Was there ever a ‘British Tantric sex’? In fact, Westerners are probably too, as it were, hard on themselves when it comes to the art of sex. We tend to look to the East for all of that. Yes, there’s plenty of evidence that, historically, the average European was a rotten lover. But, on the other hand, what evidence is there that the average Indian or Chinese ever lived up to the erotic statues, illustrations and manuals that we’ve become used to?
I’m pondering this because whilst searching for a cover for my latest ebook (60 Wrong Ways To Have Sex) I came across some fascinating prints by the artist, caricaturist and illustrator Thomas Rowlandson (1756 – 1827). The one I chose shows a sailor having sex while smoking a pipe, a glass of wine in one hand and a decanter in the other. By his side are a coffee pot and some things to eat. So this is exactly the kind of scene we associate with leisurely Oriental lovemaking. Was Rowlandson’s illustration utter fantasy, a depiction of the unique way he himself had sex, or proof that there were always appreciable numbers of people in the West who, indeed, treated sex as an art?
I tend towards the latter view.
Rowlandson was quite a character. A student at the Royal Academy he would have become an important artist if he had not had the misfortune to inherit £7,000 (a small fortune in those days) and proceeded to dissipate it on wine, women and gambling. When the money ran out he was forced to think commercially, illustrating books by (among others) Henry Fielding, Oliver Goldsmith, Laurence Sterne and Tobias Smollet, and was always on the look-out for themes that would make popular prints. Here his days of ‘debauchery’ at last brought him a return. His erotic works are bawdy rather than mystical but when you take them together with, say, the erotic murals at Pompeii, the ancient concept of hieros gamos (union with the divine), the ritualized sexual relations of early Christian groups such as the Carpocratians, the sexual mysticism of the Kabbalah, the 17th century ‘inner alchemy’ of John Pordage, the poems and engravings of William Blake (an almost exact contemporary of Rowlandson), and so on and so on, you see a continuous thread of Western sexual creativity. I’ll have more to say about all of this in a future blog.