*On September 17th, the Court of Appeal agreed to conduct a hearing to determine the status of Ovenden’s request for an appeal on what he and his legal team insist is a false conviction. At the same time, it agreed to respond to a request from the Attorney General—prompted by so-called child advocates—to review Ovenden’s sentence which the mainstream press has largely characterized as unduly lenient. The hearing overseen by Lord Chief Justice Thomas along with Justices Henriques and Blake took place on October 9th. The Court rejected the defendant’s bid for an appeal and described the original verdict as “safe” allowing the original trial judgment to stand. The Court did however succumb to political pressure and changed the original suspended sentence handed out by Judge Cottle to a term of imprisonment of 27 months.
According to Justice Thomas, one of the justifications for this change is that the defendant had not shown a “shred of remorse” for his actions. This creates a predictable and intractable problem for a defendant who, knowing he has been unjustly prosecuted, would naturally express outrage at his conviction rather than remorse. In the face of public scrutiny, this kind of tactic is an easy way for authorities to punish any defendant who might challenge his guilty verdict. Interestingly, one mitigating factor Judge Cottle took into account when sentencing Ovenden was that the artist’s reputation had been severely damaged by the proceedings. The Appeals Court, however, did not find that a valid basis for leniency.
Given how events transpired, it seems that the Crown Prosecution Service was determined to make an example of Ovenden—never mind that chaperones were present at photo sessions or that the models continued to visit Barley Splatt and have their photographs taken by the artist many years later. After being better informed of many details of the case, it seems the prosecution had a weak case, but made strenuous use of every bit of legal maneuvering possible to get the conviction. Most egregious of all was their reinterpretation of the 1960 Act so that the mere act of photographing a nude child is considered child abuse per se. Obviously, supporters of the artist and his work are concerned about the chilling effect this will have on future legitimate use of child nudes in art. However, a more important lesson in political reality (and human nature) is when the rules do not suit those who have power, they will manipulate them to their satisfaction. After numerous failures to convict Ovenden, prosecutors finally found a way to get a guilty verdict using a novel application of a statute never intended to apply to taking photographs. With a highly complacent and consolidated mainstream media interested in sensationalism, it was easy for the CPS and the Attorney General to generate the kind of public outcry that allowed the rule of law to be conveniently contorted here.
I was planning to write an essay called Respect and the Starving Artist while a high-profile trial was taking place in the U.K. But the facts of the case turn out to vividly illustrate many of my points more clearly than I had hoped. When any artist dares to cover subject matter involving the images of naked children, the conventional wisdom has become that there must be some sinister intent. Such a patent conclusion says a lot about the ignorant observer who finds solace in blindly observing his society’s paradigms. But it does not offer any useful insights about an artist who is compelled to follow his heart and explore the sometimes convoluted mysteries of human existence. An injustice is being perpetrated and it is my intent to push past the mainstream media’s rhetoric and the showmanship of pundits to offer a clear-eyed view of the situation and afford one particular artist a fair public hearing.
Many who have seen Graham Ovenden’s work with young girls would have to agree that he is a knowledgeable and skilled master of our generation, yet people forget that he is actually a modern day Renaissance Man suffering from a disproportionate emphasis on his nude girl art. He is a painter, photographer, photo historian, collector of Victorian photography and architect. In 1973, he moved with his family to Cornwall where he embarked on the building of Barley Splatt, an estate that remained a work in progress in the decades that followed. Ovenden was also a founding member of the Brotherhood of Ruralists in 1975 along with a number of fellow artists of note. As this essay’s intent is to focus on recent developments, readers not already familiar with Ovenden are urged to get a good overview here.
Ovenden began his photographic work in the late 1950s shooting street scenes in his youth on the East Side of London–some of which were published in Childhood Streets. By 1970, he and Peter Blake put together a series of paintings and photographs on the theme of Lewis Carroll’s Alice. Though Blake moved on to other subjects, Ovenden delved deeper into the prepubescent psyche, producing numerous paintings and photographs of children—both naked and clothed. Among them were commissioned portraits of the children of distinguished parents, and now since the ambiguous Protection of Children Act 1978, his former clients could be subject to prosecution. The Act states that, “It is an offence for a person to take, or permit to be taken, any indecent photograph of a child.”
In 1991, as States of Grace was being published, a set of proofs and a photograph for the book were seized by U.S. Customs and held for over seven months. In February 1992, the U.S. Department of Justice claimed that the work depicted “sexually explicit conduct” which was illegal to import, sell or own. In a hearing one month later, the prosecution narrowed its focus to a single page. A hearing in May was attended by the girl depicted in the image—then 18 years of age—and eminent photo-historian and critic A. D. Coleman. Both were prepared to testify and had written statements. The government withdrew its case and returned the photograph and the proofs. Two months later the book was imported into the United States. The model’s statement was included in the book:
“I have known Graham Ovenden as a family friend for fourteen years—since I was four years old. I have modeled for Graham on numerous occasions—in fact, too numerous to count—for both his photographs and paintings. I have modeled for him both clothed and fully nude, both alone and with other children… The portrait which the United States has charged as indecent is a portrait of me as I was eight years ago. I am not acting in a sexual way in the picture and Graham never asked me to be sexual or treated me as a sexual object. The accusation that the image is ‘obscene’ is, to me, an accusation that I am ‘obscene,’ something to which I take offense.”
In March 1993, officers from the Obscene Publications Squad of the Metropolitan Police burst into Ovenden’s house and took 28 boxes of negatives, 67 videos and a large quantity of photographs. They quickly announced that they had “smashed” an extensive pedophile ring that had been carefully built up for over 20 years. The videos in this impressive-sounding confiscation were all BBC and Hollywood produced films and the materials containing photos included things like a physical education manual issued by the Ministry of Education that served as a standard reference in the British school system for two decades. The indiscriminate search did not yield any charges nor were any apologies offered.
In response, luminaries in the art world signed a petition that was instrumental in persuading the police to return the photographs. Upon their return, the confiscated materials were put on display in an exhibit called The Obscene Publications Squad Versus Art in a London art gallery, enabling the public to judge for themselves. Gallery owner Nicky Akehurst said, “I’m going to be showing the stupidity of it all.” What they took was part of the extensive collection of Victorian photographs that Ovenden and his wife had assembled over a period of 20 years. “The police have targeted photographers,” Akehurst said. “Artists are so vulnerable. And it’s never just one person. There’s got to be a ring.”
In 2009, after an investigation involving officers from the Metropolitan, Devon and Cornwall Police forces, Ovenden was charged with sixteen counts of creating and two counts of possessing “indecent” photographs or pseudo-photographs of children. The images are all versions or stages of sixteen artworks that Ovenden had deleted from his computer well before the time his home was raided in November 2006; the police restored the images using forensic software to use as evidence. In October 2009, after less than two days of trial, the jury was discharged and a new trial date set. On April 9, 2010, after a five-minute hearing, the case was thrown out by the Truro Crown Court as two key prosecution witnesses—officers Tapper and Lemon from the original raid—failed to appear in court. Judge Christopher Elwen ruled that these serious failures of the prosecution would hinder a fair trial for the defendant and he had no option but to discharge the case. The judge’s reprimand was humiliating for prosecutor Ramsay Quaife who declined to launch an appeal. Speaking after the hearing, Ovenden accused the police of being ”transfixed by childhood sexuality”. He added, ”A lot has been made of my young nudes work, but it is really a small part of my output.” The artist had hoped a full trial would reveal the nature of his work, clear his name, and address issues regarding the behavior of police investigators. Some of the work seized in the raid has since been returned.
On April 19, 2010, the Western Morning News reported that the Child Abuse Investigation Team of the Metropolitan Police was investigating Ovenden over allegations of sexual abuse. In March 2013, Ovenden (age 70) went to trial at Truro Crown Court accused of nine charges ranging from sexual abuse to taking indecent photographs of four women when they were children. The three-week trial resulted in convictions on five charges related to Ovenden’s photography, two of indecent assault on a minor and acquittals on two charges of gross indecency with a minor. The prosecution withdrew three sexual abuse charges during the trial, replacing them with three charges based solely on photographs after two of the witnesses had testified they were never abused by Ovenden. Despite having successfully fought off past accusations, the timing of this case may have worked against Ovenden. Revelations regarding Jimmy Savile’s activities had just come to light and investigators and prosecutors had a public image to repair after egregiously overlooking an avenue of investigation that might have genuinely served the public.
The four alleged victims and two of their mothers testified in court. The women—ranging in age from their late 30s to 50—had posed for Ovenden when young and the police claim they made formal complaints in the late 2000s. Though Ramsay Quaife of the Crown Prosecution Service rather recklessly announced that the defendant is a pedophile, Ovenden vehemently denies any assault charges which allegedly took place between 28 to 40 years ago. One woman testified that when she was 6, he got into a bathtub with her and another girl and asked her to wash his “John Thomas” with a washcloth. She also alleged that he cupped his hands over her fully-clothed chest when she was 10; the jury convicted him on both counts. Ovenden is dismayed by the strenuous efforts of the prosecution to coerce witnesses and manipulate evidence to create this false impression.
Two of the remaining charges of sexual contact involved testimony from one woman who said she was asked to wear a Victorian nightdress and had her eyes covered with a black sticky tape blindfold as part of an elaborate ritual. She also claimed that she was locked in a room with Ovenden on three occasions. Obvious inconsistencies in the evidence compelled the jury to acquit Ovenden of these two charges. Photographic exhibits showed that the door in question did not have a lock or a bolt and the girl wore a white blindfold and was accompanied by a chaperone. The photo and others like it were produced as studies for reference in a commissioned work entitled: “Justice, pregnant with the spoils of Mammon, lead the Innocents to slavery.” Due to the technicalities of courtroom procedure, only the image of the chaperone below was admitted into evidence during the trial so this is the first time the public has seen these images.
There were two other “specimen” charges for the act of taking indecent photographs, but it is not clear if these images are related to the three deemed indecent by the jury or to other photographs. None were ever published by Ovenden, but it was the police that made reproductions of these images to serve as evidence. Two were of Maud Hewes, which apparently shows her somewhat more open-legged than in her States of Grace image. She clarified the nature of her participation in the photo sessions with a quote published in The Village Voice, “When I modeled for Graham, I’d make up the poses and he’d shoot them…He never asked me to be sexy and I never tried to…he’s been a family friend since I was four years old.” The third photo was also a variation of a photo of another model that appeared in States of Grace but with her genitals visible. The two complainants pictured in the photographs continue to affirm that they were never touched or mistreated by Ovenden and fully support their published images.
The difficulty in defending against indecency charges in the U.K. is that the standard is subjective. Whether a photograph is “indecent” is determined by whether “right-minded” people think it is. There are no standards or specific factors to consider. A prosecutor doesn’t have to justify why they are indecent, just convince a jury that they are. Art is not a consideration and the sensible notion of considering the image-maker’s intent is irrelevant. [This applied only to the rule of the 1978 Act which was not used here and explains the prosecutions presentation of “scandalous” collages to set the tone for their verdicts even though the collages were not the bases for any charges.] In reality, when assessing the character of an artist, intent is everything and the significance of the unpublished photographs is that no one ever viewed them except Ovenden (and now the police and trial attendees.)
Toward the end of the trial, Ovenden took ill and was hospitalized. As a result, he was not present for the verdict after the jury’s three-day deliberation. He had been waiting years for a chance to get his day in court and clear his name, so perhaps it was a blessing that he was not present.
Judge Graham Cottle ordered Ovenden released on bail; sentencing will be scheduled on a later date. As the media have callously published his address, he can no longer find sanctuary at home. Appeals have been filed but no information is yet available on the specifics or if any basis is due to police conduct.
Ideally, I like to present clear facts about the artists I write about. Usually, the only obstacle is reaching the people who are “in the know” and can offer reliable information. In this case, however, the problem is that recordings of the trial are not readily available to the public. Certainly a good read through the trial transcripts would clarify many things. But the U.K. is not like some other countries; one cannot just order up a copy, because they are not considered public records. Also, a distinction needs to be recognized between a court of law and justice; there are unjust laws just as there are unjust men, and a properly functioning court can still convict a man who has committed no offense in the eyes of reasonable people. The following are a few irregularities I noticed that require explanation.
The women who testified against Ovenden spoke from behind a screen, presumably to protect them from intimidation and perhaps public scrutiny. Courts have denied defendants eye-to-eye access to their accusers before, but the reason has usually been to protect the witness(es) from violent offenders. The use of the screen here sends a signal to the public and the jury that Ovenden remains some kind of threat to these women even into their adult lives.
Christopher Quinlan, who represented Ovenden, asked one of the women why she had waited so long to come forward. She said she blanked out her childhood memories but recalls telling her mother she did not like being photographed by Ovenden. The perplexing thing is that she returned to his home about ten years later—as an 18-year-old—and had her picture taken again by Ovenden. Presented with that image of her smiling, she was asked why she went back, but the woman could only offer “I don’t know.” She then added, “You’re not going to break me. I’m sticking by my story.” The quote “sticking by my story” caught my attention immediately because it is a clear sign of coaching. Witnesses and defendants naturally review their testimony, as they are bound to be nervous in a formal proceeding; but this kind of patent and awkward language suggests she was drilled repeatedly about how the defense will try to tear down her story and how she should stick to the agreed script. Rehearsed testimony interferes with justice in two ways. There may be mitigating circumstances that the prosecution would prefer did not come out, and a competent cross-examination might reveal inconsistencies with the testimony of others. The suspicious statements did in fact get noticed and the question of collusion came up in court, which the judge permitted the jury to take into consideration.The prosecution was thrown off-balance when two of the witnesses scheduled to testify declined to state that they had been abused by Ovenden. The result was a withdrawal of three assault charges that were then replaced by three photographic charges during the trial. The prosecution’s eagerness to embrace a theory not warranted by the photo evidence and the addition of new charges mid-trial are disturbing developments. On the surface it may have appeared that collusion was limited to two of the women; but the modus operandi of criminal investigators would suggest that they were instrumental in helping the women rehearse and even advised them on what charges to file in the first place. The court later got a fuller explanation of why the woman waited to speak out, “It’s only when you get older you realise. It is unnatural, weird, scary, and I didn’t want to do it.” Certainly we have all done things in our past we regret, and then we move on and learn from the experience. Possibly the stigma of posing nude played a role, but realizing later that something is unnatural is a subjective cultural judgment. Is the latter judgment really more valid than the earlier? What makes her testimony lack the ring of sincerity is that she couched her words in a language indicative of victims who suffered horrific abuse. And assuming her description of events were accepted at face value, her experiences would not even approach that level of trauma. There appears to be a timeline problem as well, since Ovenden’s records show that she agreed to pose nude again a year after the alleged incidents, not the action of someone who found the experience “scary.”
A distressing development is that Ovenden’s own son Edmund (Ned) had been helping investigators since about 2006 and is even friends with one of them. Every family has its problems, but this betrayal is hard to fathom without a critical piece of information. Around the year 2000, the younger Ovenden was given a one-third share in the Barley Splatt property and began to borrow heavily against the estate. In 2008, while his father was hospitalized, he and Ovenden’s estranged wife Annie took advantage and removed a substantial amount of artwork and Victorian photography and apparently sold it off. The resulting financial predicament compelled the selling of the estate later that year and the elder Ovenden moved to in an outbuilding—called “The Garage”—where he continued to live until the end of the trial.
The Tate Modern has removed works by Ovenden from public view, saying his conviction “shone a new light” on his work. The thirty-four prints the national gallery owns were removed from its website and will no longer be available to view by appointment while the Tate Gallery Board conducts a proper review. The Tate has faced a controversy relating to images of nude children before and the Crown Prosecution Service has issued numerous warnings about American photographs that the U.S. authorities would not consider prosecuting. In 2009, a single work from Richard Prince’s Spiritual America—an appropriation piece made from Garry Gross’ nude photograph of a 10-year-old Brooke Shields—was removed from view after a warning from the Metropolitan Police that the image might break obscenity laws. The Tate then took it upon itself to pull the works of Ovenden from its website at the same time. All the prints in question were part of a large acquisition donated in 1975 and the Tate may not remove, donate, sell or destroy works from its collection per the Museums and Galleries Act 1992 except under specific circumstances. The exception that might apply here is “…unless the disposal is of a relevant object [work of art] which, in the Board’s opinion, is unsuitable for retention in their collections and can be disposed of without detriment to the interests of students or other members of the public…” Thus, it is the Board’s admittedly subjective mandate to make such decisions, which will undoubtedly reflect the character of the Board members serving at any given time. In the event that any images are legally deemed indecent by the courts, the Tate may be forced to destroy the work, as it is no more legal to possess than to display “obscene” material, nor could they be legally sold or donated. However, it is important to note at present that none of the girls pictured in the Ovenden prints at the Tate were complainants in the recent trial and none have yet been ruled indecent. We can only hope that this voluntary removal was simply a precaution made out of ignorance and not a sign of guilt that could serve as an invitation for an overzealous Obscene Publications Squad to cleanse the museum’s holdings. After the first removal of Ovenden’s work, a blog called Not The Tate was established for viewers to see some of the work and judge its merit for themselves. As of now, no decision has been made to deaccession Ovenden’s prints from the Tate’s collection.
The behavior of the Tate is really only a symptom of a more fundamental problem. The fact that law enforcement involves itself in the affairs of artists means that art in its purest sense cannot serve its proper function. Real artists challenge society’s belief systems and make people think deeply about their world and what shape it should take. Throughout history, there has been a kind of dance between the shaman-artist and those upholding societal norms, and much of the time the establishment dominates until such time our humanity exerts itself from under the heal of oppression and gives us all a degree of liberty once again. Our society—and Great Britain especially—needs men like Graham Ovenden because he is showing us a new truth that many are fighting tooth and nail not to hear. However, with luck it may yet open the door to a more compassionate and noble humanity.
So, what is Ovenden teaching us? For one thing, he is having us look at ourselves in a mirror and realize that we have become obsessed with sex and yet we remain willfully ignorant of the reality it represents. He presents us the image of a whole person in a moment of time in her own right, as he explains in States of Grace:
“Whether I create a painting or photograph, the media is immaterial. In terms of aesthetics, there is no difference. Focusing on sexuality is not the point of my work at all. Sexuality is merely another attribute of the person. Because of this moment of childhood which is so fleeting a strong moral obligation actually to hold and make concrete such imagery. ‘Sexuality’ is part and parcel of the organic and spiritual self; inseparable from it.”
Or from an interview recorded by the British Library in 2000:
“I’m aware of the sensuality of these young girls; I’m moved by their angelic side as well as their demon side; they have a total wonder in them. As an artist, I wish to explore that. Children are beautiful but I don’t flatter them; I draw them with an edge.”
We should count ourselves fortunate that such an artist has shared his beatific vision with us, but Graham Ovenden has his faults like all human beings. He uses his intelligence and education to challenge himself and the rest of us, sometimes in a mischievous way. Confidence in his abilities and disregard for conventional attitudes make him appear arrogant. And he wholeheartedly follows his heart and has done so to a greater degree than most of us, and that evokes envy. History continues to teach us that appeasement offers only temporary and limited benefits and that a greater price must ultimately be paid. British history demonstrated this clearly with respect to Chamberlain and Hitler before World War II, and it is encouraging to know that there are still courageous people like Graham Ovenden fighting for a more beautiful, more spiritually sensitive and more intellectually stimulating world for all of us. Thank you, Graham.
An Update: Desperate People
Although neither Annie (Ovenden’s estranged wife) nor Ned (his son) testified in court, they were instrumental in the complaints that were lodged by at least two of the four former models of Ovenden (now adults) who testified in court as well as one of the mothers. One of the models is a long time friend of Ned and married to Ned’s best friend. Annie is a long time friend of said model’s mother. In addition, the same model owns, administers and is the technical contact for Annie Ovenden’s website since its inception in September 2010. As to the other model, Ned visited her in 2009 in all likelihood to prevail upon her to file a formal complaint against Ovenden. It is unknown what they discussed or what information Ned gave to the police about her, but when she testified at trial she denied ever being touched by Ovenden and claimed only that looking back to her childhood, she found the two photographs—that were never made into prints—distasteful now at age 38.
The emotional intensity of the family rift was further exacerbated by Annie and Ned’s borrowing which precipitated the sale of Barley Splatt when housing prices collapsed then compound the offense by removing valuable antiquarian photographs and artworks to raise more funds. Though it seems indecorous to air a family’s dirty laundry, I felt it important that readers know the context and largely what drove Ovenden’s prosecution and offer some clarity.
Desperate people are the most dangerous people and it is upsetting that time and time again throughout history, such people have no qualms about ruining a person, a community or even a society.
When I began work on this piece, I was told that those who really knew Graham Ovenden wanted to establish a site where the information about the man, his art and the trial could be discussed in a clear-headed fashion. True to form, the mainstream media has propagated ignorance and sensationalized the matter. The site has just gone online and can be seen here.
The two images of Hewes—kept as negatives—that were presented in evidence in this trial were also taken in the 1993 raid. At that time, they were not presented in evidence and were eventually returned to the artist. They were taken again in the 2006 raid along with two other images that were kept in a kind of reference portfolio. Those other images were not presented at trial and the police are now denying they have them.
I used a little deduction to ascertain that the “specimen” charges were not photographs. That may not necessarily be the case. It turns out that Ovenden’s artwork may have been used as evidence to “inform” jurors about the kind of work the artist produces but were not the basis of actual charges. UK law states that instead of showing the jury one image at a time, the prosecution can select one image from a batch and claim it is representative of the batch. By doing this, the prosecution can select what they regard as the most damning image and the jury makes one ruling that convicts or acquits on multiple counts even though they have not seen the rest of the images.
A witness to the end of the trial stated that Judge Cottle demonstrated prejudice in this case by the tone of his instructions to the jury. The judge seemed to be expressing a kind of self-righteous anger as though shaming the jury into convicting. To the jury’s credit, they did deliberate for 2½ days and may have rushed to a compromise due to the impending Easter holiday and the jurors’ desire to get back to their normal lives.
A startling revelation is that after the trial a woman—who said she was a frequent visitor at Barley Splatt during the late 1970s—told defense counsel that based on her experiences there, the stories told by the alleged victims cannot be true. This new evidence will undoubtedly be helpful in an appeal regarding the most serious of the convictions.
A number of Ovenden’s friends are claiming they were threatened by Ned into assisting in the prosecution’s investigation or warned at least to stay away. Details are still coming in so more on this will be available soon. The complication is that many associated with the Ovenden family are close friends with either Annie, Ned or Graham and being asked to take sides in this situation. A few are trying to keep their distance as they are still friendly with members on both sides of this fight.
A reader has suggested that the choice of images here does not help Ovenden’s case. 1) Those who know him well know unequivocally that there is no question of his being a pedophile and I would not have written this post otherwise. 2) Mr. Ovenden has been very open about the kind of art he produces which is absolutely inconsistent with someone who needs to lie low about his activities.
Novel Activist has written two interesting articles about issues associated with the Ovenden case: one about the public hysteria that has developed about child pornography (here) and another about how law enforcement interrogates models to get them to cooperate (here)..
Sentencing took place at Plymouth Crown Court on June 4th. Ovenden was given a 12 month suspended sentence. That means that unless the court deems he has committed a new infraction within two years, he will not be serving any jail time. If he does, he will have to serve the full 12 months. It is clear to me that a farce is taking place between public officials and the media with Ovenden as a convenient pawn.
Two related developments have come to light worth mentioning. Pigtails endeavors to provide accurate information but due to the secrecy of the courts, some pertinent information was not available that would have cleared up some confusion. It turns out that Ovenden was convicted under the Indecency with Children Act 1960 which has different standards than the Protection of Children Act 1978. This was done partly because some alleged events took place before the 1978 Act was in place and for the remaining charges, it appears the prosecution did not believe they could get a successful conviction under the standards of the 1978 Act. The consequence is that the prosecution managed to get convictions on some counts but a more lenient sentence. In response, Attorney General Grieve has requested a hearing to review the sentence which was scheduled for July 26th and then rescheduled for October 9th. This is little more than grandstanding to appease the public but for more details and analysis visit the Artist on Trial Blog. Since Ovenden has filed for an appeal, the court decided to review the sentencing pending the outcome.
Other places to see Graham Ovenden art:
Not The Tate Blog (here): Shows 28 of the 34 images posted at the Tate.
I AM A CHILD (here)