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Eugenics or Thalamus Hodiernus

Henry Tonks (1862-1937)


Inscribed 'Interior of Propagatorium'

Pen ink and watercolour

7 x 9 inches

'A Century of British Art: 1900-1945', Chris Beetles Gallery, 21 June-17 July 2021, No 22

Among the many gifts of Henry Tonks was one for caricature. He exercised it as a pastime that allowed him to express the satirical, even sarcastic aspect of his character, and experiment with a range of techniques and styles, including the faux naïf. He also injected it into some of his painted portraits, particularly those that he made of such close friends as Walter Sickert and Wilson Steer. In turn, his dominating physique and personality made him the object of the skills of other caricaturists, both professional and amateur.

The present drawing may belong to Tonks’s earliest datable caricatures, which were produced in about 1905. It is definitely no earlier, for the slogan ‘Votes for Women’, shouted (as a speech bubble) by a woman standing on the balcony in the image, was adopted in that year. And it may be no later, for it seems to respond to Francis Galton’s establishment in 1904 of the Eugenics Record Office at university College London (also home to the Slade School of Fine Art at which Tonks was Assistant Professor). In 1904, the office was reconstituted as the Galton Eugenics Laboratory.

Inspired by Darwinism, Galton developed the theory of improving the human population through selective breeding and, in 1882, named it ‘eugenics’ from the Greek for ‘good growing’. It was popular during the first half of the twentieth century, even among some women, and there was a branch called eugenic feminism. However, it could also prove controversial, and Tonks’s former Slade student, the writer, G K Chesterton, would publish
Eugenics and Other Evils in 1917. The theory has since been discredited and, as recently as January 2021, university College London issued a formal public apology for its own involvement in its history and legacy.

The drawing shows what Tonks has inscribed as the ‘Interior of Propagatorium’, that is an operating theatre that acts as the embodiment of ‘the whole mechanism of reproduction’ (the definition of the term Propagatorium given in medical dictionaries of the day). A woman – who says that she is ‘happy’ – lies on a couch, while a young man is prepared in readiness to join her. One doctor sprays the area of his genitals, while another waits to time him with a stop watch. They are about to engage in an act of medicalised selective reproduction in line with Galton’s theory.

While Tonks’s exact view of eugenics beyond this caricature is not known, it is likely to have been more informed than that of many, given his medical background. More certainly, he was able to draw on his own experience as both a medical student and surgeon to produce an image of an operating theatre that is at once convincing and amusing. He might possibly also be rehearsing something of his own youthful anxieties about sex through the gangly, somewhat dazed figure of the young man.