Friday, 24 August 2012

Pauline Boty


I picked up a postcard at the Oxfam Music and Art shop in Exeter the other week of the artist Pauline Boty, posing in her studio for a photograph by Michael Ward taken on 29th October 1963. It feels full of the optimism and excitement of the times. Pauline sits in deliberate imitation of the famous seated pose which Christine Keeler had struck for the photograper Lewis Morley earlier in the year, a picture which became the emblem of the scandal which led to the fall of Harold MacMillan and ushered in a new, more liberal decade (it took a few years for the ‘sixties’ of official fable to get going). It was also an image which she incorporated into one of her own paintings, Scandal ’63, as you can see in another of Michael Ward’s portraits, shot in 1964. Boty was indeed herself the subject of a series of portraits by Morley in 1963, standing or sitting in various costumes in front of her paintings, shot formally in a studio or caught in a spontaneous, offhand moment at home, and made the centre of a more unusual, artistic composition, peering around the frayed edge of a flat length of fibreglass which looks like a sheet of ice lifted from a pond. In Ward’s photograph, the early morning autumn sun shines through the window, casting her silhouette, with check-hat perching on her untamed tangle of blonde hair, onto the corner of the wall behind her and across the large canvasses, finished and unfinished, which are propped up around her. A half-formed Proust from an early version of her painting It’s A Man’s World 1 peers over her shoulder, and Fidel Castro gazes up at her from the other side from one of her pictures collating images of the Cuban revolution. Torn out photos and small art books (the materials for her collages), and a folder with the edges of pictures tantalisingly peeping out litter the floor alongside spent matches, discarded cigarette packets and butts, the debris of last night’s work or revels. She holds a Cornish Blue mug, presumably filled with hot coffee to pick her up. The hazy, happily blurred look on her face suggests a long night which has carried her through till dawn. It’s a picture which evokes a magical sense of possibility, of a new, confident artistic generation both defining and reflecting the moment and in doing so forming a new and optimistic London bohemia.

I first came across Boty’s work when I picked up a copy of Latest Art magazine in the Brighton Museum and Gallery in 2006. It was a special women’s issue which had an article on her drawing on Adam Smith’s as yet unpublished biography Now You See Her: Pauline Boty, First Lady of British Pop, and featured her paintings It’s A Man’s World II (1963) on the cover, and the hilarious and somehow very British Bum (1966) on the rear (appropriately enough). Happily, you can read this yourself as the magazine has been put online as a pdf over here. More recently I saw her in Ken Russell’s 1963 BBC Monitor film on pop art, Pop Goes the Easel, in which she was one of the four artists chosen to represent the new movement. The others were Derek Boshier, her partner at the time, Peter Blake, who long nurtured an unrequited flame for her, and Peter Phillips. Searching for further information on her, it’s remarkable how completely she has disappeared from the official histories of the period which came to be written some years after the fact, particularly considering her considerable impact at the time. She isn’t mentioned in any of the books on pop art down at my local library (and there are a fair few of these), and the brief passage she merits in Brandon Taylor’s Collage: The Making of Modern Art is a masterpiece of condescension which, in its casual assumption of her subordination to her well-known husband’s influence, belittles her talent and intellect. It further propagates the ‘dumb blonde’ myth that beauty and social vivacity are automatically accompanied by blank vacuity. ‘Pauline Boty…married the left-wing literary agent Clive Goodwin in 1963’, he writes, ‘and immediately produced a series of ‘political’ paintings (note the superiority of those dismissive inverted commas) in which collage-like composition contained easily recognisable symbols of power and pleasure amidst selected icons of commercial modernity’. He then goes on to criticise her abandonment of cut-out collage for ‘fine-art’ painting as being indicative of a retreat into conservatism and comfortable conformity. This attitude, which seems to rob her of any individuality or creative autonomy, suggests one reason why her work fell into such obscurity.

Pauline's Nightmare - Pop Goes the Easel

A quick dry clean - Enticing Alfie
She was certainly an extraordinarily beautiful woman, with an unaffected sense of playfully bohemian, thrown-together style and an air of joyful ebullience which suggested a love of and intense interest in life and the people she encountered in its course. It was natural for photographers, journalists and film-makers to use her as the glamorous ‘face’ of the new pop art generation. This objectification could work against the serious appreciation of her art, however. Those who create media images tend to want to use them to convey their own messages, and impose their own stories upon them. Boty was quite aware of this, and manipulated and self-reflexively commented upon the use of her image in the photographs of Morley and Ward and in Ken Russell’s film, and upon the representation of women in popular media in her paintings. It’s illuminating, however, that the Tate Gallery has only one of her paintings in its collection, The Only Blonde in the World (acquired fairly recently, in 1999), in comparison to 10 by Derek Boshier (mostly bought in the 70s), 31 by Peter Phillips, 35 by Peter Blake, and 113 by David Hockney (who also appears in the Pop Goes the Easel film). But in the National Portrait Gallery, there are 28 portraits of her by Michael Ward, Michael Seymour, John Aston and Lewis Morley, several with the works which are so conspicuously absent from galleries today prominently displayed. Her segment in Ken Russell’s film opens with a nightmare dream sequence in which she is pursued through the curving corridors of the BBC TV centre by a stern-looking woman in black, her eyes turned into skull-like pits by the black lenses of her dark glasses, who propels herself after the fleeing Boty with implacable strength and implacable purpose in a wheelchair. Pauline manages to escape into the lift just before the woman catches up with her, only to turn around and see…. This performance precipitated a secondary career as an actress, both on stage and on television. In fact, she had already starred in an episode of Armchair Theatre in 1962, North City Traffic Straight Ahead, which was directed by Philip Saville, her lover for some time until she married Clive Goodwin, also an actor, director and media person. She auditioned for the lead in Darling, which some believed was based on her affair with Saville, but lost out to Julie Christie, in many ways her alter ego on and off screen. She was the co-star in a 1965 thriller series called Contract to Kill, and had a small role in another of Ken Russell’s Monitor musical portraits, this one of Bartok. She plays the duplicitous prostitute setting up her client for murder in the composer’s savage (both musically and thematically) ballet The Miraculous Mandarin. You can see her small part in Russell's interpretation in a clip included a little way into Adam Curtis' typically wide-ranging and thought-provoking article Dream On, which incorporates the story of Pauline and Clive into its analysis of the co-option and decline of sixties idealism. Her final appearance was an uncredited cameo in Alfie, (9 minutes 15 seconds into this clip) as the manager of a dry cleaners whose notice promising ‘prompt service within’ offers brief moments of uncomplicated pleasure with Michael Caine, who comments that ‘I was getting the suit cleaned in the bargain’. ‘Well, you can’t turn something like that down’, he adds.

Her primary art - Pauline painting
Boty’s acting career was always a secondary concern for her. In Nell Dunn’s 1965 book Talking To Women, a series of transcribed conversations with women from all backgrounds, she is asked which, out of painting and acting, ‘you actually get the most out of doing’. ‘Painting’, she unhesitatingly replies. She then goes on to describe the compensations of acting, its social and collaborative nature, as opposed to the solitary act of creating a work of art. As she puts it (and the directly transcribed nature of the interview really brings her voice to life), ‘painting you do alone, you know, and you sit there and its your own terrible fight or your own lovely bit, whichever sort of phase it’s in but it’s really terribly alone and you make the whole thing yourself’. Creation was evidently an effortful and intensely felt process for her. The acting may have been a release, but she was also encouraged into it by both Philip Saville, with whom she was having an affair in the early 60s, and Clive Goodwin, whom she married in 1963. Saville was a well-known director of stage and screen and Goodwin an influential media figure and sometime actor himself (he played John Ruskin in Ken Russell’s Monitor film on Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites, again included as a clip in Adam Curtis' article). There is a sense that they felt they could better direct and shape her persona as an actress, recreating her to conform to their own perceived image of what she could be. Being at the centre of the media which she portrayed in her work (TV and film in particular) and gaining experience of the way in which actors self-consciously adapt alternate personae on stage can’t have failed to feed back into her painting, however, giving it a further and more personal reflective layer.

Perhaps the major reason for Boty’s neglect lies in her tragic early death at the age of 28. She discovered that she had lymphatic cancer in 1965 when she went for the scan which confirmed her pregnancy. She refused a course of chemotherapy for fear of harming the baby, trusting instead to less invasive radiotherapy treatments. Her daughter was born in February 1966, but Pauline continued to decline, and died on 1st July 1966. Her husband, Clive Goodwin, and her family were left in a state of shock, and all of her paintings were packed away and stored in a barn on a farm in Kent owned by one of her brothers. There they remained for decades. It’s quite remarkable that nobody took an interest in all those years, that no-one made the effort to seek her work out. It’s not as if she wasn’t a highly visible and charismatic figure on the sixties scene, and the decade, particularly in its colourful pop aspects, has exerted a continuous fascination up until the present day. Finally, the art historian and critic David Mellor brought them back to light, the paintings fortunately none the worse for wear after having lain dormant in rustic storage for so long. He included several in the exhibition The Sixties Art Scene In London which he curated at The Barbican in London in 1993, and she was also prominently featured in the accompanying book in a way which she hadn’t been (and still isn’t) in other surveys of the period. As Mellor puts it in the introduction to the book, the ‘process of re-seeing and revising the recent past also brings forward neglected individuals, and the contexts in which they worked, during the period. (This is particularly so in the case of Pauline Boty.)’ It was this exhibition, and its resurrection of Boty’s work, which led to the Tate buying The Only Blonde in the World. Although why did they not make up for neglect and the passage of lost time by buying the lot?

Pensive window - Looking out at the world
Boty came from a pretty conventional suburban middle-class background, growing up in Carshalton in Surrey. Her father was an accountant, her mother a housewife whose own artistic interests had been quietly but firmly discouraged in her youth as being inappropriate for one of her position and sex. Pauline’s own pursuit of art was hardly encouraged, either by her parents or by the educational system of the time. Responding to Nell Dunn’s question about the extent to which she was bound by the conventions of her upbringing, she talks of her father’s ‘Victorian ideas’, and the fact that ‘he didn’t even want me to work when I left school’, However, when her mother contracted TB, ‘the whole family became chaotic and we really had a fantastic amount of freedom’. Pauline had to take on her mother’s role in the household for a while, and learned to stand on her own two feet at an early age (she was about 12 at the time). Her father still had strictly limited hopes and expectations of her even after she had left home, gone to college and was beginning to establish herself as an artist. ‘I used to get fed up when I went home’, she tells Dunn, ‘and my father would be playing with his grandson or something and if I held it he’d say “That’s what I want to see” and I’d think “you silly old fool”’. She went to the Wimbledon Art School in 1954 on a scholarship and was soon christened the ‘Wimbledon Bardot’. She progressed from there to the Royal College of Art, where she opted to study stained glass, something she’d not shown any particular interest in up until that point. She would have preferred painting, but it was made clear to her that places for women on the college’s painting courses were limited and it was more or less accepted that male students were given preference. It may be that the study of stained glass, compromised choice though it might have been, influenced her in the creation of her collages, and in the bright colours, compartmentalised images and decorative border and background designs of her paintings. In 1961, she was part of what can lay claim to be the first major Pop Art exhibition in Britain, the Blake, Boty, Porter and Reeve show at the AIA Gallery in Lisle Street, off Leicester Square.

Boty’s paintings were imbued with a feeling for pop music to a far greater extent than her fellow pop artists, for whom the musical side of pop initially went little further than the inclusion of Elvis amongst their American icons. Pauline looked closer to home and incorporated the lyrics of the Kander and Ebb song My Colouring Book, the b-side to Dusty Springfield’s top 10 hit I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself (also included on her debut solo LP A Girl Called Dusty) into her 1964 painting of that name. The different objects, moods and glances signifying the end of an affair (Boty’s with Saville?) are coloured in according the scheme of the song’s lyrical instructions: ‘These are the eyes that watched him as he walked away/
Colour them grey’; ‘This is the heart that thought he would always be true/
Colour it blue’; ‘These are the arms that held him and touched him, lost him somehow/
Colour them empty now’; ‘These are the beads I wore until she came between/
Colour them green’; ‘This is the room that I sleep in and walk in and weep in and hide in, that nobody sees/ Colour it lonely, please’; ‘This is the boy, the one I depended upon/ Colour him gone’. It all amounts to an oblique, fragmentary portrait, displaying her collagist tendencies and perhaps showing that her studies of stained glass paid off after all. There’s also something rather cinematic about its focussing in on the telling detail, its combination of close up and middle distance ‘shots’ and its depiction of an empty room, which looks like a set waiting for its actors. The absences referred to in the lyrics are conveyed with a greyish china white which gives a spectral aspect to figures whose features are already starting to fade. Boty’s characteristic mossy, verdigris greens, marmalade oranges and bleeding reds are much in evidence, and the rainbow arcs (another characteristic) which bridge the otherwise disconnected images temper the melancholy resignation of the lyrics and suggest the possibility of a bright new beginning as much as an ending.


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