David Hamilton found dead amid allegations of historical rape

On the Mediterranean beaches of Cap d’Agde, British photographer David Hamilton was a familiar figure in the 1980s looking for young girls to model for his pictures.

“Shopping” was the word he used and he knew what he was seeking: young, early teens, preferably blonde, blue-eyed and with pale, almost translucent skin; the epitome of the “age of innocence”, the title of one of his best-selling books.

Parents rarely refused when he asked if the youngsters could come to his studio to pose, honoured that their child had been spotted by a world-famous artist. But Hamilton’s motives, it has been claimed, were far from innocent.

On Friday evening, days after allegations resurfaced that he had raped and sexually abused a number of his young models, the London-born photographer, who had repeatedly denied the accusations, was found dead in his Paris home. Police reported that a bottle of medication was found nearby, and declared that Hamilton, 83, had taken his own life.

Radio and television journalist Flavie Flament, 42, who had recently gone public to claim Hamilton raped her 30 years ago when she was 13, declared she was “devastated” by his death and accused him of “cowardice”.

Flament’s claims, made in her recently published book, were vigorously denied by the photographer and her own mother, but three other women came forward anonymously to say Hamilton had raped and sexually assaulted them as girls.

On Saturday, Flament’s literary editor, Karina Hocine, said Hamilton’s death had condemned his victims to eternal silence. “Of course she is devastated … they say it’s suicide, and of course as human beings we are divided between the horror of the situation and a feeling of immense revulsion, because he has not allowed justice to do its work,” Hocine told LCI radio.

A few hours after Hamilton’s death was announced, Flament issued a statement. It said: “I’ve just learned of the death of David Hamilton, the man who raped me when I was 13. The man who raped numerous young girls, some of whom have come forward with courage and emotion these last few weeks. I’m thinking of them, of the injustice that we were trying to fight together. By his cowardice, he has condemned us once more to silence and unable to see him condemned. The horror of this act will never wipe out the horror of our sleepless nights.”

Hamilton, who grew up in wartime London – spending some time as a child evacuee in Dorset – set out to be an architect. Instead, aged 20, he travelled to Paris to work as a graphic designer at French Elle and later became the art director of the grand magasin Printemps.

At the same time he began taking photographs, floaty, hazy images of pre- and early-pubescent girls nude or in transparent dresses in flowery, bucolic scenes, that became a recognisable style – the “Hamilton blur” – but were banned in some countries as pornographic.

One of the girls who came forward after Flament accused Hamilton told Le Nouvel Observateur that he would send his girls off to find a new “mouse” on the beaches in the south of France. “Mouse”, she revealed, was the word he used for the girls’ genitals.

“I would approach the parents first, to reassure them. I would say, ‘David Hamilton would like to take a trial photograph of your daughter’. Then he would approach them,” the unnamed woman told the magazine.

Hamilton declared he was inspired by Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita, saying he shared the writers’s “obsession with purity” and that his work looked for “the candour of a lost paradise”. In the 1970s, his “erotic-romantic” images published in books and kitschy calendars raised few eyebrows, and his 1977 soft-focus erotic film Bilitis became an aesthetic manifesto for a generation of artists. Like other well known and famous men of his generation, however, by the start of the 21st century, his pictures had begun to divide option: what he claimed was innocence and candour appeared not just passé but perverse and pornographic.

Chris Warmoli wrote in the Guardian in 2005: “Hamilton’s photographs have long been at the forefront of the ‘is it art or pornography?’ debate.”

Hamilton responded to the resurfacing of the rape claims by threatening to sue for defamation. “I have done nothing improper. Clearly the instigator of this media lynching is looking for her 15 minutes of fame, by defaming me in her novel,” he said last week.

Hamilton pointed out he had never been found guilty of any charge, and that the time had passed in which any could be brought. Under France’s statute of limitations, charges must be brought within 20 years for rape and 10 years for sexual abuse.