The story of the notorious erotic fantasy painting that epitomised populist taste and cultural snobbery in the 1970s.
If there is one thing that is guaranteed, it is that the self-declared cultural elite enjoys nothing more than sneering at the tastes of the great unwashed – especially if it also suggests an attempt at social climbing by the newly expanded middle class in Britain. Art, in particular, is mocked and scoffed at for having the audacity of being popular with the wrong people and nothing is more reviled than the populist art that sold hundreds of thousands of prints in high street shops while copies of ‘proper’ art by critical darlings gathered dust. Admittedly, much of this popular art is pretty kitsch – and was so even at the time. But it also has a curious honesty and often is so spectacularly audacious that you can’t help but admire it. And frequently, it’s actually pretty good, at least in a technical sense – and unlike some more modern examples, it was created and bought without any sense of irony.
While the works of Vladimir Tretchikoff – most notably his classic Chinese Girl painting – remain the high watermark for 1970s magnificent bad taste (and so, of course, 1970s collectability) as far as many are concerned, there is one other piece of work that remains burned into my memory from childhood and seems to encapsulate the glorious excess of popular art. Stephen Pearson’s Wings of Love seems as much a part of my growing up as any TV show or pop record. We did not, I should say, own a copy of this painting – but it was so ubiquitous for years that it felt as though we did.
Back in the 1970s, Woolworth’s would sell art prints alongside more or less everything else. For those too young to remember Woolworth at its peak, it basically sold everything except food. You could leave the shop with a work of art, the latest chart-topper, a new jumper, a can of paint and a new lightbulb if you so chose. The art in Woolworth’s was very much in the populist style – immediate sophistication for your home, printed on canvas and complete with an audacious frame. These works were sold actual size – authentic reproductions in every way. Of them all, Wings of Love was the one that constantly drew my eye as a child – the sheer size made it hard to miss and the image itself was so arresting and forbidden that you couldn’t help but look.
Painted around 1972, Wings of Love is an extravagant erotic fantasy in which a naked man is delivered to his female lover on the wings of a giant swan. The swan itself seems to have been birthed from the clouds and seems to offer a gateway to paradise, illuminating the darkness. It’s all very Adam and Eve, and terribly symbolic – of what, you can decide for yourself. Artist Stephen Pearson was a Yorkshire-based painter who specialised in ‘romantic fantasy’ – that is to say nude figures in mythical settings. His work often has the feel of a progressive rock album cover mixed with a Mills and Boon narrative and for what it is – an illustration rather than fine art – it’s really not that bad. Had this painting been seen only in gallery exhibitions, its reputation might be very different, but Wings of Love had the misfortune – if you want to look at it that way – of being very, very popular. Not just popular, but popular with the wrong sort of people, the type who might look at a Turner Prize winner and say “I could’ve done that” and don’t get the point of
It’s perhaps a sign of how the 1970s was a different world that this would be on display in a high street store without a word of complaint, given that it features two naked figures. While the woman has her back to the viewer, the man is seen side-on, and his penis is clearly visible. The image is entirely non-sexual – but it certainly hints that something is about to happen. Perhaps the Biblical overtones of the painting gave it a certain acceptability or perhaps it is because the 1970s was awash with nudity in ways that are unimaginable now, but either way, I doubt that I was the only little kid to find it embarrassing and unsettling to see while out shopping with parents.
Perhaps this sensuality was the thing that made it so popular – a sign that you were a sophisticated sort and not some uptight old fart. Whatever the reason, and despite a relatively high price tag, the print sold bucketloads, shifting some three and a half million units over the years and becoming the best-selling art print of the 1970s. Of course, the very popularity of the print made it a useful shorthand for film and TV producers showing people with ideas above their station – it appeared on the wall of Stan and Hilda Ogden in Coronation Street and became a central point in Mike Leigh’s contempt-dripping Abigail’s Party, another sign of faux-sophistication and middle-class aspirations from the sort of people that Leigh presumably thought should know their place.
Stephen Pearson died in 2003 and none of his other work gained anything like the recognition of this image. He remains mocked in death as he was in life, though I doubt that he cared very much. His work remained available as a poster print for many years after Woolworth stopped selling framed art (in fact, it’s still available now), and he lived long enough to see a whole generation of artists imitating him – though the sexuality of his images has been increasingly dropped in favour of ‘inspirational’ fantasy images of nature, the influence is clearly there.
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