Thursday, 8 July 2010

Mid twentieth Century Venuses: Erotic drawings by Tom Poulton

A few weeks ago Venus Observations suffered the fate that The Adventures of Triple P did a year or so ago and was deemed "objectionable". No doubt this was due to complaints by shocked astronomers looking for where to find the second planet from the Sun in the night sky. Anyway, it was a matter of a few seconds to re-classify this blog as "adult" and it gives us the added advantage that we can post images that we might have not done before. After all, we were berated by one of our Canadian friends recently that this blog was supposed to be about erotic depictions of women in art and photography. Her definition of erotic was "something that gives me a wettie" and that she felt we were falling far short of this. Now despite the fact that Agent DVD refers to this as our "porn blog" we do, in fact, differentiate between pornography and erotica.

This, however, is a thorny subject that we remember discussing, in increasingly drunken fashion, with our American friend B at college. B, a feminist of the old fashioned sort, was commenting negatively on the collection of art postcards of nude paintings by the likes of Renoir and Degas we had stuck to our wardrobe door in our college room. "I suppose some people would call that art!" she remarked, acidly. We discussed this issue for some hours and drank quite a lot of Martini Rose vermouth (Triple P had been sent a case by the manufacturers for reasons too complicated to go into). We discussed the "if it's a photo in black and white it's art" argument and the "if the artist is a woman then the model is not being exploited" argument and many others. "Erotica", she stated "is the term used by people who want to make pornography acceptable". Erotica, we rejoindered, should have some artistic merit above that of just creating a sexual reaction in the viewer. At this point, she spread her legs and whipped off her knickers venturing that, by our definition, if someone painted a picture of her pussy or photographed it in black and white it was art, and therefore erotica, whereas a colour photograph would be porn. We thought that her nether regions were such thay they would be art in any medium and, gratifyingly, she didn't replace her knickers when we informed her of this. We quickly poured her another drink, as by then she was saying that equality required me to remove my nether garments as well. This was a scene reminiscent of one suffered by a male Playboy executive when confronted by a bunch of feminists in America who dared him to take his clothes off there and then if Playboy really was dedicated to male/female equality. We actually like this story and think the feminists were both clever and right in this case. Anyway we had no qualms about acceding to the lady's demands and the art versus pornography discussion continued for many more entertaining hours.

This rather rambling anecdote serves as an introduction to today's featured artist, Tom Poulton. An artist, a purveyor of erotica or a pornographer? This is a question we will try to answer with reference to some of his, we think, splendid drawings. Certainly they include some of the most explicit images we have put on this blog to date although there are some that we haven't included as we believe that they are, maybe, just too extreme. Indeed, it was stated in one of the original books that first published Poulton's art (in the late nineties) that some of his illustrations were still too extreme to be published even today. Also, and more importantly, this site is about celebrating the erotic beauty of women so we are not interested in including pictures of men except, as here, to illustrate particular points.

Unlike some other European countries, Britain didn't have much of a history of erotic art before the sexual revolution of the 1960s. For those artists who are known to have produced erotic pieces, such as Hogarth, Rowlandson, Turner, Aubrey Beardsley and Stanley Spencer, this element makes up a very small part of their output. Between the period of Hogarth, Rowlandson and Swiss import Henri Fuseli in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and people like the illustrator Eric Gill and Spencer in the mid-twentieth century there is almost no British erotic art which survives.

To what extent some of the great figurative artists of Victorian times experimented in their spare time with erotic pictures for themselves or collectors is unknown. Certainly, it was always said John Ruskin burnt a number of Turners frenzied erotic drawings after his death (although it now appears that this isn't true) and it is more than likely that the wives of other great Victorian artists might have done the same, as Sir Richard Burton's wife did with many of his papers. If there had been such works by the classicist masters, for example, produced for the gentlemen collectors of the time then surely they would have shown up by now.

The new secretary

That such works of art can lurk completely unknown for many years is exemplified by the works of Tom Poulton shown here. Thomas Leycester Poulton was born in 1897 and won a scholarship to the Slade School of Art (Stanley Spencer would have studied there slightly before Poulton) where he trained under Henry Tonks. A short interlude in the Indian Army during the Great War followed, before a return to art.

Illustration from the Weekend Book (c 1930)

After the war he did illustrations for The British Journal of Surgery and, coupled with his classical training, developed a technically skilled approach to human anatomy. In the late twenties he illustrated a series of books for the Nonesuch Press including The Weekend Book and Plutarch's Lives.

Illustration from Plutarch's Lives (c 1929)

In the illustrations for the latter we can see some hints of his erotic work to come with the cavorting satyr and nymph demonstrating some of the energy of his later erotic pieces.

Illustration from Plutarch's Lives (c 1929)

His illustrative nudes are, as would be expected of the medium and the period, somewhat stylised whereas his private drawings are more realistic although, in some cases, caricatures.

Three Wise Men: Radio Times Illustration

In the nineteen thirties he did work for the Reader's Digest and the Radio Times which, at the time, commissioned some wonderful little vignettes from top illustrators. As an illustrator, however, Poulton was low in the artistic pecking order. Whilst illustrators today are better known (and most work in the book cover market) then, as now, they were looked down on by the artistic heirarchy. Poulton often struggled financially in his later life and it is possible that some of his erotic works were commissions to keep the wolf from the door as some of his sketches contain a tick mark as if indicating an approval.

Love letters

Poulton died in 1963 at the age of 66 following a walk with friends in the Lake District. He had divorced his wife, a lutenist, years before and his friends had to hold a collection at his favourite pub, The Lamb, in Lamb's Conduit Street (a favourite artists hang-out in Bloomsbury), for his funeral expenses as he had no immediate family.

It was only after his death that his sketchbooks of hundreds of erotic drawings, made between 1948 and 1963, were discovered. Even in what was to become the Swinging Sixties his pictures would have been far too strong to be published and it wasn't until the late nineties that some of them were eventually published.

Two girls

The discovered drawings were a mixture of sketches, finished, fully-rendered pictures and humourous almost cartoon-like drawings, reminiscent of X-rated versions of the saucy seaside postcards so popular in Britain between the wars.

Studies of lesbians

Looking at the sketches first, we shall try to attempt to answer one of the questions about Poulton: to what extent his subjects were drawn from models or simply from his imagination. It is unlikely that he used photographs as he was classically trained and was a skilled medical and anatomical illustrator.

Studies of lesbians and women urinating

To Agent Triple P the two sheets of studies above are very revealing. Poulton worked with a very soft pencil on very light tissue-type paper. The two pages above show two different stages, conceivably. The bottom sheet, which include the pissing girls looks like original first stage sketches. You can see how lightly he is drawing on the paper and then gradually blocking in darker lines as he gets the pose right. These pictures are very rough and we would have believed it quite possible that as he developed his ideas he might have placed a second sheet of thin paper over the original and traced those designs he would then work up. The pictures in the first sheet seem to be more refined than the first. Of course he may not have had to trace them, as he was a first class anatomist, and may have just copied some ideas onto another sheet. The give away to Agent Triple P is that the girls are rendered with bald heads, which is exactly what you would do if drawing from imagination and working up a figure from basic shapes. If using a model you would usually include hair.

Study of urinating woman

This sketch shows a lot of work in deciding where to put the girl's thighs but the upper part of the drawing is much more tightly rendered. This is more likely to be a finished work than a preliminary sketch as many of his pictures mix loose impressionistic line with tightly rendered detail such as the drawing below where the lower part of the bottom girl dissolves into the paper as does the top and right of the upper girl.

The important parts of the composition: breasts, head, vulva; are all rendered in much more detail whereas the other parts of both bodies are often just suggested by a few lines.

Three women

Oddly, in this drawing the top part of the picture has been finished in some detail using strong tone whilst the bottom half remains as line, suggesting that this is an unfinished picture.

Woman urinating on another

In this sketch the lines are strong and the face is detailed, especially in the upper figure, but it remains, basically a line drawing rather than a shaded one. Shape and volume is suggested by clever line work that is reminiscent of classical Renaissance sketches.

This sketch includes some shading but also the suggestion of quite a lot of corrective overdrawing, possibly because the poses are not that successful, especially on the lower figure.

This is an interesting sheet as it includes, on the right, a very early stage drawing blocking out the figures, a different, but much more developed line study on the left and two portraits. The faces are interesting too as the girl's features appear again and again in Poulton's work. Was it a real girl? Or is it simply his idealised woman? It's a slightly caricatured image with big eyes, big lips and buck teeth.

This sketch is a simple line drawing but the lines are tightly highlighted and there is very little of the sketchiness of some of his other drawings. His use of different sized bodies and glasses on the upper figure and pigtails on the lower instantly gets across the idea of an older woman being serviced by a young girl in just a few elegant lines.

Away from watchful eyes

This is a very erotic picture which is not at all explicit. Poulton's loose, free lines convey energy and movement and the girl's face is appropriately ecstatic. Below we have two pictures which deal with the consequences of the coitus. The setting, which looks like a train carriage, and the girl's shoes.stockings and distinctive skirt are the same.

Study for "Aftermath"

Here we can see an initial study with the finished drawing. A post-coital young lady contemplates her pussy, tissue in hand. The finished drawing is not a lot more detailed than the sketch, with elements such as the seat having no more attention at all. The key changes are the addition of stockings, the position of her right hand which, in the original sketch, rested on her knee whereas in the final drawing her fingers are daintily holding her labia apart.


In addition, the need for the tissue is now abundantly clear as viscous liquid dribbles from her vagina to pool on her cleverly rendered pleated skirt.

Kissing sailor girls

Leaving his sketches behind it is worth looking at some of Poulton's recurrent themes. Erotic drawings tend, by their very nature, to be particularly personal and usually reflect the sexual interests of the artist. When doing commissioned work, however, the client's wishes are paramount. As we don't know which pictures which were done for clients and which were done for his own entertainment we can only guess at Poulton's own erotic interests. However, quite a few themes appear again and again. Most of them are the usual staples of erotica but a few are a little more unusual.

Quite a few feature girls dressed as sailors entertaining each other and male ratings. We don't think that their uniforms are that accurate as they seem to be depicted in a variant of male sailors dress and caps rather than the distinctive WRNS uniform.

Ink drawing of girl sailors

Some of these pictures are particularly interesting in that he has inked them with a brush, rather in the manner of traditional comic strips, giving a very different effect to his more usual very loose pencil approach. As a pen and ink artist himself Agent Triple P finds these particularly interesting, although he has never got the hang of the brush approach (despite it being what his comic book drawing friend A always maintained was the only proper way to apply ink to a drawing).

Urinating woman

As we have seen he produced a number of pictures of pissing girls and, indeed, men, including some where they are happily spraying each other. In one picture he managed to combine these two themes and depicts one of his sailor girls urinating on a man's member.

Girl urinating on penis

Another theme and, really, a sub-category in itself are his comic drawings usually featuring a couple being caught in flagrante delicto, sometimes with captions included.

In this inked drawing an older woman catches two teenagers up to no good on a very 1950s looking settee. Although the boy's body is obviously very male his face is very similar to the girl's. Given that Poulton was quite able to draw completely different and characterful male and female faces the implication could be that they are brother and sister and this would explain the "mother's" facial similarity as well.

Be with you in five minutes

This is a typical "couple caught out" Poulton picture, although it is rather less explicit than most. There is a striking contrast between the rather cartoony surprised chap and the fully rendered and shaded couple.

Another large sub-theme which features a lot in his fully rendered drawings are the illustrations of women displaying their genitals, which also feature noticeably clear, detailed anuses as well. Whilst these poses are familiar from modern day pornographic photographs they would have been very unusual at the time in illustrations.

Whilst, as we shall see in future posts, artists such as Klimt, Schiele and Rodin produced drawings of women spreading their legs and displaying their genitals, traditionally most erotic illustration in previous centuries focussed on couples having intercourse.

Poulton's proudly pussy-displaying popsies predate such poses in the likes of Penthouse and Hustler by well over a decade. The rendering in the picture above does make us wonder if at least some of these pictures were done from life. If not, which is possible, they display an amazing ability to render bodies from imagination alone.

Again here is another, whether deliberately or not, unfinished picture which shows a great ability to illustrate complex foreshortening.

This picture also illustrates a hard to imagine and draw pose. The flexible girl here reminds us somewhat of our particular friend K who was able to put her ankles behind her neck. Like many of Poulton's pictures the sheer joie de vivre exhibited by his subjects makes them unique in the world of erotic drawings. Most erotic pictures, whether photographic or illustrated are so very solemn. There is nothing more erotic than a smiling sexy girl!

The gypsy girl

Poulton produced fewer masturbation pictures than you might have thought but we would suggest that the dominance of these images in modern pornography is directly due to the approach that Bob Guccione took in his photographs for Penthouse in the 1970s. At the time that Poulton drew these pictures copulatory images, which make up the vast majority of his erotic output, would have been more usual in privately produced erotica.

Nevertheless, he produced several striking images featuring dildos. Again, the use of line shading on this example makes it look like an old master drawing.

Masturbating woman

This is one of his most "finished" pictures and features a woman enjoying some naughty pictures which bear a great resemblance to some of Poulton's own illustrations.

Spanish girl

In several of his drawings Poulton exaggerates the size of the girl's vulva in a manner somewhat reminiscent of the Japanese shunga masters. There are several other oddities amongst his work, not least the beautiful women who possess throbbing phalluses and large testicles. Poulton would not have known the term "ladyboy" but he obviously quite liked the idea. These are quite different from the pictures he drew of women with strap on dildos. There are a number of sketches of women having fun with dogs and a very few S&M pictures.

The vast majority of his pictures relate to couples and, quite often, groups of three or more having simple sex. The delicate line drawing above demonstrates some of the athletic imagination employed in these pictures.

This is really a site about images of women, however, so his sex pictures don't really have a place here but we think the example above serves as a very good exemplar of his style.

So, was Tom Poulton a pornographer? One definition offered to Triple P by B is that pornographers are more interested in making money from their images than producing arousing material. Although it seems that Poulton did sell some of his pictures we think that, on balance, he produced sexy pictures for the pleasure it gave him. This, we think, makes him a producer of erotica and at least some of his images (probably the less "finished" ones) also qualify as art rather than illustration. Sadly, the three books on Poulton that came out in the late nineties are out of print but we believe that many of the images can be found in a recent Taschen book which we would recommend you seek out.

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