While most auction houses feature erotic art within broader sales of books or paintings, our sale is dedicated to erotica in all its forms, including prints, paintings, fashion, silver and photographica.
Our sale will also feature erotic art from both the ‘western’ and ‘eastern’ cultural tradition. From at least the 16th century onwards, western culture features a long history of official attempts to suppress erotica, whereas eastern societies – India, China, Japan and the Islamic world – draw from a completely different tradition, often rooted in religious beliefs. Interestingly, these approaches have gradually swapped: very broadly speaking, western society has become more tolerant, and eastern society visibly less permissive. While this story will explore some of the key aspects of western erotic art, we will look in more detail at the eastern tradition in a later blog.
One of the biggest turning points in the west came in a single event – the discovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum in 1748. A huge array of erotic artefacts have since been revealed, many as everyday household items. The phallus was a very common image, depicted in stone, bronze, paintings, as wind chimes or as animals. Often it was not overtly sexual, but used as a fertility symbol or to ward off evil spirits. There is less doubt about the purpose of the erotic scenes painted on the walls of the many brothels that were discovered, as well as notices advertising the services available and associated pricing.
The discovery caused an immediate dilemma among the cultured classes. On the one hand, education was largely founded on the Greek and Roman classical texts, and Renaissance painters had drawn inspiration from Roman frescos. On the other hand…
The solution was to lock the artworks away in what became the Secret Museum, or Secret Cabinet of Naples, accessible only to “people of mature age and respected morals” which at that time meant only men on the payment of a fee. According to Edward Lucie-Smith, the modern notion of pornography has its roots in these discoveries, “specifically in the search for a way to deal with and neutralise them without wholly denying their existence”. The museum only became fully open for viewing in 2000.
The access to erotic art that only upper-class men enjoyed started to be challenged after the invention of the printing press. The beginnings of mass circulation of erotica can be traced to this point. Classical subjects, such as Leda and the Swan, gave a certain license to develop more erotic material. Erotic literature began to circulate in the 17th century, such as the book ‘L’Ecole des Filles’, which Samuel Pepys records as having burned after reading, lest the book be discovered by his wife. It was also during this century and the next that erotic literature and images began to be used as a way of being critical of society and the church, a medium of satire and of challenging attitudes of sexual repression. The works of the Marquis de Sade in France, and of Rowlandson in Britain, can be seen within this context.
The invention of photography also afforded erotic art a bigger market. Paris became the centre of the production of nude portraits, often sold near train stations and exported to the UK and US, where they were known as ‘French postcards’. In many countries, including Britain, the sale of such postcards was banned and many had to be sold illicitly by tobacco shops and other vendors. As photography developed further in the 20th century, it became a major medium for both male and female images and led directly to the rise of pornography in both its printed and moving form.
The changing attitudes towards erotic art is a fascinating study – between different periods of history, between different countries, and between different cultural traditions. In the UK, laws to restrict the viewing of sexually explicit material were laid down in Victorian times, although certain sexual acts were regulated or prohibited by earlier laws. This ensures that the study of erotica is also a study in human inventiveness, and the creative ways that people find to circumvent what they regard as official limitations on freedoms. This innocent-looking pin cushion, for example, made around 1880, contained a surprise within…
Our Erotica sale is open for consignments. If you have any pieces you would like to have valued, complete our Online Valuation Form and help us celebrate this fascinating genre in all its myriad of forms.