature fiction as its obscurity might suggest.
By his own account Lawrence began painting seriously only when he was living (and dying) in Italy. In the spring of 1926 he and his wife Frieda had rented the upper floor of Villa Mirenda in the hills above Florence. Their new friends Aldous and Maria Huxley were living nearby, in the city itself.
One day, after a bout of spring cleaning, Maria dumped four large canvases on the Lawrences. If she had not done so, Lawrence recalled, ‘I might never have started in on a real picture in my life. But those nice stretched canvases were too tempting. We had been painting doors and window-frames in the house so there was a little stock of oil, turps and colour in powder, such as one buys from an Italian drogheria. There were several brushes for house-painting.’ So ‘for the sheer fun of covering a surface’, he painted.
‘I disappeared into that canvas. It is for me the most exciting moment – when you have the blank canvas and a big brush full of wet colour, and you plunge. It is just like diving in a pond – there you start frantically to swim. So far as I am concerned, it is like swimming in a baffling current and being rather frightened and very thrilled, gasping and striking out for all you’re worth. The knowing eye watches sharp as a needle; but the picture comes clean out of instinct, intuition and sheer physical action. Once the instinct and the intuition gets into the brush-tip, the picture happens.’
The picture that ‘happened’, on that occasion, was a painting Lawrence later titled A Holy Family. Reminiscent of the cruder forms of popular religious art that he had come across on his travels to New Mexico, it shows a moustachioed man in a bright blue shirt who resembles Lawrence himself, embracing his blonde, bare-breasted consort. A cartoon-like child grins behind them. Man and wife are haloed, presumably to signify the sacredness of the sexual act.
The picture vigorously expresses a conviction that runs like a leitmotif through all of the novels, essays and letters of the writer’s later years. ‘My great religion is a belief in the blood, the flesh, as being wiser than the intellect.’
To some extent Lawrence’s involvement with painting reflected his growing disenchantment with words – his suspicion that language was too civilised and acculturated a vehicle for the transports of the blood of which he dreamt and in which he hoped to find a kind of salvation. At the end of Lady Chatterley’s Lover the disconsolate Mellors suggests that words are empty vessels compared to the flesh-and-blood experiences for which they substitute: ‘Well, so many words, because I can’t touch you. If I could sleep with my arms round you, the ink could stay in the bottle.’
This was a sentiment shared on occasion by Lawrence himself. The ungainly, lumpish bodies that cavort through his picture-world are touchingly awkward emblems of Lawrence’s desire to recover what he called man’s ‘instinctive-intuitive consciousness, which is so radical, so physical, so sexual’. So are the prominent, albeit limp, penises that appear in so many of his pictures (suggesting an actual coyness about sex that is reflected in some of the euphemistic language in Lady Chatterley’s Lover).
There also lies in his work a virtually programmatic intent to épater la bourgeoisie. As he wrote to one friend: ‘I put a phallus in each one of my pictures somewhere. And I paint no picture that won’t shock people’s castrated social spirituality. I do this out of positive belief, that the phallus is a great sacred image: it represents a deep, deep life which has been denied in us, and is still denied’. And to another: ‘One’s got to get back to the live, really lovely phallic self, and phallic consciousness. I think I get a certain phallic beauty in my pictures… I know they’re rolling with faults, Sladeily considered [an allusion to the Slade School of Art and its cult of ‘correct’ drawing]. But there’s something there.’
Many culprits were responsible for the death of ‘phallic consciousness’, in Lawrence’s view, and he listed the prime suspects in the extraordinary essay that he wrote to introduce the Mandrake Press edition of his paintings. ‘The history of our era is the nauseating and repulsive history of the crucifixion of the procreative body for the glorification of the spirit.’
He blamed Plato, for elevating ‘mere ideas’ above the truths of felt experience. He blamed organised religion for fomenting sexual guilt. He blamed the syphilis epidemic in Europe during the Renaissance, which, he thought, had infected not just the blood of Western European man but also his imagination, crippling him with a terror of his own ‘procreative being’. He blamed English portrait painters for hiding the body away beneath fine clothes and blamed the Romantic landscape painters and the Impressionists alike for leaving it out of the picture altogether to concentrate on empty harmonies of light and shade.
Against this drama of decline and self-avoidance, Lawrence set his own works. Part of the poignancy of his art lies in the disparity between his ambitions and the pictures’ relative slightness. But he seems to have been aware of that. When his pictures were censored he responded not with anguish (as when Lady Chatterley’s Lover was proscribed) but with a light satire of ‘Innocent England’:
‘Oh what a pity, Oh! Don’t you agree
that figs aren’t found in the land of the free!
Fig trees don’t grow in my native land;
There’s never a fig-leaf near at hand
When you want one; so I did without;
And that is what the row’s about’
Now there is no need for fig-leaves and, three-quarters of a century after they were first seen in England, Lawrence’s paintings can be seen (in reproduction at least) once again. They may not be masterpieces, but as Lawrence self-deprecatingly said, there is certainly ‘something there’.
‘DH Lawrence’s Paintings’ (Chaucer Press, £25) by Keith Sagar, published on 15 November, is available from Telegraph Books Direct (0870 155 7222) at £23 plus £2.25 p