An unlikely Catholic feminist icon

Winbledon BardotThe blogger Mrs Meadowsweet caught my eye yesterday with a post about Pauline Boty, the female darling of the sixties avant garde generation.  Boty was a key founder of the British Pop Art movement and the only British female painter of that genre – she produced bold bright canvases which both celebrated and critiqued mass cultural movements, exploring themes of female sexuality, gender, race and politics.

Boty’s work is currently being exhibited at the Wolverhampton Gallery, including some pieces that have not been seen for over forty years, having gathered dust in the outhouse of her brother’s farm, before art historian David Mellor chanced upon Boty’s appearance upon Pop Goes the Easel, Ken Russell’s first full-length documentary for the BBC and began a quest to track down her work. As a result of the recent renaissance and reappraisal of her contribution to the sixties art scene, her canvases have more than quadrupled in price since the 1990s,

Born in Carshalton in 1938, the youngest of four children and the only girl, Pauline won a scholarship in 1954 to study stained glass  at the Wimbledon School of Art, amidst her parents’ disproval. She had originally wanted to study painting, but was discouraged from applying as admission rates for women in the school of painting were extremely low.

She completed her studies in 1961 and straight away featured in what many describe as the first ever Pop Art exhibition at the AIA Gallery in London. The following year she appeared in Russell’s documentary and began an acting career alongside her work as a painter. A phenomenal beauty, often referred to as the Wimbledon Bardot, Boty was picked from hundreds of applicants to be one of the weekly dancers on the ultra-hip Ready, Steady, Go. 

With her huge luminous eyes, back-combed mane of blond hair, flawless skin, voluptuous yet slim figure, one can imagine Pauline Boty taking a starring role as the sidekick of Austen Powers, in the films that so successfully sent up the spirit of the sixties. Despite the fact that there was so much more to her than being merely eye candy, her looks (she once appeared in a Vogue photo-spread taken by David Bailey) meant that she was not taken seriously as she should have been as a painter. According to Sue Tate who has written a book about Boty and is co-curator of the exhibition in Wolverhampton  “Unlike her contemporary Bridget Riley who was careful never to present herself as a woman artist, Boty allowed herself to be seen as beautiful and sexy, and because of that she was received as just beautiful and sexy, and not as serious and intellectual.”

Pauline Boty

Her premature death in 1966 at the age of 28 meant that her talent was never developed to its full potential, but her work displayed startling originality, her palette consisting of vibrant colours like cobalt violet and lemon deep yellow, by contrast to the muted palette used in classical training. Many Pop Art painters tended to portray woman as passive and objectified, whereas Boty was keen to celebrate unabashed female sexual desire, such as her painting With Love to Jean-Paul Belmondo, in which the Gallic new-wave actor is portrayed as an object of lust, the rose, Boty’s frequent emblem of female sensuality, imposing itself upon the heart-throb’s head. Unlike other artists such as Warhol, Boty never approached her subjects with a cool detachment, her passion is almost tangible and leaps off the canvas.

Colour-Her-Gone-by-Pauline-Boty-web
Colour her Gone
The Only Blonde in the World 1963 by Pauline Boty 1938-1966
The Only Blonde in the World

Moreoever Boty was not only an artist, actor, model and dancer but a political activist, not only touching upon subjects such as the Cuban Missile Crisis in her work, but also actively engaged in the student politics of the era. She was secretary of ‘Anti-Ugly Action’ a pressure group who marched on the new Kensington Library, demonstrated at Caltex House and scattered rose petals on the coffin of British Architecture outside the new Barclays Bank head office. Later on, when she was beginning to make appearances in chat shows of the day, she wasn’t afraid to speak her mind and displaying some of the morality with which she would have been brought up (Boty was a baptised Catholic) she challenged the esteemed historian A J  P Taylor who had been describing Hitler as a ‘great man’ in relation to the magnitude of some of his achievements. Pauline refused to countenance this view, passionately retorting, ‘The size of his deeds no more make him great than their nature makes him good’, an interjection which apparently briefly stopped Taylor in his tracks.

As perhaps might be expected, Boty lived the life of the avant-garde set, she lived a life of sexual liberation, was embroiled in a messy affair with the married producer and director Philip Saville, she dabbled in drugs, smoked pot and occasionally took Benzedrine, but apparently had a preference for Purple Hearts. Her house was a hive of activity, Ossie Clarke was a regular guest, she was close friends with Bob Dylan and friends remember parties, champagne and heated debates.   Several anecdotes abound about her unbridled sexuality, posing nude in front of her photo of Johnny Halliday, sunbathing topless in Ibiza, describing her genitalia in lurid and explicit detail in interviews,  behaviour that broke all social conventions and that would still be considered vulgar 40 years later.

So, with all this in mind, especially when one thinks of some of Pauline Boty’s more sexually explicit work, (one painting featured a naked female derriere, another had the words ‘oh for a fu’ enigmatically scrawled across the corner), why on earth should she be thought of as a Catholic feminist icon?

Firstly, as a sixties pioneer, someone who was interested in smashing the limitations placed upon women and not interested in conforming to society’s expectations, she unexpectedly got married to actor and literary agent Clive Goodwin, ten days after meeting him.  Speaking about the union, her friend Penny Massot says “He was straight and conventional and she was wacky, never quite knew whether she should be with Clive, you know . . . But I think they were dreamy together.” Their marriage was a happy one, in an interview in 1965, Boty spoke about marrying Goodwin because he made her feel secure. Not the sort of thing that modern feminists would be happy to promulgate and perhaps one of the reasons why her memory was until recently expunged from popular history. Why would a beautiful talented politically engaged woman who seemingly had the world at her feet choose to marry? It doesn’t fit in with images of an oppressive patriarchy, especially when we learn that as in all successful marriages, the benefits were mutual, Goodwin by all accounts was transformed as a result of his marriage.

Tragically upon a routine examination during the first trimester of pregnancy, it was discovered that Pauline Boty had leukaemia. She refused to think about abortion, which though still illegal would have been easy to obtain for a woman with her contacts and furthermore refused chemotherapy in case it harmed her unborn baby, a decision which would ultimately cost her life, her daughter was born in 1966 and Boty died a few months afterwards, although she was able to care for her baby for a short time after the birth. In circumstances in which pro-choice feminists would argue that an abortion is a necessity (modern medical research has proven that there is no risk to pregnant women undergoing chemotherapy after the first trimester) Boty stood up for the right to life of her own unborn child.

Interestingly for someone looking to smash gender barriers, amongst her political campaigning and affiliations she did not seem to have involved herself with the activities of ALRA, the Abortion Law Reform Association, established in 1936. While claiming her as a pioneer of the modern feminist movement, the feminists seem to have overlooked this key facet of her life.  A woman who had everything to live for, committed an act of ultimate generosity for the life of her child, not wishing to do anything that might cause her baby what she believed to be, untold harm.

While her life is hardly commensurate with that of the average hagiography, we should nonetheless note and pay tribute to one of the modern feminists who recognised that gender equality does not have to necessitate taking the life of an unborn daughter, even though this came at an enormous personal cost to herself.

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