In the early 1960s, the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan met the Pop artist Pauline Boty. Tynan, a dazzling advocate for experimental modern drama, was the The Observer newspaper’s theatre critic. Boty was a young up-and-coming painter who, after graduating from the Royal College of Art in 1961, starred in Ken Russell’s avant-garde documentary Pop Goes the Easel about four aspiring Pop artists. Sexy and full of life, with a temperamental quickness and openness, Boty stood out from her ponderous male contemporaries, going on to have her first solo exhibition at the Grabowski Gallery in 1963.
It is easy to see why Tynan and Boty were attracted to one another. Both liked to shock. Tynan was the first person to say ‘fuck’ on British TV, while Boty rebelled against her Catholic upbringing by speaking openly about sex and her experiences with drugs. As her biographer Sue Tate said, ‘She refused to relinquish either her ambition as a serious intellectual artist or her right to an autonomous sexuality.’
Celia Birtwell, who lived with Boty in the early 1960s, remembers the artist as tall, vivacious, and very political. ‘She was beautiful, with this marvellous laugh: clever, very bright, very much the early feminist.’ Boty was often frustrated by the misogyny around her, saying that men found it ‘embarrassing’ when she started talking about ideas, because she was supposed to ‘listen to them’. The actor Roddy Maude-Roxby recalled that people would be ‘delighted with her and not notice the work’, and when she spoke out, ‘people were taken aback’.
In 1963 Tynan introduced Boty to his pal Clive Goodwin, a left-wing literary agent. Ten days later, they married. ‘He was the very first man I met who really liked women,’ she said. ‘He accepted me intellectually, which men find very difficult.’
The couple became the centre of the intellectual left, holding meetings in their flat on the Cromwell Road, where visitors included writer and activist Tariq Ali and the Marxists Robin Fior and Adrian Mitchell. Tynan, who was by now literary manager of the newly formed National Theatre, was a regular visitor.
Showing Boty around his Mount Street flat one day, Tynan challenged the artist to identify the repeated image on the wallpaper in his study. ‘Nobody got near it until one day I showed it to Pauline. “That,” she said instantly, “is a girl’s bum.”’ Tynan was delighted and commissioned her to design the sets for an erotic cabaret — titled Oh! Calcutta! — that he was planning.
It was an inspired choice. Boty’s paintings distil 1960s pop culture to its purest essence, one icon at a time, the most famous being her Impressionistic-style picture of Marylin Monroe flickering chimerically between two bands of solid green paint. Boty understood the seductive and transient nature of pop, describing it as ‘a nostalgia for now’, not unlike the theatre.
Offered in the Modern British and Irish Art Evening and Day sales on 21 and 22 March are three works on paper by the Pop artist. The first is a study for BUM (1966), made for Tynan’s theatre production, which was Boty’s last painting. The other two are early works, made in the late 1950s while Boty was studying at the Royal College of Art. ‘They are pre-Pop. You can see the influence of Bonnard and the European avant-garde,’ says Christie’s Modern British and Irish Art specialist Angus Granlund.
In an interview with the writer Nell Dunn in 1964, Boty explained that her father had tried to impose his Victorian values on her: ‘He didn’t even want me to go to work when I left school.’ But her mother insisted she be allowed to enrol at Wimbledon School of Art, where she was fortunate to be taught by the stained-glass artist Charles Carey — an enlightened teacher who was especially supportive of women artists. He introduced his students to the paintings of Pierre Bonnard, and Golden Nude (1959) is clearly inspired by the Nabis painter’s loose brushstrokes and shimmering colours.
It is not known if the other work, Nude on the Beach, circa 1958-59, is painted from life. However, it is recorded that a group of RCA students went on holiday to Greece in 1959, among them Boty, Patrick Caulfield and Natalie Gibson. ‘This painting reminds me of Picasso’s Two Women Running on the Beach,’ says Granlund. ‘But importantly, you can see Boty developing her own voice and can see just what an accomplished painter she was, even at a young age.’
Soon after Tynan commissioned BUM, Boty was diagnosed with cancer. Already pregnant, she refused radiotherapy until after the baby was born. She died in July 1966 at the age of 28. There were plans for a posthumous exhibition, but it never happened and BUM remained on Tynan’s dining room wall. It was later sold in 2017 at Christie’s for £632,750.
‘It’s incredibly rare to see any works by Pauline Boty because she sadly died so young,’ says Granlund. ‘There are fewer than 25 “Pop” paintings in existence. As she has gained more recognition, the demand for her work has naturally increased and is currently at an all-time high.’
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Tynan was on holiday in Spain when he heard about Boty’s sudden death. ‘Surely there is a dark undertow to the life force that drags pure spirits under,’ he wrote. ‘It’s enough to make a Manichean of me.’