Illustrating Lady Chatterley

Our second items from the Lawrence collection at The Manuscripts and Special Collections Department, Nottingham University are two illustrations by the artist Eric Gill, which were intended to illustrate Lady Chatterley’s Lover, but were never used. Listed in the catalogue as: 

La Z 8/2/2/1: Drawing by Eric Gill for a projected edition of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’; n.d. [c.1930] 

La Z 8/2/2/2: Proof of a wood engraving by Eric Gill for a projected edition of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’; n.d. [c.1931] 

Eric Gill (1882-1940) was an artist, engraver, sculptor, typeface-designer and sexual abuser: but that last was not widely known before 1989, when an excellent biography of him by Fiona MacCarthy was published. In his constant sexual philandering, sexual experimentation and abuse, he was in reality almost exactly what D. H. Lawrence was so often accused of being: obsessed with sex. 

Should the fact affect the way we view the two drawings Gill did as illustrations for Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the novel which first saw the light of day in 1928? 

First answer. Of course it should not. It should certainly affect the way we view Gill. But the drawings stand or fall by their own merits. They would look absolutely identical if we had no idea who had done them: they would stand out, then, as – for the period in which they were done – honest, uninhibited and beautiful. They have no intention to titillate; they are not in the least pornographic. 

Second answer. If only life were so simple! And Gill makes it still harder for us by using himself as his own model for the male figure; they are in some sense self-portraits. We cannot simply exclude the figure of the artist from the way we look at the drawings; both belong to history. 

First Interruption. In February 1930, in the Ad Astra sanatorium, Lawrence read and then started a review of Gill’s book Art Nonsense and other Essays. It was in fact – letters apart – his very last piece of writing. He had, when he wrote it, no idea of Gill’s sexual predilections; the book (though he did not like it much, and thought it terribly badly written) all the same gave him the opportunity to re-inforce something he had been saying, one way or another, for years: ‘Happy, intense absorption in any work, which is to be brought as near to perfection as possible, this is a state of being with God, and the men who have not known it have missed life itself’. 

Second Interruption: Would Lawrence have liked the drawings (he never saw them, so far as we know)? 

John Worthen’s answer 

I suspect he would have found them pornographic, in the way he spelled out in his essay ‘Pornography and Obscenity’, where he noted that ‘In sexual intercourse, there is give and take.’ In the drawings, it is all take (on the man’s side), give on the woman’s. 

For what we might see if we were unprejudiced both for and against them is that the drawings both offer a primarily male perspective on sex. The male is active, the female passive (this is especially true of the white on black drawing); the artist appears primarily interested firstly in getting the man erect (in both senses) and then in drawing the woman’s arse, which is the central point of both drawings. The male figure is then provided as the one who not only fucks but is entirely dedicated to fucking, to the extent that his entire body grows into a long penis; the woman is simply the one who is fucked. 

The fact that the sexual positions are almost identical in both drawings, in what is offered as indoors (curtains hanging in the background, bed heaped up softness) and as outdoors (cue symbolic plant growths and upward springing grass) also suggests that these are no more than settings for a symbolic, erect sex act. But in both, the man tucks his head down and avoids the woman’s gaze. He is focussed on his fucking, just as the artist is on her arse. 

A sentence Lawrence wrote in another review comes in handy here; he describes the sexual experience of some men as ‘only having yourself all the time. No matter what other individual you take as a machine à plaisir, you’re only taking yourself all the time’. That seems terribly true of these drawings; the woman is entirely functional (machine à plaisir is exactly right) for the opportunity of the man: and as a result it is as if he takes himself, not her. 

We might conclude that the man in the drawings behaves to the woman in exactly the same way as the artist behaves towards her: that she is there for his use. 

The drawings are, perhaps, examples of almost exactly what Lawrence was trying not to do in his novel: make the sex something to be looked it. He wanted it to be something felt. Gill is deeply, deeply fascinated by looking, I would say, and his gaze is obsessed; and that (oddly enough) is his limitation as an artist. 

Do the drawings help us see Lady Chatterley’s Lover more clearly? Yes, in a way – by showing us something that is so utterly unlike the novel. 

Kate Foster’s answer 

When Gill’s engravings were published on the cover of the DH Lawrence Review vol 22 fall 1990, Dennis Jackson described them as, ‘explicitly sensual… We suspect that, were Lawrence still alive, this might be his favorite among all our covers over the past 22 years.’ 

Do I agree? 

 We know now that when Lawrence wrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover he was dying of tuberculosis and Frieda, having left her first marriage for Lawrence, was now having an affair with the man she would go on to marry after his death. So Frieda Weekley is a model for Connie Chatterley, an aristocratic woman who chooses to leave a comfortable marriage and defy social conventions. And Lawrence is, as John Worthen has said, both Mellors and Clifford Chatterley: ‘A working class man who had moved into the middleclass but who felt at home nowhere, now putting behind him a marriage with a sexually rapacious woman… and Clifford, the writer, the husband no longer feeling desire, prepared for his wife to have an affair with another man so long as she remained his partner.’ 

Connie Chatterley doesn’t have Frieda’s force, but she grows through the novel and, like all Lawrence’s female characters, she has agency. In Gill’s pictures the woman is positioned on top of the man, she appears strong and healthy, it’s the male figure who looks thin and rather weak, his ribs showing. His downcast expression and the way he holds her seems as if he needs her strength (remember Mellors was also ill) and Gill positions her on top with the freedom to walk away. 

The female figure is not on display for the male gaze, we see her bum but only a hint of her breasts, it’s a stylised but not a sexualised view of a woman. To me she seems very real, with muscles in her arms, shoulders and legs, she seems the stronger of the two. And if the focus is on her bum isn’t Gill just trying to capture what Mellors wouldn’t shut up about: ‘Tha’s got the nicest arse of anybody. It’s the nicest, nicest woman’s arse as is!’ I won’t go on! 

‘What we need is tenderness towards the body, towards sex, we need tenderhearted fucking.’ said Lawrence in despair at the world around him. So perhaps the question should be, is there a tenderness about these pictures? I think there is. I don’t see only physical desire but love and compassion too; the couple are cradling each other. At its heart, Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a novel about the aftermath of the first world war and its catastrophic effect on both men and women. Doris Lessing summed it up in her brilliant 2006 introduction ‘What we are left with is images of a man and a woman, both damaged by war, by the cataclysm, orphans in the storm, survivors, sheltering in each other’s arms.’ 

That is what I see in these pictures. 

A Note from John Worthen 

It’s perhaps worth saying that the pair are not really (as you, Kate, suggest) ‘cradling each other’. The hands are in fact rather remarkable: the women’s left hand positively droops over the man’s back (clearer still in the first state of the picture), her right hand just rests on his shoulder – while there is no energy or clasping in the man’s hands either. The only real contact between them is the man’s prick: sufficiently long to be both securely lodged and beautifully visible. The pictures remind me, sadly, of Gill’s rather awful sequence of illustrations proceeding from ‘God Sending’ (a man fully erect dispatched from heaven), via ‘Earth Waiting’ (a woman waiting) and ‘Earth Inviting’ to ‘Earth Receiving’, with the male figure all over the recumbent woman. That seems to me to be the way Gill views relations between men and women. It is also striking that although he clearly enjoys illustrations of a man’s sex (cf. his drawing ‘The Most Precious Ornament’, of his own erect prick and balls) there are no female sexual organs in his output that I have been able to find. A little discreet pubic hair or a neat ‘v’ are as far as he is prepared to go. It’s a male oriented universe, only men are overtly sexual: the women simply receive the gift of the man. I fear that is true of the Lady Chatterley illustrations too. Kate?  

Last Word from Kate Foster 

As an afterthought, through a Lawrence society poetry discussion the other night, I discovered the poem, Rainbow, which gave me another perspective: 

 But the one thing that is bow-legged 

and can’t put its feet together 

is the rainbow. 

Because one foot is the heart of a man 

and the other is the heart of a woman. 

And the two, as you know,
never meet. 

Save they leap 

high— 

Oh hearts, leap high! 

—they touch in mid-heaven like an acrobat 

and make a rainbow. 

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