Turner, Ruskin, and an alleged Bonfire

Turner’s death in 1851 and following organization of his works sparked a rumor throughout the art world: that John Ruskin, as an executor named in Turner’s will and curator of Turner’s nearly 30,000 artworks left in a bequest, destroyed many of Turner’s erotic drawings, watercolors, and sketches in a bonfire in 1858. Ruskin himself declared in 1862 the act of pyromania was a protection of Turner’s reputation. : “I am satisfied that you had no other course than to burn them, both for the sake of Turner’s reputation (they having been assuredly drawn under a certain condition of insanity) and for your own peace. And I am glad to be able to bear witness to their destruction; and I hereby declare that the parcel of them was undone by me, and all the obscene drawings it contained burnt in my presence in the month of December, 1858. (Letter to Ralph Nicholson Wornum, Secretary of the National Gallery) Ruskin’s reputation had become that of a “notoriously prudish Victorian”, coupled with an annulment of marriage which was never consummated. In 2005 the myth was debunked by the Tate Gallery, after cross-referencing of Turner inventories showed no significant amount of missing works. The Tate’s scholar instead suggested the myth by Ruskin was created in the face of the Obscene Publications Act of 1857, to throw off investigation of the newly formed Turner catalog.

The Act was authored by Lord John Campbell, then Lord Chief Justice, as a response to presiding over a trial regarding pornography possession. As his fellow lords debated the restriction of poison sales to deter poisonings, Campbell raised the moral stakes. “But, from a trial which had taken place before him on Saturday, he had learned with horror and alarm that a sale of poison more deadly than prussic acid, strichnine, or arsenic—the sale of obscene publications and indecent books—was openly going on. It was not alone indecent books of a high price, which was a sort of check, that were sold, but periodical papers of the most licentious and disgusting description were coming out week by week, and sold to any person who asked for them, and in any numbers. This was a matter which required, in his opinion, the immediate consideration of the Government.” (May 11, 1857, House of Lords) The Act instructed for search and seizure of potentially erotic artworks or publications, and prosecution of their owners, but turned out to have little applicable enforcement beyond its passage. The myth survived on the aggressiveness and tragedy of assumed Victorian censorship which so neatly fit into well-established notions of Victorians legislating morality.


Questioning of Sale of Poisons, House of Lords

Censorship Goes Up in Smoke, NY Times, Jan 2005

Morals, Art, and The Law: The Passing of the Obscene Publications Act of 1857

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