When we talk about the depiction of sex in Britain before, say, the second World War, the visions are of starched collars coupled with a very prim and prudish morality. In fact, the truth is quite different.
In terms of visual erotica, the pornographic themes recognisable from the home pages of Pornhub and Brazzers haven’t changed all that much in 300 years. Exhibitionism and voyeurism, threesomes, BDSM and urolagnia were all commonplace in forbidden novels, pamphlets and prints. Whilst it was impossible to peddle such articles overtly (with the possible exception of London’s notorious Holywell Street) because of their shocking content, many were circulated surreptitiously among friends in supper-clubs and public houses.
But there were some themes that are rather less familiar. During the late 18th Century, the caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson created dozens – perhaps even hundreds – of erotic images for the future Prince Regent and his more decadent subjects. Most of these scenes were, as biographer Art Young rather charmingly puts it, ‘notoriously of free tendency as regards subject’. Almost anyone could make an appearance in these bawdy watercolours and prints: including, oddly, man’s best friend.
Some of Rowlandson’s dogs are purely ornamental (see example right). They stretch and doze in the foreground, oblivious to the debauchery occurring around them. However others are more directly involved. Small, shaggy hounds can often be seen embarking on their own sexual conquests or yapping indignantly at their beloved (and very preoccupied) masters. Either way, the placement of these creatures renders it difficult to escape their presence within the erotic sphere.
There are several explanations for Rowlandson’s liberal use of the canine companion: perhaps their inclusion was a sign of the times, a symbol of the increasing popularity of domesticated pets across social and economic boundaries.
It’s far more likely, however, that Rowlandson included these animals as part of his satirical view of Regency England. With the advent of the industrial revolution, Britain’s fortunes were advancing at an alarming rate. As slums overflowed and cities were darkened by the smoke that belched from factory chimneys, aristocrats and politicians became richer and more debauched by the day. As such, these rutting canines were a symbol of man’s stifling domestication; or, alternatively, his increasingly animalistic desire for wealth and flesh.
Rowlandson was not the only erotic artist with an interest in dogs. In the latter part of the 18th Century, the French artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard painted several works depicting young women and their adored pets. Each piece is strikingly intimate, particularly Young Woman Playing with Dog: a private scene that radiates softness and sensuality.
Whilst the subjects themselves are not inherently sexual (unlike those within Rowlandson’s etchings), they do serve to depict an element of passion in the bond between a woman and her lap-dog. In her essay on the works, Jennifer Milan argues that such relationships were the beginning of a new kind of human-animal bond: ‘situated in private enclosed spaces, contained within a circular flow of pose and gesture… the intimate relationship between doggy and woman is presented as mutually determined by interspecies sensuality’.
This playful interspecies relationship was not entirely innocent. It’s true that these young women saw their dogs as playthings or companions, just as today we might refer to our pets as ‘fur-babies’. But, if this really was the case, why was there such a strong element of sensuality in Fragonard’s depictions of these women?
The answer lies within the perception of these former hunting dogs as man’s principal love-rivals. Some even viewed the subservient puppy dog as less of a companion and more of a sexual servant for upper-class women. In his satirical poem Bounce to Fop, Alexander Pope embraces this idea with glee:
When all such Dogs have had their Days,
As knavish Pams, and fawning Trays;
When pamper’d Cupids, bestly Veni’s,
And motly, squinting Harvequini’s,
Shall lick no more their Lady’s Br—,
But die of Looseness, Claps, or Itch…’
Fair Thames from either ecchoing Shoare
Shall hear, and dread my manly Roar.
So, take your pick: was this slightly absurd image of a woman fondling her lap-dog a conjuration of male hubris, or evidence of genuine sexual deviancy?
Certainly, such an abundance of canine appearances in 18th-century erotic art (and literature) suggests dogs were viewed as little more than potential sexual accessories. As our beloved pets and even surrogate children, we may see this as shockingly aberrant today. But, as the period saw dogs become increasingly domesticated, there would be one significant and inevitable consequence: they would gradually become entangled in the complex sexual lives of their human masters.