…and quite unexpectedly, my world changed, irrevocably and forever.
The first thing I saw was a bronze statue of a woman. She was nude, kneeling, and her hands were tied behind her. Seeing it felt like an electric shock. I was stunned. And I immediately felt horribly visible, as though everyone in the crowded gallery would be able to see the effect it had on me. And as the first of the shock wore off, I realised that it wasn’t the only statue. There was a series of them, and every single one included some kind of bondage. One figure was bent at the waist, secured in a set of stocks. One was on all fours, with a collar around her neck and cuffs on her wrists and ankles. What on earth, I wondered, frozen, was I looking at? It was like a mirror, reflecting the inside of my mind back at me. All my fantasies laid out before me in this gallery. It was overwhelming.
Malcolm had noticed nothing of this, having spotted a friend of his. He introduced me to Paul, another artist who’d also organised the event. He was polite and friendly, but I was wildly distracted. Who’d made those sculptures? Were there any more in here? I excused myself, and walked further into the gallery. And there before me was a collection of framed, sepia-toned photographs, hanging all together and clearly all the work of the same artist. And just like the sculptures, they all depicted women. One picture was a back view of a woman bent over what looked like a church pew. In the foreground was a whip, lying menacingly on a table. Dear God. Another depicted a woman, caught in the act of lowering her Victorian-style bloomers. In another, a woman knelt in profile, glancing up anxiously towards the camera. It was like seeing my dreams brought to life in front of me, in artistic form. I felt hot, and giddy, and utterly transfixed. If there was art like this, I wasn’t alone, I realised. It’s hard to explain how much that meant to me. It’s not just that the pictures and sculptures were sexy, though they were. It was that suddenly, right in front of my eyes, was evidence that I wasn’t by myself any more. Someone had made these images, and these figurines. And whoever they were, they must, at least on some level, be like me.
I’ve heard some Christians talk about their experience of meeting God, of having a conversion experience. I never related to it, though I didn’t doubt their sincerity. But, in recalling what it was like for me that night in the gallery under Waterloo station - the sense of peace, and the hope of not being alone and strange after all, in the way that I’d feared that I was ever since I was sixteen - I realise that what they describe doesn’t sound dissimilar. Once, as a confused sixteen-year-old, I’d had a sexual experience when I thought I was looking for a spiritual one. And looking at this work that was designed to be sexual, I had what felt like a spiritual awakening. I was part of something. And whatever that something was, it was here in this room with me.
The people who’d made it were in the room too, though I didn’t know it. Paul, the organiser, suddenly appeared next to me. I hoped he hadn’t read my facial expression. I don’t know what it would have told him.
'Do you like this work?' he asked, indicating the sepia prints. 'The photographer is sitting at a table over there, he’d like to meet you'.
Good heavens. He was here? And I could meet him? We’d only been in the gallery twenty minutes. I was going from having no idea that artwork like this existed to meeting the artist who’d created the most electrifying work that I’d seen in my entire life, all in a dizzyingly short period of time. Giddily, I followed Paul over to where a tall man in his sixties wearing purple-tinted glasses and black nail polish was sitting. He stood up to greet me. And just like that, I met China Hamilton, one of the best-established and most-loved creators of BDSM-themed, erotic art work in the UK.
'What did you think of my work?' he enquired courteously once I was sitting opposite him at his table, and Paul had absented himself again.
'I like it very much!' I exclaimed, rather redundantly. I think that my feelings about his work were written all over my face. I’d never felt so young and ill-equipped to deal with a situation in my entire life. I didn’t know how to talk about photography. I certainly didn’t know how to talk about the wonderful, arresting darkness of the world he’d created in his sepia-toned prints. I literally did not have the vocabulary. I had never heard the term ‘BDSM’. I’d never had my own computer, so I’d never tried to search out anything relating to my interests. It’s hard to believe that a 25-year-old who’d been thinking about bondage and spanking since childhood had never looked for people similar to myself online, but I’d been sure that I was alone. There hadn’t seemed any point.
'You’re very beautiful. Would you like to model for me?' asked China, blessedly far more comfortable in this arena than I, and not, as far as I could tell, in the grip of an overwhelming cocktail of unexpected emotions.
And of course, I said yes. So we chose a date a couple of weeks away, and he invited me to stay at his house in Suffolk overnight, since he preferred to shoot after dark. Like a vampire, I thought later that evening, looking over his work at the gallery again, but this time, imagining myself in the pictures. My conversation with China had only been brief, but he’d made mention of a ‘BDSM scene’ in London; from the sound of things there was a whole network of people who knew each other, were into similar things, and who organised actual social events. It seemed quite unbelievable, but as Malcolm and I shared a taxi back to our respective flats later that night, he corroborated the story. In fact, there was an erotic life-drawing class that ran every week, within walking distance of my home, and they did bondage-themed classes. I could work with them if I liked! And, as I confided in excitement that I was going to work with China Hamilton, Malcolm asked if I’d like to come over to his flat the following week for dinner, and to do a short shoot to try out some bondage so that I wouldn’t be a complete beginner when I got to Suffolk. Thank goodness, I said yes. Because my first experience of being tied up was not at all how I’d expected.
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