Skip to main content

Graham Ovenden: Art Collection

Volume 765: debated on Wednesday 21 October 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they plan to intervene to save work from the collection of Graham Ovenden, including work by Pierre Louys and others, from destruction following the ruling made at Hammersmith Magistrates’ Court on 13 October.

My Lords, this Question relates to a specific judicial matter. The Government have no power to intervene in the courts. However, for clarity, this decision relates to the public art collection of a convicted paedophile, which involves images that directly depict the sexual abuse of children. This does not affect the works of art of any public gallery or museum.

My Lords, apart from the potential fate of the art itself, does the Minister agree that this unprecedented judgment has disturbing and huge implications for the protection of other work in the country—for instance, the Warren cup in the British Museum—as well as for the freedom of expression of many contemporary artists? Where is the consistency of this judgment in relation to others? Please will the Minister place a list of the art ordered to be destroyed, and the judgment, in the Library of the House as soon as possible?

The Government will definitely place a list of the art to be destroyed by this judgment in the Library as soon as possible. Sexually explicit art and its creation by artists in this country are not put at risk by this judgment. The judge in this case took into account the fact that this private collection features sexually abusive images, which in England and Wales it is a criminal offence to possess.

My Lords, I heard what the Minister said, but as a matter of principle is it not surprising that a district judge can make absolute moral and aesthetic judgments of this kind involving the destruction of artworks, some of which are more than 100 years old? Is not a much better solution to this to limit display rather than to destroy these works of art? Are we not confusing the artist with the art involved?

My Lords, this case relates to the artist’s private collection. The trustees of the Tate decided no longer to display this art because some of the victims could have been part of the art display, so crime scenes would have been on display in the Tate. There is a statement about that. This case relates to the individual collection. The only person who can appeal is the convicted criminal.

My Lords, there are 21 days for this appeal to be heard; therefore there is time to explore further some of the issues raised here. Are the Government really saying that it is all right to criticise totalitarian regimes elsewhere for destroying art but we are not prepared to take action within ourselves? What happened to our recollections of the Lady Chatterley case? What about the OZ prosecutions? Are there not lessons to be learned about civilised societies and the way they operate? I appeal to the Minister to call a meeting of interested parties in this House to see what options there are to try to rescue the art, accepting that the case of the artist must be left alone.

I would be happy to call a group to address this issue. In this case, it is up to the individual to appeal the judge’s decision; I understand that the judicial process is for him to make that decision. If there is some way that an interested party could encourage him to make that decision, that would be the route I would suggest.

My Lords, I endorse what has been said about this matter of principle. The aesthetics of this country and its art cannot be determined by the magistracy. This is an important decision of principle regardless of what is in this collection. The collection does not have to go on display; it simply does not have to be destroyed. Do not forget that the magistracy ordered the seizure of paintings by DH Lawrence which are now collected and are of great value everywhere.

I agree that the optics of this are concerning. I think the best route forward is to convene a group and to come up with a creative solution, as the noble Lord suggested, because the Government cannot intervene in the judicial process. We need another route in order to protect and save the art. There are works of art in this collection that relate specifically to individuals and are child sexual abuse images. Noble Lords will agree that they should definitely be destroyed.