Summary of Pauline Boty
Often dismissively referred to as an 'It-Girl' of 1960s London, Pauline Boty hung out with counterculture celebrities and rock stars, posed for magazines and famous photographers, and was in many ways a figure whose beauty and free-spirited nature exemplified the changing social conventions of the era. But this was only part of who Boty was, and her own artistic practice was innovative, engaging and essential to the development of British Pop Art. Due at least in part to the engrained sexism of the art world and prejudice against a woman who unashamedly celebrated her own sexuality, full historical recognition for Boty came late, after her tragic death at the age of only 28.
After long being championed by a small number of critics and contemporaries, and since the literal rediscovery of much of her work in an old barn, curators and academics have revaluated the impact of Boty's vibrant use of color, shape and pop-cultural collage to reflect Britain in the 1960s, particularly in relation to the role of women.
- Boty's rediscovery disrupts the canonical narrative that British Pop Art was entirely defined by its three 'main' figures of Eduardo Paolozzi, Richard Hamilton, and Peter Blake. Boty's work engages in very similar operations and techniques, as well as mining similar conceptual ground. But whilst a contemporary of all three, even studying and exhibiting with Blake, Boty was rapidly forgotten after her early death, revealing the way in which the art historical canon systematically minimises the contribution of female artists.
- Unlike some other female Pop Artists, Boty refused to create work that hid her vivacity or sense of fun. Her use of bright colors, humorous and/or glamorous imagery and foregrounding of her own desires and sexuality led to dismissals of her work as "girlish" or "slight", despite the success of male artists who approached their work in the same way. Since her rediscovery, this work is now seen as an important reclamation of female agency.
- Boty's work is inherently subjective and tied to her own personality - like many Pop Artists, her personality and social life provides important context. Her personal experiences of the society around her provide the subject matter for her paintings, foregrounding an individual perspective on the changing cultural conventions of 1960s Britain often overlooked.
- Like many other Pop Artists, Boty was influenced by and participated in several other art forms alongside her painting. Working as a model, actor and dancer, Boty's social circle and its impact on her work reflects the intermingling of artistic forms common in the early 1960s, where musicians, filmmakers, painters and photographers were acutely aware of developments in each other's fields.
Important Art by Pauline Boty
This 1961 work is an early example of Boty's forays into "collage painting", consisting of a series of geometric panels and abstract shapes rendered in vibrant blues, oranges and yellows. It was produced in the year that she graduated from the Royal College of Art. Whereas in her studies she had been constrained by the disciplinary limits of her stained glass course, having moved on from the restrictive space of the institution she was now able to pursue her real interests in paint. Gershwin however still demonstrates the way in which Boty was inspired by stained glass techniques, with the artist splitting the space of the canvas into different sections and geometric shapes to make up the whole picture. The geometric panels which make up the piece are reminiscent of historical stained glass or mosaic techniques.
Despite these echoes of historical forms, the shapes rendered are also very contemporary, suggestive of early 1960s advertising and packaging. The bright, primary colors are also similar to the color schemes that began to appear in youth-orientated media in this time, such as magazines, clothes advertising and album covers. Boty, as an artist deeply invested in this youth media combined this sensibility with the skills that she learned in art school. Similar color palettes and collage effects can be seen in the work of her contemporaries, such as Peter Blake.
The title Gershwin is likely a reference to George Gershwin, the extremely popular American jazz composer. This allusion is demonstrative of the way in which Boty took her inspirations from the other media around her. She was not afraid to reference "low media" such as jazz music, even in this early stage of her work and when not working in a figurative style. Early pieces such as this established the background and framed geometric style that Boty then continued to develop through her experimentation with "collaged" figuration.
Oil on board - Private Collection
The Only Blonde in the World
This painting uses the same vibrant color palette and abstract shapes as Boty's earlier work, but includes a painted likeness of Marilyn Monroe, the Hollywood celebrity. This image appears in a panel, again showing the influence of stained glass work and collage. Monroe herself takes up a slim panel of the canvas, strutting along in a glamorous white dress, heels and fur, with swept up blonde locks. Like many of Boty's image references, this is likely copied directly from a press shot, perhaps at the movie premiere for The Seven Year Itch in 1955. On both sides of the canvas, the image of Monroe is squeezed by abstract green, red and purple shapes, almost threatening to overwhelm her.
Throughout her career, Boty was fascinated with the figure of Marilyn Monroe. She felt an affinity with this most modern of starlets, the ultimate blonde bombshell, who simultaneously represented an era of more open female sexuality and the confinements of this sexualisation. Monroe was both powerful and oppressed due to her beauty, and Boty felt sympathetic to this situation. She, too, struggled throughout her career to express her female sexuality while also navigating the ways in which she was objectified as a beautiful woman by critics, friends and the media. "The fact that Boty was a woman dealing with representations of female sexuality at that time makes her interesting," says curator Chris Stephens, "Many male artists of the period explored popular images of female glamour, like the pin-up, but it was a boy's game. As a woman, she looked at representations of sex and sexuality in a very different way". Boty was all too often typecast as a blonde bimbo in her own acting roles, and often not taken seriously as a painter due to this. As Scene magazine proclaimed in 1962, "Actresses often have tiny brains. Painters often have large beards. Imagine a brainy actress who is also a painter and a blonde and you have PAULINE BOTY". This press clipping reveals the characteristation of Boty as a novelty, and as an aestheticized and fantastic figure.
In The Only Blonde in the World, Monroe is a figure who is at a distance from herself. Rather than a real person, with thoughts, opinions, flaws and desires, Monroe is presented simply as an abstract fantasy, the epitome of femininity and sexual attractiveness. The title, "The Only Blonde in the World", suggests that Monroe is the standard by which all other (blonde) women are judged. Boty's ironic title mocks its own ludicrousness, exposing the way in which so many beautiful women are positioned as similar fantasies by the profoundly misogynist and heteronormative society of the early 1960s.
Oil paint on canvas - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
My Colouring Book
My Colouring Book again reproduces the distinct framing of collage and stained glass, deploying imagery familiar from 1960s media alongside bright blocks of color and snatches of text. The painting is a line by line visualisation of the popular song 'My Colouring Book', as sung by Barbara Streisand in 1963 and Dusty Springfield in 1964. The canvas is split into six sections, partially mimicking a girl's comic magazine. Each segment represents a different idea expressed in the lyrics of the song. The line "These are the eyes that watched him as he walked away, color them grey", is illustrated by a pair of round grey and then-fashionable sunglasses shielding a ghostly face, subtly suggesting the denizens of 'Swinging London'. A blue love heart, rendered in an almost childlike form is captioned "This is the heart that thought He would always be true, Color it blue". "These are the arms that held him, and touched him, then lost him, somehow, color them empty, now" is accompanied by a picture of an anonymous blonde grasping an empty, white silhouette. In the bottom right, a chunky green beaded necklace; "These are the beads I wore, until she came between, color them green". Then a detailed image of a stylish but uninhabited bedroom, as if in an advert, "This is the room I sleep in, walk in and weep in, hiding, that nobody sees, color it lonely, please". Then finally, a stereotypical movie "Bad boy", smoking in a leather jacket; "This is the boy, the one I depended upon, Colour him gone."
This careful visualisation of the song's lyrics reflected the fact that Boty was actually engaged with, and referenced, the media that women were confronted with at the time. She "did not adopt the cool detachment expected of Pop artists and... gave form to the emotional experience of the female fan." This idea is exemplified by the manner in which the painting essentially follows the instructions of the song, Boty following along with the disembodied female narrator, who begins by asking the listener if they have "crayons ready? Very well, begin to color me..." In doing so, Boty is sympathetic with the plight of the heartbroken woman and the difficulties of the female experience. But at the same time, she is demonstrating the way in which women's media of the time reduces these experiences to a melancholic array of stock images and colors, which they are then invited to childishly depict in crayon. My Colouring Book identifies with the daily experience of teenage girls in the 1960s, and the loss and heartbreak they may feel when mistreated by men, but simultaneously highlights the way in which this experience was infantilised and made melodramatic in "girls' magazines, romance movies, and popular songs.
Oil on canvas - Muzeum Sztuki, Poland
Scandal '63 is a painting that features a representation of Christine Keeler, the young woman at the centre of the Profumo scandal, against a red and churning background, watched over by the men implicated in it. It is one of Boty's most explicitly political paintings, and is highly sought after as one that has been lost for many decades. There are only a few surviving images of the piece, and is regarded as something of a 'lost masterpiece' by Boty fans and scholars. It was painted shortly after her marriage to Clive Goodwin, whose left-wing activism may have crystallised Boty's awareness of the intersections between sexual and party politics.
The Profumo scandal rocked the political establishment of the United Kingdom in the early 1960s. The notion that the "respectable" Secretary of State for War John Profumo, could have had an affair with a 19 year-old would-be model Keeler, whilst she also was involved with a high ranking Soviet Naval Captain at the height of the Cold War, shattered the illusion of respectability maintained by the Westminster establishment. It was then soon discovered that their mutual friend, socialite Steven Ward, was involved in organising other sexual relationships between prominent upper-class figures and Keeler (or with her friend Mandy Rice-Davies). Previously hushed-up sexual relationships were thrown into the spotlight, and the illusion of respectability so carefully maintained by political figures in the 1950s and early 1960s was shattered.
Christine Keeler became a symbol of the new sexual freedom of the age. To the majority of the public this meant she was, as described in the press, a "tart" or "slut", but for some of the younger generation (like Boty) Keeler became a glamorous youth culture icon. To these iconoclasts she was beautiful, brazen, sexually liberated and posed a challenge to the stale establishment figures of the government (who desired her even as they decried her actions). Keeler proved to be even more provocative when in 1963, after the scandal had broken, she posed in a semi-nude photoshoot with magazine photographer Lewis Morley. The photographs from the shoot became symbolic of her liberation and rebellious status.
Boty's painting takes an image from the Morley photos and places Keeler squarely in the centre of the canvas, dominating the picture. She is put against a searing red background, and surrounded by sensuous swirls of flowers. Positioned in a band at the very top of the canvas are the men involved in the scandal. Keeler herself is the focus of the piece and the supposedly important and influential men are secondary accessories to her depiction. Steven Ward, Profumo, and two other men are figured; Lucky Gordon, a jazz singer, and Rudolph Fenton, two black men with which Keeler also had affairs. Sue Tate notes that within Boty's painting these two men "are given equal weight to the much better-known white men and their presence brings attention to the dynamics of race and gender within which blacks and women are reduced to pawns in a wider power game."
Oil on board - Lost
It's a Man's World I and II
Boty's diptych It's a Man's World I and II is in many ways a culmination of the different elements of her work leading up to the point at which it was created. Formally, collage effects are combined with bright, simple backgrounds, whilst in content it contains examinations of gender politics and the nature of popular media. On the left-hand side, against an almost naïvely scenic blue seaside background, is a central panel of images of the nude female body. Although obviously a subject with an incredibly long history in artistic practice, Boty's collage questions the difference between the male and female gaze in relation to the human body. Are these women positioned as sexually liberated, beautiful and confident in their nudity? Or are they objectified, often anonymously cropped without their feet or faces? She asks us to consider why this imagery, which she drew from soft-porn magazines, were produced (to accommodate the male gaze). For this reason, they are rendered in their original form as one-dimensional women. Rather than being real and complicated people who are sexually free, their sexuality is co-opted for the sake of a male viewer and their non-aesthetic values go unappreciated.
The two sides of the canvas are divided by a thick black line, with the other side of the diptych made up of representations of men. The "male" side of the panel is set against a palatial background of manicured lawns and grand verandas. Whilst the passive images of women are shown amongst nature, the active men are amongst industry and wealth. Boty includes her male "heroes", those she admires intellectually, personally, aesthetically, or artistically amongst this constellation of figures. Yet even those who are "pin-ups" to her, like Elvis Presley, are fully clothed and depicted within a close frame showing only his face. This suggests that his physical attractiveness is not the only important quality - he is recognised for his talent as a performer as well as his physical attributes. In this collage Boty struggles with her conflicting relationships with men. She expresses her admiration, respect, and (unashamedly) her desire for these men. Yet, she also acknowledges a complex second layer to this in that whilst they may be good men, they populate and operate with a "man's world" which continues to divide and restrict the roles of the two genders.
Collage, paint and photography on board - Whitford Fine Art, London
By 1966, Boty was extremely ill. Yet she continued to paint, even as she struggled with the difficult birth of her daughter and the pain of her now terminal cancer. During this period Boty's friend Kenneth Tynan, the noted drama critic and writer, was creating an avant-garde erotic theatre revue and cabaret and asked her to create a piece for it. Designed to complement the campy and latterly controversial show, Oh, Calcutta! (referencing the French pronunciation meaning "oh what an arse you have!") Boty painted her final piece, simply titled Bum. In the image a gaudy theatre facade is painted in vibrant green, red, pink and yellow, with its curtains drawn aside to reveal a carefully rendered female bottom. The lower section of the canvas is dominated with green geometric print, in which large red letters spell out BUM.
Here Boty is once again incendiary, humorous and full of life, making a statement of liberation and cheekiness even when faced with her own death. In the decades following, it has become something of a cult favourite within the space of her work, referred to by Ali Smith as "a laugh out loud surprise. It literally bares it rear end at convention". For Smith, it reflects Boty's career and life, concluding a project that was joyous to the end. As she writes, "What a way to go, though, on this blatantly comic gesture - vital, thoughtful, challenging, sensuous, beautiful, bright and ribald".
Oil on canvas - Collection of Kenneth Tynan
Biography of Pauline Boty
Childhood and Education
Like many of the important cultural figures of the sixties, Pauline Boty was raised in an exceedingly ordinary household. Born in 1938 in the South London suburb of Croydon, her family were middle class, reserved and strictly Catholic. Her mother Veronica stayed at home as a housewife whilst her father, Albert, went out to work as an accountant.
While they seemed outwardly to be a stable and traditional English family, this was an image which Albert Boty consciously strived to project. Albert was half Belgian and half Persian (born in modern-day Iraq), and when he found himself in Britain after a tumultuous childhood, he was determined to live life as a true Anglophile, attempting to embody a traditional middle-class lifestyle and family. This included following cricket, eating cream teas and roast dinners and maintaining rose gardens. He was later described by Boty Goodwin (Pauline's daughter) as "Surrey's Great Gatsby", meticulous in his dedication to an affectation of "normalcy" and resistant to any disruption to it.
Pauline was the youngest of four, with three older brothers. Her role as the only girl within this family was made very clear by her father and she was kept separate from her brothers. However, the young Pauline rebelled against this oppressive home life, and a determination to succeed was obvious in her from the beginning. First at Wallington High School for Girls and then at Wimbledon Art College, which she began to attend at 16, Boty stood out as a vivacious and glamorous young woman nicknamed "The Wimbledon Bardot" in reference to her resemblance to French film starlet Brigitte Bardot. Boty struggled against her father and brother's disapproval of her desire to study art, arguing against their perception that it was not a "real subject", and certainly not something useful or appropriate for a young lady. Yet her mother Veronica was a quiet supporter of her ambition, perhaps as Veronica herself had been accepted into the Slade School of Art as a young woman but forbidden to go by her own father.
Education and Early Work
In her second year at Wimbledon Boty studied under the tutor Charles Carey in the stained glass department of the school. Although Boty had fallen into the stained glass department without much thought, this proved to be fortunate as it was Carey who first recognised her raw talent. He encouraged her to push further with her art, especially through collage effects. Although he recognised that Boty's real skill was not in glass but in prints and painting, he encouraged this work even within formal limits of his school. Carey was instrumental in persuading Boty that collage and mosaic effects were something which could be applied to the modern world and the youth culture which she had thrown herself into as a student. Boty had a remarkably freeing and positive experience at Wimbledon, and was able to flourish personally whilst developing her skills as an artist.
Boty's transition to the Royal College of Art in 1958 proved to be more difficult. The engrained institutional sexism at this much larger establishment meant that, even though her interests now lay elsewhere, Boty was advised to stick with stained glass and apply for that course as it would be easier for a woman to be accepted onto. Even on the stained glass course though, only 8 of the 36 students were women. This turn of events meant that Boty was effectively excluded from the main (male) group of future British Pop Artists, who were at the time concentrated in the School of Painting at the RCA. However, due to sheer strength of personality and talent Boty could not be ignored, and was soon mixing with other the other young artists who shared her fascination with popular culture and media.
In her first year of study at the RCA Boty had three pieces of work included in the prestigious 'Young Contemporaries' exhibition as her style was developing and becoming more confident. During this time her practice moved in a new direction towards painterly techniques whilst still taking a sense of composition and splitting up of the canvas from her stained glass practice. In 1959 Boty and a group of fellow students went on holiday to Greece, a group which included many of the "bright young things" of the RCA, including later Pop Artists like Patrick Caulfield and Peter Blake (who was reportedly smitten with Boty). In her graduation year in 1961, Boty was part of an exhibition called "Blake Boty Porter Reeve" (which also included the work of Blake, Geoffrey Reeve and Christine Porter) at the AIA Gallery. This seminal show is now seen to be one of the first true Pop Art shows in London, and the titular artists are considered joint founders of British Pop Art.
The years following Boty's graduation from RCA in 1961 turned out to be the most dynamic and prolific of her life. Working not only as a visual artist, her output from this time also included work as a dancer, actress, radio contributor, set designer, model and society figure. Her beauty, grace and enigmatic personality meant that she quickly became in high demand as the "IT" girl of the early 1960s London counterculture. London at the time was in a cultural renaissance, with the notion of 'swinging London' making headlines around the world and positioning the city as the heart of innovation in fashion, music, art and literature. Boty was caught up in this whirlwind of cultural production. During this time she was photographed by David Bailey in 1964, posed for Tit Bits and Playboy magazine, danced on the TV Show Ready Steady Go, designed the set for a production of Jean Genet's The Balcony, acted in Ken Russell's documentary film about the young Pop Artists Pop Goes the Easel, performed in stage plays like Afternoon Men (1963) and contributed to the BBC radio show Public Ear. She was also a left-wing activist, fashion icon, and counted painters, rock stars, playwrights and literary figures amongst her close friends. She eventually married literary agent Clive Goodwin in 1963 after a whirlwind romance. The two were introduced by Boty's previous romantic partner, the married TV director Phillip Saville. It has been suggested that the relationship between Saville and Boty inspired aspects of the story of Darling (1965) starring Dirk Bogarde and Julie Christie. All of this activity occurred whilst she was still only in her early 20s.
Somehow during these five or so years, Boty also managed to produce a prolific amount of artworks. She truly found her "Pop" style in the years following her time at the RCA, combining bright geometric backgrounds with "collaged" sections of realistically rendered scraps of pop culture. Her work also became more and more engaged with her experience of life as a woman in the 1960s, exploring concepts of sexuality, gender, mass media, advertising, politics and conflict. The walls of her studio and home were papered with a chaotic array of cut-out images from magazines and she was dedicated to art of the moment, or "nostalgia for now", as she characterised Pop. Her work was set apart from the other Pop artists by its emotion and personality however. As art historian, writer and curator David Mellor writes, "She did something that other people weren't doing [...] The final vindication is the work, essentially montage work, assembly of images, and not in a reified way. Ninety per cent of pop is deadpan and dehumanised drudge stuff. She didn't do that." Writer Ali Smith echoed a similar sentiment when she wrote that "when you are anywhere near Pauline Boty's work in the flesh you feel the life, you feel the energy". Within the fashionable scene centred on the Chelsea neighbourhood of London at the time, Boty and Godwin were art world darlings, and by 1965 Boty had begun to distance herself from acting to concentrate on more political works, although she did briefly appear with Michael Caine in the 1966 film Alfie.
In 1965, Boty unexpectedly fell pregnant. As she went for a routine scan, a tumour was discovered, and she was diagnosed with cancer. Although she was offered an abortion and chemotherapy treatment, Boty refused both. She carried the pregnancy to its full term and in February 1966 she gave birth to a daughter, whom they named Boty Goodwin. Boty smoked marijuana to ease the pain of the now inoperable cancer and continued to entertain friends from her bed, even sketching the Rolling Stones during this period. In July of 1966, at age 28, Pauline Boty died at the Royal Marsden Cancer Hospital.
The Legacy of Pauline Boty
Unlike her few other female contemporaries, such as Bridget Riley, Boty refused to to negate her feminine side and was not overly concerned with seeming serious, intellectual or dispassionate at the expense of her true self. Boty instead celebrated these supposedly "feminine" traits. Her work came unabashedly from a woman's perspective and it was emotionally engaged and celebratory towards women's sexual desires.
Unfortunately the factors that made her work so interesting and engaging caused it also to be stifled and largely overlooked in the span of art history that immediately followed her death. Passed off by (male) critics of the following decades as a kitsch and frivolous "Party Girl" tangential to the main British Pop Art movement, many of her works were lost after the early death of her husband in the 1970s, and her name largely forgotten. Ali Smith describes her life as "A molotov fusion of possibility and loss."
There were a few who maintained her significance, however, including a few dedicated academics who were caught under the spell of Boty and determined to not let her legacy slip away. David Alan Mellor had been transfixed by the figure of Boty as a young teen. In the late 1980s, he began an extensive search for her work, contacting family members on a treasure hunt which led him to a barn in Kent where many of the paintings were found. He recalls it as an intensely emotional experience and he went on to exhibit them in his 1993 show at the Barbican 'Art in 60s London'. This was attended by the young academic Sue Tate, who was equally enthralled by the work and in the years since both Mellor and Tate have been instrumental in locating more paintings and bringing Boty's work back into critical focus.
Through her journey from highly regarded, to forgotten, to rediscovered artist, it is now obvious how important Boty's work was to the formation of British Pop Art, and the art that was made in the decades that followed. She truly was one of the originators of the movement in London and her story destabilises the narrative of Pop that has been formed over the years and introduces a fresh breath of life and energy. It is also clear how her work was decidedly feminist: a building block towards the unabashed sexuality and celebrations of womanhood of 1970s artists like Judy Chicago and Helen Shapiro . Her mark is also visible on modern British artists like Tracey Emin, particularly as both were media celebrities within the context of their particular cultural moment, and both intensely emotional and personal artists interested in celebrating the female sexuality and experience. As author Ali Smith, who included Boty's work as part of the narrative of her 2017 novel Autumn puts it "I think Boty's work is incredibly important to us now, because an encounter with it changes everything that you thought you knew about the Sixties, about the Fifties, about the Forties, and what happened after the Sixties. Boty blows the canon away - and that's why it's so important that we have her back."
Influences and Connections
- Peter Blake
- Charles Carey
- Clive Goodwin
- Derek Marlowe
- David Hockney
- Geoffrey Reeve
- Christine Porter
- Pop Art
- Collage/Stained Glass
- 1960s Counterculture
- Bob Dylan
- Clive Goodwin
- John McGrath
- Dennis Potter
- Kennedy Martins
- Tracey Emin
- Judy Chicago
- Ali Smith
- Helen Shapiro
- David Alan Mellor