Art and peace Come Together in John Lennon’s lithographs

By the time the Sixties had drawn to a close, The Beatles had sparked global Beatlemania, had the top-selling US single for one out of every six weeks for six years, and enjoyed a record run of six consecutive number-ones on the Billboard Hot 100. As they parted ways and searched for their individual identities in the ’70s, Lennon gave peace a chance from an Amsterdam hotel bed and picked up a pen to produce a series of highly personal lithographs. John Lennon’s art remains as fascinating and highly prized today as it was when it first appeared over 50 years ago.

John Lennon & Yoko Ono at one of their "bed-ins".

John Lennon & Yoko Ono at one of their “bed-ins”. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

“Perhaps I’ll get interested in drawing and painting again,” said Lennon in a 1969 interview. “You can’t stand still and I think I’ve been standing still for too long.”

At his creative and controversial peak, John Lennon couldn’t help but make headlines the world over. So, when his lithographs were exhibited at the London Arts Gallery on New Bond Street on 15 January 1970, it was perhaps no surprise that Scotland Yard’s Obscene Publications Squad raided the gallery under the guise of a law dating back to 1830, forbidding “profane, indecent or obscene” images with Detective Inspector Frederick Luff commenting: “Many toilet walls depict work of similar merit. It is perhaps charitable to say that [they] are the work of a sick mind.”

The highly personal and playful sketches depicting family, sex, and music no longer court quite the same level of controversy. They hold a different place in society today. But the artworks from the time of Lennon’s wedding to Yoko Ono, and during their famous bed-ins in the Amsterdam Hilton, offer an intimate and occasionally erotic peek inside the mind of one of the most famous figures of the 20th century.  

Bag One

The Bag One Portfolio is the ultimate collection of John Lennon’s lithographs. Containing all of the line drawings that he created for Yoko Ono as a wedding gift, it’s the definitive print collection of the original drawings, which are currently housed in the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Released posthumously by Yoko Ono, 3,000 individual prints signed by Lennon had been made in total, while 300 complete sets of the Bag One collection of 17 lithographs were produced. They were packaged in white leather shoulder bags with Bag One written in capital letters across the front, above Lennon’s signature.

Upon release, a collectable piece of pop culture history could be bought for £40, or £550 for the whole set. Now they sell at auction for upwards of $30,000. Offering a peak behind the celebrity curtain, the lithographs show Lennon putting the Fab Four behind him and finding the individuality that would define his image for the coming decade, until his death in 1980.

Honeymoon

Lennon chronicled his wedding to Ono, honeymoon, and following plea for world peace during his bed-in stunt in 1969 with a series of sketches. One that has endured and encapsulates an expression of their collective personality is a drawing showing them walking in full flow.

Ono is known as a notoriously shy personality, especially when placed next to the gregarious Lennon. Ono’s hat is pulled down over her face in the drawing, reflecting her initial shyness as the wife of one of the most famous people on the planet at the time, while Lennon’s head is up and he’s striding confidently, potentially ready with a quick-witted quip for any approaching reporters. 

John Lennon's art: Honeymoon lithograph.

John Lennon – Honeymoon lithograph. Sold for $7,350 via RR Auction (October 2014).

A Honeymoon print sold for $7,350 in October 2014, but the limited edition is likely to fetch a higher figure if it goes under the hammer again, particularly after Peter Jackson’s Beatles documentary introduced the Fab Four to a new generation and reaffirmed their pop culture heritage.

Yoko Ono

One of Lennon’s more controversial lithographs showcases the eroticism of his drawings and the overt sexual nature of his relationship with Ono, but not everyone was a fan when the pictures were put before Marlborough Street Magistrates Court in London, April 1970.

John Lennon:Yoko Ono lithograph.

John Lennon – Yoko Ono lithograph. Sold for $12,000 via Christie’s (December 2006).

One witness took the stand to say, “I felt a bit sick that a man should draw himself and his wife in such positions. It was a shock to see Yoko in the nude with a rather exaggerated bosom.”

That witness might have been even more shocked had they seen the print that the features a rare inscription from Lennon reading ‘Woman Is The N***** of The World’ which was the opening track to the 1972 album Sometime In New York City and was a phrase coined by Ono in the late 1960s as a comment on sexism in society.

The Hug

Controversy and nudity seemed to go hand in naked hand for Lennon and Ono at times in the 1970s, with the pair happily posing naked on album covers. It wasn’t all eroticism and genitalia though, as Lennon’s lithographs also display a tenderness and the close, symbiotic relationship they developed.

John Lennon: The Hug lithograph.

John Lennon – The Hug lithograph. Sold for R6,800 via 5th Avenue Auctioneers (February 2021).

One example is The Hug, which has a charming simplicity of theme and style. As an artist, Lennon would sketch on paper whenever the mood struck him, but it was Lennon and Ono’s assistant, Anthony Fawcett who helped to shift Lennon’s creativity onto lithograph. 

“I devised a way to shortcut the complicated procedure of working directly onto stone blocks or zine plates,” explained Fawcett. “By using specially treated litho paper, which I had sent to his house along with an array of suitable brushes, litho ink, and crayons, John would be able to draw or paint in his usual manner”. And these were later transferred onto zinc plates and printed for the limited run of prints, which remain highly prized today. 

Baby Grand

Whether he was sat behind a piano for his solo hit Imagine, the Beatles’ A Day in the Life, or I Am the Walrus, Lennon and the piano became frequent artistic companions. So, the image of him sat him in front of a piano with musical notes and cigarette smoke emanating from his person in equal measure is a familiar image to fans. 

Seated in front of a piano appears to be a position in which Lennon felt comfortable, as he also drew himself in front of the keys for Borrowed Time. And a lithograph poster of this print offers a financially viable entry into collecting John Lennon’s art, proving that All You Need Is Love… and a little luck at auction.