Two of the best examples of the British Pop art movement’s beginnings in the 1960s were offered in the Modern British & Irish Art Evening Sale on 22 November. The first was Peter Blake’s Lady Luck, from the collection of Michael Chow. It is one of the best-known images of the era and sold for £704,750, setting a new world auction record for the artist. But it is the second work that caught my eye — and made me chuckle. Bum, a vibrant Pop art painting, tells the wonderful and ultimately tragic tale of an extraordinary, long-dead artist.
Pauline Boty was the only woman artist in the British chapter of the early Pop art movement. She died at 28 and was written out of art history. Only very recently has her art, which still feels vivid, fresh and vibrant — and which celebrated women’s sexuality and feminism years ahead of its time — begun to be recognised.
Bum was commissioned by Kenneth Tynan as part of a large project for Oh! Calcutta, the Pop art ballet for which Boty was to create the entire visual look. Tragically, Boty died in 1966 soon after finishing the painting, which proved to be her last.
Boty was so beautiful that her fellow students at Wimbledon Art School christened her the ‘Wimbledon Bardot’. She went on to the Royal College where she studied stained glass, chiefly because women found it almost impossible to get into the School of Painting. Fellow artists and writers such as David Hockney, Peter Phillips, Derek Boshier, Peter Blake (who was in love with her), Dennis Potter and Roger McGough formed an admiring coterie at her bed-sit in the Cromwell Road, as did Kenneth Tynan, Bob Dylan (whom she brought to London), and Celia Birtwell.
Her maiden group show, Blake, Boty, Porter Reeve, was held at the AIA Gallery in 1961, and saw her exhibit 20 collages. The exhibition was heralded as the first manifestation of British Pop art. Subsequently, her work was shown in Young Contemporaries.
Painting was far from all that Boty did. Having been featured as one of the four artists in Pop Goes the Easel, the 1962 Ken Russell film for the BBC arts show Monitor, she was spotted by TV director Philip Saville, who cast her in two Armchair Theatre plays for British television. He also became her long-time lover.
Her cancer was revealed when she went for a pregnancy test. She decided against chemotherapy in order to give her unborn child a chance of life
Boty acted and designed posters and sets at the Royal Court theatre, as well as being one of Alfie’s girlfriends in the eponymous film. She danced on the seminal 1960s pop music TV show Ready, Steady Go, and was the role model for Liz in Billy Liar, directed by John Schlesinger. Her life and good looks inspired the screenplay of Frederick Raphael’s Darling, which even starred a Boty lookalike in the form of Julie Christie.
All along, Boty went on painting and collaging. She used male pin-ups of the period, such as Elvis Presley, Jean-Paul Belmondo and British writer Derek Marlowe, interspersed with triumphant images of women wreathed in roses to symbolise their femininity and power. Like Andy Warhol, she recycled publicity stills and press photographs.
Her most famous (and missing) picture is Scandal ’63, an image of Christine Keeler astride a chair with all the male protagonists in the Profumo affair shown at the top. Last seen in the year it was painted, it has presumably remained with the person who commissioned it.
This blazing rocket of a woman died from cancer in 1966. The disease was detected when she went for a pregnancy test, and she decided against undergoing chemotherapy in order to give her unborn child a chance of life. Her daughter was just five months old when she passed away.
No one knew what had become of her work until many of her paintings were rediscovered in a barn on her brother’s farm
Male-dominated art history then forgot her for 30 years. It was as if she had never existed. It’s difficult to imagine how she could have been written out of an art movement whose protagonists she had done so much to nurture and inspire, but she was. Thankfully, though, as women artists are being increasingly celebrated and their work re-assessed, Boty’s reputation has begun to flower again — as evidenced by the £632,750 that Bum realised (more than twice its high estimate, and more than 15 times higher than her previous auction record of £40,000).
Pauline Boty, June 1962. Photo: John Timbers/ArenaPAL
Nobody knew what had become of her work until many of her paintings were rediscovered in a barn on her brother’s farm, where they had been stored since her death. Covered in cobwebs and dust, they were taken out and viewed in the light of day for the first time in 30 years. Their quality shone. Her reputation has been steadily growing since, culminating in a 2013 exhibition of the few works whose whereabouts are known, first in Wolverhampton and then at the Pallant House Gallery.
Paintings that could have been bought for a little as £20,000 a decade ago now fetch considerably more, as Bum demonstrated. At last — and not before time — the Brit-Pop Bardot is finally taking her rightful place in the pantheon of important British artists of the 20th century.