Portillo’s State Secrets British National Archives

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Portillo’s State Secrets Episode 8 of 10 

Michael Portillo takes a sneaky peek at John Lennon’s dirty pictures.

In January 1970 the first ever exhibit of Bag One by John Lennon took place at the London Arts Gallery 22 New Bond Street. The opening was raided by the Scotland Yard Vice squad and the prints were confiscated. The gallery owner was charged with Obscenity and a trial was held the next month.

The state has always imposed censorship and the first conviction for obscenity was in 1727 against the intriguingly named publication than Nun in her smock.  Not until nineteen sixty could literary merit be pleaded as a defense tested in the famous prosecution of the novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover that trial inaugurated the struggle between the artists and your thorities. 45 years ago the work of one person of fame and influence tested the authorities tolerance beyond its limit

“sexual intercourse began in 1963, which was rather late for me,  between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles first LP.

Philip Larkin’s amusing verse precisely dates the beginning of the permissive society and places the Fab Four at the heart of it.  And at the heart of The Beatles was John Lennon the mop top to peace activism he was the band’s trendsetter by the turn of the decade he got his own way as a musician and broke the boundaries with pen and ink. 

In 1970 an exhibition was staged at the London Arts Gallery of certain of his lewd lithographs a complaint was made and the Metropolitan Police went to investigate under 1839 obscenity legislation in these wonderful documents is the testimony of assistant detective Inspector Frederick Luff: 

“should these lithographs be a judge works of great artistic merit or not obscene I feel sure the progressives have no need to endeavor to repeal all the obscenity laws ie nothing is obscene many toilet walls depict works of similar merit it is perhaps charitable to suggest that they are the work of a sick mind.”  But he is worried about the great influence of John Lennon as a Beetle. 

Who made the complaint that caused the police to investigate?  The British National Archives contain a statement from a Mrs. Nancy Creer a Justice of the Peace, who described her horror on visiting the exhibition; 

“When I saw the first picture on the far wall I was stunned I couldn’t believe what i was looking at I went on and looked at two or three ball I went to the other wall and suddenly I felt I couldn’t stay in the gallery any longer I went over to my husband who hadn’t left the first picture I took him by the arm and I said I can’t stay in here I’ll go on up the road you can follow me he turned looked at me and said you’re red in the face your scarlet as I spoke to him I realized that I was red with embarrassment.” 

Well what was the nature of these works of art that had provoked such a strong reaction?  I can see here the pieces on the wall and.. yes.. yes.. I’m getting kind of idea of what kind of ah! yes… yes…  John yeah they are pretty explicit they really show all the variations of sexual intercourse and oh yes a few solo performances by Yoko Ono. Well whatever were the merits of John Lennon as a lithograph are he believed that all you need is love. 

Imagine by nineteen seventy Lennon had little left to prove as a musician or songwriter but to gain acceptance as a graphic artist was much harder. 

What do you regard as the artistic merit of the lithographs or so-called lithographs? 

David Lee, Art Critic: Most of the art establishment thought that Lennon was trading on his reputation as a pop star they were denounced as as poor drawings, and in actual fact they’re not. They’re actually by today’s standards actually rather accomplished drawings. You can tell he’s trying to be amusing and that’s a difficult skill to to master, of course.

Lennon wasn’t alone in his creative endeavors by this time he was in love with and heavily influenced by Yoko Ono who was also no stranger to controversy she brought out she encourages are actually encouraged to do about having no boundaries. 

DL: But both of them were obsessed by bottoms and were obsessed by naked people and join them but don’t forget they’ve been to art college at least John had if you’re an art college you do life drawings so you used from a young age to drawing the male and female nude.

Let’s turn to the matter of obscenity the policeman, Mr. Luff.  In the document that I’ve seen says “Now if this isn’t obscene nothing’s obscene” 

Do you think they’re as obscene as you can get?

DL: “As you can get, no they’re not nearly as obscene as things that were produced even before John Lennon was producing those drawings. They’re merely an affectionate repertoire of lovemaking skills.”

Well that was not the view of the police who raided the exhibition the day after it opened and stripped the offending artworks from the walls much to the annoyance of the gallery’s owner Eugene Schuster.

“I’m just amazed and I find it rather humorous it seems to me if the police wanted to seize anything they’d go down to Soho sees smut these blue movies and it appears they seize the art mainly because John Lennon did it.”

I actually suspect the police because it happened so quickly and they’ve got these people making these really silly comments that they were disgusted by. I feel behind the scenes some D’s said let’s get Lennon but if that was the plan it didn’t work. The gallery owner was taken to court but the case was thrown out and Lennon’s works were later displayed across the world.

Where does this stand in the battle for the permissive society do you think?

DL: “I think is incredibly important because the failure of that trial really marks the point at which youth culture has won and the establishment has lost. They tried very hard to victimize many of the more important major characters of the sixties Mick Jagger Keith Richards were others and they failed in all cases.”

The lithographs condemned as obscene at the time and now worth an estimated 85,000 pounds. A price perhaps inflated by the state’s attempt to ban them in 1970. Proving that while money can’t buy you love, it can secure you an outline of lovemaking.

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