Vagrancy Act 1838

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The Vagrancy Act 1838 (1 & 2 Vict. c. 38) was an Act of Parliament in the United Kingdom, signed into law on 29 July 1838. It amended the Vagrancy Act 1824 to provide that any person discharged from custody pending an appeal against a conviction under that Act who did not then reappear to prosecute the appeal could be recommitted. It also provided that the penalty established by that Act for exposing indecent prints in a street or highway would extend to those who exposed the same material in any part of a shop or house.[1]

This latter part of the Act was to prove significant in a number of prosecutions of artists for allegedly exhibiting obscene works of art, even when those exhibitions took place in a private space such as an art gallery. One of the most notorious successful prosecutions of an artist under the act was in 1929, when thirteen paintings by D. H. Lawrence at the Warren Gallery, London, were seized by the police. A ban was placed on the paintings being shown in England, which is technically still in force, but they were shown again in London in December 2003.[2]

The last artist to be successfully prosecuted under the 1838 Act was Stass Paraskos in 1966, following a police raid on an exhibition of Paraskos's work at Leeds College of Art. Again a ban was placed on showing the offending paintings and drawings in England, which is also still legally valid. However one of the paintings was shown at Leeds City Art Gallery in 1993,[3] and again at Scarborough Art Gallery in 2000, and several others are now owned by the Tate Gallery, London.[4]

Although aspects of the Act had been repealed in a piecemeal fashion by subsequent legislation, the full Act was formally repealed in 1981 by the Indecent Displays (Control) Act 1981 (c. 42).


  1. ^ The British Almanac of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, for the year 1839. The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, London, 1839.
  2. ^ See Danielle Demetriou, 'Obscene art of D. H. Lawrence goes on show after 70-year ban', in The Independent (London daily newspaper), 4 December 2003.
  3. ^ See Robbin Perrie, 'Banned Painting Goes on Display' in The Yorkshire Evening Post, (Leeds daily newspaper), 24 November 1993.
  4. ^ Benedict Read and David Thistlewood (eds.), Herbert Read: A British Vision of World Art (London: Lund Humphries, 1993) p.18.