From utopian dreams to Soho sleaze: the naked history of British nudism

·5 min read

A new book details how nudism began as a movement of intellectuals, feminists and artists, only to be suppressed by the state. But our attitudes to nakedness also tell us a lot about ourselves

When Annebella Pollen was 17, she left behind her strict Catholic upbringing for the life of a new-age hippy, living in a caravan and frolicking naked among the standing stones of Devon, while earning a living by modelling for life-drawing classes. That early experience, followed by a relationship with a bric-a-brac dealer, shaped her later life as an art historian. “I’m very interested in things that are culturally illegitimate,” says Pollen, who now teaches at the University of Brighton. “A lot of my research has been looking at objects that are despised.”

Foraging trips with her partner to car-boot sales alerted her to a rich seam of 20th-century nudist literature that is still emerging from the attics of middle England: magazines whose wholesome titles – Sun Bathing Review or Health & Efficiency – concealed a complex negotiation with both public morality and the British weather. This is the subject Pollen has picked for her latest book Nudism in a Cold Climate, which tracks the movement from the spartan 1920s through the titillating 50s, when the new mass media whipped up a frenzy of moral anxiety, to the countercultural 60s and 70s, when the founding members were dying off and it all began to look a bit frowsty.

Though nudism had its roots in 19th-century Germany, the first British camp was set up in 1924 in an Essex back garden – for climatic reasons most of its centres were in the relatively balmy south of England. By 1931 the word had entered the Oxford English Dictionary where, for decades, it became interchangeable with naturism. Early pictures show members digging and sawing to lay the foundations of a utopian political movement, or drinking tea together in the sheds they had built. “In the very early days, many were intellectuals: campaigners, psychiatrists, artists, writers and pioneering feminists who argued that nudism would bring an equality of the sexes,” says Pollen. By 1933 the practice had assumed such a moral high ground that one Anglican vicar condemned the bathing costume as a “satanic invention” that promoted titillation through part-concealment.

Often the same model would be used for a naturist photo next to a wheelbarrow, and for a sleazy photo, produced in Soho

Annebella Pollen

But the intrusion of the camera began to challenge naturism’s claim to be a wholesome family movement, by privileging pictures of beautiful bodies and playing fast and loose with the market in erotica. At a time in the 30s when the movement had fewer than 10,000 members, the second issue of Sun Bathing Review sold 50,000 copies; the slender, young, white women who dominated the pictures were mostly photographed by men, for men. By the late 50s, nude images were regularly seized by police under obscenity laws. “Often the same model would be used for a naturist photograph next to a wheelbarrow, and for a sleazy photograph, produced in a Soho studio, bending over with a choker and fishnet stockings,” says Pollen.

Nude photographs are not something that can be stabilised, Pollen says; we all bring our own perspectives and intentions to them. But they “are worth taking seriously for what they reveal about bodily ideals and realities in a period of rapid social and cultural change”.

Nudism in a Cold Climate: The Visual Culture of Naturists in Mid-20th Century Britain by Annebella Pollen (Atelier Editions) is out now in the UK and globally on 11 January.

Back to nature: four images from Nudism in a Cold Climate

East Midland Sunfolk, Colin R Clark, 1951
Annebella Pollen: “Although pictures of nudist clubs purported to show normal people enjoying themselves, often models would be shipped in so a photographer could sell images both to naturist and pin-up magazines. I like the fact that this is of a group of women of different ages having a wonderful time, because older women were so rarely depicted. And everyone here was actually a naturist.”

Still from Nudist Paradise, uncredited, 1958 (pictured, top)
“This is a still from the first British feature film to include naturism. It was shot at Spielplatz, a 12-acre Hertfordshire camp that took its name from the German word for playground, in honour of the movement’s Germanic roots. Although real naturists appeared in the background, the film’s stars were professional actors.”

This Modern Sunbathing Venus of Today …, uncredited, 1936
“Sunlight was being used to treat TB, rickets and other disorders, so there was a central story about the good that sunbathing might do for physical and mental health if you fully exposed your body. The problem was that there aren’t many sunny days in Britain, so in the 1930s indoor nudism emerged as a practical solution.”

Jean Straker, Soho, David Hurn, c1960
“Straker (pictured, middle) opened his Soho studio in the early 50s. He clashed with police for selling nude images with visible genitalia, under the guise of artistry and of providing detailed views of women’s bodies for scientific research. He became an unlikely figurehead in late-60s campaigns against censorship.”

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