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Art in Strange Places

Human Skin as Canvas: Tattooing and Fine Art in Edwardian Britain

Béatrice Laurent


In 1910, Hector Hugh Munro (aka Saki) published “The Background”, an intriguing short-story relating the tragedy of Henri Deplis, a Luxembourger whose life becomes a nightmare after he acquires a beautiful artistic tattoo during a stay in Italy. Robbed of his identity as a person, Deplis becomes a human canvas whose only worth is inscribed in ink in the skin of his back.

Saki is well-known for his mischievous satires of Edwardian culture, and the fictional Italian tattooist Signor Pincini may well have been inspired by British practitioners of the needle such as Sutherland Macdonald, Tom Riley, and Alfred South who became celebrities in late Victorian and Edwardian London. Catering to the tastes of an affluent clientele, these artists sometimes created, and more often replicated, famous paintings on the bodies of their customers.

Taking Saki’s short-story as a starting point, we will look at the intertwined issues of the status of tattoing, of art ownership, and of copyright legislation at the turn of the 19th century.

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11910 was the twilight year of the Edwardian age: the Peacemaker”, King Edward VII, died on the 6 May, and his second son was proclaimed King George V on the same day. One of the things the two kings shared was their love of tattoos, as unveiled in the 2019 Royal Collection Trust exhibition on “Japan: Courts and Culture”. In July 1910, the British author Hector Hugh Munro, better known by his pen-name, Saki (1870-1916), published The Background, a humoristic short-story that relates the tragedy of Henri Deplis, a commercial traveller from Luxembourg who, during a stay in Italy, naively gets a tattoo which will cause him a succession of misfortunes, and ultimately drive him insane. Saki is well-known for his mischievous satires of Edwardian culture, and indeed The Background may not have seemed entirely fictional to his Edwardian readers, since from the 1880s a tattooing craze developed in elite society after it became known that various members of the nobility and royalty, both male and female, had acquired tattoos” (Shoemaker and Alker). Robert Shoemaker and Zoe Alker, two British historians who have compiled an impressive data base of tattoos and tattooed persons in late Victorian Britain, further specify that:

this craze was facilitated by the development of professional tattooists who set up shops, and by the invention of an electric tattooing machine in 1891, by an American, Samuel O’Reilly. By 1900 tattooing had permeated many parts of British society.

2The craze was documented as early as 1897 in The Strand Magazine by Gambier Bolton, and illustrated articles followed in Pearson’s Magazine (1902), the English Illustrated Magazine and The Tatler Magazine (1903). These publications accompanied and possibly accelerated a shift in the perception of tattoos, which had for a long time been associated with the lower classes, with criminals since the invention of forensic sciences, and with “Barbarians” or “primitive” peoples since the early days of ethnology. As historian Jane Caplan explains:

Tattooing was commonly represented in nineteenth-century European cultural sciences as a literal marker of the primitive : lines drawn on the body mapped the boundary between the savage and the civilized, and potentially endorsed the cultural superiority of the Europeans. (“Speaking Scars” 112)

3However, the tattooing craze is clear evidence that the perception of tattooing evolved through the last decade of the 19th century, from the stigma of sailors and criminals, to circus attractions, to artistic elite fashion—but these were not necessarily successive steps. They were emblematic of a new way of looking at the primitive in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the Edwardian garden party period, adopting traits of the “primitive” signalled education, openness, and rebellion against Victorian manners and morality which were increasingly perceived as hypocritical and overly strict. Endorsing signs of the “primitive” became a symbol of modernity—of global culture, cosmopolitanism, and the rejection of traditional values, in Britain it could even function as an emblem of cultural elitism (Gilbert 335). Yet the tattoos sported by the elite were far from sailors’ traditional anchors and hearts, or from African or Oceanian indigenous designs: they were figurative, artistic, and cost a fortune.

  • 1 It was published in a collection of stories by Saki, The Chronicles of Clovis, in 1911.

4Saki’s “Background” is a modest literary production initially published in the Journal of the Leinster Regiment1 which was meant to entertain soldiers, who were known to be traditional tattoo bearers. However, there is more in this short-story than light comedy as Saki’s typical dark humour is founded on his close observation of early 20th-century fashionable society. The intricacies in the plot raise many questions: Is tattoing an art? If so, what is its monetary value? Who owns it? This article is not a literary analysis of Saki’s text itself, but offers a reflection on the status, the worth and the copyright of tattoos as art objects. In The Background”, the seemingly absurd situation in which Deplis finds himself reveals the complexity of these issues in Europe at the turn of the 20th century.

Is a tattoo a work of art ?

5In Saki’s short-story, the tattoo-artist Andreas Pincini is not just any tattooer: Signor Pincini was, perhaps, the most brilliant master of tattoo craft that Italy had ever known” (61). Indeed, the tattoo he inks into Deplis’ flesh is not a simple anchor or heart, but a large masterpiece, as Pincini undertook to cover his client’s back, from the collar-bone down to the waist-line, with a glowing representation of the Fall of Icarus” (61).

  • 2 Jacob Peeter Gowy, The Fall of Icarus (1636-38). Oil on canvas, 195 x 180 cm.

6The tattooo in the short-story is clearly described as a work of art, since it was acclaimed by all who had the privilege of seeing it as Pincini’s masterpiece” (61). Here, Saki possibly alludes with tongue-in-cheek humour to Deplis’ homosexual activities. Even more amusing is the topic chosen by the artist: apparently Deplis had never heard of the myth of Daedalus and his son and had suspected Icarus of being a fortress taken by Wallenstein in the Thirty Years’ War” (61). The reader may infer that the client gave the artist complete freedom regarding the choice of the subject and the composition itself. This in turn leads the reader to imagine that Pincini may have been inspired by the famous Fall of Icarus by the Dutch painter Jacob Peeter Gowy2 now at the Museo del Prado in Madrid. [Figure 1] This well-known painting depicts an athletic, naked young man falling in a dramatic diagonal, head down into the sea which is visible in the lower foreground. As he is facing the beholder, the expression of anguish in his eyes and his gaping mouth is clearly discernible. His poor, impotent wings, tied around his biceps, hang limply and account for his curious posture. The swirl of his red loincloth in the process of flying away parallels the wave of his wings’ feathers. In an instinctive gesture, the falling Icarus desperately extends his arms to protect himself, and his open hands seem ready to grasp some illusory, rescuing protrusion.

7The existence of numerous examples of artworks reproduced in tattoos means that in 1910 the idea of reproducing a famous painting on human skin would not have been at all surprising to Saki’s readers. They would most likely have heard about the British-born tattooer Frank De Burgh (born James Burke) and his American wife, Emma, who toured the world exhibiting the reproduction of Da Vinci’s Last Supper tattooed on Emma’s back. They were on show in Paris in 1886 (a lithographed poster advertising their performance at the Alcazar d’Eté is kept at the Musée Carnavalet), then in Berlin in 1891, and in London in 1893. [Figure 2]

8This is where the sixty-year-old Edward Burne-Jones saw them—at the London Aquarium—and later the same day made two caricatural sketches of Emma entitled A Bathing Beauty for his bed-ridden friend Bertram Brooke (the Tuan Muda of Sarawak).3 For those who were so unfortunate as to miss the show, detailed and illustrated descriptions were available. For instance, in April 1897, the animal photographer Gambier Bolton published an influential illustrated article entitled Pictures on Human Skin in the fashionable, yet affordable, Strand Magazine which sold half a million copies a month. In his article, Bolton marvelled at the tattooed Da Vinci:

One would little think it possible that a tattooer would be able truthfully to reproduce the variety of expression shown in the faces of Christ’s Apostles, but it is the success with which this has been done that makes Mrs. De Burgh’s back unique. (430)

  • 4 Leonardo Da Vinci, The Last Supper (c. 1495-1498). Tempera on gesso, pitch and mastic, 460 x 880 cm
  • 5 Jacopo Tintoretto, Crucifixion (1565). Oil on canvas, 536 x 1,224 cm.
  • 6 Jan van Scorel, Crucifixion, now lost. However, as Molly Faries and Henri Defoer write, the importa (...)
  • 7 Hans Memling, Central panel of the Crucifixion triptych (1491). Oil on panel, 205 x 150 cm. St Anne (...)

9Then, describing Frank De Burgh’s tattoo which represents the ever memorable scene on Mount Calvary, the figure of Christ being an excellent reproduction”, Bolton concludes that no one who does not examine the original can realize the minuteness of the work in this picture, and the length of time taken for its accomplishment (430). It is not clear from this remark whether the original mentioned by Bolton is the surface painted in the Renaissance, or the tattoo executed in the 19th century. In the case of Leonardo’s Last Supper,4 the mural painting in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan is located on the end wall, and the faces of Christ and his apostles are well above the door, almost three meters from the ground, which leaves doubt as to whether Bolton would have had a chance to study closely their variety of expression. The original concerning the crucifixion on Frank De Burgh’s back, tattooed by the American Samuel O’Reilly, is even more puzzling. The design seems to be a combination of several very famous Renaissance paintings. For instance, the halo of glory around Christ’s body reminds us of Tintoretto’s Crucifixion5 at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice, while the wreath of cherubs in the upper part of the composition seems to be borrowed from Jan van Scorel’s masterpiece6 in the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam, and the architecture in the background, from Hans Memling’s celebrated triptych.7

  • 8 More information about these tattooists can be found in the publications by Matt Lodder.

10Be that as it may, De Burgh’s tattoos were clearly perceived as works of art, and as Hector Hugh Munro had travelled extensively with his father across Europe between 1887 and 1893, he may well have been aware of the De Burghs’ world-famous tattooed reproductions. A young man with an extensive artistic culture, Munro remembered that during his travels in Britain and abroad, “museums and picture-galleries were visited everywhere” (Reynolds xii). This experience can be read through Saki’s fiction: the Italian tattooist, Signor Pincini, was very probably modelled after De Burgh, or Sutherland Macdonald (1860-1942). The latter was the leader of the profession in late-Victorian London, to the extent that a contemporary journalist enthusiastically wrote that “no one in the past, and no man living to-day, can compare with Macdonald in placing really artistic pictures on the human skin” (Bolton 433). Macdonald had opened his London tattoo salon in 1888 at the Hammam and Turkish bath on Jermyn Street, the same location that Saki used as a setting for another short-story published in 1911, entitled “Recessional”. Sutherland Macdonald was so keen to have his craft acknowledged as an art form that he coined the word tattooist as a contraction of tattoo and artist to mark the gap between himself and plain tattooers (Pearson’s Magazine, August 1902, 175). Other British practitioners of the needle included Tom Riley (1870-?), Alfred South (1872-1934), and George Burchett (1872-1953), who all became celebrities in late-Victorian and Edwardian London.8 Catering to the tastes of affluent patrons, these artists sometimes created, and often replicated, paintings on the bodies of their customers.

What makes the value of a tattoo ?

11The difficulty raised in “The Background” is that if a tattoo is a work of art, then its monetary value is not indexed on the mere cost of the ink and needle required to produce it, nor even on the length of time required to achieve it, but rather on the reputation of the master who made it. This question of the value of art was at the centre of heated debates in the last decades of the 19th century, as exemplified by the Whistler vs Ruskin trial of 1878. The eminent art critic published a harsh review of Whistler’s painting Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket (1875), writing that he had never “expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face” (Merrill 1). The American artist struck back by sueing Ruskin for libel in a highly publicised court-case. This resulted in the beneficial reconfiguration—both in scope and in elevation—of the concept of the artist. A few days after the trial, Dante Gabriel Rossetti lamented the financial cost of the case incurred by Whistler, and wondered if the American should turn to “some country where tattoo pure and simple is the national School of Art” (Merrill 278). In 1878 this sounded disparaging, but by 1910, a tattooist could plausibly be considered on an equal footing with a painter or a sculptor of renown, and demand high prices for his work.

12In The Background, Pincini prices the Fall of Icarus at 600 francs. This was a substantial sum in anciens francs: it represented half the yearly income of a skilled labourer.9 Still, our man Deplis, who is a modest commercial traveller, decides to spend all of his newly acquired inheritance to have his flesh pricked by the artist. The idea of a tattoo being worth such a sum may seem ludicrous. Yet, given the social status of some of the most prominent tattooists’ clientele in BritainKings Edward VII and George V, and members of the gentry—, artistic tattoos could often be very expensive. Edward VII had the tattoo of a Jerusalem Cross done while visiting the Holy Land in 1862. His sons got tattooed in Japan in 1881. When he was still Prince George and serving in the Royal Navy, the future king George V had a tiger and a splendid blue and red dragon tattooed (Rose 13). In his diary, the teenage prince noted nearly every body on board has been tattooed. I have got a dragon on one arm done at Tokio [sic] and a tiger on the other arm done at Kioto [sic]. His elder brother, Prince Albert Victor opted for a dancing crane on his upper arm, and the senior officers on board HMS Bacchante followed; one was even beautifully tattooed over the whole of his body”.10 Undoubtedly the Royals and the gentry spent fortunes on their inkings.11 Obtaining a tattoo as a valuable and portable souvenir from a foreign country was not new, and certainly accounts for Deplis’ decision in the short-story.

13Deplis’ choice, however, proves to have momentous consequences as the fictional tattooist Andreas Pincini dies shortly after completing the work. The sum of 600 francs remains due to his widow, but Deplis has squandered part of his money and cannot pay her. The widowed Mrs Pincini, no better-off, and pressed by tax-officers for death duties, becomes infuriated by the young man’s carelessness and decides to offer the artwork to the municipality of Bergamo in lieu of tax payment. The problem is that the artwork in question is painted into the skin of Deplis’ back, and this seemingly absurd situation raises new issues concerning art ownership.

Who is the legal owner of an artwork ?

14In 1909 it was, and it still is, customary in the Italian art market that sale agreements are made with retention of title, which means that the title passes to the buyer when the seller has received full payment. So, Pincini’s artwork was legally the property of his widow until paid in full, and therefore she was within her rights to use her movable art as a gift or in lieu of tax payment on the death of her husband.

15This legislation still exists in Britain. The Arts Council states that Acceptance in Lieu (AiL) allows those who have a bill for Inheritance Tax or one of its earlier forms to pay the tax by transferring important cultural, scientific or historic objects and archives to the nation. This scheme was originally established the same year The Background” was published, in the Finance Act of 1910 by Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George, as a means for the wealthy to pay the increased estate taxes imposed by his People’s Budget of 1909, but had its roots in similar schemes dating back to the late 19th century. In Italy, where the story takes place, after Italian Unification in 1861, lawmakers decided to adopt a single code to unite the nation and to create the new Italian civil code, the Codice Civile, in 1865. This imposed some regulations on the art market, and the slightly modified version of the code in 1909 defined an inheritance and gift tax which varied depending on the degree of kinship between the deceased and his or her heirs. The spouse and lineal relatives were not heavily taxed on inherited goods. But, as we know, the popularity of artists is often higher after their death and this is what happens to the impoverished Pincini who had accepted the sum of 600 francs for what became his last masterpiece.

16From this one can reasonably deduce that for his widow to declare the tattoo to be of cultural interest, the market value of Andreas Pincini’s Fall of Icarus must have risen sharply after the death of the artist. This explains many of the unexpected developments in the short-story. The main consequences arising from the declaration of an object as being of cultural interest are the following: (i) the work cannot be permanently exported from Italy; (ii) the state has a pre-emption right in any sale transaction regarding a work classified as cultural property; (iii) the state must be notified of any event regarding a “notified” work (e.g., succession or relocation of the work following the owner’s move to a different home); and (iv) any restoration must be authorised in advance by the state.

17In the case of The Background, Deplis, the unfortunate bearer, but not the owner, of the masterpiece tries to flee, but he is caught by officials who deny him the right to exhibit the artwork, to take it abroad, or to damage it in any way. Saki narrates how the man who bore on his back the burden of the dead man’s genius” (63) was progressively deprived of his freedom of movement, being first barred from public baths, and then prevented from bathing altogether in the open.

On presenting himself one day in the steaming corridor of a vapour bath, he was at once hustled back into his clothes by the proprietor, who was a North Italian, and who emphatically refused to allow the celebrated Fall of Icarus to be publicly on view without the permission of the municipality of Bergamo. Public interest and official vigilance increased as the matter became more widely known, and Deplis was unable to take a simple dip in the sea or river on the hottest afternoon unless clothed up to the collar-bone in a substantial bathing garment. Later on the authorities of Bergamo conceived the idea that salt water might be injurious to the masterpiece, and a perpetual injunction was obtained which debarred the muchly harassed commercial traveller from sea bathing under any circumstances. (63)

18When he tries to flee restrictive Italian laws by leaving the country, this is again impossible: An imposing array of official force barred his departure, and he was sternly reminded of the stringent law which forbids the exportation of Italian works of art” (63). As summed up by Fiona Macmillan:

not only has Deplis’ interest in his own body been subsumed in that created by Pincini’s work of art, but also he finds his right over his body to be circumscribed by a sort of public interest in the work that he carries on his back. (2)

  • 12 Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa (1503), oil on panel, 77 x 53 cm, Louvre.

19The same author indicates that “his body has not only been turned into someone else’s private property, but also into a site of contested state heritage (2). In “The Background”, this state heritage is a material one—a work of art. The difficulty is that in art it is impossible to separate the support from the master’s marks it bears: the piece of wood which bears the material and pigments representing the bust of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, is known as Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.12 The poplar tree from which the board was extracted is anonymous, irrelevant and forgotten, and yet the board is the priceless property of the Musée du Louvre. Just like the wood of that poplar tree, the body of Henri Deplis is insignificant and yet, the valuable tattoo makes it part of a masterpiece owned by the municipality of Bergamo. Deplis is identified with his tattoo: he becomes known as the Fall of Icarus and is catalogued as such. But paradoxically, just like the tree whose wood came to form part of Da Vinci’s famous painting, the rest of his person seems to have lost all value. When the depressed Deplis joins the ranks of the Italian Anarchists, his dual status as man and work of art provides another dilemma for the Italian authorities: “Four times at least he was escorted to the frontier as a dangerous and undesirable foreigner, but he was always brought back as the Fall of Icarus (attributed to Pincini, Andreas, early Twentieth Century)” (65). Deplis’ back constitutes a human panel or canvas, the rest of his body, as well as his feelings and thoughts, are ruthlessly dismissed. But public interest in national treasures is as greedy as it is patriotic and this provokes yet another twist in the story.

Who is the real artist ?

20As a nod to contemporary quarrels involving art historians and museum curators, Saki includes in his narrative a controversy between European art experts regarding the attribution of the Fall of Icarus. Poor Deplis, after having been the envied possessor of one of the most valuable works of art in Italy, is now only worth the unsigned piece inked into the skin of his back. As Pamela Gilbert notes, the expert reader of the body as text is more authoritative than the subject embodied therein (334). What Deplis now learns is that it is not the tattoo itself which is valuable, but the name of its creator; a fact which, in turn, means that he, the human canvas, like any artwork, is now at the mercy of chance, experts, art critics and art dealers. Indeed, readers soon find Deplis caught in the eye of a storm of European proportions:

A certain German art expert, who had obtained from the municipality of Bergamo permission to inspect the famous masterpiece, declared it to be a spurious Pincini, probably the work of some pupil whom he had employed in his declining years. The evidence of Deplis on the subject was obviously worthless, as he had been under the influence of the customary narcotics during the long process of pricking in the design. The editor of an Italian art journal refuted the contentions of the German expert and undertook to prove that his private life did not conform to any modern standard of decency. The whole of Italy and Germany were drawn into the dispute, and the rest of Europe was soon involved in the quarrel. (65)

  • 13 The German expert whose private life was deemed « indecent » is most likely Johann J. Winckelmann ( (...)

21Ridiculous references to national sterotypes and to notable individuals13 abound in the account of this heated quarrel of experts—a good example of Saki’s dark humour—, which resulted in “stormy scenes in the Spanish Parliament, and the University of Copenhagen bestow[ing] a gold medal on the German expert (afterwards sending a commission to examine his proofs on the spot), while two Polish schoolboys in Paris committed suicide to show what they thought of the matter” (65).

22Yet, at the time the short-story was published, the question of authenticity was taken very seriously indeed in artistic and academic circles. Extensive work to proceed with or correct attributions of artworks had been carried out from the mid-19th century onwards. One well-known example illustrates just how seriously this was taken. The Virgin and Child with Two Angels14 was bought by Sir Charles Eastlake on behalf of the National Gallery in London from an Italian private owner in 1857 as a work by Piero della Francesca. But its attribution was promptly changed, and it appeared in the Gallery’s catalogue of 1859 under the name of Domenico Ghirlandaio”.15 The notice on the National Gallery’s website explains that:

  • 16 This was suggested in 1867 by Otto Mündler. Another German publisher proposed “Pesello” as the arti (...)

this was only the first of several changes of mind, however. The following decade saw a variety of suggested attributions, ranging from the Pollaiuolo brothers16 to Leonardo da Vinci, until in 1864 the art historians Crowe and Cavalcaselle finally gave it to a pupil of Verrocchio, Lorenzo di Credi.

23The debate was not over though, and in 1904 Maud Cruttwell rejected the Verrocchio attribution totally (Dunkerton and Syson 7). Obviously, the value of the painting fluctuated considerably depending on whether it was the work of a star painter of the Italian Renaissance, or a minor one. Renaissance paintings, like tattoos, are rarely signed, and the fate of The Virgin and Child with Two Angels was shared by our man Deplis. As Macmillan observes, Deplis’ tragedy is to pass […] from being the site of an authentic work of genius to a needy fake (4). A work by the hand of a master was of course rated more highly than if it were produced by his studio assistants. And a replica after a famous work was worth much less than an original piece. In the story, the Italian government is adamant that Deplis’ back supports the Fall of Icarus (by the late Pincini, Andreas),” pointing in the fashion of art-catalogue writers to the authenticity and to the originality of the work. The question of authenticity was and is still central in evaluating a work of art.

Is a reproduction an artwork in its own right ?

24The discussion of monetary value, of authenticity and attribution proves to be crucial in the story. Concerning the execution, it was unclear whether the tattoo was the work of the master, or of one of his assistants. Concerning the design, the narrator of the short-story does not specify if it was an original by Pincini. Had Pincini invented the design on Deplis’ back? Had he copied Gowy’s, or a more recent version of The Fall of Icarus?

25In the late Victorian period, the legislation on copyright was in its infancy, but already restricted the usage of existing works, as London tattooists soon learnt. For instance, Sutherland Macdonald, possibly inspired by De Burgh’s artistic replicas, went on to propose art reproductions as tattoos. Gambier Bolton describes how, in Macdonald’s albums, one could find drawings and paintings gathered from all quarters of the globe (433) and made a point of underlining that in more than one instance the copyright of some particularly striking picture has actually been purchased outright, so that no one but the wealthier patrons of the Jermyn Street studio shall have the use of them (433). Extant photographs clearly evidence the phenomenon. One photograph documents a reproduction of Guido Reni’s Ecce Homo (c.1640) on an anonymous man’s torso. This moving depiction of the agony of Christ was very popular throughout Europe and copies from Reni’s studio and their followers exist in Germany, in Scotland and in England. We presume that Macdonald did not need to obtain the copyright to reproduce Guido Reni’s seventeenth-century painting because at that time in the United Kingdom, the Fine Art Copyright Act of 1862 protected original drawings and paintings for seven years only after the death or their author.

When Macdonald tattooed a replica of Bouguereau’s Cupid and Psyche (1899), the situation was different though. The anonymous bearer of the reproduction was photographed in 1899, the year the painting was completed. [Figure 3]

26The painting was purchased directly from the artist on 22 March 1899 by the London firm of art dealers Arthur Tooth and Sons, who then sold the painting to the French politician Jacques Olry on 10 May the same year (Sotheby’s). In the meantime, that is in the intervening two months, the art dealer would have had the time to get a photographed or engraved copy of Cupid and Psyche and sell the copyright to Macdonald. The Fine Art Copyright Act of 1862 stipulated that when first sold, the copyright of a work passed to the purchaser at the same time, so Arthur Tooth and Sons were the legal owners of the copyright. Before 1862, as engraved reproductions became more readily available to a larger public, it was unclear what rights belonged to their creators, purchasers, or publishers. Copyright law impacted on the creation and circulation of visual art. This Act was also the first British statute to introduce the concept of originality as the standard threshold for copyright protection. It was meant to protect the buyer rather than the artist, and even though it was an important step towards protection and control of the art market, the debates about copyright reform […] continued for several decades after 1862 and highlight the different and sometimes conflicting interests of individuals and groups representing various fields of artistic endeavor (Delamaire and Slauter 18). Painters, engravers, print sellers, and photographers had different ideas about what copyright should protect. This was certainly true for tattooists as well, but the status of art as a form of property that is public and may belong to another person or even to the community puts into question the claims of privacy and property in one’s own person (Gilbert 335). Tattooists are unmentioned in the 1862 Act, but the fact that Macdonald secured the copyright of the paintings he tattooed suggests that tattooers were considered as painters or engravers. Their original artwork could be protected, and their copies considered as prints. As Delamaire and Slauter explain:

Prints that we call “reproductive” today were then considered translations of the original painting, and the creative role of the interpreter was acknowledged in the collaborative authorship at play in its production. (23)

27Tattoos must have fallen into that category. Indeed, the law excluded only copies made by lithography, or any other mechanical process by which prints or impressions of drawings or designs are capable of being multiplied indefinitely (133), which was not the case for “engraving” on the human skin. So, tattooers, like engravers, could be considered as co-authors of the painting they replicated. However, prints can be authenticated by the author’s signature or monogram, whereas tattoos are rarely signed and, as we have seen, this adds interesting twists to Saki’s short-story.


28In London’s West End, Deplis would have been admitted into the elite circle of artistic tattoo-sporting dandies whose tattoos signalled a subculture of urban, trendy and wealthy young people. These polished young men played with the codes of the rough and the wild, and their tattoos, as subcultural signs, evidenced the fact that the permeability of tastes and fashion across social classes in the early 20th century went both up and down. Still, in order to distinguish themselves from social or indigenous groups who had long been associated with tattooing—criminals and “Barbarians”—, while at the same time creating a link to their cultural practices, a change had to be brought to tattoo-making. This shift came through art, which had the power to “civilize” the practice.

29The unfortunate hero of Saki’s The Backgrounddoes not enjoy the light-heartedness of his rich British contemporaries, and does not have a chance to proudly exhibit his masterpiece. The only way to free the man Deplis is to destroy the tattoo on his back, and this is what happens incidentally during an argument with a fellow-activist: Henri Deplis is attacked with acid, which defaces the famous tattoo. In his sentence, the fictional Italian judge makes clear that the value of the person is rated far below that of his tattoo since [Deplis’] assailant was severely reprimanded for assaulting a fellow-anarchist and received seven years’ imprisonment for defacing a national art treasure” (66). But at least, and at last, the assailant sets Deplis free to leave Italy. Deplis as a man is destroyed though, since his identity had become irremediably tied to that of his famous artistic tattoo. And at the end of the story, he is found in Paris, nursing the illusion that he is one of the lost arms of the Venus de Milo, and hopes that the French Government may be persuaded to buy him (66). Deplis succumbs to a monomania about his status as a work of art and his value as a piece of property (Gilbert 334). Having been commodified by his tattoo, he cannot think of himself as a person anymore, but rather as a support for art, that is an integral part of a work of art, and only wishes to recover his identity as an artwork by completing another fragmented masterpiece. What Deplis seems to have misunderstood is that, ironically, it is precisely her missing arms that make the Venus de Milo so famous. Restoring the statue by the addition of a limb would paradoxically decrease both her fame and her value. Deplis’ problems lead him to share the fate of the icon that was inked into his back: like Icarus, he flew too close to the sun of artistic stardom, burnt his wings and ended swallowed up by the ocean of anonymity. What his fictional misadventures indicate is that, in the early 20th century, the status, the worth, and the recognition of tattoos as works of art were still the subject of an unresolved debate, and could have far-reaching consequences.

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Delamaire, Marie-Stéphanie and Will Slauter (eds). Circulation and Control: Artistic Culture and Intellectual Property in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge: Open Books Publishers, 2021.

DeMello, Margo. Bodies of Inscription. A Cultural History of the Modern Tattoo Community. Durham, NC : Duke University Press, 2000.

De Riedmatten, Léon. “Monnaies, salaires et prix à travers l’histoire.” Journal de la Société de statistique de Paris 85 (1944) : 7-20.

Dunkerton, Jill and Luke Syson. “In Search of Verrocchio the Painter: The Cleaning and Examination of The Virgin and Child with Two Angels.National Gallery Technical Bulletin 31 (2010): 4-41.

Faries, Molly and Henri Defoer. “Jan van Scorel’s Crucifixion for the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam: The ‘finest painting in all of the regions of Flanders’.” Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art 12:2 (Summer 2020) DOI: 10.5092/jhna.2020.12.2.1.

Gilbert, Pamela K. Victorian Skin. Surface, Self, History. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2019.

Lodder, Matt. “The myths of modern primitivism.” European Journal of American Culture 30:2 (2011): 99-111.

Macmillan, Fiona. Intellectual and Cultural Property: Between Market and Community. London and New York: Routledge, 2021.

Merrill, Linda. A Pot of Paint: Whistler v. Ruskin. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institute, 1992.

Munro, H. H. (Saki). “The Background.” 1910. In The Chronicles of Clovis. London and New York: John Lane, 1912, 60-66.

Reynolds, Rothay. The Toys of Peace and Other papers. London and New York: John Lane, 1919.

Rose, Kenneth. King George V. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1983.

Shoemaker, Robert and Zoe Alker. How tattoos became fashionable in Victorian England. The Conversation (12 December 2019).


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1 It was published in a collection of stories by Saki, The Chronicles of Clovis, in 1911.

2 Jacob Peeter Gowy, The Fall of Icarus (1636-38). Oil on canvas, 195 x 180 cm.


4 Leonardo Da Vinci, The Last Supper (c. 1495-1498). Tempera on gesso, pitch and mastic, 460 x 880 cm.

5 Jacopo Tintoretto, Crucifixion (1565). Oil on canvas, 536 x 1,224 cm.

6 Jan van Scorel, Crucifixion, now lost. However, as Molly Faries and Henri Defoer write, the importance of this painting is evidenced by the host of “workshop replicas, later copies, and other works influenced by the original painting”.

7 Hans Memling, Central panel of the Crucifixion triptych (1491). Oil on panel, 205 x 150 cm. St Anne’s Museum, Lübeck, Germany.

8 More information about these tattooists can be found in the publications by Matt Lodder.

9 According to Insee (Institut National de la Statistique et des Etudes Economiques), it is the equivalent of some 2,700 euros in 2024. This figure, however, is not indicative of what that amount represented around 1910. L. de Riedmatten suggests that the average annual income of a labourer in 1910 was 1,200-1,500 francs (14-15).


11 In November 2019 Buckingham Palace held an exhibition on royal tattoos displaying the diaries detailing how these Royals received their inkings (

12 Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa (1503), oil on panel, 77 x 53 cm, Louvre.

13 The German expert whose private life was deemed « indecent » is most likely Johann J. Winckelmann (1717-68).

14 Andrea del Verrocchio and assistant (Lorenzo di Credi). The Virgin and Child with Two Angels (about 1476-78). Egg tempera on wood, 96.5 x 70.5 cm, National Gallery, London.


16 This was suggested in 1867 by Otto Mündler. Another German publisher proposed “Pesello” as the artist of this painting (Dunkerton and Syson 7).

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Electronic reference

Béatrice Laurent, Human Skin as Canvas: Tattooing and Fine Art in Edwardian BritainMiranda [Online], 29 | 2024, Online since 18 April 2024, connection on 21 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Béatrice Laurent

Professor of Victorian Studies
Université Bordeaux Montaigne

By this author

  • British Stories, 19 May-19 September 2021, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Bordeaux - Absolutely Bizarre ! Les drôles d’histoires de l’École de Bristol (1800-1840), 10 June-17 October 2021, Galerie des Beaux-Arts, Bordeaux
    Published in Miranda, 23 | 2021
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