Jean Straker and The Visual Arts Club

Photograph of nude Lady by Jean Straker

A 1950s contemporary of Pamela Green’s was the photographer Jean Straker.  An interesting character by half. To my knowledge, he never photographed Pamela, but she did have a copy of his book, The Nudes of Jean Straker, on her shelf. I feel as if Jean Straker was too arty and highbrow for the pin-up crowd and not hip enough for the art crowd of the day.

Jean Straker was born in London in 1913 to a Russian father and English ballerina mother. He left school to work in a film publicity office. From there he ended up as a freelance journalist, ghosting articles for film and theatre magazines and illustrating them with his own photographs. A conscientious objector during the War he combined duties as an ARP (Air Raid Precautions) warden with working as a surgical photographer in London’s hospitals for the Ministry of Information.

In 1945, he bought a studio in Soho Square and formed a photographic firm called Photo Union. His experiments with colour photography proved expensive, and he became increasingly annoyed with being treated as a “plumber” by his clients. So in 1951 he turned his studio into the Visual Arts Club. The aim of which was to meet the needs of amateur photographers who found difficulty in obtaining nude models, and who wished to escape the stigma of secret nude sessions behind drawn bedroom curtains. It also enabled Straker, through lectures, demonstrations and the sale of his work, to pass on his ideas to others.

Figure study by Jean Straker.

Models unknown. Many members were often shy in the presence of unclad models and preferred to leave their cameras at home and just watch the proceedings. But Straker’s masterly handling of nude compositions together with his artistic running commentary lifted this occupation out of the sphere of mere ogling. For those who merely wanted to watch and learn Straker coined the term “appraisers”. Life drawing classes were also a staple of the club and wives of members automatically received membership.

The Consultation (1956). The theme of motherhood inevitably stands second only to survival in the passion of man and remains the focus of his faith and purpose. By a strange inversion of ethical values, it is in our society often the object of circumspection and taboo. The image shows a pregnant woman consulting her doctor. The picture was taken at a series of Group Beta meetings of the Graphic Arts Faculty at the Visual Arts Club. Model: Joyce Williams — née Hunt.

His models were often far from being conventional beauties and apparently he discouraged the use of make-up. His sometimes-surreal use of props and odd poses meant that his work did not appear in publications of the day. As an art feature of the Soho Fair, however, Jean Straker would often stage an exhibition called Femina. After ten years, he changed the name of the club to The Academy of Visual Arts.

With the passing of the 1959 Obscene Publications Act, the 1960s saw a number of controversial trials; Straker came into conflict with the authorities, as his own work was quite uncompromising. He refused to retouch his work at a time when a glimpse of pubic hair was sufficient to lead to prosecution. In 1962, Jean lost his case for the return of 1,474 negatives and hundreds of photographs. The court ruled they have “a certain aspect which would tend to deprave and corrupt. Police had seized the photographs from his London studio. Straker spent the rest of the decade refusing to curtail his activities or compromise his artistic integrity leading to a continuous cycle of prosecutions and appeals. He was instrumental in changes to the censorship laws of the day. After nearly a decade of litigation, he retired to Sussex.

Cover girls are meant to draw
    The eyes, and pence from pockets;
Those uncovered often score
    A pride of place in lockets.
Connoisseurs of visual art
    Make patronage a duty
When figure studies from the start
    Merge artistry with beauty.
Model forms of graceful line,
    Virtue unadorned displayed
Back our cover girl’s design:—
    Fair exchange for money paid.
Jean Straker


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22 thoughts on “Jean Straker and The Visual Arts Club

  1. The artist in the foreground is my Grandfather, Grisha de Fossard le Compte de la Vatine. I have a copy of that photograph.

    1. I have a drawing by G De Fossard, would that be your grandfather? I bought it years ago in a second hand bookshop in Chiswick.

  2. I modelled for your father Grisha and also for Jean in the late fifties at the Visual Arts Club in Soho Square. I have one pencil portrait hanging on my wall.

      1. My Father and I worked for him when I was 18. He had just bought a ex public school, he was quite a character. I have many tales to tell.

        1. Hi there! I now live in the Abbey and would love to hear your stories and anecdotes! One I can pass to you is that Jean had a penchant for travelling the village in a pony a trap wearing nothing but a sheepskin coat and a pair of Wellington boots! He didn’t believe in cheques or banks and always carried gold sovereigns!!!!!

  3. Are there any published books of Gridha’s work? I think I may have a pastel portrait completed by him.

    1. What are your Follett family links. My mother’s family are Folletts and I am tracing them. One of the photos on this site is by Bertram Follett (my uncle)

  4. i live on Canada and just buy 19 nude photos by Jean Straker. They are stamped on the back with his name, Numbers ,address 12 Soho sq. and says personal copy not to be reproduced sold or exhibited. i am wondering if they are rare on the market of photography.

    1. That’s a tricky question. As a photographer, he fell between two stools: He was too arty for the pinup crowd and too “pornographic” for the art crowd. I do feel his reputation is on the up and is due a serious reappraisal. Would love to see the pictures you got. You can email me at

  5. Thanks for this. Jean was my grandfather and it’s nice to read about him. I was a toddler when he died.

    1. Nice to hear from you. I did a couple of other post on Jean on my blog. I trust you found them.
      also have you read Squire among the Pin-ups by Byron Rogers. It was a chapter in the book On the Trail of the Last Human Cannonball on Jean.

  6. I have recently discovered some family documents including my late uncle’s student membership card of Jean Straker’s Academy of Visual Arts dated 1966. Is it still valid?

  7. Hello everyone.

    I put a message here about my grandfather, Grisha de Fossard, years ago, and then forgot. I’m back here by accident and have only just seen the replies.

    I’d love to hear any stories that anyone has to tell and I’d be happy to share what I know.


    Jolyon de Fossard.

  8. I’d certainly love to see any work of his that you may have. I have some sketches and paintings in the UK in my old home.


  9. I’d be happy to share. I’m in The Philippines now and the pictures I have are all in The UK. I’ll be back there in the next few months to sort everything out prior to my permanent move.

    I might have a few snaps on my phone but nothing much.

    I know a little about my grandfather that I’m happy to share if there is any interest.

    Jolyon de Fossard

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