The Harem As A Site For Sexual Fantasy
In The Work Of Vera Willoughby
An Artist's Feminine Interpretation of a Classical Genre

by Lisa Lodeski

After spending several days in the archives at Sotheby's in London conducting research for my thesis on Anglo-European women artists and Orientalism, I finally came to the last name on my list of artists to investigate. Mrs. Vera Willoughby produced watercolor paintings that were exhibited at the International Society, the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, the Royal Society of Portrait Painters,and at the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolour between the years 1905 and 1919. Peter Davies, a British publisher, hired Willoughby to illustrate several publications between 1925 and 1938. (1) I could not find any biographical information on Willoughby other than the year of her death, 1939, and hoped that Sotheby's would have reproductions of her work and more information. I opened the dusty cardboard drawer used to archive photographs of Willoughby's paintings sold at Sotheby's, and found what I had been searching for all summerevidence of a woman artist using the harem as a site for erotica.

Anglo-European constructions of a sexualized, imaginary harem were based in French Orientalist paintings by male artists such as Eugene Delacroix, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, and Jean Leon Gerome. Removed from the everyday in time and space, the Orient, and in particular the harem, became uncontested sites for male erotica in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The harem was sexualized from imagination by men who had never had the pleasure of entering the guarded, secluded domain of women who allegedly lounged on pillows all day in various states of undress, perfumed, bejeweled, sexually charged and waiting to be commanded.

Masculine Orientalist fantasies were contradicted by the writings of women such as Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Elizabeth Heaphy Murray who doused the fantasy by writing descriptions acquired by direct gendered access: " broke the illusion of thinking of them as only inmates of luxurious harems reposed all day on couches breathing only fragrant perfumed air, being fanned by black slaves."(2) Murray learned first-hand that the harem was a secluded apartment located within a main house that served as quarters for women and children. Only female servants and eunuchs were allowed to move freely in the harem. Men required permission to enter which was often given symbolically by placing women's slippers at the entrance for example. The West, however, continued to associate the worm "harem" with immorality in the nineteenth century, and a woman artist would have been criticized for addressing the harem as a subject. Willoughby, however, risked respectability and entered the traditionally masculine arena of Orientalized sexual fantasy with works such as The Aroma of Ecstasy and Pleasures in the Harem (both ca. 1920).

Willoughby's works differ from traditional male Orientalist painting in terms of objectification of the female body. Willoughby reclaims the harem as a site for female erotica, giving complete sexual power to the female figure. This woman-as-subject approach in Orientalist paintings was shocking for the time. In The Aroma of Ecstasy, Willoughby leaves no doubt that sexual activity is taking place in front of a female fertility idol whose nipple is also erect. To further clarify the content, Willoughby symbolized sexual desire with a bull's horn displayed tip-up in front of the fertility idol, around which the female figure has draped the wrap that previously covered her torso. She is alone with the burning incense that she lit earlier and which remains under her control. Willoughby eliminated men from this fantasy.

In Pleasures of the Harem (ca.1920), Willoughby changed the dynamics of the imaginary harem to put the Eastern female figure in charge, and reversed the assumption that group sex is only a male fantasy. The figure is caressed by the white male figure while teasingly placing her bare foot into the crotch of the nude servant crouched at her feet. The servant holds a narrow-necked vase which is strikingly similar in appearance to an erection. Willoughby takes this resexualization one step further by darkly shading the pubic area on the female figure to represent the presence of genital hair, crossing the established line toward pornographic representation. By constructing images of female sexual fantasy through the Eastern female figure, Willoughby expanded the range of feminine Orientalism to include a practice conceived by European male fantasy, but altered in order to reclaim the harem and to resexualize it with woman as subject. Like masculine representations, Willoughby's Orientalist erotica were not about the Orient but reflected a social and political position of this Anglo-European woman - to represent female sexuality and desire for herself.

1. Publications published by Davies and illustrated by Willoughby include Illustrations to the Memoirs of a Lady of Quality (1925), The Recruiting Officer (1926), The Poems of Catullus (1929), Lovely Laughter (1932), and Illustrations to Genji (1928). Willoughby authored and illustrated A Vision of Greece (1925). 2. Elizabeth Heaphy Murray, Sixteen Years of an Artists Life, (London: Hurst and Blackett, 1959), p. 46.

Lisa Lodeski earned a Master of Arts degree in art history at San Francisco State University. For the last five years, she has been the director of Danville Fine Arts, Danville, and is currently curator for the Antioch Lynn House Gallery.

Dreams and Fantasies