M ention the word erotic and immediately it conjures up images of sexual activity. Then where you draw the line between erotic and pornographic is a subjective one. “The erotic is a realm where desire and imagination meet. When you look at a great work of erotic art, you sense a world outside its obvious parameters: a complicit triangulation between the creator, the subject (perhaps more than one) who inspired such intimate expression, and the viewer turned voyeur. There’s a disruptive quality to the best erotica, which filters into your dreams and waking fantasies. It doesn’t just seduce its audience – it transports them without permission,” says Rowan Pelling, a Daily Telegraph columnist known for her eight-year editorship of The Erotic Review and her sex column for GQ, who has written the catalogue introduction for the Sotheby’s Erotic sale on 16 February in London.
ROWAN PELLING. IMAGE: FINE PAIR PHOTOGRAPHY
Brought up in a small village pub in Kent, Pelling studied English Literature at St Hugh’s College Oxford and her first job was on the satirical magazine Private Eye as PA for its editor Ian Hislop. Just before Christmas 1996 she went to help two art dealers, James Maclean and Tim Hobart, at their new company, The Erotic Print Society, which sold limited edition reproductions of licentious artworks. “I instantly fell in love with this ribald new world of Thomas Rowlandson prints and recherché etchings and ended up staying for eight years. I relished being in a working environment where you could openly discuss every aspect of human sexuality. It didn’t take long to discover there was no modern proclivity which hadn’t been tested to its limits by our forebears,” Pelling recalls of those years. “I couldn’t help enjoying the constant Carry On-style stream of office innuendo; one male colleague always prefaced a request for sticky tape or post-it notes with the words, “Rowan, may I rummage through your drawers?”
"There’s a disruptive quality to the best erotica, which filters into your dreams and waking fantasies. It doesn’t just seduce its audience – it transports them without permission."
Pelling re-launched the Society’s newsletter The Erotic Print Society Review (later re-titled The Erotic Review) as a cultural digest of all things sensual. At its peak, circulation hit 30,000, which was very respectable for a literary magazine. “We placed ads for the magazine in the quality press – The Daily Telegraph, The Times, The Spectator and The Guardian – and had an incredible response from people living in Georgian rectories, manor houses and Holly Tree cottages all over the Home Counties and Shires. I suppose that’s what The Erotic Review taught me: respectable, conformist exteriors often conceal wanton flights of fantasy. There’s something very British about that particular art of concealment; a tacit acknowledgement of the fact sexual engagement can be more fun if it edges on the illicit.” The magazine became known for its puckish humour, wide-ranging reviews, bold artwork, short stories and interrogation of all aspects of sexuality. Many well-known writers, artists and public figures became contributors, including Auberon Waugh, Barry Humphries, Claus von Bulow, Damien Hirst, Boris Johnson, Malcolm McLaren, David Bailey, George Saunders, Sarah Waters, Grace Woodward, Immodesty Blaize and Booker Prize winner DBC Pierre.
In the late ‘90s, set against a magazine landscape awash with fashion, lad culture and entertainment gossip magazines, Erotic Review stood out. “There was a huge amount of press around the Review and my mother was phoned up by the local newspaper, the Sevenoaks Chronicle, to ask what she thought about my new, controversial role. She replied that “Betty Boothroyd [then Speaker of the House of Commons] started as a Tiller Girl and look at her now!” That’s remained my response to people who wonder why I persist in writing and thinking about erotic topics. It’s obvious to me sex is the starting point from which all else follows.”
"There’s something very British about that particular art of concealment; a tacit acknowledgement of the fact sexual engagement can be more fun if it edges on the illicit."
It was during the Erotic Review years that Pelling started a wider writing career in journalism. She has also taught workshops in erotic writing – the composition of the classes is nearly always three quarters women to one-quarter nervous men. In 2004 she was a Man Booker Prize judge and she is a patron of the Cambridge Literary Festival. She is also a frequent broadcaster and has made documentaries for Radio 4 on kissing, procrastination, The Story of O and Gustav Klimt. In 2012 she won the Funny Women Charity Challenge and has now performed stand-up in a variety of venues.
For Pelling, sex is indeed the starting point from which all else follows.
The Erotic: Passion & Desire sale in London on 16 February features over 100 extraordinary works comprising 19th-century furniture, design, fine art, photography and contemporary sculpture.
Discover Rowan Pelling's Guide to Erotic Art here.