Come Together: John Lennon's illegal art

Confiscated in a Scotland Yard raid, John Lennon’s erotic drawings spent only a single day on display in London. Fifty years on, the explicit lithographs made by the Beatle at his creative and controversial peak are highly desirable collectors’ pieces

2 March 2020

Most of the famous couples of history – Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Pat and Dick Nixon – have left it to our imaginations to envision them joined in the act of love. But here, for the first time, a pair of famous lovers actually shows us how they express their love for one another.’ 

So ran the introduction to a feature in the March 1970 issue of the short-lived Avant-Garde magazine. The magazine was taking quite a risk by publishing the set of lithographs it was describing. Not from a commercial perspective – there were certainly no shortage of people who were curious to see erotic drawings sketched by John Lennon of himself and his wife Yoko Ono on their honeymoon. 

The peril came from Scotland Yard; these drawings were considered so obscene that not only had they been removed from a London gallery by the Met two months earlier, but they would also go on to be the basis of a court case that eventually drew on the content of the Queen’s art collection. 

By the beginning of 1970 the Beatles were, to the outside world at least, still a functioning band. Paul McCartney’s public announcement of the break-up of the group was still four months away. But, in reality, the former Fab Four were already de facto solo artists. 

John Lennon, Erotic, #1, 1969

While Ringo Starr began shooting movies with Peter Sellers, McCartney took sanctuary on his Scottish farm and George Harrison recorded a mammoth triple album solo project, Lennon was, at this point, by far the highest-profile musician in the country. Fresh from his two-week-long Bed-Ins for Peace in Montreal and Amsterdam, and having just scored a worldwide hit with Give Peace a Chance, Lennon had no intention of entering the 70s quietly. 

“Perhaps I’ll get interested in drawing and painting again,” he said in an interview at the end of 1969. “You can’t stand still and I think I’ve been standing still for a bit too long.” 

It was Anthony Fawcett, Lennon and Ono’s assistant at the time, who first suggested that lithography could be a new creative avenue. At first Lennon’s response was ambivalent; the Beatle preferred the spontaneity of drawing cartoons straight onto paper. But Fawcett managed to find a solution. 

John Lennon, Honeymoon, 1970

“I devised a way to shortcut the complicated procedure of working directly onto stone blocks or zinc plates,” he later recalled. “By using specially treated ‘litho paper’, which I had sent out to his house along with an array of suitable brushes, litho ink, and crayons, John would be able to draw or paint in his usual manner. The images could later be transferred from the paper onto sensitized zinc plates by means of an advanced technical process, and the lithographs printed in the traditional way.” 

The impressionistic results were created by Lennon in two phases. The first, drawn around the time of his wedding to Ono in Gibraltar and their subsequent holiday in Paris, were fairly simple depictions of the couple together. The second set, drawn during their Bed-Ins were far more skillfully crafted, and a lot more intimate, depicting both of them naked in various love-making positions. 

Three thousand individual prints were made up, each signed by Lennon, and 300 complete sets of the 14 lithographs were packaged in white leather bags emblazoned with the words Bag One in black capitals. The lithographs could be bought for £40 each or a whopping £550 for the set. 

John Lennon Dream Power

The London Arts Gallery on New Bond Street (now a Burberry store), opened the show on 15 January 1970 – though the exhibition was doomed not to run its course. The very next day, Scotland Yard’s Obscene Publications Squad, known as the Dirty Squad, entered the gallery, charged the owner Eugene Schuster under the 1830 law forbidding “profane, indecent or obscene” drawings or images and seized eight of the prints. 

Lennon and Ono were away in Denmark, but their absence only inflamed the fury of Detective Inspector Frederick Luff, the head of the Obscene Publications Squad, who, according to files released in 2001 by the National Archive, said: “Many toilet walls depict work of similar merit. It is perhaps charitable to say that [they] are the work of a sick mind.” 

The decision to use this obscure 1830 law rather than the better known Obscene Publications Act of 1959 seems to have been taken only after the director of public prosecutions received a letter from an artist by the name of PFC Fuller two days after the raid. 

‘John Lennon’s lithographs interest me considerably,’ Fuller wrote. ‘If the subject matter forms the basis of the prosecution case, this will be the first of many such actions your department may well have to cope with. There are thousands of prints by Rembrandt van Rijn (to name but one artist) depicting sexual intercourse, so at least one such print will figure in all the important state and private collections... I understand that HM the Queen has some highly erotic work by Fragonard.’ 

Gallery Director Eugene Schuster, 1970

Regardless of the possibility of the reigning monarch’s art collection being raided in the future, the case went to Marlborough Street Magistrates Court in late April 1970, a few weeks after the lithographs were printed in Avant-Garde. 

It was only in court that the reasons for using the obscure 19th-century law, which contained the accusation that the artworks were ‘…to the annoyance of passengers’, became clear. By using this, rather than the Obscene Publications Act, Scotland Yard felt it had swerved the chances of Lennon’s representatives using the defence of artistic merit and public interest, which did not apply under the more arcane law. 

The explosive-tempered Detective Inspector Luff told the magistrate that when he went to the gallery on 15 January about 40 people were viewing the prints. 

“I saw no display of annoyance from the younger age group, but one gentleman was clearly annoyed,” he told the magistrat, St. John Harmsworth. “Did he stamp his foot?” asked Harmsworth. “Anger was definitely registered on his face,” came the reply. 

Then a prosecution witness, an accountant from south London, took the stand to state, “I felt a bit sick that a man should draw himself and his wife in such positions. It was a shock to see Yoko in the nude with a rather exaggerated bosom with apparently somebody sucking a nipple.” 

John Lennon Starting Over

The laughter from the public gallery, reported The Guardian at the time, was audible. Harmsworth dismissed the case, concluding that the wording of the law concerning the word ‘passengers’ left the Dirty Squad without a hope of a successful prosecution. 

“They have, for the time being, finished passaging,” he declared, referring to those who attended the solitary day of the trial. He also found that Lennon’s drawings were “unlikely to deprave or corrupt.” 

Half a century on, the paintings are a lot less likely to cause moral panic. They are, however, also a lot more likely to bankrupt anyone desiring to own one. Currently, the official Art of John Lennon website is selling some of the original signed lithographs for upwards of £10,000. 

As the defending lawyer at the trial observed at the time, when he handed over a set of lithographs to the court, “I hope the officer will not mark them, because no doubt by the end of this case they will be worth a lot more than £550.” 

artofjohnlennon.com