Pauline Boty was at the heart of the London scene when it swung.
She was stunningly good-looking in a way which transcended the ubiquitous ‘dolly bird’ image.
Known as the The Wimbledon Bardot, she combined Bardot’s kittenish sex appeal with Simone Signoret’s mature sensuality and a touch of Marilyn Monroe’s vulnerability.
She was photographed by David Bailey
She had a bit part in ‘Alfie’ and acted in television series such as Armchair Theatre and The Edgar Wallace Mystery Theatre.
She danced on Ready Steady Go.
She part-owned a shop in Carnaby Street.
She knew Bob Dylan.
She hung out with Ossie Clark, Celia Birtwell, Christopher Logue, Ken Russell, David Hockney, Kenneth Tynan.
Peter Blake and countless others were in love with her.
She married left-wing writer and activist Clive Goodwin having known him for just ten days.
She died aged 28, a few weeks after giving birth to her daughter.
But, oh look, silly me, I’ve forgotten her painting. Well, for several decades, so did the art world.
The exhibition ‘Pauline Boty, Pop Artist and Woman’, which I recently visited at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, West Sussex, was the first major showing of Boty’s work.
It may be considered as part of a movement to award Boty her place as a pioneer of Pop Art and to establish her reputation as a significant artist.
It’s an exhilarating collection, starting with a self-portrait in 1955 in which the artist gazes at you with a serious, thoughtful expression, and moving through a series of paintings and collages which explode with images and references to high and popular culture.
In vibrant, vivid colours, she celebrates female sexuality and plays with gender stereotypes in recurring images of red roses, blood red immaculately manicured finger nails, lace.
A surreal, dream-like image of secateurs lifting Victorian children into the sky prefigures the graphics of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and shows the influence of Freud and Dali.
Other works reflect her interest in Proust and Rimbaud, in Madame de Pompadour and Marilyn Monroe, in the Cubist movement, Cezanne, Dadaism.
In her depiction of the Cuban revolution, you can see a more overtly politicised artist emerging at what was to be the end of her life.
Several reasons are presented as explanations for Boty’s disappearance from the cultural landscape.
- She died before she had time to truly develop
- Her paintings were lost for a long time, gathering dust in her brother’s barn
- She was a victim of male-dominated culture; her looks and her persona distracted from her work.
In her case, it really is difficult to separate the artist from the woman, which could be the reason for the initially puzzling title of this exhibition. Like Marilyn Monroe, with whom Boty strongly identified, her image may be more compelling than her work.
Millions of people who have never have seen a Marilyn Monroe film and could not even name one, feel they have an intimate knowledge of and connection with her.
Ken Russell’s Pop Goes The Easel, his 1962 film for the BBC Monitor series, exemplifies the difficulty in seeing Boy’s work for what it is. You come away from watching the film with an impression of an animated, vibrant woman with Julie Christie-type looks (and great eye-liner) swinging through Portobello Market in her fur-collared coat, being flirty and bold and confident.
We don’t get a lot of focus on her art, which is not the case with the other three artists represented in the film. When she talks Peter Blake through one of her canvases, the conversation is a ‘spot the reference’ exchange, rather like a tabletop round in a pub quiz, and doesn’t illuminate her ideas or methods.
My favourite piece in the exhibition is her 1963 painting called My Colouring Book, based on the song of that name which I first heard sung by Dusty Springfield in 1964. The song is one of lost love, jealousy, sadness and longing.
The painting is a series of frames which follow the sequence of the song, marked with textual captions taken from the lyrics. The beads the singer wore before the other girl stole her boy have become a violent green, the colour enhanced by the orange background, screaming the pain of jealousy.
The eyes that watched him walk away are grey with misery, shrouded by round grey-blue specs. She hugs an empty silhouette. A blue heart is in the centre, drawing your eye down to her room, also blue, the lonely room in which she sleeps and cries.
And in the frame at the bottom right of the picture, there he is, the boy who is responsible for all this heartache. Colour him gone.
It’s a great image. He’s wearing a leather jacket and a polo neck, his face is chiselled, a bit like the heroes in all those love comics, Romeo, Boyfriend etc, but the arrogant tilt of his head and the cigarette at the corner of his mouth mark him out as a bad boy.
If I had seen this painting in 1964, it would have blown me away. Boty was 26 when she painted it and she has tenderly captured the emotional experience of young heartbreak.
We would have pored over it, used it as inspiration for our own artistic experiments and clutched at anything that might connect us to this cool hip artist, this ultimate Beat Girl. She danced on Ready Steady Go – well so did we, once, courtesy of someone’s dad who knew the producer. She went to Wimbledon Art School – well, we went to school in Wimbledon, albeit quite a time later.
In spite of the gap in years, it is just possible that Pauline Boty too would nip into Elys Department Store for a quick spritz at the perfume counter before going out for the evening. Although her evenings would undoubtedly have been very different from ours.