[Paleopsych] NYT: A Censorship Story Goes Up in Smoke

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A Censorship Story Goes Up in Smoke
NYT January 13, 2005

LONDON, Jan. 12 - The story has been around so long that it
has acquired the patina of truth: how the prudish Victorian
critic John Ruskin was so horrified by the erotic drawings
left behind by the artist J. M. W. Turner that, like some
19th-century Savonarola, he burned them on a bonfire after
Turner's death.

But like the similarly titillating tale that attributes
Ruskin's failure to consummate his marriage to his
revulsion at the sight of his bride's pubic hair, the story
might not be true.

Ian Warrell, a Turner expert and curator at the Tate
Britain, says that a painstaking trawl through Turner's
work has led him to conclude that most, if not all, the
erotic art still remains in the collection and that the
bonfire, said to have occurred in 1858, almost certainly
never happened.

"Ruskin appears to have been tried and convicted by the
standard version of his involvement with the Turner
bequest, which characterizes him as the man who destroyed
any surviving evidence of his hero's sex life," Mr. Warrell
wrote in an essay. Although the bonfire incident "has
passed into the popular imagination as one of the defining
landmarks of Victorian censorship," Mr. Warrell wrote,
"what evidence there is to support this version of events
is surprisingly slight."

Mr. Warrell's essay first appeared in the British Art
Journal in 2003, but received scant attention beyond the
scholarly world. An article about its conclusions appeared
recently in The Guardian here.

The erotic work, part of the enormous cache of Turner
material at the Tate Britain, comprises dozens of sketches
of naked women and nudes of both sexes in erotic
entanglements, and was most likely inspired by Turner's
trips to brothels and other places of ill repute.

"They show him to be open to all visual impulses and to be
able to express even more aspects of human life," said
James Hamilton, the university curator at the University of
Birmingham and the author of "Turner" (Random House, 2003).
"And so they increase his genius, in my view, because
they're very beautiful."

But Ruskin, whose "Modern Painters" series and other works
established him as the premier cultural critic of his time,
and who had long been Turner's greatest champion, was
horrified by the sketches. He discovered them after
Turner's death, when he was cataloguing the artist's work
for the National Gallery, to which Turner had left his vast
collection. (The Tate, an offshoot of the National Gallery,
opened in 1897 and took over most of the Turner material.)

With his intimate knowledge of Turner's work, Ruskin was
singularly well suited to the job. But he was shaken and
disgusted by the erotica, which militated against
everything pure and classical that he cherished and which
he was convinced would tarnish Turner's artistic standing
if made public.

Stephen Wildman, a Ruskin scholar and curator of the Ruskin
Library at Lancaster University, said he agreed with
Ruskin's assessment of the work.

"They're little scrappy drawings of people in intimate
congress, and they're all part of an artist's observation
of nature, you could say," Mr. Wildman said. "But to
Ruskin's mind they would have been distasteful and not very

The story of the bonfire is based on several published
accounts. But significantly, the accounts all appeared
years after the fact and came from people, including
Ruskin, with self-interested reasons for spreading the

The most compelling argument for the bonfire's existence
came from Ruskin, in a letter he wrote in 1862 to Ralph
Nicholson Wornum, the keeper of the National Gallery and
his supposed collaborator in the destruction of the Turner
sketches four years earlier.

"I am satisfied that 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," Ruskin wrote. "And I am glad to be
able to bear witness to their destruction; and I hereby
declare that the parcel of them was undone by me, and all
the obscene drawings it contained burnt in my presence in
the month of December, 1858."

But Mr. Warrell argues that Ruskin's letter might have been
motivated by recent passage of the Obscene Publications
Act, which made it illegal to possess pornographic
pictures, and was an effort to protect Wornum and himself.

In addition, with the recent publication of a scandalous
Turner biography, with which Ruskin had initially
cooperated, it was perhaps to his advantage to appear as if
he had been trying to protect Turner's reputation by
eradicating the erotica.

The matter came up again in 1869, in an entry in the diary
of William Michael Rossetti describing a gathering in
Chelsea of pre-Raphaelite luminaries, including Ford Madox
Brown and William Morris. "Among the Turners left to the
National Gallery were a large number of a great degree of
indecency," the entry reads in part. "These were burned by
Wornum and Ruskin, at the time when the latter was
arranging the bequest at the National Gallery."

But, Mr. Warrell points out, the source for the story was
Charles Augustus Howell, Ruskin's indiscreet and unreliable
private secretary, who had his own motives for spreading
interesting gossip.

In any case, there is no physical evidence that any of the
pictures were destroyed, and Wornum, who kept a diary,
never mentioned meeting Ruskin, or burning any pictures, on
the relevant dates in 1858, Mr. Warrell says.

With about 30,000 works on paper by Turner in the Tate
collection and with various methods of counting individual
works used over the years, it is impossible to tell if
every drawing still exists. But Mr. Warrell says he can
account for almost every page torn out of the dozens of
notebooks that Turner left behind.

It seems that rather than destroying the works he found
distasteful, Ruskin concealed them, in some cases gathering
and tucking them away (one of the folders containing
erotica was marked "kept as evidence of a failure of mind
only") and in other cases folding pages over to cover the
racy bits.

Mr. Wildman, the Ruskin scholar, said he hoped the new
information would help put to rest the bonfire story and
educate people about the great service Ruskin did for

"Without Ruskin, we wouldn't have the Turner bequest as it
exists today," he said. "He cataloged it, he put it on its
first public exhibition and he did an enormous amount to
champion Turner."

As for Ruskin and his marital life, Mr. Wildman said that
the critic's marriage, to Effie Gray, was indeed never
consummated. Ruskin admitted it himself when his wife
sought a dissolution of the marriage in 1854 to marry the
painter John Everett Millais, whom she had met when he was
painting her husband's portrait. (Happily for her, that
marriage was consummated; the couple had eight children.)

But Mr. Wildman called the story about Ruskin's being upset
by Effie's pubic hair, supposedly because he had previously
seen only classical depictions of nudes, "another piece of

"He went to Oxford as an undergraduate, and it was almost
certain that he would have been exposed to the things
students normally get up to," Mr. Wildman said. "There
would have been no difficulty in either seeing the real
thing, or the equivalent of modern pornography."

Mr. Hamilton, the Turner scholar, said that Mr. Warrell's
research had helped correct Ruskin's reputation as a
hysterical scold.

"The man has been maligned as a sort of Victorian prude
with personal problems," Mr. Hamilton said. "Whatever the
case, this is not borne out by the way he actually cared
for the future of Turner's bequest. Whatever his personal
views, and in spite of the Obscene Publications Act, he
worked very hard to protect them. So he's a hero, really."


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