Pauline Boty was a central figure in Swinging London in the 1960s. As a new show aims to restore her forgotten reputation, the hunt for her lost paintings goes on
Half a century after a sex scandal rocked the British political establishment and kickstarted the 1960s social revolution, academics are searching for a long-vanished but highly important painting created at the height of the 1963 Profumo affair by one of modern art's most extraordinary "lost" figures.
If found, the work – Scandal '63 by the British pop artist Pauline Boty – would not only solve the 50-year mystery over the fate of a painting held to be of exceptional importance: it would also, a growing body of art historians hope, help return its creator to her rightful place at the heart of the era's explosion of sexual and creative liberation, and bring to an end decades of "wilful and conscious" exclusion by the male-dominated art establishment.
Boty, who died in 1966 aged 28, was a key player in the frenetic Swinging London social scene that drew together painters, writers, artists, film-makers, musicians, leftwing political activists and poets. Scandal '63 portrays Christine Keeler in the iconic Lewis Morley photograph of that year, astride a chair, while at the top of the canvas, the male protagonists in the affair are shown. It was last seen in the year it was painted.
Highly accomplished as an artist and, later, as an actor and broadcaster, Boty was also exceptionally good looking – a rare beauty that would later be used by detractors to rubbish her creative talents – as well as sexually liberated.
Her work was, in the pop art manner, uncompromising, gaudy, sensational, chaotic and frequently explicitly sexual. On one of her paintings – 54321, which takes its name from Manfred Mann's theme tune to TV pop show Ready Steady Go! and features its presenter Cathy McGowan – Boty has written, in large letters, "Oh, for a fu …" trailing off the canvas edge.
Dubbed the "Wimbledon Bardot" – she initially trained at the art school there – Boty went on to study at the Royal College of Art. In 1962 Ken Russell's profile of four of the college's students, Pop Goes the Easel, featured Boty prominently in scenes she devised herself.
Boty was the 60s incarnate. She was a dancer on Ready Steady Go! and escorted Bob Dylan around London on his first visit to Britain in the winter of 1962-63, when the then unknown folk singer had a part in a BBC television drama, Madhouse on Castle Street, directed by Boty's then lover, Philip Saville. She played one of Michael Caine's girlfriends in Alfie, and began to work extensively in TV drama, and on stage at the Royal Court. At the same time, she became a presenter on an early BBC radio weekly arts review, interviewing, among others, the Beatles.
Fellow RCA student Peter Blake was one of a long line of men who fell in love with her. In June 1963 she married literary agent and leftwing political activist Clive Goodwin. Their flat, on west London's Cromwell Road, became a key meeting place and party venue for the avant garde, with visitors including Tariq Ali, poets Christopher Logue and Adrian Mitchell, artist David Hockney, actor Tom Courtney, Observer critic Ken Tynan, and fashion designer Celia Birtwell.
In 1965, Boty became pregnant, and during a prenatal examination, cancer was diagnosed. She declined chemotherapy, fearing that it could damage her baby, and in July 1966, four months after her daughter, Katy, was born, she died. Boty's disappearance from art history was swift, with her paintings gathered up and stored in a barn at a farm in Kent owned by one of her brothers. A posthumous show of her work was discussed, but never took place.
Most works by Boty are in private hands. The Tate Gallery owns just one Boty, The Only Blonde in the World, while Wolverhampton Gallery has recently acquired Colour Her Gone, one of several Boty paintings of Marilyn Monroe, created after the star's death.
In the early 1990s, thanks to the work of David Alan Mellor, professor of art at Sussex University, and curator and art historian Dr Sue Tate, Boty's slow return to public visibility began. Mellor tracked down and recovered her art from the barn in Kent – "an extraordinarily moving experience … I cried", and, with Tate, started the critical rehabilitation of Boty's work.
Now, 47 years after her death, Boty is set for a comeback. A major exhibition – the first open to the public devoted to Boty's work – opens in June at Wolverhampton Art Gallery, with two smaller, related shows in London. Justice at last, believe her followers.
"For important men to reduce her to the fact that they were in love with Pauline did immense damage to Pauline," says the artist and writer Caroline Coon. "After she died, it gave her art no space. Pauline Boty was as vibrant and decorative as the men around her, an exceptionally charismatic person.
"Pauline was a complete and dedicated political artist, doing opinion pieces, acting, theatre design, painting, being the modern woman. When men artists die young they are turned into romantic icons. When Pauline Boty died, her art was buried. Then history gets written by a group of men who are excluding her. That exclusion was wilful and conscious … It was misogyny and sexism. But now, reality is returning. These women artists were working, living, loving, doing politics on a daily basis with men colleagues, as equals," says Coon.
"I remember her vividly," recalls Saville, now in his 80s and one of Britain's most respected film and television directors. "She was impossible to forget. Apart from being extremely beautiful she had a wonderful personality, which could only have existed in the 1960s. She was 'can-do'. A remarkable person."
Yet despite more than 20 years of intensive searching, at least three major works by Boty remain untraced. "We don't know where they are, like Scandal '63, of which we only have photographs," says Tate, senior curator for the Wolverhampton exhibition. "We just don't know. There's a painting of Marilyn Monroe, of her chewing beads, which we have seen in a photograph, and another key work, July 26, which is about the Cuban revolution. Again, it's known from photographs, and also you get a glimpse of it in a film about radicals made in 1968.
"Of the missing works, Scandal '63 is the most interesting and relevant today. It went to the person who commissioned it – but we don't know who that was."
For Celia Birtwell, who lived with Boty in grandly decayed student digs in a west London mansion, the artist was "way ahead of her time".
"We were a bit beatniky," recalls Birtwell. "I was often spending time in her room, which had a huge brass bed, and a collage wall. We were all poor. We cooked on her little paraffin stove in her room. She was beautiful, and tall, and funny, and clever. It was as though she was on a mission. She was driven. An amazing creature."