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    Nudism in a Cold Climate - a new book by Annebella Pollen

    Dr Annebella Pollen is Reader in the History of Art and Design at the University of Brighton. Her book Nudism in a Cold Climate: The Visual Culture of Naturists in Mid-20th-Century Britain is published by Atelier Editions on 3rd December 2021.

    Annebella was our guest on The Forum Live recently and also kindly wrote about her book for us.


    Why would a non-naturist write a history of naturism? What can a clothes-loving academic, who usually writes about the history of fashion and the history of photography, bring to such a study?

    Some years ago, researching 1920s utopian youth movements for a previous book, I stumbled across an unfamiliar word: gymnosophy. English outdoor groups promoted it, and hosted lectures on the topic with evocative titles, such as “Clothing and its Conflict with Health and Morality”. Gymnosophists, with flamboyant pseudonyms like Zex and Thwang, invited sympathisers to attend their “picturesque wilderness” in Hertfordshire. This was, they noted obscurely, “a playground and camp settlement wherein a group of congenial persons, united in a desire to detach themselves from the trivialities and less valuable artificialities of conventional existence, may find opportunity for vigorous, healthy exercise and stimulating thinking — for vitalising recreation and refreshing social intercourse”.

    I had no idea what was going on, but I was intrigued. I was further fascinated when I learned that gymnosophy combined the Greek words for nakedness and wisdom. It conferred classical status on a socially nude practice that dared not speak its name in a buttoned-up place and time. Gymnosophists disrobed for “self-realization”, but they were also the founders of the British Naturist movement. Their picturesque wilderness became Four Acres and finally Five Acres nudist club.

    Gymnosophy’s target member was the radical visionary. Their promotions sat alongside advertisements for food-reform restaurants offering meat substitutes washed down with fruit juice, nature cures using water, air, mud, and magnetism, and bookshops selling tomes on self-improvement and sex education. They attracted campers and hikers, simple-lifers and handicrafters, yoga practitioners and enthusiasts of new religions. In the 1990s, in Totnes, South Devon, I lived among the New Age grandchildren of exactly these people. I knew their interests well. For a time, I called myself one of them. I needed to know more of their history. I read everything I could.

    This brought me to Northampton, to the offices of British Naturism. On an unassuming residential street in early 2017, the door was opened to a rich archive of publications and papers that contained everything I had wanted to know but had been afraid to ask. I was immediately struck by how much the early nudists – as they mostly preferred to be called – had to say about fashion. In my academic role, I have long taught design students about theories of clothing, but here was a body of experts I had never considered. Those who reject dress, it transpires, have unique experiences and perspectives on the subject.

    I also noticed the significant place of the photograph in nudist publications. In long-standing fitness magazines, such as Health and Efficiency, which went fully nudist in the early 1930s, and in Britain’s first born-nudist magazines, such as 1933’s Gymnos and Sun Bathing Review, photographs promoted the movement to a wide readership (much wider than the small number of practitioners). I’ve previously written on the history of photography, and here were familiar names. Eminent portraitists of the royal family, such as Bertram Park, also published nudist photographs, seemingly without conflict. Edith Tudor Hart, the communist most famous for recruiting the Cambridge Five ring of Soviet spies, was also a keen photographer for nudist magazines.

    These surprising discoveries set me on a journey of several years’ duration, across libraries, museums and collections nationwide. The result, freshly published as Nudism in a Cold Climate, uses the print and visual culture of naturism to chart fifty years of rapid social change in Britain. From the tiny intellectual beginnings, when nudism was mostly populated by artists and writers, psychiatrists and physicians, to the expansion of the practice to 40,000 nudists by the start of the Second World War, the first chapter of the book establishes the movement and its ideals.

    Moving through the war years and post-war period, the second chapter examines the growing popularity of nude imagery and the parallel commercialisation of nudist magazines, which boasted over 100,000 copies an issue. Key photographers emerged and a boom in cheap publishing brought nudist words and images to the masses, even if they never came to camp. British nudism began to consolidate its identity, with a wider range of members and a less elite approach. In the 1950s, nudists standardised the practice away its eccentric origins, making it equivalent to, as one put it, “breeding canaries or collecting horse-brasses or carving model boats”.

    In the final chapter, I examine the challenges that the movement, formally renamed as Naturism, met in changing contexts, including Britain’s punitive obscenity laws, inflammatory attitudes to race in an age of mass immigration, and new conditions of sexual freedom. The culture clashes of the 1960s played out in the pages of the magazines and the nude image was a key site of conflict. I end the book in the early 1970s as the nude body achieved mainstream media acceptance, even as the sexualised nude represented a fundamental break with nudism’s founding principles.

    Although I am not a Naturist, it turns out that my years among the hippies, roaming naked with friends among the standing stones of Dartmoor, gave me valuable insight into the feelings of liberation that social nudity can bring. In the same years, I earned my living as an artist’s model. I look at nude photographs as both subject and critic. As a “textile”, I can read mid-twentieth-century nudist publications as they were intended. Many address the sceptic and the novice to persuade the reader that the cause is legitimate. Finally, as an enthusiast of design, working with an art publisher, I can tell this history through a handsome book, with over 100 images, which incorporates the mood and styles of the material it analyses, from the chilly blue colourway to the folding modesty flap of the cover. I hope naturists will find my outsider perspective worthwhile.






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