Pauline Boty: British Pop Art’s Sole Sister
Pauline Boty was a British painter and co-founder of the 1960s’ British Pop art movement, of which she was the sole female member. In his new book, Pauline Boty: British Pop Art’s Sole Sister, author Marc Kristal celebrates her life, her genius, and the art world at the center of “Swinging London.” Here’s an excerpt from the book, which is published today.
In October 2013, I visited an exhibition at Christie’s Mayfair in London called When Britain Went Pop – British Pop Art: The Early Years. My attendance was accidental: motivated by the rain that began to fall as I passed Christie’s posh King Street venue; surprise that an auction house had mounted a show that seemingly didn’t involve selling; and by the fellow stationed beside the reception desk, who when I opened the door and took a speculative look in, enjoined me to Enter! with the high-key gusto of a carnival barker.
When enter I did, the impact was arresting. Here were 142 artworks, created between 1948 and the end of the 1960s, by the legends of British Pop – the names I knew included Peter Blake, Richard Hamilton, Allen Jones, and R.B. Kitaj – colorful and exuberant, sexually provocative, politically engaged, and, not least, transformative. My familiarity with the period was limited. But despite my ignorance, and the passage of time, the shock of the new still thwacked its arrow home.
So lively was the environment that I initially had trouble finding my focus. Two pictures, however, drew me to a stop – both, as it happened, for the same reason. The first was David Hockney’s 1962 Cleaning Teeth, Early Evening (10pm) W11: two abstract male figures in classic ‘69’ position, each with a red tube of Colgate in place of a phallus, spurting writhing ribbons of toothpaste into one another’s mouths.
The other sent a different sort of message. A mixed-media canvas from 1964, measuring about four by five feet, its midsection was consumed by a grid of male stars – Elvis, Proust, Fellini and Mastroianni, John and Ringo, Muhammad Ali – plus a matador, an Indian chief, and a classical Greek head: a glam hall of fame punctuated by a luscious, unmistakably metaphoric rose. This collage was rendered with a fan’s exuberance. Yet the picture’s upper and lower zones arrested one’s pleasure. Above, a soaring American Air Force fighter jet, opposite a helmeted pilot. Below – flanked by images of Einstein and Lenin, the irrefutable forces of physics and history – the fatal frame from Abraham Zapruder’s Kennedy assassination film.
I looked at the title: It’s a Man’s World I.
Indeed. Glamour, celebrity, and power, sandwiched between images of dealing, and receiving, death. What struck me in particular about the presentation of this world’s double-edged nature was its answering duality: on the one hand celebratory and uncritical, on the other cold-eyed in its judgment – a work at once light-hearted and pitiless.
What both Cleaning Teeth and It’s a Man’s World had in common – what had commanded my attention – was the powerful presence of each artist’s nature. Though nearly opposite in content and character, the two pictures were, in a sense, self-portraits – each, in its way, said Here I am. The difference was that David Hockney is not only world-famous as an artist, but a well-known personality, a condition that colored my experience of his painting. Whereas the maker of It’s a Man’s World – whose name I read off the card on the wall – was completely unknown to me: Pauline Boty.
The opportunity to come to an artist without any preconceptions is a gift: you discover the work with nothing to influence your response beyond that which you behold. Yet precisely because I’d felt such a strong sense of Boty’s personality, I was curious to know more about her. So I did some research. What I discovered was remarkable.
She had been, in her day, the It Girl of Swinging London: a charter member of the British Pop Art movement and one of its very few females. After graduating in 1958 from the Wimbledon School of Art – where her beauty, allure, and independence earned the title ‘the Wimbledon Bardot’ – Boty attended London’s Royal College of Art during its fervent postwar years, going on to produce a small but indelible group of collages and paintings.
Boty was also, in that gaudy age, a particularly vivid presence. She appeared with the painters Peter Blake, Derek Boshier, and Peter Phillips in Ken Russell’s BBC documentary Pop Goes the Easel; was a dancer on the rock’n’roll television program Ready Steady Go!; and worked on stage, notably at the Royal Court Theatre, and in film and television, as an actress, including a piquant appearance opposite Michael Caine in Alfie. Living and working in a pre-posh Notting Hill bedsit, Boty modeled for London’s premier photographers, including David Bailey, Roger Mayne, and Lewis Morley; her style influenced the free-spirited character of Liz, played by Julie Christie in her breakout role in Billy Liar (a part for which Boty herself screen-tested with its star, Tom Courtenay).
A feminist avant la lettre, Boty also became a social commentator, delivering incisive monologues on the BBC radio program The Public Ear. ‘A revolution is on the way,’ the artist declared in one memorable broadcast. ‘All over the country, young girls are sprouting, shouting, and shaking, and if they terrify you, they mean to.’ Certainly, she practiced what she preached. A sophisticated artist with a nuanced understanding of sexual politics, Boty was also an unapologetic ‘dolly bird’ who remained uninhibited about her desires (and their fulfillment) and cheerfully posed naked with her own pictures. Derek Boshier was continually shocked by how ‘upfront’ she was regarding sex, which was ‘so unusual at the time – blokes would be really taken aback.’
But what truly made Boty distinctive was the character of her work. In the painter’s oeuvre, observed the art historian Sue Tate, ‘a celebration of pleasure and a critical awareness of the construction of that pleasure are not mutually exclusive…she refused to accept the apparently irreconcilable oppositions between sexual woman and serious artist, between celebration and critique, between high and low culture.’ Boty’s ‘double vision’ was decades ahead of its time, and prefigured a diversity of creators, among them Caroline Coon, Tracey Emin, and Madonna.
In her final year, married to the literary agent Clive Goodwin (ten days after meeting him) and finding herself unexpectedly pregnant, Boty discovered she had cancer; told that effective treatment would require an abortion, the artist chose instead to postpone therapy to save the baby, and died at age 28, four months after the birth of a daughter. As the life went, so too did the art. The bulk of Boty’s oeuvre vanished – stashed away, first in the attic of her parents’ suburban home, then a room on her brother’s farm in Kent. For decades, few of her pictures were exhibited, and the artist was largely forgotten.
And then, the miracle. The art historian and curator David Alan Mellor, planning his 1993 exhibition The Sixties Art Scene in London at the Barbican Centre, was taken to Kent by Boty’s then 26-year-old daughter, where he discovered, he said, ‘this thing of massive cultural importance – suddenly the whole history of British Pop Art was different.’ Whether or not this was infatuation-driven hyperbole (Mellor’s crush on Boty dated from his teens), the inclusion of a handful of the artist’s canvases in the Barbican show saw the rough beast of her reputation rise from obscurity and slouch toward renown: from a presentation at London’s Mayor Gallery (contemporaneous with the Barbican); to a substantive joint exhibition, at the Whitford Fine Art and Mayor galleries, five years later; to a comprehensive museum show, in Wolverhampton, in 2013. Finally, in a kind of apotheosis, Boty herself features in Ali Smith’s novel Autumn, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2017.
Though the impulse to privilege Boty’s story over her work was perhaps irresistible (The Independent titled a 1993 article, by Sabine Durrant, ‘The Darling of Her Generation’), the critical response to the artist’s reemergence proved both serious and perceptive. ‘London Calling,’ Thomas Crow’s overview of the Barbican show in Artforum, took up Boty’s cause in the second paragraph, noting that ‘works like Peter Blake’s Girlie Door, 1959, and Allen Jones’ La Sheer, 1968, face quiet demolition at the hands of Boty’s adjacent It’s a Man’s World II, 1963-65…The layering of illicit vernacular with high-art references, the simultaneity of different visual codes within one canvas, and Boty’s plainspoken technique predict the tactics adopted by David Salle more than ten years later.’
The artist William Packer, reviewing the 1998 Whitford-Mayor exhibition in the Financial Times, observed that ‘the first surprise is the variety of the work, or rather the breadth of its reference, from Abstraction to photography and collage…[S]he asserts her independence with a gently-stated but positive proto-feminism that keeps her closer to the socio-political position of older artists, such as [John] Heartfield and [Richard] Hamilton, than to the formal hedonism of her more immediate contemporaries.’ Writing of the 2013 Wolverhampton show in The Independent, Adrian Hamilton spoke of ‘works of astonishing freshness and warmth,’ and grasped an essential difference between the artist and other Pop painters: ‘You always feel in their work a standing back by the artist from the work while he considers its composition and effect. With Boty you feel the artist herself in her emotions.’
Whatever their particular take, all recognized a creator of consequence. ‘What is now clear is that the central position Pauline Boty once held within British Pop-Art…was not simply the due deference owed to beauty and personality,’ Packer declared. ‘[H]ers…was a contribution quite distinctive, as much in its form as in its content.’ He concluded, ‘We have her work again, and it is the work that counts.’ To which – fifteen years later – Hamilton aptly appended: ‘[I]t is simply incredible that it has taken so long.’
Pauline Boty: British Pop Art’s Sole Sister by Marc Kristal
Marc Kristal is the author of Re:Crafted: Interpretations of Craft in Contemporary Architecture and Interiors, Immaterial World: Transparency in Architecture, The New Old House: Historic and Modern Architecture Combined, and Permission, selected by Kirkus Reviews as one of the best independent literary novels of 2022. http://www.marckristal.com