Culture Trips

Rupert bare: how the Oz obscenity trial inspired a generation of protest art | Art

“What do you suppose is the effect intended to be of equipping Rupert Bear with such a large sized organ?”

Fifty years ago, this was the question put to expert witness Edward de Bono, under pain of perjury. The six-week trial of Oz magazine at the Old Bailey was the longest obscenity trial in England’s history. It remains the most absurd.

Imported from Sydney in 1967, Oz became the essential mouthpiece of the London counterculture. Devoted to political dissent, rock music and transgressive design, the monthly mag reached enough readers to embody the fringe while chafing the mainstream. When the editors invited teenagers to edit their May 1970 number, the resulting Schoolkids Issue hit bookstalls full of schoolmaster rants, outrage at the recent Kent State massacre … and a spread that changed history.

Across pages 14 and 15, a 15-year-old boy had pasted the head of Rupert Bear, the Daily Express mascot, on to a sex strip by the American illustrator R Crumb. Though par for Oz, this desecration awakened Scotland Yard. Led by DI Frederick Luff, the obscene publications squad raided Oz’s office, confined Richard Neville and his two co-editors for psychiatric evaluation, and brought five charges against them including the infamous “conspiracy to corrupt public morals”, a crime punishable by unspecified years in prison.

In the decades since, critics have gawked with a mixture of disbelief and hilarity at the summer that killed London’s hippie dream. What’s not often discussed in this story, though, is the rich graphic culture the trial produced. Artists including John Lennon and David Hockney responded with an array of approaches, forcing a public reckoning with the power of image. And one effect of the trial was to elevate underground graphics to the level of political discourse. Through the Friends of Oz, a pressure group led by gallerist Sue Miles, R Crumb’s character, Honeybunch Kaminski, became the free speech icon of the summer across shirts, fliers, and posters.

Cover of the May 1970 issue of Oz, ‘the Schoolkids Issue’.
Cover of the May 1970 issue of Oz, ‘the Schoolkids Issue’. Photograph: Lordprice Collection/Alamy

When the trial began, a colossal papier-mâché Honeybunch paraded a life-sized Rupert in her lap outside the Old Bailey. Thanks to its own obsession with sex, the obscene publications squad helped realise Crumb as a bard of the generational divide, an explorer of the male psyche whose tools were situational realism and perversion.

Poor sexualised Rupert became a cudgel for both sides of the debate. The Polish painter Feliks Topolski, called to court as a special witness, defended him as “a great invention” of satire. But when activist Mary Whitehouse won an audience at the Vatican she brought the Pope a copy of The Schoolkids Issue as evidence of England’s “moral pollution.” In response at Ink magazine, Gerald Scarfe turned Whitehouse into Rupert’s lover and Pope Paul VI their voyeur. Though Ink censored the operative element, they could not stop a letter from Whitehouse’s lawyer.

Rupert and Honeybunch immediately entered a visual lexicon of civil rights. Like the labour fist and nuclear disarmament sign, Honeybunch gained power when applied to a new cause. Rupert also speaks to symbols: anticipating the Nazi triangle that Aids activists would later reclaim, he showed how imagery could migrate from one end of the political spectrum to another.

In another issue of Ink, Ralph Steadman summed up the trial’s sense of injustice by inverting a generational quarrel over hair. After their conviction on obscenity, the defendants’ long hair had been shorn by their jailers. In Steadman’s cover announcing the conspiracy acquittal in August, Judge Michael Argyle towers at the bench with locks billowing from his wig. Below him cower three bare heads. Stripped like Samson of identity, the editors become anonymous everymen.

Richard Neville, James Andreson and Felix Dennis, subjects of the longest obscenity trial in British legal history.
Felix Dennis, Richard Neville, and Jim Anderson, subjects of the longest obscenity trial in British legal history. Photograph: Ron Gerelli/Getty Images

Steadman might have followed David Hockney, whose lithograph of the defendants back in March had also played with hair and innocence. Centred in a generous field of cardstock, Hockney’s three editors lock eyes with you in varying states of nudity. Their faces, paired with strategic hands, communicate the exact blend of defiance and fragility that propelled their movement.

This triptych carries real political weight. The three naked editors embody not only resistance to state censorship but, by reducing nudity to its banal innocence, Hockney depicted the prospects of any artist, anywhere, whose studio practice and sexuality (Jim Anderson, centre, was that rare out gay man in the years of decriminalisation) opened him to similar persecution. Though neglected in his catalogues and biographies, the Oz portrait is one of Hockney’s most daring works.

It was sold, in an edition of 30, through the gallery of Clytie Jessop, an Australian expat and matriarch of London’s pop scene. In April 1971, Jessop gathered 31 contributors to Ozjets d’Art, a fundraising auction for the legal defence. She printed a catalogue and made it an event. Hockney showed alongside Martin Sharp and Philippe Mora, top illustrators in the Oz masthead. Works arrived from abroad, from Andy Warhol and the Mexican dissident Felipe Ehrenberg. Major English artists took part, among them Terry Gilliam, Richard Hamilton, Yoko Ono, Patrick Proctor, Scarfe, and Steadman.

State aggression suffused Jessop’s show. Kent State Killing, Richard Hamilton’s screenprint of televised coverage of the slaughter of peaceful protestors in Ohio, likened Luff’s squad to Nixon’s reviled national guard. Ehrenberg, exiled to England after Mexico City’s precursor to Kent State, brought a similar angst.

The summer that killed London’s hippie dream … the Oz trial at the Old Bailey, London, 1971.
The summer that killed London’s hippie dream … the Oz trial at the Old Bailey, London, 1971. Photograph: Jane Bown/The Observer

If Sue Miles led the charge in the streets, Jessop rallied London’s cultural elite. She turned the benefit auction into a protest in itself. And the roster she amassed at a moment’s notice helped artists think of political response as a group imperative. One recalls the Art for Aids series of the 1980s and 90s, and the massive Art for America following the destruction of the World Trade Center – group auctions designed both to relieve and to make visible a crisis.

Perhaps none felt more at stake than Jessop’s contributor John Lennon. Shortly before the Schoolkids Issue, DI Luff had raided an exhibition of drawings recounting in detail Lennon’s honeymoon with Yoko Ono. A technicality had cleared Lennon of obscenity, but he seized Jessop’s offer for revenge. Lennon balked at Oz’s open-and-shut case in a sculpture that owed much to his wife’s work: a framed cabinet with the left door labeled “OPEN”, the right labelled “SHUT” and – like the charges – containing nothing. The work sold for £25 at the time, resurfacing at Christie’s some 30 years later for over £28,000.

Lennon’s cupboard made a point but his next gesture was more material. The week of Jessop’s show, he and Ono wrote the fundraising anthem God Save Oz (retitled God Save Us to catch on overseas). They deployed the Imagine players and producer Phil Spector on more than 20 takes of the song. Though his contract required another singer to replace him, Lennon’s voice survives in a demo that equates basic rights of speech with the trial’s central symbol: “Let us fight for Rupert Bear / Let us fight for freedom.”

The Oz anthem and its manic B-side convey the momentum Jessop and Miles were gathering for the Old Bailey. Try hearing Gimme Some Truth, recorded days later for Lennon’s Imagine, without picturing the faces in Hockney’s lithograph. Born of Rupert, and wearing Honeybunch on its sleeve, this forgotten Ono-Lennon single drew the iconography of the trial into one of the couple’s most pointed protests.

Though Lennon et al helped win them an acquittal on conspiracy, the Oz editors were convicted of obscenity, shorn, jailed briefly, and cleared on appeal only in November. Sudden fame is said to have sapped the old fun, causing Oz to fold in 1973. When the newspapers quieted, the last word on the trial was journalist Tony Palmer’s The Trials of Oz, a volume assembled from tape recordings and eyewitness to offset the libel Palmer found in the press. Perhaps the book’s commitment to truth explains the vague danger it posed. The book’s illustrations – fine expressionist doodles by the defence witness Feliks Topolski – caused 50,000 copies (10,000 had been bought by WH Smith) to sit condemned in a warehouse pending legal clearance. In a fitting close to a summer of icons and fear, the distributor wanted assurance that Topolski, official chronicler of Nuremberg and the Queen’s coronation, had sketched his courtroom scenes from memory, not from life.

Palmer and Jessop and Miles understood that if injustice thrives on visual language –as Luff and Argyle were thought to have done – then protest must also be visual. They wielded their artists accordingly. The torch is carried today as Pain, a pressure group led by photographer Nan Goldin, stages protests for opioid reform in the very places where the Sacklers build their legacy: in art museums. This same defiance animated the response to the killings at Charlie Hebdo, a spiritual relative of Oz, after the French weekly ran a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad in 2015. Among the many artists who produced pictures overnight was R Crumb: some 45 years after Rupert, Crumb’s offering recalls the fear involved in prescribing the medicine of one’s aggressor.

Difficult as this response may be in times of crisis, it is one we now expect from our artists. More than ending an era for London’s hippies, perhaps the Oz trial created an era for us.

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