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Percy Grainger

Posted at 09:42 on 4 Aug 2011 by Pandora / Blake

Tags: Kink activism, other pictures, those crazy kinksters

I was listening to Radio 4 last night, and there was a feature on 20th century composer Percy Grainger. I was relatively interested in the conversation about how he collected and arranged creative interpretations of folk music from around the world, but my attention was well and truly grabbed when the interviewer, Jenni Murray, said:

He's said to have been - and I mean, this is just what I've read about him - racist, anti-Semitic, sadomasochistic...

Wow, that's quite a list you have there. I'm sure Murray didn't mean to imply that the three attributes were morally comparable....

All three are, of course, true of Grainger, and perhaps comparably infamous. He was a lifetime practitioner of self-flagellation and consensual BDSM play with his wife Ella (although the 1999 dramatisation of his life, Passion, left that part out). In fact the couple seemed to maintain a wonderful sense of humour and adventure about their sexual explorations:

His wife Ella was, fortunately for Grainger, a willing participant. The composer donated his collection of whips and other paraphernalia to his museum and discussed his passion for flogging in a manner admirably free of shame or neurosis. "I am a sadist & a flagellant my highest sexual delight is to whip a beloved womans bodyTo a lesser degree I enjoy being whipped myself (& before marriage used to whip myself every few weeks)" These observations were contained in a letter entitled "Read This If Ella Grainger or Percy Grainger Are Found Dead Covered with Whip Marks" (eminently practical; after all, the older you get, the more likely you are to forget your safe word). (From A Percy Grainger Glossary)

I also enjoyed this excerpt from his biography:

At no time in his life after the age of about fifteen did Grainger abandon his sadistic and masochistic pleasure-seeking. Blood-letting was often part of his activities and he nearly always laundered his own shirts because of the telltale bloodstains. With the possible exception of Mimi Kwast, all his girlfriends were to be drawn into his particular form of lovemaking and there is ample photographic evidence of this. Several photographs exist which he took himself after one of his bouts of auto-flagellation. An indication of his extraordinary mentality can be detected from the fact that as he stood before the camera lens with bleeding wounds he also held up a notice which gave details not only of the exact time of day, location of session and number of lashes with what kind of whip, but also the type of film used in the camera and the exposure and aperture. Whenever he went on tour he took a selection of several dozen whips with him. (From Percy Grainger by John Bird.)

Percy Grainger Self-Portrait with Bruises

It appears the connection between kink, geekery, photography and recording of one's experiences far pre-dates the Internet. I suspect many of us would find Grainger's mentality more familiar than extraordinary.

Unlike us, however, Grainger wasn't able to share his interests publicly during his lifetime. The impulse to do so had to be restricted to private encounters, lettings and writings. I can only applaud Grainger's courage in leaving those writings and images to be found. I think that this suggests that he wanted his kink to be talked about, and would have done so openly during his lifetime if he could; if he had really wanted secrecy he would have destroyed his collection rather than leaving them to be found after his death.

Grainger had instructed that the box not be opened until ten years after his death, and the curators of the small museum dedicated to him at the University of Melbourne did just that in 1971. They found kinky writings, photographs, erotica and an impressive collection of whips, but felt that this was "not a story 1970s Melbourne was ready for". The collection was effectively censored for 40 years, but some of the items were recently put on display as part of a museum redevelopment - although, interestingly, still not all of it:

while they initially set out to present it no-holds-barred, there were legitimate audience and legal concerns some of the photographs are sufficiently graphic as to be illegal to put on public display; plus the University had to take into account their target audiences, not least the nearby Ladies College who use the museum as an important musical resource.

The resulting display consists of a graphic montage of some of the documents and photographs (not all of them are particularly confronting, but its by no means sugar-coated), opposite a case displaying a large collection of whips. (From Re-representing the Lust Branch)

Percy Grainger - Private Matters (c) mystroh 2010

Percy Grainger's collection of whips (c) mystroh 2010


I stumbled across the film Passion one night when I couldn't sleep. I was watching the television late and wasn't expecting anything other than a standard biopic of a composer I hadn't really heard of. I enjoyed the music and was pleasantly surprised that the film included short scenes of the actor playing Grainger being caned, and caning his wife played by the delightful Emily Woof. It also included still photos of her marked bottom and back. I seem to recall that there was a rumour at the time that the spanking and caning scenes had been done for real but how true that was I don't know. It certainly made for a delightful fantasy as I imagined myself being punished by both Miss Woof and Barbara Hershey who played Percy's mother. As usual the film whilst broadly sympathetic to Percy blamed his tastes on his upbringing and his strict mother. Mainstream films etc seem to feel that there must be something/someone to blame if a person enjoys BDSM type activities, they are unable to accept that anyone can have a perfectly normal upbringing and turn to these activities purely because they enjoy them.

Interesting also that they had to duplicate the racism claim, as if they needed to imply there were a lot of things wrong with him.

In case it needs saying, anti-semitism is racism.

Wow, great find, Pandora - and thanks for sharing. I love the idea of the box waiting for ten years to be opened, too... I wonder what's in the selection that's *not* been displayed for fear of upsetting the students from the Ladies College nearby?!

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