Pauline Boty - Biography and Legacy
British Painter, Collagist, Actress, and Dancer
Biography of Pauline Boty
Like many of the important cultural figures of the sixties, Pauline Boty was raised in an exceedingly ordinary household. Born in 1938 in the South London suburb of Croydon, her family were middle class, reserved and strictly Catholic. Her mother Veronica stayed at home as a housewife whilst her father, Albert, went out to work as an accountant.
While they seemed outwardly to be a stable and traditional English family, this was an image which Albert Boty consciously strived to project. Albert was half Belgian and half Persian (born in modern-day Iraq), and when he found himself in Britain after a tumultuous childhood, he was determined to live life as a true Anglophile, attempting to embody a traditional middle-class lifestyle and family. This included following cricket, eating cream teas and roast dinners and maintaining rose gardens. He was later described by Boty Goodwin (Pauline's daughter) as "Surrey's Great Gatsby", meticulous in his dedication to an affectation of "normalcy" and resistant to any disruption to it.
Pauline was the youngest of four, with three older brothers. Her role as the only girl within this family was made very clear by her father and she was kept separate from her brothers. However, the young Pauline rebelled against this oppressive home life, and a determination to succeed was obvious in her from the beginning. First at Wallington High School for Girls and then at Wimbledon Art College, which she began to attend at 16, Boty stood out as a vivacious and glamorous young woman nicknamed "The Wimbledon Bardot" in reference to her resemblance to French film starlet Brigitte Bardot. Boty struggled against her father and brother's disapproval of her desire to study art, arguing against their perception that it was not a "real subject", and certainly not something useful or appropriate for a young lady. Yet her mother Veronica was a quiet supporter of her ambition, perhaps as Veronica herself had been accepted into the Slade School of Art as a young woman but forbidden to go by her own father.
Education and Early Work
In her second year at Wimbledon Boty studied under the tutor Charles Carey in the stained glass department of the school. Although Boty had fallen into the stained glass department without much thought, this proved to be fortunate as it was Carey who first recognised her raw talent. He encouraged her to push further with her art, especially through collage effects. Although he recognised that Boty's real skill was not in glass but in prints and painting, he encouraged this work even within formal limits of his school. Carey was instrumental in persuading Boty that collage and mosaic effects were something which could be applied to the modern world and the youth culture which she had thrown herself into as a student. Boty had a remarkably freeing and positive experience at Wimbledon, and was able to flourish personally whilst developing her skills as an artist.
Boty's transition to the Royal College of Art in 1958 proved to be more difficult. The engrained institutional sexism at this much larger establishment meant that, even though her interests now lay elsewhere, Boty was advised to stick with stained glass and apply for that course as it would be easier for a woman to be accepted onto. Even on the stained glass course though, only 8 of the 36 students were women. This turn of events meant that Boty was effectively excluded from the main (male) group of future British Pop Artists, who were at the time concentrated in the School of Painting at the RCA. However, due to sheer strength of personality and talent Boty could not be ignored, and was soon mixing with other the other young artists who shared her fascination with popular culture and media.
In her first year of study at the RCA Boty had three pieces of work included in the prestigious 'Young Contemporaries' exhibition as her style was developing and becoming more confident. During this time her practice moved in a new direction towards painterly techniques whilst still taking a sense of composition and splitting up of the canvas from her stained glass practice. In 1959 Boty and a group of fellow students went on holiday to Greece, a group which included many of the "bright young things" of the RCA, including later Pop Artists like Patrick Caulfield and Peter Blake (who was reportedly smitten with Boty). In her graduation year in 1961, Boty was part of an exhibition called "Blake Boty Porter Reeve" (which also included the work of Blake, Geoffrey Reeve and Christine Porter) at the AIA Gallery. This seminal show is now seen to be one of the first true Pop Art shows in London, and the titular artists are considered joint founders of British Pop Art.
The years following Boty's graduation from RCA in 1961 turned out to be the most dynamic and prolific of her life. Working not only as a visual artist, her output from this time also included work as a dancer, actress, radio contributor, set designer, model and society figure. Her beauty, grace and enigmatic personality meant that she quickly became in high demand as the "IT" girl of the early 1960s London counterculture. London at the time was in a cultural renaissance, with the notion of 'swinging London' making headlines around the world and positioning the city as the heart of innovation in fashion, music, art and literature. Boty was caught up in this whirlwind of cultural production. During this time she was photographed by David Bailey in 1964, posed for Tit Bits and Playboy magazine, danced on the TV Show Ready Steady Go, designed the set for a production of Jean Genet's The Balcony, acted in Ken Russell's documentary film about the young Pop Artists Pop Goes the Easel, performed in stage plays like Afternoon Men (1963) and contributed to the BBC radio show Public Ear. She was also a left-wing activist, fashion icon, and counted painters, rock stars, playwrights and literary figures amongst her close friends. She eventually married literary agent Clive Goodwin in 1963 after a whirlwind romance. The two were introduced by Boty's previous romantic partner, the married TV director Phillip Saville. It has been suggested that the relationship between Saville and Boty inspired aspects of the story of Darling (1965) starring Dirk Bogarde and Julie Christie. All of this activity occurred whilst she was still only in her early 20s.
Somehow during these five or so years, Boty also managed to produce a prolific amount of artworks. She truly found her "Pop" style in the years following her time at the RCA, combining bright geometric backgrounds with "collaged" sections of realistically rendered scraps of pop culture. Her work also became more and more engaged with her experience of life as a woman in the 1960s, exploring concepts of sexuality, gender, mass media, advertising, politics and conflict. The walls of her studio and home were papered with a chaotic array of cut-out images from magazines and she was dedicated to art of the moment, or "nostalgia for now", as she characterised Pop. Her work was set apart from the other Pop artists by its emotion and personality however. As art historian, writer and curator David Mellor writes, "She did something that other people weren't doing [...] 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 dehumanised drudge stuff. She didn't do that." Writer Ali Smith echoed a similar sentiment when she wrote that "when you are anywhere near Pauline Boty's work in the flesh you feel the life, you feel the energy". Within the fashionable scene centred on the Chelsea neighbourhood of London at the time, Boty and Godwin were art world darlings, and by 1965 Boty had begun to distance herself from acting to concentrate on more political works, although she did briefly appear with Michael Caine in the 1966 film Alfie.
In 1965, Boty unexpectedly fell pregnant. As she went for a routine scan, a tumour was discovered, and she was diagnosed with cancer. Although she was offered an abortion and chemotherapy treatment, Boty refused both. She carried the pregnancy to its full term and in February 1966 she gave birth to a daughter, whom they named Boty Goodwin. Boty smoked marijuana to ease the pain of the now inoperable cancer and continued to entertain friends from her bed, even sketching the Rolling Stones during this period. In July of 1966, at age 28, Pauline Boty died at the Royal Marsden Cancer Hospital.
The Legacy of Pauline Boty
Unlike her few other female contemporaries, such as Bridget Riley, Boty refused to to negate her feminine side and was not overly concerned with seeming serious, intellectual or dispassionate at the expense of her true self. Boty instead celebrated these supposedly "feminine" traits. Her work came unabashedly from a woman's perspective and it was emotionally engaged and celebratory towards women's sexual desires.
Unfortunately the factors that made her work so interesting and engaging caused it also to be stifled and largely overlooked in the span of art history that immediately followed her death. Passed off by (male) critics of the following decades as a kitsch and frivolous "Party Girl" tangential to the main British Pop Art movement, many of her works were lost after the early death of her husband in the 1970s, and her name largely forgotten. Ali Smith describes her life as "A molotov fusion of possibility and loss."
There were a few who maintained her significance, however, including a few dedicated academics who were caught under the spell of Boty and determined to not let her legacy slip away. David Alan Mellor had been transfixed by the figure of Boty as a young teen. In the late 1980s, he began an extensive search for her work, contacting family members on a treasure hunt which led him to a barn in Kent where many of the paintings were found. He recalls it as an intensely emotional experience and he went on to exhibit them in his 1993 show at the Barbican 'Art in 60s London'. This was attended by the young academic Sue Tate, who was equally enthralled by the work and in the years since both Mellor and Tate have been instrumental in locating more paintings and bringing Boty's work back into critical focus.
Through her journey from highly regarded, to forgotten, to rediscovered artist, it is now obvious how important Boty's work was to the formation of British Pop Art, and the art that was made in the decades that followed. She truly was one of the originators of the movement in London and her story destabilises the narrative of Pop that has been formed over the years and introduces a fresh breath of life and energy. It is also clear how her work was decidedly feminist: a building block towards the unabashed sexuality and celebrations of womanhood of 1970s artists like Judy Chicago and Helen Shapiro . Her mark is also visible on modern British artists like Tracey Emin, particularly as both were media celebrities within the context of their particular cultural moment, and both intensely emotional and personal artists interested in celebrating the female sexuality and experience. As author Ali Smith, who included Boty's work as part of the narrative of her 2017 novel Autumn puts it "I think Boty's work is incredibly important to us now, because an encounter with it changes everything that you thought you knew about the Sixties, about the Fifties, about the Forties, and what happened after the Sixties. Boty blows the canon away - and that's why it's so important that we have her back."