Antoine Borel never set out to be the illustrator par excellence of the great erotic classics of the eighteenth century, but for a century or so his fine engravings set the standard for those who could afford a library of clandestine picture books, and show that the (mostly male) erotic imagination was alive and well long before the widespread availability of pornography.

Thetis immersing Achilles by the heel in the River Styx, c.1765

Borel was expecting to be a painter of portraits and landscapes like his father had been, and proved himself quite proficient in the classical tradition, but he was also fascinated by the potential of engraving, especially for the depiction of naked bodies, and his skill was noted by publishers, mostly based in Amsterdam (because censorship was much stricter in France and England), wanting to take advantage of the almost insatiable demand for the erotic classic texts of the mid-eighteenth century – Cleland’s Fanny Hill, Sade’s Justine and Juliette, Nerciat’s Félicia and de Boyer’s Thérèse.

A Borel illustration for L’indiscret.

Around 1780, assisted by master engraver François Rolland Elluin, Borel produced a couple of coloured engravings to accompany a short erotic text by Jean-Louis Anselin entitled L’indiscret (The Indiscretion), and commissions for other erotic titles quickly followed, work which would occupy most of the rest of his working life.

He produced illustrations for several relatively non-erotic classics as well, including Plutarch (1783), the Théâtre des Grecs (1785–89), and the works of Belloy (1787). He had a strong radical sensibility, and during the French Revolution produced several posters and pamphlet illustrations highlighting the plight of the poor.

Example illustration