Where To Find London's Raciest Paintings

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 14 months ago
Where To Find London's Raciest Paintings
Actaeon stumbling across Diana and her nymphs bathing,

London is full of paintings with nudes, sexual themes and forbidden desires. But what are the raciest paintings in our not so fair city? Of course it's all subjective, but we've picked the ones that we think will get you hot under the collar and those with powerful stories behind them:

Divine intervention

Actaeon gets turned into a stag and devoured by his own hounds - a tad harsh we think.

A young hunter out on a hunt stumbles across the goddess Diana who is nude and bathing with some help from her nymphs as can be seen in the top image. Embarrassed at being seen naked, Diana transforms the witless Actaeon into a stag, and he is then torn to shreds by his own dogs who no longer recognise their master. This ironic death may seem extremely harsh given Actaeon didn't spy on Diana on purpose and it was just a case of wrong place, wrong time. However, there's an important lesson for us all here — don't f*ck with a goddess.
Diana and Actaeon & The Death of Actaeon painted by Titian, both on display at The National Gallery — free to visit.

Pretty, witty Nell

Nell Gwyn may have started her career as an orange seller, but she was discovered as a starlet in the making and rose through the acting ranks before becoming the long time mistress of Charles II. She is seen as a heroine by some for her stellar rise in a patriarchal society. In this portrait, she bares her breasts brazenly and looks straight at us to assure us that she's completely comfortable in this pose, even if the viewer isn't. At one point this portrait was considered indecent and painted over, but thankfully the National Portrait Gallery fixed this and returned it to its former glory.
Eleanor ('Nell') Gwyn painted by Simon Verelst is on display at National Portrait Gallery — free to visit.

Not for pubic consumption

Image courtesy The Courtauld Gallery

You can't get more racy than an exhibition that was shut down by the police on grounds of indecency. That was the fate that greeted the nudes by Modigliani when they were shown in Paris, 1917.  It wasn't just because they were nudes, but because they displayed pubic hair. Why the former was deemed acceptable, but the latter indecent we're not sure.
Female Nude by Amadeo Modigliani is on loan at Tate Modern's Modigliani blockbuster until April 2018, and will return to the Courtauld Gallery after — both ticketed.

Bring on the men

Image courtesy The National Gallery.

You may be wondering where all the male nudes are. The patriarchal nature of art history means most painters were men and they preferred to paint naked women. However, this painting by Degas has an assortment of naked young Spartans being egged on to wrestle by the women nearby. If you're asking why they are so lightly endowed it's because small male genitalia was seen as a positive attribute in Ancient Greece as a sign of a life of moderation. Don't believe us? Have a read of this.
Young Spartans Exercising by Degas is on display at The National Gallery — free to visit.   

Swinging freely

Image courtesy The Wallace Collection.

It's not just all about nudity on this list. Sometimes it's what's suggested by the painting that gives an artwork a bit of sauce. This painting may look at first like a charming scene of a woman on a swing in a pretty garden. Look at the man on the left and it's clear he's looking up her dress, suggesting he is her lover. It is thought that the man on the right pushing her may be the husband who is unaware of the lover in the bushes and doesn't realise he is pushing his wife towards him.
The Swing by Fragonard is on display at The Wallace Collection — free to visit.

The Orgy

An orgy in full swing. Image courtesy John Soane's Museum.

You can guess what to expect when a painting is titled 'The Orgy' — it's part of Hogarth's A Rake's Progress which charts the journey of the fictional Tom Rakewell into debt, prison and eventually insanity. In this picture he is drunk at 3am surrounded by prostitutes at the Rose Tavern in Covent Garden. Look over his left shoulder and you'll see that, as well as servicing him, the prostitutes are also relieving him of his watch. This is only painting three in the eight-work series, and a sign of worse to come for Tom.
The Orgy by Hogarth is on display at John Soane's Museum (along with the rest of A Rake's Progress) — free to visit.

A clap of comeuppance

Lots to read into with this image. Image courtesy The National Gallery

What can we possibly read into a painting of a boy being bitten by a lizard? Quite a lot actually, in that the jasmine and rose symbolise carnal love, suggesting the young man has been indulging in the base pleasures of life. The lizard biting his finger suggests this has led him to contract chlamydia from his sexual pursuits. Ouch — we'd rather let a lizard bite us.
Boy bitten by a Lizard by Caravaggio is on display at The National Gallery, free entry.

Danse macabre

Image courtesy Tate Modern.

The only abstract work to make it into our list shows three nude dancers, but there's a sad story of unrequited love behind it. One of the women depicted is dancer Germaine Gargallo who Picasso's friend Carlos Casagemas fell hopelessly in love with. When his affections went unreturned he tried to kill her before killing himself. Given Picasso's interest in his own wife, also a dancer, was waning. it's a painting that captures his unhappiness with dance, an uncontrolled explosion of energy with none of the elegance we associate with dance.
The Three Dancers by Picasso is on display at Tate Modern — free entry.

Save the worst for last

One of Gauguin's wives. Image courtesy The Courtauld Gallery.

This may not be that racy a painting, but it's worth drawing attention to the exploits of Paul Gauguin. He left his wife and five children behind in France before travelling the world and landing in Tahiti. There he took three brides aged between 13 and 14 and proceeded to infect them and many other local girls with syphilis. He was a talented painter and an utter bastard.
Nevermore by Paul Gauguin is on display at The Courtauld Gallery — ticketed entry.

There's our list but let us know if you'd add any to it.  You may also be interested in our nipple count of The National Gallery.

* Correction: the original published article stated that the Caravaggio was at Dulwich Picture Gallery, this has now been corrected to The National Gallery

Last Updated 19 January 2018