The Pen and the Palette

“What am I doing, bursting into paint? I am a writer; I ought to stick to ink. I have found my medium of expression; why at the age of forty, should I want to try another?” D H Lawrence, contrary to what he says here, had taken to painting much earlier in life, when he was at the fringe of adolescence.

Ada Lawrence, his sister, shed valuable light on the mystery of Lawrence’s being a painter. “When our mother was dying of cancer, he sat with her in her bedroom every evening and painted”, she said in an interview. D H Lawrence himself wrote about it in his autobiographical novel, Sons and Lovers. At the height of his creativity, Lawrence gave meaningful shape to the memories of his past through writing, which was his first love. But whenever he suffered from what is known as the writer’s block, he tumbled to painting, which to him was a “form of delight that words can never give”.

Lawrence, in his painting, dwelt mostly on ‘cocksure women’ and ‘hensure men’. His fierce passion for the femme fatale spilled on to the canvas unchecked. He was convinced that there was absolutely nothing about the human psyche that needed to be either hidden or repressed.

He was of the view that an artist could be a profligate and, from the social point of view, a scoundrel. But if the artist could paint a nude woman, or a couple of apples, so that they were a living image, then he was in pure spirit, and for the time being, his was the kingdom of heaven. But, perhaps, Lawrence would never have arranged an exhibition of his paintings in England had he known the “silly extravagance of insults” that were in store for him. 

It was July, 1929. Lady Chatterley’s Lover had, by then, taken France by storm. On July 5, the 21st day of Lawrence’s exhibition, Warren Gallery in London was swarming with visitors who were feasting their eyes upon the “un-figleaved nudes.” Suddenly two police inspectors appeared and cut their passage through the swelling crowd to get close to two pictures in particular: Boccaccio Story and Fight with an Amazon. They remained planted to the spot for sometime before ordering the show to be closed. The painting titled Contadini was dethroned first. Next to go was the Dance sketch.

Another eleven pictures suffered the same fate. The police went so far as to seize some paintings by William Blake (1757-1827), the great poet-painter whose paintings were also exhibited in the gallery on the occasion of Blake’s centenary celebration.

But when people present in the hall booed at them and apprised them of the honour Blake was accorded by Divine Service in Churches all over London, they reluctantly returned only the pieces by Blake.

Lawrence later wrote to the then home secretary that “half the great poems, pictures, music, stories of the whole world are great by virtue of the beauty of their sex appeal. Titan or Renoir, the Song of Solomon or Jane Eyre, Mozart or Annie Lawrie, the loveliness is all interwoven with sex appeal, sex stimulus, call it what you will.”

But however logical and artistically accurate Lawrence might sound, his pictures decking the walls of Warren Gallery were taken off the hook unceremoniously on that day and carted away to an unknown destination for outright destruction.

The owners of the gallery, Dorothy Warren Trotter and her husband, well-wishers of Lawrence, vowed to save the pictures from the grip of those jealous nincompoops.

And the matter landed in Marlborugh Street Police Court on August 8, 1929, H G Muskett, who had once succeeded in imposing a temporary ban on the sale of The Rainbow by Lawrence 13 years back, was appointed this time as the head of the police solicitors. People used to watch him tear his opponents’ arguments to bits with invincible eloquence. With musket in the opposition, Lawrence had not even the ghost of a chance to win the case.

Muskett started: “These paintings, I submit to you, are gross, coarse, hideous, and unlovely from any aesthetic or artistic point of view, and are in their nature obscene. And so they should be burnt without keeping any trace at all.” St John Hutchinson, defence counsel of Trotters, pointed out that once a picture was burnt it could not be reproduced, but it fell on deaf ears. As the tension reached the boiling pitch with Muskett having a hold over the proceedings, the story took a sudden and dramatic turn. It was a little like the event in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice where Portia reverses the whole situation by bringing to light a flaw in the drawing up of the bond, pushing Shylock off balance.

When the situation seemed hopeless, Hutchinson suddenly caught the law-enforcing court on the wrong foot by putting forward a solid argument: “If Lawrence is handled this way on the charges of painting nudes, people like Blake and Hearth can be seized. I am asking this officer if he was prepared to seize Blake’s production until it was pointed out to him that he was an old master.” He went on to consolidate his position further: “There cannot be one rule for Lawrence and one rule for Dryden simply because Dryden lived a long time ago.” And this resulted in the Trotters winning the case. All the paintings except Boccaccio Story which was tampered with were retrieved.

In a letter to Dorothy Warren, dated August 14, 1929, Lawrence wrote: “Well Dorothy, there is the end of my first, and probably my last, picture-show in England. I must say it leaves me feeling depressed and nauseated, but tomorrow is after all another day! We’ll come back in triumph one day, you see.” Lawrence did ultimately triumph over “a lilly-livered lot”, as all great artists before and after him have done.

First published in Amrita Bazar Patrika

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