The Independent, 15th February 1994
ART / Portrait of the artist as an accused man; Graham Ovenden paints young female nudes, like the one on this page. Photographic studies for this portrait were removed from his house by the police. So were two photographs by Lewis Carroll, also reproduced here. They are now being exhibited under the title The Obscene Publications Squad Versus Art. Iain Gale reports
Early in the morning of Wednesday 10 March 1993, officers from the Obscene Publications Squad of the Metropolitan Police burst into a house in Liskeard, Cornwall, which they believed to be at the centre of a child pornography ring. They came away with one suspect, 28 boxes of negatives, 67 videos and a large quantity of photographs. Losing little time, they announced that they had ”smashed” an extensive paedophile ring which involved hundreds of children and had been carefully built up over 20 years.
As it turned out, what they had ”smashed” was the life of an artist – their suspect Graham Ovenden – who had built his international reputation on sensitive paintings and photographs of children, some of them nude. The so-called paedophile ring was in fact a loose association of artists, including Peter Blake, Graham Arnold and David Inshaw and the photographer Ron Oliver, who had himself been the subject of a similar raid two months earlier.
Typical of the videos removed by the police were Little Dorrit and Miss Marple; the most outlandish was Star Trek II. Apart from a small group of Ovenden’s nude studies, the photographs that were removed to Scotland Yard were mainly early photographs of children (mostly clothed) by such as George Bernard Shaw and Lewis Carroll.
The works were recently returned to their owner. As in the case of Ron Oliver, no charges have been made against Ovenden, and no apologies offered. The confiscated photographic exhibits are now about to go on show at a London gallery, enabling the public to judge for itself whether or not they are obscene.
”I’m going to be showing the stupidity of it all,” says Nicky Akehurst, owner of the London gallery putting on the exhibition. ”The art world is tackling this issue head on.” (A petition signed by Sir Hugh Casson, Laurie Lee, Peter Blake and Lucinda Lambton was important in persuading the police to return the photographs.) ”But it needs to be addressed by politicians and the public generally. That’s what I’m trying to do. We’ll show a few of Graham’s nudes, but apart from those it will be what the police took.”
What they took was part of the extensive collection of Victorian photographs that Ovenden and his wife have assembled over the past 20 years. Ovenden is a world-recognised authority on the genre and has written books on the photographic work of Lewis Carroll, D O Hill, Robert Adamson and Lewis Hine. His Pre-Raphaelite Photographers is the classic work on the subject, displaying his consummate knowledge of the work of such as D G Rossetti and Julia Margaret Cameron. It was through his study of these artists that Ovenden found the inspiration for the painted and photographic portraits of girls with which he has made his name.
Born in 1943, Ovenden trained as an artist at the Royal College of Art and in 1975 was one of the founding members, along with Blake, Inshaw and Arnold, of the Brotherhood of Ruralists, a loosely-knit group of painters who found inspiration in the rural mysticism of William Blake and Samuel Palmer and the ideal of ”truth to materials” expressed in the work of the late Pre- Raphaelites. Ovenden’s own style owes something both to the Pre-Raphaelites and to the modern French painter Balthus, whose chosen subject matter he also shares. Ovenden depicts the nude female figure just at that point at which it is beginning the transformation from girl to woman. They are difficult images which do not suit the conventional taste of much of the British public. Nevertheless, the developing female form has long been a legitimate and valid subject for art, from the nymphs of Italian Mannerism to Gauguin’s smouldering Tahitians.
Ovenden began to explore this perilous territory in a series of paintings and photographs which he made with Peter Blake in 1970, on the theme of Carroll’s Alice. Whereas Blake moved on to other themes, Ovenden chose to delve deeper into the pre-pubescent subconscious, producing numerous paintings and photo-graphs of children, naked and clothed. Among them were commissioned portraits, many of them of the children of distinguished parents. Now, under the ambiguous 1978 Protection of Children Act (which states, ”It is an offence for a person to take, or permit to be taken, any indecent photograph of a child”) Ovenden’s erstwhile clients are also liable to prosecution.
That this is iniquitous is born out by the few photographic works by Ovenden that are included in the exhibition of formerly confiscated material. In what amounts almost to a pastiche of its Victorian antecedents, one of the works on view in the exhibition – a photographic study for the painting Elinore (see main picture, right) – depicts a girl, side on, in gentle chiaroscuro. The initial focus of our attention is her face – a mask of contemplation in which the artist has attempted to capture the confused emotions present in his sitter’s mind. The pose is relaxed, her own. Here, as in all his images, painted or photographed, Ovenden takes great care with light. His intention is not to expose his subject to the viewer, but to enable us to understand her predicament, to create what he sees as a reflective, poignant eulogy to fleeting innocence and beauty.
Graham Ovenden’s art lies on a meandering art historical line which runs from the putti of Raphael, through Millais’ Bubbles and the bohemian nudes of Augustus John and the Bloomsbury artists. In their painted state, Ovenden’s girls, like those of John, can be classed as high art and by virtue of this are deemed acceptable. But any artist crossing over into the medium of photography immediately invites the accusation of pornography. It is significant that a sizeable chunk of the booklet that Ovenden has written in his defence should be devoted to the ways in which he alleges the police have re-photographed and cropped his photographic prints in order to deliberately distort the images for production as evidence for any subsequent trial.
The raids on Ovenden, and Oliver before him, amount, says Akehurst, to a ”witch hunt”. ”The police have targeted photographers,” Akehurst says. ”Artists are so vulnerable. And it’s never just one person. There’s got to be a ring.” For Akehurst, those who see a paedophile at work in the art of Ovenden are simply seeing what they want to see. Their view may yet prevail: while no charges have been made, Ovenden, given the outspoken nature of his own defence, believes they cannot be far off.
You might choose to call Ovenden’s work many things – tender, charming, kitsch, sentimental, mawkish, even inept. But pornographic, degrading and obscene? What Ovenden’s nudes really demonstrate is not a covert perversity but an openness and honesty which disappeared with Victorian hypocrisy. The Victorians ignored the difficult sexual questions present in the growing child by denying them, by covering them up. For Ovenden each one of his young female nudes offers a means to explore fundamental mysteries within the human condition.
Ovenden’s paintings and photographs are no more indecent than the other works on show at the Akehurst Gallery, which also helped the police with their enquiries – a portrait by Lewis Carroll of the Archbishop of Canterbury, snapshots of Ovenden’s fellow Ruralists, a photograph of the artist’s daughter in a Laura Ashley dress, one of Peter Blake’s Alice photographs from 1970 and, the piece de resistance, an official photograph of the young Princess, now Queen, Elizabeth.