Portrait of Derek Marlowe with Unknown Ladies was painted and first exhibited in 1963. It was a marvellous year for British Pop artist Pauline Boty, living, playing and working at the very heart of London’s swinging 60s scene.
She had been trained at the Royal College of Art, was a friend and colleague of David Hockney, Peter Blake, Peter Phillips and Derek Boshier and went on to exhibit with them all. The previous year she had featured along with Blake, Phillips and Boshier in Pop Goes the Easel, Ken Russell’s groundbreaking documentary film for the prestigious BBC programme Monitor. On 10th September 1963, Boty’s first solo exhibition opened at the Grabowski Gallery, just off Sloane Square. The Times critic described it as a ‘confident and engaging’ show, in which ‘Miss Boty conveys a mood in precise and laconic images’. Norbert Lynton welcomed her, in Arts International, as the ‘only significant female member of the movement’ and Colour Her Gone, 1962, a eulogy to Monroe at the time of her death, was reproduced to accompany his article. It was at this seminal show that Portrait of Derek Marlowe with Unknown Ladies had its first public outing.
While working on paintings to be included in the Grabowski show, Boty also threw herself into diverse cultural activity. Painter, actress, dancer, graphic designer, collagist and opinion former, Boty fulfilled in her very person as well as in her work, the aspirations of Pop to close the gap between art and life, and collapse cultural boundaries between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. Boty energetically embraced all the opportunities that came her way and, in her paintings and collages, celebrated the pleasures women did and do take in mass culture, including the erotic.
In 1963, after a 10 day romance, Boty married literary agent, film producer and political radical Clive Goodwin ‘because he accepted me as a human being, you know, with a mind, he accepted me intellectually which men find very difficult’. Laughing a lot, smoking marijuana, they shared revolutionary political ideas and cultural interests. Boty was acutely aware of the problems that the sexual politics of the time created for women – as her reason for marrying Clive indicates. In some of the radio monologues, with a wonderful mix of panache and vitriol, she confronted issues around sexism and the role of women and also discussed them in an interview she gave to Nell Dunn in 1964. From early student works through to one of her last paintings, It’s A Man’s World II, a critique runs through her oeuvre, alongside the celebration of mass cultural experience.
Portrait of Derek Marlowe with Unknown Ladies stunningly brings together these two strands in her work: a celebration of heterosexual desire and pleasure with a critique of the gendering of the cultural scene of the 60s. Derek Marlowe was the same age as Boty and starting out in 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. In 1966, Marlowe hit instant success with his first novel A Dandy in Aspic, a sophisticated spy thriller, soon a best seller and subsequently made into a film. The unbroken outline of Marlowe’s black figure creates a phallic silhouette; set against a cool blue textured background he dominates the composition, occupying the overwhelming majority of the canvas. Exquisitely rendered in photorealist monochrome, handsome and relaxed, a cigarette between his fingers, he holds the viewer’s eye with a wonderfully seductive gaze. The allure of a sexually charismatic man and the pleasure of that first moment of suggestive eye contact are perfectly captured.
Above this named and desirable man are the ‘unknown ladies’ of the title, crushed in the top panel against a red background that descends over their foreheads. Anonymous and generic, they pout and smile and struggle to be seen. The images are taken from a collage of conventionally beautiful faces clipped from women’s magazines that Boty used in a stage design for Act 1, Scene 1 of Genet’s The Balcony. For a later scene, she translates collage into paint and they begin to get exaggerated. In this painting they are rendered with deliberately crude brushstrokes, the makeup slipping and smudged, desperate to be noticed; but displaced from the centre of attention, they are almost grotesque.
Portrait of Derek Marlowe with Unknown Ladies is a sophisticated work which skilfully uses the language of paint – the intentional contrast in style between photorealism and an expressive, loose mark making - to make its social commentary. Fully conscious of the problems of gender politics, Boty refused to relinquish sexual and mass cultural pleasures. This painting brilliantly holds an enjoyment of sexual desire in balance with a gendered critique of the world in which we live. It is a balancing act or tension, familiar to most women, that has tremendous resonance in the present day.
We are very grateful to Dr Sue Tate, author of Pauline Boty: Pop Artist and Woman, Wolverhampton, 2013, for preparing this catalogue entry.