Pauline Boty

Pauline Boty has been a long-time Replica inspiration. Breaking glass ceilings as the first female British Pop artist, she was also an actor, activist, feminist and muse to many. She approached the Pop genre with femininity, sensuality and was always the charming agitator. We love a bit of vintage Riot Girl and Pauline Boty was just that. 

Pauline Boty was the first female pioneer of the British pop art movement before she died tragically young. Writer Ali Smith pays tribute to an incarnation of the swinging 60s.

Pauline Boty in 1963. Photograph: Tony Evans/Timelapse Library Ltd/Getty Images

Who was Pauline Boty? The usual version is tragic; she was a bright young thing, gorgeous and vivacious, who died a young and tragic death in 1966 from cancer aged only 28. The tragedy is compounded by circumstance; the cancer had been discovered in a pregnancy checkup. She had been offered an abortion so she could have radiotherapy (without the abortion, no treatment, was the law), but turned down both in favor of the baby. She died in July 1966 less than five months after giving birth to her daughter. The decades after her death were layered with attendant sadnesses: her husband, the literary agent Clive Goodwin, died in a messy and tragic way in the late 70s in the US, then their daughter, Katy Boty Goodwin, who had gone on to become an artist herself, overdosed and died the night after her graduation from Cal Arts, almost as young as her mother.

But let’s backtrack, shake off the sadness and revisit the life that led to that witty riposte to tradition. “An apparition, a very wonderful apparition of how wonderful and expansive life could be,” the writer, curator and art historian David Alan Mellor says of her. “Rather like Oscar Wilde, creating Dorian Gray, puts it: every age has its own incarnation, and no pressure, Dorian – you’re IT. Well, she was IT. She was its incarnation.”

In first years of the 1960s the shining, intelligent and strikingly beautiful Boty had already outgrown the usual possibilities for a girl from the suburbs. Television and stage actor; theatre designer; early leftist activist; loud and witty protester at postwar self-same architecture; energetic, proto-feminist, acerbic commentator on culture, modernity and gender and even an early interviewer of the Beatles on the BBC’s radio program The Public Ear; accredited dancer on TV’s Ready Steady Go!; and also, it’s believed, the model for the free-spirited character of Liz (played by Julie Christie) in John Schlesinger’s 1963 film Billy Liar.

It is rumored too that Bob Dylan wrote a song about Boty called “Liverpool Gal”. They met in the coarse bleak winter of 62-63 before Dylan became famous, when he came to the UK. And if you’ve ever seen Lewis Gilbert’s Alfie (1966), then you’ve seen 20 or so seconds of her in an uncredited and joyful moment of slap-and-tickle with Michael Caine behind the rails of clothes in a dry cleaner’s. She was already pregnant, already diagnosed with cancer, by the time she filmed it. But over and above all this whirlwind energy – over and above the short life, the too-early death, the legends, the rumors, the vibrant and groundbreaking brand new 60s spirit which she didn’t just embody but seems literally to have helped create, Boty was – is, always will be – the first and only British Pop artist who happened to be a woman.

We’re lucky, 50 years on, to still have anything of Boty’s work, thanks in part to director Ken Russell In 1962 Russell made a 45-minute film for the BBC arts show Monitor called Pop Goes the Easel, about four up-and-coming young pop artists: Peter Blake, Derek Boshier, Peter Phillips, and Boty. Pop Goes the Easel has never stopped being seminal. There had never been a film quite like it. It also happened to be the first TV documentary to feature pop music as its soundtrack, and, like much of Russell’s TV work, it wasn’t just strikingly original for its time, it still is, more than 50 years later.

The gender shift is notable in Russell’s Pop Goes the Easel, too. Each of the artists was allocated roughly a quarter of the show by Russell, who worked closely with each on his or her vision of the film portrait. He visits the studios of all four artists, then follows each about, as well as filming them together picking up stuff off stalls at a street market, wandering a deserted funfair then dancing at an art-school party.

Boty’s is far and away the wildest, most experimental, surreal and eye-catching part, still strange to the eye today. She is interested, she says – displaying a collage where a massive ocean liner is sinking, but as if into a pastoral scene, a field full of grazing sheep – in the moments when “something very extraordinary is happening, yet everyone around isn’t taking any notice of it at all”. The other three artists play with toy guns, drive around, paint doors and flags and Americana. Boty, conversely, drops us headfirst into a dream, and when the dream turns into a nightmare she slaps it in the face, wakes up into what’s now a multilayered narrative of dreamworld and mundanity, then, dressed in a top hat and tux, she mimes bizarrely in full adult voluptuousness to Shirley Temple’s child-voice singing “On the Good Ship Lollipop”, until the screen itself ruptures in a cartoon explosion.

Meanwhile, life continued, time passed. Boty lived, died, and her work, highly influential and highly regarded while she was alive, simply disappeared from public view after her death. In the late 1980s, The pictures had been moved, as the decades had passed, from attic to outhouse. “I have to stress, the family cared for the pictures. The pictures needed a bit of freshening, that’s all.” The Barbican offered to clean and conserve them, and Mellor exhibited them there in 1993 in Art in 60s London. These volumes, and their accompanying UK and international exhibitions, began the task of asserting Boty’s place in a canon from which, effectively, she’d completely vanished.

Boty became one of the earliest feminist artists to do what would soon become a feminist device: use her body as a vehicle for her art, posing in front of her works for the photographers who had been sent to the studio to shoot the “anomaly” of a female artist who was also a stunning blonde. Boty took to directing their shoots, sometimes happily disrobing so long as they kept her work central to the shot. (It didn’t always work; the papers tended to cut round the girl to slice the artworks out.)

Here is some typical contemporary rhetoric: “Actresses often have tiny brains. Painters often have large beards. Imagine a brainy actress who is also a painter and a blonde and you have PAULINE BOTY,” Scene magazine proclaimed in 1962. But Boty, regardless of expectation, filled her work with images of now: the Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam, US civil rights abuses, press images of Christine Keeler.

Speaking on the radio, Boty declared a world in revolution. “All over the country young girls are starting and shaking and if they terrify you, they mean to, and they are beginning to impress the world.” “It’s a man’s world” was one of her mother’s favorite phrases; in what you might call Boty’s own personal art history, her mother as a young woman had been unable to take up a place in art college, forbidden by a draconian father, so she’d keenly pressurized her husband to let their daughter, who had inherited her talent, go to art school. When she arrived at the Royal College of Art it was as a student of stained glass, since women had little or no chance in the early 1960s of getting into the School of Painting. As she wandered the corridors of the building, whose most recent architectural makeover had simply forgotten to include – or not deemed necessary – space for women’s toilets in the blueprint, the rumors spread about how there was an unthinkably well-read, glamorous beauty around who’d apparently actually read not just Proust but Apollinaire and Rimbaud, too.

It wasn’t till she’d left the RCA that she started painting, on her own terms, the extraordinary works that Mellor helped reclaim. “She did something that other people weren’t doing,” Mellor says. “The final vindication is the work, essentially montage work, assembly of images, and not in a reified way. Ninety per cent of pop is deadpan and dehumanitised drudge stuff. She didn’t do that.” He welcomes the fact that they’re the work of an artist still in formation, “clumsy paintings. She was young. And I think they didn’t fit the idea of what English pop should be.”

The life of Boty? A molotov fusion of possibility and loss. To know what it must have been like to meet her, read a piece by Margaret Drabble called “The one that got away”. To know what it must’ve been like to talk with her, hunt down a copy of Nell Dunn’s startling, unalloyed and itself unprecedented 1965 book of interviews, Talking to Women. To know what survives of us, what spirit is, what colour is for, how it works on the eye and why we love it, and to consider what image itself is and means, go to the artworks. She was born in Croydon in the spring of 1938. She died in the summer of 1966. At Wimbledon Art School in the late 50s, when a boy asked her why she wore so much red lipstick, she chased him across the canteen shouting “all the better to kiss you with”.

She forged an art of putting things together. She changed the walls of her room into massive collageworks. She propped herself up in bed in the last days still drawing and sketching, the baby in a basket at the end of the bed. When she died, the writer and theatre director John McGrath recalled, she left a testament her husband read at her memorial – “a message of undying hope, of solidarity with the oppressed, and of certainty about the future that gave all of us more than courage. Determination.” “I’d use the word generous,” Mellor told me when we talked last week. “What she represented was grace.” “Define grace?” I said. “I can’t,” he said, as if shoulder-shrugging. “The idea of the presence of grace. Pauline Boty.”