Image from 'A harlot's progress'

From Georgian harlots to mail-order masochism

As Oscar Wilde famously observed, ‘Everything in the world is about sex except sex’. There is something about the lens of desire that is particularly revealing about a culture.

In contrast to Japan or France, there isn’t a long tradition of erotic art in Britain, but there are early precedents. A Harlot’s Progress, William Hogarth’s series of satirical engravings (1732), based on paintings that are no longer extant, is one such example. Across six images a sequential narrative tale unfolds, in effect an early forerunner of the comic. In some versions the prints are actually arranged on a single page and captioned, paralleling the form we recognise even more closely.

The intention of the artist, and the consequent reaction of audiences to the prints, are ambiguous. On the one hand the heroine of the tale, the pretty and naive Miss Hackabout, is shown to be an easily led naïf: she arrives in London and quickly descends from unmarried kept woman to prostitute. Nevertheless the luckless Miss Hackabout is portrayed with an appealing joie de vivre that invites viewers to consider her moral decline as much due to her unlucky circumstances as to her own moral failings.

Usage terms: : Public Domain

When the first hardcore sex comics began to appear in the UK in the 1940s and 50s they were not easily accessible to the public. In fact, their means of distribution harked back to the Victorian period – a time that saw the first big boom in the production of pornographic material in Britain as a result of the improved postal service.

Reina Bull, aka Janine, was an artist with a very distinctive style. She worked in the erotic publishing underground during the 1940s and 50s, contributing to a number of mail order titles from Utopia Press including Fads & Fancies. Fairly tame sadomasochistic material was the order of the day here. Readers’ sexual exploits were published side-by-side with comics and drawings of women trussed up in exquisitely painful-looking outfits.

Fads and Fancies vol. 1, no. 7: "Delia: Episode 4"

Fads & Fancies: Utopia (no. 2), Reina Bull, 1950

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Bull’s work was in the spirit of American pulp artist and contemporary Eric Stanton, whose luridly coloured amazons sexually terrorised passive suburban men in endlessly inventive ways. In both Bull’s and Yeager’s work we see a powerful reclaiming of female sexuality from the male-dominated world of sadomasochism – the threat of actual violence from the male voyeur is replaced with frank role-play and dark fantasy that is both erotic and playful.

The advances made in gender equality and sexual freedom slowed in post-war Britain, as a deeply shaken country attempted to drag itself back from near-collapse. Its bombed out streets and decades-long austerity measures bred an atmosphere of sexual inhibition that was to hold sway right up until the late 1960s. This was apparent in the sublimation of sex in erotic comics of the time – bondage and S & M dominated, an elaborate theatrical enactment of the power plays inherent in intercourse that avoided the necessity of showing full nudity or penetration

For Reina Bull realism was of secondary importance; in her work curves were the order of the day, from the heaving bosoms of dominatrix madams to the muscular rumps of the stallions that heroically sought to carry them. Women’s feet were shrunk down to erotic oddities, as if the products of Chinese foot-binding. Although there was a thrilling air of menace in the storylines, with kidnaps and riding crops freely brandished, there was something humorous about Bull’s work that steered it clear of actual cruelty. Bull’s oeuvre stretched beyond erotic comics, although they comprised the majority of her work. As an artist-for-hire she also provided memorable covers for sci-fi magazines, as well as pulp book covers for Todd Publishing, including covers for titles by Agatha Christie and Daphne du Maurier.

This article is an excerpt from Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK (The British Library) by Paul Gravett and John Harris Dunning.

From Georgian harlots to mail-order masochism © John Harris Dunning and Paul Gravett. This item can be used for your own private study and research. You may not use this work for commercial purposes.

  • John Harris Dunning
  • John Harris Dunning is a comics writer whose work has appeared at the Comica Festival and in the UK anthology Sturgeon White Moss.

  • Paul Gravett
  • Paul Gravett is a writer, curator, lecturer and broadcaster, co-director of Comica Festival, co-publisher of Escape Books and author of Comics Art (Tate).