My Secret's Mine - by Francesca Churchill
I slipped the chocolate bar into her hand, she thought that I was being kind. I was, but I wanted more. She had promised to give me some papers on the subject, 'Erotic Art - The English Tradition', but had forgotten. The chocolate was meant as a token, proof of her pledge, a gift and one that also promised to provide pleasurable times. She tucked it into her bag and placed her hand on my forearm saying, "Some of the blame for a weak English tradition of erotic art can be laid at the door of Henry VIII: thanks to him most artists working in Britain until the middle of the 18th century were imported".
Satirical and moral paintings and prints of the first 'proper' English painter, William Hogarth (1697-1764), were often full of sensual detail and, on occasion, expressly erotic, as in the Fitzwilliam's 'Before and After'. But place this work beside the more risque French Rococo art of the time and there is suddenly a strong sense of deja vu.
My thoughts turned to the chocolate bar. Its very essence when melted would make a magnificent covering for her breasts, to be licked slowly away. I imagined she'd got pert and well formed tits and I lingered on the image of my tongue slowly eroding the layer to expose smooth sensual skin. I would restrain from touching her nipples, to deliberately cause yearning and jouissance. What heaven it would be to cosset and suck her bonbons, to draw in her scent and tease her erect nipples; I could almost imagine her warmth, her gasps, her delight.
Her voice broke my dream and she was saying, "The same could be said of Hogarth's contemporary John Cleland's (1709-1789) 'Fanny Hill' and the earlier salacious novels of the French Enlightenment. Not so with Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) who towards the end of his career and the beginning of the 19th century produced a portfolio of ribald erotic art that is intrinsically British".
The mistrust of foreign influence, especially the French, was understandable, due to the Napoleonic Wars, but this lead to a sense of national self-assurance and, at worse, an insularity and cultural isolation that was to have its lasting effect. James Gillray (1756-1815), was less inclined towards the erotic but in some of his most brilliant pieces there is a tendency towards the salacious, though largely at the expense of his victims.
When he settled in London in 1764, eventually becoming Professor of Painting at the Royal Academy, Swiss artist Henry Fuseli's (1741-1825) oeuvre, Romantic style was the opposite of Rowlandson's robust and bawdy Regency approach. Fuseli's erotic world was fetishistic and introspective, peopled by dominant, fantastically coiffed women: the literary sophistication and strangeness of his work is not really indigenous to these islands.
"You're so right, she said. "Those 19th century British artists who produced sexually explicit art in their lifetimes either had their work destroyed by widows determined to preserve their reputation or indulged in self-censorship when they felt the first intimations of morality". She looked over at me and smiled. She went on. "So it's that the Victorian Age hands us down little or nothing in the way of erotic art until its last decade produced the illustrator Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898), whose whiplash pen and ink drawings created a world of hothouse exoticism so characteristic of the 'decadent' nineties and that both enthralled and appalled the society of the time".
I didn't agree and said so. You've neglected photography, I said. She tried to intervene but stopped as I went on. The photographer's skill had soon reached new heights as many turned to producing erotic art. Indeed I urged, Clementina, Viscountess Hawarden (1822-1865) was a pioneering woman of British photography producing over 800 sensual photographs during her all-too-brief life. Most of these were portraits of her adolescent daughters. With drama, wit and verve, Lady Hawarden's girls becoming women, entwining each other, their mirrored reflections and select feminine objects as homoerotic partners. The resulting mise-en-scene is secretive, private, delicious, and arguably sexual - a girltopia ripe with maternality and adolescent flirtation, as touching as it is erotic.
She looked stunned. Then said, "I do believe you're right". Reaching into her bag she withdrew the chocolate bar, unwrapped it and commenced to seduce it by running her tongue along its length removing the rippled chocolate covering. Was seduction taking place before me? Was it the chocolate bar enticing her, or was she corrrupting it? I looked longingly at her technique, wishing her lapping , sucking, gorging action was devouring something quite different.
"I like the idea of voyeurism", she slurped, chocolate now spreading to the edge of her lips. "The concept of female fetish devours me. My recollection of Hawarden's photographs almost brought me to orgasm. I longed to touch the hems of her daughter's skirts, the netting of their headdresses, to let my fingertips stroke the silkiness of their stockings. To touch inside the photograph's edges; but they are just photographs. Clementina Hawarden's images have always been erotic to me; they invite me to make my finger-words write desire".
The confectionary was gone. Like the instant when a camera's shutter blinks and draws in the focused object. Lapped away, consumed with energetical lover-like exhilaration. An orgasmic climax, fulfilling and satisfying. She wiped her lips talking from behind a tissue, "I think my help with your understanding of English erotic art is not needed. You're very well informed my dear, and I suggest you need only to outline the British photographer's art in the last 150 years to conclude the work. Some coverage of same-sex tenderness, longing, cross dressing, caressing, sexuality, flirtation, voyeurism, and unveiling could satisfy all needs. I think you'll do it very well". She looked longingly at me, kissed my cheek, and tossed the sweet wrapper into the waste paper basket, and flounced through the door.
I began to smile and embrace the hidden thoughts now sweeping around my mind. Retrieving the wrapper from the basket I unfolded the foil and sniffed in the aroma of chocolate mixed with lipstick - her essence. I was a woman with a secret.
The female nude remains one of the classic areas of photographic study and work. After almost 150 years of the photographer's art, the idea that a nude image could create the same kind of stir as those early daguerrotypes from the racier Paris salons, featuring ladies with skirts akimbo and louchely draped paramours, is pretty preposterous. We have moved on.
Attitudes towards sex and sexuality, women and the depiction of erotic subjects has shifted, so that society no longer hides the nude away. And how we come to look at an image of a female nude has evolved too. The idea that the gaze is essentially male is losing ground. Women are now not only looking, they're taking the pictures too, and sometimes looking right back at you from those images. To say that women's interest in other women's bodies is merely comparative is a little insulting to most modern women who are happy in their skin.
Society, fashion and the current bristling erotic frisson that some people have for art nude photography has nothing to do with what seems to be the real pre-requisite for a great erotic female image - a love and respect for your subject, a degree of collaboration and engagement with the subject and a love for life. Eternal qualities which, let's hope takes us well into the next century.
F Churchill © 2008