But is art? Photography in the dock in 1880

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Photography was still a fairly new science in 1880. The world’s first photograph was possibly that made in 1826 using Joseph Nicephore Niepce’s ‘Heliograph’. In 1835 Niepce collaborated with Louis Daguerre to create the first practical application (the ‘daguerrotype’) that, in 1839, led to the very first ‘selfie’ by Robert Cornelius. Improvements followed in 1871 (with dry plate photography) and then in the mid 1880s with the invention of the earliest ‘box’ portable camera.

It seems that along with the self-portrait early adopters of photography quickly recognized the commercial potential of a technology that could make multiple reproductions of popular images.

As many of us probably do when we visit an art gallery early photographers realized that taking photos of artworks could be profitable if cheap prints of them could then be sold. Even better if those prints were of human nudes.

It is not surprising perhaps that one of the early uses of photography was in the creation of more realistic pornography (or ‘erotica’ if you prefer a less judgmental term).

I’m sure Charles Newbold would have argued that his collection of photographic images were a form of art. Sadly for him he couldn’t, as in November 1880 he was locked up in Coldbath Fields prison serving a three-month sentence for ‘selling photographs of an immoral nature’.

While his son occupied his days in hard labour his father George found himself up before the magistrate at Marlborough Street Police court on a very similar charge. He was summoned to answer as to why a series of photographic images that had been seized by the police should not be destroyed.

His lawyer, Mr Geoghegan, argued that the images – which were taken from works of art – were not offensive and were in fact very useful for students of art to learn from. This was one of the first ways in which daguerreotypes had been used – to reproduce famous artworks in a form that students could learn from. These could black and white or coloured, like the shown here (right). Nude_woman_in_colored_daguerreotype_by_Félix-Jacques_Moulin

Coloured daguerreotype by Félix-Jacques Moulin, c.1851-1854

The police – represented by Mr St John Wontner – argued that they were obscene and constituted an assault on public morals. The Newbold brothers owned a shop where the materials were on sale, located in Charlotte Street, Fitzroy Square.

The justice, Mr Mansfield decided that he needed to see the pictures for himself if he was to determine how ‘immoral’ they were. He adjourned the case to make his investigations.

George Newbold was an established sporting photographer in the 1860s. Based at 303 and 304 The Strand, Newbold seems to have specialized in taking images of boxers for them to use as their carte de visites, and the V&A has several of these. However, George died in 1865 and the business passed to his brother Charles, and his two sons (George Francis and Charles).  It is possible then that Charles and his sons  had branched out into more ‘racy’ photos by early 1880s, but perhaps they were simply providing a legitimate service for artists short of live models.

In 1880 Charles junior (at 19) was listed as a ‘porter’ in his prison record, which hardly suggests that he was a successful photographic artist. His father was also in prison by August 1882 where his record states that he was a bookseller. His crime? Tried at the Middlesex Quarter sessions and convicted of:

maliciously and scandalously selling and uttering to frank froest, in an open and public shop, certain lewd and obscene photographic prints’.

His sentence? 18 months imprisonment. He was 50 and so would have been in his 30s in the 1860s when he was taking shots of boxers and others. It seems a shame that the relatives of a such  a talented artist as George Newbold  should find themselves locked up for selling ‘dirty pictures’. But perhaps that reflected the reality that photography was not an easy profession to make a living from in the late 1800s. And, of course, that there was (and still is) money to be made from erotica.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, November 6, 1880]

The ‘modern Babylon’ exposed: pornography in an age of prudery

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Holywell Street, central London, late 1800s 

One of the things ‘we think we know’ about the Victorians is that they were very prudish and straight-laced, even going to the bizarre lengths of covering up their piano legs so as not to shock or titillate. This view of the age is sometimes confirmed by depictions of a sour faced Queen Victoria proclaiming: ‘we are not amused’.

The reality is that the Victorians were hardly much less lascivious and fun-loving than their Georgian predecessors. Perhaps the emphasis on family (best epitomized by Royal Family) and the work of Samuel Smiles in setting out so-called ‘Victorian values’, combined with a post war desire to look back  to the past to make comparisons with the present, have skewed our views.

Anyone strolling around London in the 1800s would have seen plenty of evidence that the Victorians liked to enjoy themselves.  This age saw the rise of the musical theatre, the novel and popular newspapers; it witnessed the invention of the railways, cheap travel and the weekend excursion. Here too was the Great Exhibition, great ceremonial pageants, and military parades. And with all of this (largely) wholesome entertainment came vice at a level the Georgians could only have imagined.

The invention of photography offered new opportunities for pornography and the increasingly economic cost of printing and distribution made the printed vice trade even more profitable. This was not lost on the ‘moral majority’; those that railed against vice and crime. London became the ‘modern Babylon’; a sink of iniquity and place where domestic missionaries sought new converts in the dark alleys of Whitechapel and Southwark. In Holywell Street, off the Strand, there was a roaring trade in indecent literature to suit every taste.

In 1841, early in the young queen’s reign, a barrister representing the Society for the Suppression of Vice appeared at the Guildhall Police court in the City to apply for a warrant against a local bookseller. St Paul’s Churchyard (close by Wren’s cathedral) had long been associated with the print trade, and with obscene publications and prostitution to boot.

Mr Clarkson, the barrister, explained that officers from the Society wanted to draw the magistrate’s attention to the fact that this bookseller (at this point unnamed) was displaying ‘five indecent little pamphlets in his window’. Under the terms of the Vagrancy Act he had tried to summons the man to court but this had been ignored, now he wanted a warrant which carried more force (since it was executed by a policeman).

The lawyer argued that the act ‘1 and 2 Victoria, c.38’ (the Vagrancy Act) declared that anyone exposing to view obscene images was liable to be dealt with as a ‘rouge and a vagabond’ and so was punishable by a fine or, if unable to pay, imprisonment. This toughened up the previous act of George IV (5 Geo. IV. c.83. 1824) and he wanted to use it.

Alderman Copeland was in the chair at Guildhall that day and Mr Clarkson handed over some of the obscene pamphlets in question. These had titles such as ‘The Wanton Widow’, ‘The Petticoat Pensioner’ and ‘Venus in the Cloister’*.

UnknownI suspect by modern standards of indecency they were pretty mild but in a society where ‘nakedness’ often meant that someone was dressed only in their undergarments, and where a glimpse of ankle was evidence of a woman’s immoral character, the alderman was suitable disgusted. He issued the warrant and the barrister rushed off to find an officer to execute it.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, August 20, 1841]

*You can still find this today. Published in 1683 as Vénus dans le cloître, ou la Religieuse en chemise, it is a work of erotic fiction as the illustration above shows. .

Technology and pornography clash in the summary courts of the capital

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Today’s story from the London Police Courts combines two changes in the mid nineteenth century; one technological and the other legal.

In 1851 David Brewster exhibited his stereoscope at the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace. His stereoscope, invented by an Edinburgh mathematics teacher named Elliot and developed by  Jules Dobosqc, was not the first but it became very popular very quickly. The stereoscope allowed people to view 3D images on a handheld device, and had obvious entertainment and educational possibilities (sound familiar?).

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Brewster’s stereoscope

However, as with the still relatively new science of photography, some people soon realised that the stereoscope had other, less high brow or wholesome applications. In short, it opened new avenues for pornography.

The problem of pornography and its capacity to corrupt the morals of the population (especially young minds) was not lost on the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Campbell. While he presided over a trial for the sale of pornographic material Campbell was also involved in a  Lords’ debate on the restrictions of poisons. He recognised parallels between them and condemned pornography as ‘a poison more deadly than prussic acid, strychnine or arsenic’.

He introduced a bill of parliament that became law in 1857 as the Obscene Publications Act, the first of its kind. The sale of offending material was now an offence and powers were given to seize and destroy obscene publications. The offence came under the powers of summary jurisdiction and was therefore dealt with in the Police Courts before a Police magistrate.

Lord Campbell may not have had the stereoscope in mind when he conceived his legalisation but technology and the obscene publications law were soon interwoven at Bow Street Police Court.

In February 1858 Sidney Powell of Chandos Street, Covent Garden appeared at London’s senior Police Court charged with the sale of obscene ‘representations’ in stereoscopic form.

The court report doesn’t detail exactly what these slides contained but Powell was adamant that they weren’t pornographic. He argued that they were intended for ‘medical men, being of an artistic nature’. They were no more explicit, he contended, than the poses adopted by artists models.

He assured his worship that he had plenty of experience of selling images and of the law and he was ‘well known amongst artists, who told him that the representation of a single figure would not be deemed “obscene”.’

Mr Henry, the magistrate, rejected his case out of hand. He had seen the slides. There was, he concluded, ‘a very wide distinction between the representation of a nude in a  graceful attitude, and the coarse disgusting pictures produced in this case’. While he gave Powell leave to appeal his decision he ordered the slides to be destroyed. The unhappy Powell accepted the decision and made his exit from the court.

He was not the only person prosecuted under the term of Lord Campbell’s act that morning. Two men were prosecuted for selling pipe heads which were indecent. One of the sellers, a Mr Bush, complained that the pipes were not covered by the act and had been licensed for sale by Customs House. Henry was having none of it and order the entire stock destroyed.

One wonders why someone would want to own (or smoke from) a pipe with ‘indecent’ images on it, but then again our society uses sexually explicit images of women to sell just about anything so who are we to judge our Victorian ancestors? We might also reflect that the invention of new technology, from the printing press to photography, to moving pictures and the internet, has allowed pornographers to find new and creative ways to exploit a new medium.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, February 18, 1858]