How Pattie Boyd inspired some of the 20th century’s greatest love songs

As letters, lyrics, photographs and mementoes from the iconic rock muse’s collection come to Christie’s, the model-turned-photographer looks back on her relationships with two legendary songwriters, George Harrison and Eric Clapton

In the autumn of 1970, Pattie Boyd found herself at the centre of a painful love triangle that would inspire some of the greatest love songs ever written.

The English photographer and model was the object of desire of a young Eric Clapton, who had found fame with The Yardbirds, Cream and Blind Faith. Having invited Boyd to his apartment in Kensington in London, he told her, ‘I’ve got something for you to hear.’

Pattie Boyd (b. 1944), Self Portrait - Mirror, 1989. Platinum print. Sheet: 14 x 11 in (35.6 x 27.7 cm). Sold for £1,134 on 22 March 2024 at Christie’s Online

‘So I went up to the flat and he put on a cassette, and it was Layla,’ explains Boyd. ‘It was inspired by a 12th-century Persian tale called The Story of Layla and Majnun about a young poet whose unrequited love turns him mad, and it was so passionate and full of love and raw emotion. I was taken aback by its beauty — but at the same time I felt guilt.’

Boyd was already married to one of Clapton’s closest friends, George Harrison from The Beatles. Boyd knew that as soon as Harrison heard Layla, he would learn of Clapton’s obsession.

Pattie Boyd’s alluring, almond-shaped eyes, poker-straight blonde hair and scandalous hemlines defined the look and feel of Swinging London in the 1960s, and she became a spring of creativity for the likes of photographer David Bailey and fashion designer Ossie Clark.

Her journey to becoming one of the greatest muses in rock history began in 1964, when at the age of 19 she was cast as an extra in Richard Lester’s musical comedy A Hard Day’s Night, which starred The Beatles.

Despite having only a single word of dialogue, she caught the attention of Harrison, who at the end of the first day’s filming asked Boyd to marry him. Already in a relationship with the photographer Eric Swayne, she declined. But her friends soon persuaded her to break it off. ‘They all asked me if I was completely mad, saying, “Imagine George Harrison asking you out, you lucky thing!”’

The couple became officially engaged the following Christmas, then married on 21 January 1966.

Boyd served as the inspiration for many of Harrison’s songs, including I Need You, For You Blue and Something, which Frank Sinatra called one of the greatest love songs ever written. She also played an important role in The Beatles’ adoption of vegetarianism, meditation and psychedelics, which took the couple from bars in London to ashrams in the Himalayas.

Things began to unravel around the time the couple moved into Friar Park, a Neo-Gothic mansion in Oxfordshire, in the spring of 1970. A letter arrived, which, in tiny, neat rows of words mostly missing their capital letters, read: ‘Dearest L, i am writing this note to you, with the main purpose of ascertaining your feelings towards a subject well known to both of us…’ It was signed ‘all my love, E.’

‘I had no idea it was from Eric. I thought it was a letter from a weird fan,’ Boyd recalls. ‘I even showed it to George!’ The penny dropped that evening, when Clapton called to ask Boyd if she had received any mail from him. ‘I said, “Oh my god, I didn’t realise it was from you!”

A significant handwritten letter from Eric Clapton to Pattie Boyd, in black ink on a sheet of white notepaper, October 1970; together with the original envelope, addressed in Clapton's hand to Pattie Harrison, postmarked 5th October [1970], and marked by Clapton ‘express’ and ‘urgent’. 8¼ x 5¾ in (20.9 x 14.8 cm); envelope 3½ x 6 in (8.9 x 15.2 cm). Sold for £107,100 on 22 March 2024 at Christie’s Online

‘I have kept the letter ever since in a little box filled with trinkets and things, and when I was writing my autobiography, Wonderful Today, I brought it out. It’s a very beautifully written letter, but the writing is so small — it takes up not even a third of the page. It’s like he was rather shy about writing it. It’s like a whisper instead of a talk.’

The letter is one of several being offered online as part of The Patti Boyd Collection, which runs from 8 to 22 March 2024. The auction also includes song lyrics, photographs and handmade mementoes that offer a fascinating glimpse into the lives of some of music’s most influential and iconic figures.

‘George and I were going through a bit of a spiky time together,’ continues Boyd. ‘The Beatles had this chaos and anxiety surrounding the band, and George was being dismissive. Then Eric keeps coming over to our house asking me to run away with him. Well, that was tempting, but I couldn’t do it. It just wasn’t right.’

‘Eric wrote to me from a cottage in Wales… He didn’t have any paper, so he tore a page from a copy of the novel Of Mice and Men

It was a few months later that Clapton played Layla to Boyd. That same evening they attended a party with Harrison, hosted by the manager of the Bee Gees and Cream, Robert Stigwood. As the sun rose across the garden, Clapton turned to Harrison and said, ‘I have to tell you that I’m in love with your wife.’

Clapton subsequently retreated from public life, but his advances towards Boyd continued from afar. ‘He wrote to me from a cottage in Wales the following January,’ says Boyd. ‘He wasn’t very well, as he’d been dabbling in heroin. He didn’t have any paper, so he tore a page from a copy of the novel Of Mice and Men.’

The letter read: ‘dear layla, for nothing more than the pleasure past i would sacrifice my family, my god, and my own existence, and still you will not move… if you don’t want me, please break the spell that binds me. to cage a wild animal is a sin, to tame him is divine.’

A handwritten love letter from Eric Clapton to Pattie Boyd, circa 1970, in black ballpoint pen on the title page torn from a copy of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. 7⅛ x 4⅜ in (18 x 11.1 cm). Sold for £119,700 on 22 March 2024 at Christie’s Online

Boyd didn’t see Clapton for nearly four years after that, aside from his performance at Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh in New York in August 1971, and his comeback show at the Rainbow Theatre in London in January 1973.

Then there was the night Clapton came to Friar Park. Harrison had laid out two electric guitars in the hall as if they were duelling swords. The musicians proceeded to play them for two hours without saying a word, in a battle for Boyd’s heart.

By this time, cracks were forming in Boyd and Harrison’s relationship. He had retreated further into his mysticism; there were drugs, and there were affairs. Boyd discovered he was having relationships with Ringo Starr’s wife, the wife of Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood, and one of Clapton’s former lovers. In late 1974, she finally left him.

Emile Théodore Frandsen de Schomberg (1902-1969), La jeune fille au bouquet, circa 1950-55. The original painting used as the cover artwork for the 1970 Derek and the Dominos album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Oil on canvas. 21⅗ x 18¼ in. (55.3 x 46.3 cm). Sold for £1,976,000 on 22 March 2024 at Christie’s Online

After Boyd and Harrison split, Clapton gifted the Beatle the painting La jeune fille au bouquet by Emile Théodore Frandsen de Schomberg, which had served as the album artwork for Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. The portrait of a blonde sitter with flowers in her hair, which Clapton associated with Boyd, was a form of compensation.

‘Eric had been recording Layla in the south of France when he saw this painting, and he fell in love with it,’ says Boyd. ‘He thought it represented Layla, and so asked the family who owned the painting if he could have it, and they said yes.’

Boyd married Clapton in 1979. Amazingly, the trio remained close friends, with Harrison even referring to Clapton as his ‘husband-in-law’.

Boyd was also the source of inspiration for Clapton’s songs Bell Bottom Blues, She’s Waiting and Wonderful Tonight. The latter he penned while Boyd was deciding what to wear for a party at Jimmy Page’s house. ‘I went downstairs rather sheepishly, expecting Eric to be furious with me for taking so long,’ she recalls. ‘Instead, he said, “Listen to what I’ve written”, and it was Wonderful Tonight. It was so magical.’

Despite their magnetic connection, Boyd and Clapton’s relationship would also come to be rocked by substance abuse and infidelities, and she left him in 1987. After the split, Harrison gave La jeune fille au bouquet to Boyd. ‘I’ve kept it ever since, for the last 20 or 30 years, hanging in my cottage in Sussex,’ she says.

‘The thing that goes with the life that I’ve led — which in other people’s eyes must be the most wonderful life — is that there has to be a downfall. After it was all over, I thought, “Who am I?” Everything that made my feathers fluff up was gone.’

It turned out that photography was the antidote. ‘I had forgotten that I even knew how to take photographs,’ she says. ‘I used to love my camera, and taking photos again helped me come out of my depression.’

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Boyd adds that deciding to let go of the objects coming to auction at Christie’s has been a cathartic process. ‘I thought, “Do I need them? Do I need to keep going into Pandora’s Box?” I’ve enjoyed them for many, many years, and now it’s time for other people to see and enjoy them. It’s only right I should pass them on.’

The music, on the other hand, will remain with Boyd forever. ‘When Layla comes on the radio, it still gives me a jolt. It’s part of my being.’

— Interview by Harry Seymour

The Pattie Boyd Collection will be offered by Christie’s online from 8 to 22 March 2024. The full sale will be on public view at Christie’s in London from 15 to 21 March

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