Award-winning author Ali Smith describes how she came to discover the life and work of ‘the first female pioneer of the British Pop art movement’. Boty’s Portrait of Derek Marlowe with Unknown Ladies is offered in London on 19 June
‘I was working on a book called Autumn,’ recalls the multi award-winning author, playwright and journalist Ali Smith, who has four times been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. ‘And I came upon a picture by a female artist I’d never heard of. She was a Pop artist. I was like, “There’s been a female Pop artist?” So I looked her up and up came these amazing images of things I’d never seen — [they were] so colourful and so full of energy and brio.’
The artist, Smith discovered, was British and rose to fame in the 1960s. Her name was Pauline Boty. The Scottish author of acclaimed novels such as Hotel World (2001), The Accidental (2005) and How to Be Both (2014) was captivated and in 2016 she wrote about Boty for The Guardian newspaper, describing her as ‘the first female pioneer of the British Pop art movement’. In our film, Smith goes further, declaring that this charismatic, rebellious, free-spirited figure ‘was pretty much the earliest feminist artist’.
But Boty was so much more. Smith recorded that she was also a ‘television and stage actor; theatre designer; early leftist activist; loud and witty protester at post-war architecture; energetic, proto-feminist; acerbic commentator on culture, modernity and gender, and even an early interviewer of the Beatles on the BBC’s radio programme The Public Ear; accredited dancer on TV’s Ready Steady Go!; and also, it’s believed, the model for the... character of Liz (played by Julie Christie) in John Schlesinger’s 1963 film Billy Liar.’
Boty was ‘shining, intelligent and strikingly beautiful’, Smith wrote, and as such she attracted numerous high-profile admirers. ‘She was a figure in the cultural scene’ who not only embodied the vibrant and groundbreaking spirit of the 1960s, but helped to create it.
Boty’s flame burned fast but ferociously. In 1966, five months after giving birth to a daughter, she died aged just 28. She had opted against treatment for her cancer in order to give her unborn child the chance to live. ‘She was an apparition,’ says the writer, curator and art historian David Alan Mellor, who has been instrumental in restoring her place in the history of 20th-century British art. ‘A very wonderful apparition of how wonderful and expansive life could be.’
Smith’s 2016 newspaper article, which was constructed around four Boty paintings, opened with a description of Bum (1966), the last work Boty completed. In November 2017, the painting sold for £632,750 (more than 15 times the artist’s previous auction record) at Christie’s in London. The author describes the work as ‘a laugh-out-loud surprise. It literally bares its rear end at convention.’
‘When you are anywhere near Pauline Boty’s work in the flesh you feel the life, you feel the energy’ — Ali Smith
In our film, Smith discusses the moment she realised why Boty’s art captured her imagination: ‘[She] questions the image in a way that you have to look again, have to think twice. You have to think about notions of truth, of figuration, of how we're seen, of how we’re made to be seen.’
Boty’s work was influential and highly regarded during her lifetime, but simply disappeared from public view after her death. It would remain hidden for almost 30 years until Mellor, who as a teenage boy had fallen in love with Boty after seeing her in Ken Russell’s seminal 1963 film Pop Goes the Easel, began searching for it. He eventually tracked down a number of her most important paintings to a barn on her brother’s farm, whereupon he began the process of getting them restored.
Boty studied at Wimbledon School of Art in London, where she was nicknamed ‘the Wimbledon Bardot’. It was only in 1962, however, that she developed her style of photorealism resembling collage. It was a time when few were asking questions about gender, and, as Smith says, no artist was ‘expressing or critiquing women’s particular pleasure in the new post-war mass culture.’
Portrait of Derek Marlowe with Unknown Ladies, painted in 1962-63, is both a celebration of heterosexual desire and pleasure and a critique of the gendering of the cultural scene of the 1960s. Derek Marlowe was the same age as Boty and in 1963 was starting out on his career as an author and playwright. He shared a flat with fellow writers Tom Stoppard and Piers Paul Read, not far from Boty’s own Notting Hill flat. Three years later, Marlowe hit the big time with his first novel, A Dandy in Aspic, a spy thriller that became a bestseller and was subsequently made into a film.
Read Meredith Etherington-Smith’s Antenna Column on Pauline Boty, first published in November 2017
In Boty’s painting, Marlowe holds the viewer’s eye with a seductive gaze. The allure of a sexually charismatic man and the pleasure of that first moment of suggestive eye contact are perfectly captured.
‘The energy that comes off it is pure Boty,’ says Smith, ‘which is to say utterly analytical, really good fun, and very sensual about the moment, about the friendship, and about the life. When you are anywhere near her work in the flesh you feel the life, you feel the energy.’ Portrait of Derek Marlowe with Unknown Ladies is offered by Christie’s in the Modern British Art Evening Sale in London on 19 June.
‘I think Boty’s work is incredibly important to us now,’ says Smith. ‘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.’