art, screen

Pauline: A Suitable Case for Treatment (Part Three)

Belmondo by Boty

The film treatment of the life of Pauline Boty resumes, reaching the third instalment. (Here is Part One; and this is Part Two.

Pauline Boty was a celebrated painter of the 1960s who died in her twenties and her art work went missing for decades. Part Three is a portrait of Boty as the young Pop artist in London. 

Pauline Boty on her bed with her painting With Love to Jean-Paul Belmondo
Boty with Belmondo

Nineteen Fifty Nine
Pauline Boty leaves Wimbledon, escaping the peculiar itchy boredom of suburbia as she heads for the heart of the city and art college. 

After her prentice years at Wimbledon School of Art, Pauline looks to enrol for a degree at somewhere grown-up. She shops around the city. One leading institution advises Boty not to bother bringing her portfolio to the interview. The same happened to the artist Jann Haworth. An admissions tutor for Slade told her, We don’t view women applicant’s work. We’re not interested in their portfolios. We just want their photo – see if they look nice, as they’re here to keep the boys happy.*

Boty applies to the Royal College of Art. She wants to study painting but is advised that women are seldom accepted onto the painting degree. Her interview takes place at the College’s brand new building on Kensington Gore, close to the Albert Hall and facing Kensington Gardens. Pauline asks to use the toilet. She’s told they’re not sure there is a women’s toilet, that the architect may have forgotten to put one in.

Pauline Boty painting

Nineteen Fifty Nine, and despite the lack of female conveniences, the College of Art is bubbling – thick with talented students spouting bright ideas. ‘Things were suddenly opening up, a moment of hope, when a time and a place came together,’ observes David Mellor, our heroic art historian from Part One. ‘It was as though everything was being invented,’ says Peter Blake, fondly looking backwards through the decades to the spirit of his youth. ‘It was only a little more than ten years after the war, and everything was new – television was young, theatre was exciting, cinema was exciting. There were all the new immigrants and places like Portobello Road were springing up. It was vibrant, and to be there was marvellous.’ 

(Not so marvellous if you were looking for a women’s loo.)

But the camera! Let’s not forget the camera. What’s it doing at the start of Part Three? Peter Blake will be played by Benedict Cumberbatch or possibly Toby Jones (to be decided, but let’s say it’s Cumberbatch). Blake’s revery for the past and how great it was to be young is firstly recited into the lens, but then continues as a mellifluous voiceover across a series of standard medium shots following Pauline through her college interview day – culminating in her toilet fiasco, as she searches in vain for a door with an illustration of a woman.

The scene shifts to first day of term, where Boty stands out from the rest of the greenhorns as already fully fledged and spurred with self belief. She doesn’t stutter, tip toe, or shuffle through the double doors. She walks right in – confident, ambitious, charismatic, and with every intention of being seen. ‘Pauline wasn’t  a cosy armchair,’ a female contemporary remarks. But what good is cosy, how far will it take a young woman in this ‘man’s world’? 

Pauline Boty, Pop Goes the Easel, photo still

From autumn 1959 to summer 1961, so the legend goes, everyone at the Royal College was in love with Pauline Boty. ‘Pauline was a goddess,’ recalls architect Edward Jones. ‘There were other beautiful girls who could paint at the time, but none were quite as wonderful as her.‘ Death often irons out the kinks, as nostalgia smooths the sharper edges of those that have left us. Boty is largely remembered with awe and delight and warmth and fondness. Her only fault, says artist Peter Blake, ‘was that she didn’t love me back.’

Turned away from the paint department, indefatigable Pauline settles for stained glass. But it’s definitely second prize. The Royal College’s glass department is a backwater with the main action happening in Paint. Pauline dislikes her teachers and feels isolated. ‘It was a funny time,’ says Jane Percival, a contemporary of Boty, ‘Women painters like myself felt very alienated, the full feminist movement hadn’t come in and we worked in isolated pools, mostly of depression.’ 

Pauline paints at home on her own time. The camera offers a series of super short takes, transitionals of Pauline at the easel. She paints as she pleases, against convention – boldly repudiating the restricted palette of the four lead colours of classical training. Boty’s range of tints is broader and brighter. ‘I saw her palette,’ recalls artist and writer Caroline Coon. ‘Coming across these vibrant colours was quite startling. Cobalt Violet and Lemon Deep Yellow.’ 

These mini shots of Pauline’s brushwork with bright, splashy pigment, dissolve into a thematically-linked take of Pauline swinging down Kensington High Street, fashionably dressed with her blonde mane glowing in the sunlight as she arrives to college. Boty’s painting and her public persona conjoin in a celebration of life that is unlikely to go unnoticed. 

And so it goes. In year one Pauline has several of her paintings selected for the Young Contemporaries exhibition. Her contribution to the show includes an oil on canvas called William’s Night Out: a lovely title for a painting that went missing and was never seen again –  like far too many of Boty’s art works.

Oh Jim
The first extended scene of Part Three opens at gala night for the the Young Contemporaries show. Pauline is standing between two of her paintings having her picture taken. She is young and high on the scent of early success –  what Scott Fitzgerald described as ‘that first wild wind… and the delicious mist it brings.’ Pauline’s mother Veronica has come along to support her daughter, her daughter who doesn’t need support. Veronica lifts up her Rolliflex and takes a picture of Pauline posing with her artworks. But this is the last time we see Boty’s mother, until the final moments of this five-part film treatment, at the very dark end of Boty’s story. Parents must fade out, receding into the shadows, as their gown-up offspring take charge at the controls.

Pauline has brought a boyfriend to the Young Contemporaries show. His name is Jim and he is tall and handsome and slender. Jim dresses like a hound dog – black denims with high turn-ups, bomber jacket, and his hair twisted in a Brylcreem quiff. Jim looks strong and yet mild. He also paints. 

Boty started college with a trio of flings. She tells Nell Dunn she never had a problem meeting men. I’ve been fairly lucky in that I’m pretty attractive to men, because I have a quite a sexual sort of quality, but along with a thing that’s kind of like, oh a happy dumb blonde, you see. 

After the flings, Pauline gives monogamy a try with Jim. Each time he closes his eyes, Jim sees Pauline’s face. The camera follows the attractive couple as they slip away from the art show. They emerge from the gallery and head along a side street and into a broad avenue on a grey foggy night. Boty and Jim walk across Trafalgar Square holding hands, the headlamps of the buses and cars burst in and out of the mist. 

The camera follows them from behind. Until we dissolve to the young couple crossing Piccadilly Circus, with the camera now situated in front and the evening crowds weaving in out of the frame. Some passers by look at the camera and then towards Boty and Jim. Boty is saying something, waving her arms in the air, moving her hands as if gathering handfuls of life to her body.

Another dissolve finds the couple on Oxford Street. The camera has now moved in close on Boty in profile, before it switches to fixing upon Jim from the front as he laughs towards Boty and something she must’ve said. 

The montage continues with a leap into the backstreets off Bayswater. As the camera returns to following from behind, Jim puts his arm around Boty and she touches his fingers on her shoulder and he takes his hand away.

Pauline is wearing knee high boots and a dark coat. The coat is open by the time we cut to the romantic pair ascending the steps to the entrance of Jim’s building, a white four storey Victorian subdivision. The front door has multiple doorbells. The lens boldly advances to a tight frame enveloping Boty and Jim as they kiss under the dim porch light. The kiss is strong enough to curl your shoelaces. The intimacy is like the kiss between Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun – close-up, intense and transporting. The lip theatre breaks and Boty pulls Jim’s hands inside her coat. But Jim retrieves his hands to root around in his pockets, searching for his keys. He doesn’t see the flicker of disappointment on Pauline’s face.

Strait is the Gate, Andre Gide, Penguin paperback
and narrow is the way

The scene dissolves to inside Jim’s college bedroom and the next day. The grey morning light wheezes though torn net curtains, into a high ceilinged room with vertical wallpaper in bands of ash and silver. The couple are lying semi-entwined on Jim’s small bed. They are only half dressed, but decent. Pauline is wearing men’s Levi’s and one of Jim’s vests. Peter Blake asserts that Boty was the first woman in London to wear 501s. Young Blake is standing behind the net curtain looking enviously upon Jim entwined with Boty.  ‘I used to say, “Pauline, your flies are undone.” It was a reasonably funny thing to say to a woman in 1961’.  

Jim and Pauline are reading novels on a lazy Sunday – Penguin Modern Classics. Earlier the lovers disagreed over who’s the better artists, Klee or Kandinsky. Boty said neither. Earlier still, Boty went to the toilet while Jim was still sleeping. But as she tiptoed silently back to bed across the stained carpet, she caught sight of Jim with his finger up a nostril.

Boty reads aloud a passage from Andre Gide’s Strait is the Gate, sharing a critical moment in the story which concludes with the description of a rose in an overturned glass. The upending of the glass denotes the abrupt termination of a love affair, says Boty. Jim nods, but only says, Maybe.

Through her short career as an artist, Boty reprised key motifs in her paintings: lace, the female hand, and especially the rose – the rose as a symbol of woman, fertility and female sensuality, but also as a manicule indicating love and desire. 

The bedroom scene of Boty and Jim continues with the couple abandoning literature and starting to kiss. We stay back with a medium shot. Boty takes Jim’s hands inside her vest. We pan to the discarded Penguin novels collapsed across a tangle of patchwork blanket and piped sheets. The camera returns to the lovers as the kissing ends with Jim taking his hands back out of the vest. The young couple settle back against the large single pillow. They look directly at the camera with neutral expressions as the frame freezes in a captured moment. 

The next scene is also in Bayswater with the camera positioned outside Jim’s building. It’s a rainy day and Boty walks up to the property wearing a cream raincoat – a man’s raincoat, secondhand, by Aquascutum. She’s carrying a tartan umbrella and is alone. Boty lets herself in with the spare key that Jim recently gave to her as a sign of his commitment. The camera follows Boty up the stairs to Jim’s digs. She comes through the door and the camera is waiting, perched high up in the ceiling, looking down on Pauline from a sharp angle. 

Pauline crosses to the bed. Delicately and affectionately she reaches out and touches the patchwork blanket, then bends down to take in the scent of Jim’s pillow. She removes a folded sketch from her bucket handbag, carefully unfolds the paper, and places it on the pillow. And next to it the spare door key. 

She quickly steps away and out the room. After the door closes, the camera zooms in on the piece of paper. It’s a line drawing of a rose in an overturned glass. The sketch has been etched by a lively hand with bold marks. Under the tipped glass is a poem by Boty explaining that she is breaking up with Jim, ready to move on: ‘I prop up again/the ever falling rose/Your image disintegrates’

Well, that was sweet, but then also quite short. Jim reports feeling destroyed. The film doesn’t dwell on the rejection, just a brief reaction shot, a tight close-up of Jim’s cracked face staring at Pauline’s sketch. There’s nothing more fragile than a young man in love.

The Anti-Uglies

Pauline Boty and the Anti-Ugly Movement
down with ugly buildings!

It’s time for Pauline to quit the family home, to leave distant Carshalton to the squares. We show suitcases and packing boxes, and a pile of childhood items in the centre of her bedroom destined for the Boty loft. Boty rents a room in west London – a large room in a big house in Notting Hill in the thick of bohemia. 

Boty also rapidly moves on from Jim and straight into student politics. In her debut term she attends a guest lecture given by the architecture critic Ian Nairn. We see Pauline in the front row of a barrel vaulted theatre with a resiny parquet floor. She is sat on an iron and canvas school chair, listening intently with her fist propping up her chin, as Nairn talks down the low quality post-war building developments sprouting up all over the city. 

Nairn has charisma. His polemic is rousing. Any art student rebel looking for a cause might consider it worth railing against this poxy rash of shoddy carbuncles. Boty becomes a founder member of the Anti Ugly Action Movement. They make plans for public demos against any bland developments they notice. Especially those in walking distance of college.  

On Wednesday 10th December 1959, the Anti-Uglies set off along Kensington Gore on a procession headed for Knightsbridge Green. They are accompanied by a bass drum beating out a funeral march. All of the demonstrators wear black armbands, shouting Outrage, Outrage, Outrage. Some carry protest banners, a few haul along a black coffin marked British Architecture (RIP). 

This is going to look good on screen. Boty is at the hub of the protest wearing a neat duffel coat. The Anti-Uglies halt outside a real eyesore of a building. Pauline steps forward, looking suitably mournful, photographed by a gathering from the press as she sprinkles rose petals on the coffin, then lighting votive candles for a symbolic vigil set to last for at least five minutes. The journalist scribblers in the background write it all down in their ring notepads.

Pauline Boty lays a wreath at an Anti Ugly protest, London, 1959
British Architecture RIP

The procession and Pauline’s performance is the first part of a diptych of period protests. The second panel is a demo outside the new Kensington Library, with Pauline dressed as a shepherdess, chanting Outrage! Fake! Pull It Down! (I don’t know why she’s dressed as a shepherdess; or if she brought any sheep with her; or if we should apply the gendered ‘shepherdess’ – although they certainly used it back then in 1959.)

These protests are meek and mild compared to the next decade of student upheaval to come. There’s no molotovs or street fighting from the Anti-Uglies. And yet their actions are widely reported in the press. The Times fixates on the student protestors’ clothes. A  yellowing news report spins at the centre of the screen as a BBC newsreader’s voice speaks of the Anti Uglies and their ‘Lumpy coats, blue jeans, and hats like tufts of gorse.’ (We’ll need to speak to wardrobe about making hats like tufts of gorse.) 

Pauline Boty in the papers for being the beautiful face of the Anti Uglies
of all things, this is a stupid headline

The newspapers generally approve of the student protestors. They also like the look of Pauline, who gets her face in the dailies for the first time in her life. The photo is beautiful. The caption in the Express says ‘of all things she is the secretary of the Anti-Uglies.’ 

I think the Air Ministry building is a real stinker, says Boty to the hack. With the Farmers’ Union HQ and the Financial Times as runners-up.

(When did people stop saying ‘stinker’?)

The hack says, What of your own home? 

I don’t approve, of course, says Boty with a sigh. But I daren’t say anything or daddy would be upset.

Pauline leads the campaign for better building onto TV and an interview in which she singles out one new build as, An expensive disgrace. If this wasn’t enough activism, Boty also participates in a CND march, carrying a life-size cut-out of Marilyn Monroe. (I also wonder at the connection. Could it be something to do with bombshell?) The CND march will make for another agreeably quaint scene for the early middle stages of the film treatment. 

In the same period, Boty appears on the cover of an art magazine looking like Monroe. Pauline is fascinated by Marilyn – in case we hadn’t already figured. She admires both the woman and her film-star iconography as a sexually proactive female. At the end-of-year Royal College revue, Boty takes to the stage in the role of Monroe, singing  I Wanna Be Loved By You like a full-blown siren. She also performs My Armpits Are Charmpits, to the tune of Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend. The camera will be soft focus and the ballroom lights will wink like stars in the sky at night. To conclude her Monroe performance, Boty sings Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me a Bauhaus, featuring self-penned lyrics bulging with innuendo, not least a repeat joke about Pauline having a nice little cat of her own.**

After the show, Boty takes a lover back to Notting Hill for a sleepover. To achieve some kind of rhythm and contrast, we segue to the next morning where Boty chases the man right out of her bed, then from the room entirely. Boty needs time by herself. She settles down to read Proust. The pitfall to be avoided is depicting Pauline as an It girl who loved to party and paint and be on the scene. Pauline was also an intellectual, who read wide and far, both literature and philosophy – Camus, Sartre, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Lawrence, Stein, De Beauvoir and Colette.

This portrayal of Pauline curled up with Proust prompts another one of those phasal, transitional spreads we love to imagine in our heads. Another Dimension of Pauline, we might call it – a fast-paced highlights package of her engagement with ‘difficult’ culture. It isn’t just Remembrance of Things Past, it’s also Pauline at the Royal Court, or Boty as an active member of her college film society. There will be music for the montage. It will be an echoey reverb reprise of Pauline singing Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me a Bauhaus, the contrasting tones restating our hero as a multi-dimensional character.

At the Movies
The camera dissolves to a city street at night. It is dark and wet and the scene is romantically lit with smeared swabs of blue and red lights, of purple, amber and green. Under the marquis of a small arthouse cinema, Pauline meets a young beau. It’s not the same man from this morning. It’s a different young bohemian, tall and quite bulky and waiting outside the repertory cinema in a leather jacket with the collar up.

Wild Strawberries DVD cover
long day’s journey into existential fright

The pair are going to see a foreign movie, Wild Strawberries by Ingmar Bergman. From the moment they meet, Boty and the young man only speak in Swedish with English subtitles. They exchange short sentences on a variety of subjects ranging from the state of the weather to their hopes for the film. First they speak under the marquis, then purchasing tickets at the kiosk, to inside the auditorium sharing a piece of home-made cake. At the end of the movie, Pauline is excited in Swedish by what she’s just seen. She raves about a masterpiece of tortured families and existential epiphany. She also marvels at the uncommon, lambent beauty of Bibi Andersson.

A Bout de Souffle, film poster
because my head’s in the clouds

In the next scene, Boty goes to see another foreign movie on another wet night with the smeary lights of the illuminated city bathing the composition with a special kind of glamour and gorgeousness. Pauline meets a different young man at the cinema entrance. He is wearing drainpipe denims and a padded check jacket with a wool collar. Pauline has come in her Levi’s and her favourite man’s raincoat over a Breton top. She is taking the young beau to see a new French movie called À Bout de Souffle. From the moment they meet, Boty and her man speak only in French with English subtitles. Boty looks at the film poster and says Belmondo’s lovely. She says Jean Seberg’s lovely too. Then says it once more about Belmondo: un très beau homme.

After the movie, Pauline and her escort are the last to leave the picture house. As the management switch off the marquis and the front of house goes dark, Boty steps out onto the pavement wearing a stunned look of transformation. Her first thought is, she wants to go on the run with Belmondo. Her second thought, she dearly wants some of Godard’s aesthetic rebellion. 

We cut loose momentarily from the cinema medley, to a brief capsule scene of Pauline painting. She’s doing Belmondo in her Notting Hill room on a cold afternoon. A French pop song is playing on Boty’s Dansette record player. The music is blaring at first, but the volume dims in the mix as we tune into the words in Pauline’s head. She’s raving about the French heartthrob at the tip of her paintbrush: The dish with the ravey navel, she exclaims with a livid desire. Oh indescribably joy and lechery and slurp, slurp he’s lovely, just lovely.’ (Boty’s own words – from her BBC radio show.)

Pauline Boty poses bare shouldered with her painting With Love to Jean-Paul Belmondo
hat, sunglasses, action

The slurpy lechery makes strange things happen. Boty’s painting comes to life suddenly as Belmondo lifts up off the canvas and slides down into the painter’s bedroom. Boty watches with her brush suspended in mid air, as her Gallic object of desire slouches round, looking artful and louche and lovely as he scans her belongings – her artworks, the brilliant Boty wall collage, the paraffin stove, the piles of records and books, the line of underwear drying over the radiator, the sink heaped with dirty dishes. Pauline watches and can’t speak. Belmondo grunts, but doesn’t say a word. He does that thing with his mouth he does all the time in a Bout de Souffle; smiles that lubricious smile and winks for Pauline – before taking his laconic self back inside her artwork.

The third time Pauline goes for an arthouse movie, it’s with another young man picked out from her large paddock of admirers. This one has made a proper effort to impress and is wearing a smart suit and pointed patent leather shoes reflecting the sodium streetlights lining the pavement edge. The young man looks suave like an  international modernist – Pauline Boty was always a bit Mod. The couple meet outside Boty’s usual cinema. The marquis display says L’Avventura. From the moment the young man and Boty meet, they speak only in Italian with English subtitles. 

L'Avventura, film poster

After the film, the camera follows Boty and her bloke down the late, deserted street as they discuss the movie’s enigmatic storyline, of a woman who disappears half way through the story and never comes back. It’s not like the classical narrative system Boty and her bloke grew up on. The young man is bewildered by the unsolved mystery of the woman’s departure. Boty however is gripped by the thought of disappearance as freedom. Was the woman abducted, did she fall off a cliff, or did she simply release herself from conventionality, to go seek out her own narrative?

L’Avventura works like this, ably performing multiple meanings for the film treatment. Antonioni’s subversive drama of puzzlement previews a new socio-cultural sensibility. In five years time, Antonioni will be the coolest film-maker in the world, even cooler than Godard, relocated to London – allegedly the global epicentre of ice cold – and shooting Blow-Up, the very coolest movie of this historical moment.

But also, think of it like this – L’Avventura tells the sideways tale of the inexplicable vanishing of a young woman. The story arc fits as a presentiment – one day Pauline will also disappear, and inexplicably her art, her reputation, her influence, her memory, will vanish too. 

But we won’t layer it on too broadly about L’avventura as precursor, because we will be having too much fun with our characters walking and talking in Italian crossing Ladbroke Grove. But the implication definitely hangs there – if, as they say, you want it to.

Monica Vitti with Heart, Pauline Boty, oil on canvas, 1963
Vitti by Boty

Next scene Boty is painting Monica Vitti. I’ve always sort of worshipped women in a funny sort of way, she says in voiceover. I’ve always thought they were terribly beautiful. (as reported by Nell Dunn.)

Pauline’s housemate Celia is sitting on Pauline’s bed flicking through a magazine. All your magazines have holes in them, Pauline, moans Celia. 

I know.

Celia looks up at Boty. Why do you always paint at home? 

Pauline says because I’m a woman, of course, I’m a domestic.

Celia’s quizzical look invites elaboration.

Pauline says stained glass is boring and since leaving Wimbledon she only wants to paint. Except, women don’t really get to paint at college. So, I can either lie here in a puddle of disappointment, or I can paint. Paint in the morning. Paint in the afternoon. 

And tonight?

Tonight, I’m going dancing. Her bright announcement is underscored by a display of jazz hands.

The scene changes tempo. It’s time for some pop on the Dansette as Pauline and Celia simultaneously dance and change up for an evening out. They swap and borrow clothes. She fancied an orange linen Swedish type coat of mine, remembers Celia in voiceover, which I swapped for a pale bomber jacket.

Thereafter,  a slow dissolve moves Boty and Celia out the bedroom and inside a small basement club off Tottenham Court Road. We see Boty in the middle of the dance floor, twisting and laughing, and then we follow her to the toilet, where Pauline takes a pill. Boty crams inside a cubicle with another woman she’s only just met. She tells the woman that purple hearts are better than Benzedrine. And the woman nods. But they only have Benzos, so they neck two each. 

The scene after the loos is a layered composition blending Pauline dancing in the basement club, her shoes on fire, mixed with footage of Boty as a hired dancer, a featured member of audience on the launch night of TV’s Ready Steady Go! For these blended dance scenes, Pauline is twisting and smiling euphorically, just a little bit off planet. (You can go to IMDb to find Boty credited as ‘dancer’ for Series1 Ep1 of Ready Steady Go!)

The TV studio scene becomes dominant as the nightclub image of Benzo Pauline fades. The weekend starts here. A busload, or two, of young ones jam-packed in a compact TV studio, bopping on a Friday night. Billy Fury is singing on the primary stage. The dolly camera wends through a thick clump of boppers, who shuffle aside. Some look directly into the lens, to the folks watching at home. 

5-4-3-2-1, painting by Pauline Boty, oil on canvas, 1963
oh, for a fu..

By series two, the show’s opening title credits are served by the annoying song 5-4-3-2-1 by Manfred Mann. The lead presenter is Cathy McGowan. Cathy is young and often fluffs her lines, but she’s sharp with clothes and delirious with pubescent excitement. She’s over there, perched on her own mini stage, clutching a large microphone and laughing. 

We put a freeze on Cathy to transition to Boty’s bright artwork inspired by the landmark pop showcase. The painting 5-4-3-2-1 celebrates new times and new pleasures. First, take the whole canvas as a single piece – the countdown in fairground numerals, the ecstatic face, the pleats and folds of the connecting purple rose, the yellow flag flapping in the middle right. And then a closer scrutiny of the yellow flag spells out the lilac letters toppling off the side of the canvas: ‘OH FOR A FU..’

Pauline wants a fu..? Or Cathy wants a fu..? 

On originally being interviewed for presenter on Ready Steady Go! the story goes that McGowan clinched the gig by giving the ‘right’ answer to the final question: What’s most important, music, sex or fashion? McGowan shouted Fashion! Pauline Boty thinks Cathy really wanted to shout Sex!

Pauline Boty, Siren, stained glassPauline Boty, Sheba Before Solomon

Towards the end of her time at college, Boty prepares a series of collage and stained glass pieces dipped in sexual allusion. Both Sheba Before Solomon and Siren position zaftig females surrounded by phallic shapes and vaginal ovals. 

Pauline Boty, Siren collage, detail
my armpits are charmpits
Pauline Boty, Siren collage, detail
synchronised orgasmic fountains

We turn the soundtrack to silent, as a static camera reviews details of each piece. Pauline explains. It’s all really based on sex the whole time, you know, she tells young Ken Russell. Boty is sitting opposite the filmmaker (probably played by Toby Jones), in a cramped peely office at the BBC. Her voice is polite and straight and candid without apology. Like bananas and fountains, says Pauline, And that huge mouth. And then the hand. Well, they’re all phallic symbols. 

We zoom to a blow up of phallic fruit and a rigid male hand enclosed in armour. There’s a large open mouth and fountains ejaculating in unison. The camera is insistent, probing and documentarian, as if Boty’s compositions and the camera lens combined might eke out the factual truth of sexuality simply by looking hard and long enough.

Boty’s in discussion with Russell in preparation for a art film he’s making about a quartet of up and coming Pop artists. One of the quartet is Pauline. The film is called Pop Goes the Easel and we’ll get to it shortly.

Pauline and Philip in Love
It’s New Year’s Eve 1960 and the Royal College has a midnight ball. The mid-evening lull finds Pauline sitting next to Ken Russell and David Hockney. At which point, an oddball academic off the faculty spots Boty and immediately drops to his hands and knees. The academic, who lectures to the art students on philosophy, starts kissing the floor as he crawls towards Boty. Pauline laughs awkwardly and then asks the man to stop.

At the same time, across the room, the TV director Philip Saville has just arrived through the main entrance. Philip has come to celebrate the end of a good year in which he directed a Harold Pinter play on peak-time TV. Having recently turned thirty, Saville’s career is on the rise. (One day he will win a Bafta for Boys From the Blackstuff). 

Philip left his wife at home this evening. The RCA is not his first venue since heading out and Philip has already had a drink or two. He is about to meet his new lover for the first time. It’s a moment that booze and decades cannot cloud. I saw this startlingly beautiful woman, remembers Philip, And powered my way through about 15 blokes to talk to her.

Saville’s national service ended abruptly due to a knee injury caused by a runaway Jeep. Was he really fit to power fifteen rivals out the way? Perhaps Philip doesn’t mean he actually upended all these men. Whatever it was Saville did, it worked. Pauline and Philip spend the rest of the night in cohoots. They leave the ball long past midnight and step out into the early hours of 1961. 

It’s ice cold in west London, but the beguiled couple go for a long walk. The camera follows them in a series of dissolves leading from Kensington Gore, down Exhibition Road, to a green cabmen’s shelter near Queen’s Gate, where we see them leaning into the serving hatch, drinking coffee and smoking and laughing. They are close to Cromwell Road, where Pauline will relocate in a few years time – to live in a fancy apartment and welcome London’s cool set to gather round her table.

For now though, the lovers’ stroll continues as Boty and Saville disappear into Kensington Gardens. Pauline knows a secret ingress where the railings are bent back. They walk over to the Serpentine and kiss by the water. They continue north through the gardens and out onto Queensway. Pauline pauses to pick up a colourful firework shell and pops it in her bag. A police constable walking the beat has stopped to admire a TV on display in the window at Whiteleys. He turns and nods at the couple who continue along Westbourne Grove to Pauline’s flat. 

Pauline leads Saville by the hand, into her room, smiling back at him over her shoulder. In the half light Boty and Saville kiss. Tentatively, then with more passion and lust. The camera is at knee height looking up into the entwined couple, who are silhouetted by the lamplight beyond their embrace. Pauline removes Philip’s jacket, then his tie. She pulls Saville’s hands inside her coat as she continues to look into his eyes. This is not a long moment. It’s a romantic prelude but not a graphic love scene. And then it closes down with a slow fade to dark grey, then black.

A Walk in the Park
The screen lights up again with a dazzling aerial shot of central London in the summer sun. The date rises briefly at the top right hand of the screen. July 1, Nineteen Sixty One.

It’s six months since Philip and Boty first met. Saville has slipped away from his wife for a rare afternoon with his lover. They’ve returned to Hyde Park and are walking towards the Serpentine once again. Neither has mentioned it’s sort of their anniversary. Philip is talking about a new script for a film for the BBC later this year. He’s had a brainwave about the casting. He tells Boty he plans to bring a young American folk singer to Britain to play the lead. The singer’s never acted but Saville has a hunch it will work out. It’s the guy I saw at the folk club in New York. I told you, remember?

Isn’t that a bit risky, asks Pauline.

Saville shrugs. Look where risk took me last New Year. A love less ordinary…

Pauline waits for Philip to finish – his florid love talk was a big attraction from the start. But he trails off and resumes with discussing the American folk singer. 

Pauline revels in these snatched afternoons with her lover, but she also has misgivings. She wants more than just hours and she also aspires to be Philip’s only one. Pauline is much in demand. She feels she could take her pick of the eligible men out there and so is puzzled with herself for settling for this much less. She listens to Phillip talk work and wonders if he has the same conversations with his wife. She wishes she didn’t have these thoughts, and regrets that she’s cross he hasn’t noted it’s their six month anniversary. They’re close to the site of their first ever kiss. She wonders if Philip knows, or remembers. She thinks she even recognises which tree. It’s coming up now. She picks it out – there’s a squirrel darting up the side of the trunk. 

And then an odd event in nature occurs. The squirrel loses its grip and falls off the tree. Boty screeches. She interrupts Philip to point. Phillip finds it hard to believe Boty when she claims a squirrel fell out of a tree. Who knew this could happen to squirrels? 

Phillip worries Pauline’s joking, or making a point about a certain person hogging the conversation. Sometimes Philip’s wife becomes similarly frustrated by his self-absorption. (Although so far she hasn’t taken to inventing stories about clumsy squirrels.) Philip stops talking shop and decides to ask Pauline a question to show the solicitous side to his nature. He opens his mouth to speak. His mouth like this resembles a fish in a cartoon. He asks Pauline does she know yet what she’s doing now college is almost over? (He then wonders if they’ve already had his conversation. Maybe last time in bed.)

Boty replies that she will continue to paint and thinks she may also take on modelling work. I’ve lost half a stone and now am the right size – dig that! 

Phillip makes a sound out of his nose that’s full. It’s due to his hayfever, but Pauline worries what if it’s not just an allergy, but also derision, or some leftover scepticism concerning the squirrel. The three possible explanations rise up as thought bubbles circling over Pauline’s head as Phillip takes her hand and leads his lover across to the kiosk to rent a boat to take out onto the lake. He tells Boty with all his heart how much he loves her and then he confides about an argument he had last week with HP, Harold Pinter.

It is worth mentioning at this point that it’s not been forgotten how this is supposed to be a film. Some of the content just now, directly above, is purely internal to individual characters and not capable of being communicated cinematically or dramatically – short of clunky dialogue or overdosing on our comical quirky thought bubbles. But it’s still worth including for now – this is, after all, a treatment, not a shooting script, where background filler can nourish the bones of the scenario and make your story armature extra strong and bendy.

The Soho Group Show
Pauline’s modelling work fails to get going and instead she teaches two terms of Art in Hammersmith. She also does some shifts waiting tables at Orrery – Terence Conran’s restaurant on the King’s Road. And then Boty is invited to contribute to a group art show. The show is called Blake, Boty, Porter, Reeve and opens in November 1961 at the A.I.A gallery on Lisle Street, in Soho. 

Blake, Boty, Porter, Reeve gallery exhibition poster

It’s Boty’s first grown-up exhibition and one of the Britain’s first Pop Art shows. Pauline contributes twenty pieces, with several collages, including Is It a Bird, Is It a Plane? and A Rose Is a Rose Is a Rose. Other works with similarly cute titles include Twister Target, No Triffids, Darn That Dream and Goodbye Cruel World. Most of Boty’s Pop works featured at Blake, Boty, Porter, Reeve are now lost. We will struggle to faithfully represent Boty’s ouevre at this time, needing to lean a little on her abstracts, such as Untitled (red, yellow, blue abstract) and Gershwin – both of them lush, colourful experiments in non representational forms. 

Boty’s colourful swirls, her swooshes and streamers, channel the influence of Sonia Delaunay’s cubism, who’d recently shown in London, and the spectacular shapes and flows of Pauline’s beloved musicals, from Busby Berkeley to Fred Astaire. But Boty’s abstracts, though lovely and pretty, are transitory – they are oxbow efforts cut off from the main current of her emerging style as a mature artist. Collectively the paintings on show at the  A.I.A gallery represent a significant step ahead for Boty, bringing her within the precinct of serious artist – but Pauline’s most important work is still to happen.

The A.I.A gallery show is largely a critical success. The Times heaps praise on Boty for being a ‘Domesticated Dada.’ For once, the shock of the new incites minimal fear and loathing from the reviewers as The Observer welcomes Boty and her band of ‘English Irregulars.’

A short take from the opening night, captured overhead at mezzanine level, finds a crowd of young art things babbling like noisy sardines in a tight spot. And in the middle of the throng, the bright blonde halo of Boty.

Pauline Boty, still from Pop Goes the Easel
really pretty cool

Pop Goes the Easel
Do we have adequate drama so far? Is a visually lively, mostly linear biopic enough? Would more conflict help as fuel – a greater dramatic momentum featuring heartache plus catastrophe? Does something large need to burst forth? 

One solution, a short spike of dramatic insulin, could be to invent a gangster hoodlum and send him bursting through Boty’s front door, leading with his shooter. (The pistol fix was Raymond Chandler’s favoured solution to writer’s bloc. LA’s noir laureate often revived a stuck plot by tossing in another villain). But no, this is not a device we could use in good faith, not in a film about a tragic Pop artist. No, it can’t be a man with a pistol. But – it could be a tyro filmmaker bursting into frame, pointing a camera at Boty. Will that do?

In 1962, a talented young director called Ken Russell made a cutting edge film about British Pop Art for the BBC. The fun and brilliant Pop Goes the Easel concerns the fab four of Peter Blake, Derek Boshier, Peter Philips and Pauline Boty. 

Russell’s art film is sixty minutes long and plays as part of the peak strand Monitor. (Remember, there are still only two TV channels in the UK in 1962. So this is a lot exposure for Pauline.) The presenter Huw Weldon opens the show and briefly prepares viewers for what they are about to witness: Something they may not want to see, he advises, Or like. Or that they may find vulgar and tawdry. You have been warned.

Pop Goes the Easel, intro by Huw Weldon, photo still
a public health warning by Huw Weldon

This chapter of our film treatment features a weave of segments from Pop Goes the Easel, quilted with the planning conversations that took place between Boty and Russell pre-production. The Boty segment for Easel was a collaborative effort. Our version of their planning sessions is quite colourful.

Pop Goes the Easel is not a straight art documentary film. It’s freewheeling, impressionistic and Pop. Boty’s sequence opens as an oneiric horror movie. Boty is located on her knees in the bright curved corridor of a modern office block. The atmosphere is cold and menacing. Boty is plainly frightened as she obediently lays out copies of her work on the corridor floor (filmed at the old BBC TV Center in Shepherd’s Bush). ‘Boty plays herself,’ according to Russell’s production notes, ‘an art student resenting authority.’ A line of uniformed women watch over Boty. They start treading on her art in their hefty shoes. ‘The girls represent an institution.’ Boty is berated in German. 

A woman in a wheelchair wearing dark glasses comes into frame and the hostile mood increases. ‘The woman in the wheelchair, should be someone representing authority, hideously formal,’ says Russell. Boty makes a run for it. But the weird woman goes chasing after her. 
Pauline Boty's Dream, Pop Goes the Easel

Pauline Boty's Dream, Pop Goes the Easel
Pauline Boty's Dream, Pop Goes the Easel
Pauline Boty's Dream, Pop Goes the Easel
Pauline Boty's Dream, Pop Goes the Easel

A fire alarm starts blaring while Boty sprints to the elevator and bangs on the call button. The wicked woman is closing in as the siren alarm gets even louder. The lift arrives only just in time. Boty jumps inside and exhales in relief as the doors slide shut. Only to find the woman in the wheelchair waiting next to her. 

The camera cross cuts from Pauline’s look of horror to a tight zoom of the scary woman to a sleeping Pauline tossing and turning in bed. Suddenly Boty jumps up and opens her eyes. It was all just a nightmare. 

Pauline Boty's Dream, Pop Goes the Easel


 just a dream***

The alarm in Pauline’s dream is her front door bell ringing in real life. 

Pauline Boty at the window, Pop Goes the Easel

Boty’s male trio of fellow Pop artists are at the door. They have come for a visit and Ken Russell has set up a film crew in Boty’s Notting Hill digs to record it. Pauline welcomes the three blokes into her beatnik pad on this pallid winter morning. While Pauline tidies the bed and puts the coffee on, the guys rummage through her books, records and paintings, as Russell’s camera explores the celebrated Boty mural. 

Pauline Boty's wall collage, detail

Waiting for the kettle to boil, Pauline has a go at her appearance. This links to BBC iPlayer’s version of Russell’s film, with Pauline’s segment beginning at twenty five minutes. Two minutes further down the scrollbar there’s a long passage of Pauline fixing her hair. She’s stood in front of a large mirror, with the camera luxuriating in an extended view of her well lit face. Pauline is plainly absorbed by her reflection, but also performing the part of the attractive woman as decorative object, with her morning beauty regime doubling as an erotic display. 

Allowing the camera into her private space is a daring act for 1962. Such bohemian gestures might be deemed inappropriate, risky, or sluttish. Boty’s bed hair is a wild thing. She backcombs it with vigour – up and then out – creating an enormous tangle of recalcitrant mop, before wrangling the electric strands into a manageable shape.

As Pauline primps, she analyses her scary dream in voiceover. She says, I use the atmosphere of my dreams in my collages. And with this mention of collage, the camera finally quits the mirror and tracks across several artworks, providing a general survey for the viewers.

Pauline Boty, Untitled (Buffalo)
Pauline Boty, Untitled (Light My Fire)


Pauline Boty, Untitled (with lace and hair colour advert)

These are just three of several from the catalogue. Most of them demonstrate Boty’s strong embrace of collage as practice but also as a way of thinking. 

We momentarily split from Russell’s version to elaborate on the technique: COLLAGE – written in large capitals, with each letter a different colour and shape. The letters are so huge that briefly they occupy the whole screen, marching left to right. The letters then re-size as they roll past as a repeating loop across the lower third of the frame, supporting a conveyor belt of Boty collages on the move. We then slowly dissolve to a large open dictionary. The highlighted definition is COLLAGE – from Coller, French, meaning to stick. 

The Cubists did it, says Pauline. Dada did it, she adds. We watch Boty taking snippets from modern life – bus tickets, cigarette packets, news and magazine cuttings. She pastes her pickings onto painted canvases. Things I just pick up, she says, Like milk bottle tops and matchbox tops and rifle-range targets. 

There’s an unearthly mood as Pauline drifts along an empty street at dawn, reaching to collect discards and detritus and jamming them inside her coat pocket. The screen dissolves from the empty street, returning inside Pauline’s room and a fan of magazines on the coffee table: Vogue, Elle, Life, Paris Match, but also girly mags Nugget and Titbits. All of the magazines are displayed facing out, revealing mutilated pages and the outlines of missing images removed by the artist. The lens slides across Picture Show, a signature Boty painting from the early collage period. 

Pauline Boty, Picture Show, 1960
Picture Show
Pauline Boty, Picture Show, 1960, detail
in detail
Pauline Boty, Picture Show, 1960, detail
more detail

Picture Show refers to a mainstream movie magazine of the 1950s and 60s. But for Boty’s Picture Show, the artist draws from a wider selection of stars. A tight close-up tracks across images of Proust, Franklyn Roosevelt, Colette, Big Ben, a Cypriot freedom fighter, peak Marilyn Monroe facing out, as well as Goya and Beethoven. I used lots and lots of things that I liked, explains Boty, that I saw in a dream. There was a gallery in my dream with people looking at the pictures and some of the pictures were alive.

Pauline Boty, Untitled (Cinzano)
Pauline Boty, Untitled (Cinzano) detail

Boty only has to say Alive and the word becomes the thing as her inanimate painting springs into action. The dream scenario of Untitled (Cinzano), a collage and gouache on paper, starts to move and act out. A bottle of vermouth cut from a magazine ad floats across a purple sky we’ve made with special effects, bumping into a cotton wool cloud. A computer generated widescreen version of Boty’s artwork depicts lace planets spinning and American footballers in a heap, huffing like they do; or American footballers stomping all over a row of skyscrapers, where a large head is sticking out with flowers for eyes. We close in on the flowers as their whorls and corollas rotate. There’s also a dog and a monkey, the dog barks, the monkey hoots. Fidel Castro cries, Si. Charlie Chaplin twirls his cane. A woman in a corset cries, Fit to Burst! 

Boty and Ken Russell discuss how to paint. We cut from the live version of Cinzano to the artist face to face with the filmmaker. They’re sitting in a therapist’s study – a modernist, minimalist room with angular furniture and grey and tangerine walls. They are both wearing black.

Russell says: Dreams are sensory and cultural churn while the sub-conscious does its nightly waste management. 

Boty counters: But also dreams as suspense. Being chased by a woman in a wheelchair.

Russell: The siren alarm ringing in your head as a warning.

Boty: As a kind of premonition. You are suspended in time. Before the moment. Before something has happened. Terrible or funny. [Actually Boty’s words.]

Boty and Russell teleport from the therapist’s chamber to the local shops, as their dream parley continues while they proceed down an aisle of tinned goods. Russell picks out custard powder. Boty scrutinises some Oxo cubes, then a striped box of suet. The painter and the filmmaker smile with a shared delight at a pyramid display of rice puddings.

Russell: The material of dreams. You are as anxious as you are excited about what comes next. 

Boty: In your dreams, you don’t know whether everything’s going to fall down, everyone’s going to be crushed or killed.

Pauline says Killed and the cans of rice pudding topple, the camera shakes, and with it a jump edit jolts Boty and Russell across to a fairground and the dodgems. Russell laughs like a maniac while Boty’s doing the driving, crashing, being crashed into, satin white gloves gripping the black steering wheel.

Pauline Boty, Wreck of the Hesperus

The screen slowly dissolves from mayhem to a slow, slow tracking shot across more early collages by Boty. The Wreck of the Hesperus shows the Titanic ploughing into a bucolic scene straight out of Constable. It’s an early and basic piece, now lost, with the only available reproductions in black and white.

Pauline Boty, Untitled (head, secateurs and children)

Untitled (with secateurs) features a woman’s giant, perfectly-manicured hand reaching down into a lush garden grove. The hand is lifting two Victorian children into the air with a pair of rose cutters. The cutters are about to chop off their young heads. With the decapitation imminent, down on the ground, the parents, the grown ups, remain oblivious to the danger above, as they dawdle and converse.

Pauline Boty, Untitled (head, secateurs and children) detail

Pauline Boty, Untitled (head, secateurs and children) detail

A rapid cut switches from the painting, with its air of pending disaster, to an outdoor scene of a red bus pulling up to a stop on the crest of a small bridge outside a train station. We are somewhere in south London. Boty and Russell alight from the bus. They walk up and over the humpbacked bridge. 

We film the artist and director from behind. Over Russell’s shoulder, beyond a high brick wall, there’s a scrapyard crane hauling the crushed carcass of a car across to a pile of crumpled metal and busted glass. Up the street and into view scurries a racing horse and cart. The man at the reins of the trotter has a bottle of beer braced between his knees and he whistles at the small horse to go faster.  

Boty and Russell watch the trotter go by. Boty points at the beer and laughs.

Boty: Something extraordinary is happening and everyone isn’t taking any notice at all. 

Russell: Nobody notices what’s bubbling up, it’s all around us, about to happen, to erupt.

Boty: Yes, an earthquake. A shock to the old values. These are my dreams.

But are these really Pauline’s dreams? 

We don’t film that last query. Neverthless, as thematic backfiller – the kind of stuff you write down, then leave under your pillow to sleep on; the demi-thoughts which percolate inside your porous brain, which blend in, becoming an unconscious element of what you do with your Boty treatment, and later on you will describe as intuition – we ask the question again: are these really Pauline’s dreams, just leftovers from the night lands? Or are these also dreams as aspirations? And to whom do such dreams belong?

The popular images of American power seduce the mind. In Pop Goes the Easel, Pauline’s friend and fellow painter Derek Boshier – a young man who stands as upright as a guardsman – is filmed starting his day as an artist eating his breakfast and reading the back of a cereal box, apparently gripped. The seductive images on the box are catnip. They are all around you, he says, With you all day and night. They start to infiltrate you at the breakfast table. 

For now, Boshier is excited by the cereal box. And Boty feels the same about her American dreams. At this time, she believes in Pop as revolution. Boty loves America and its powerfully seductive culture, the deep emotions the vast country’s films and music and consumer products summon. Boty knows as well that American beauty is also American propaganda. But for a time, for Boty, for Pop, it felt that you could reach out and take a piece of Americana, of Elvis, or Marilyn Monroe, or Jack Kennedy, or a Cadillac – just grab a chunk of Pop and rework its magic powers, use your imagination, deploy an undefinable alchemical force to change American power into something inspirational to set you free.

Fred Astaire and his Shadow

Russell and Boty’s riff on dreams has ended. The middle passage of the Boty section of Pop Goes the Easel finds Peter Blake (Cumberbatch) flipping through Boty’s framed art works while she hovers at his side attending to his questions. Blake seems curious about Pauline’s art, but not really. His questions are like parent to child. And who is this, Pauline? And what is this, Pauline? And this, Pauline? And that, Pauline? 

The jovial perfunctory posers feel condescending. Boty laughs and plays along, but you watch her face and remember what she once told Nell Dunn, that men found it embarrassing when she showed too much intelligence. Pauline found the embarrassment was best avoided by appeasement (or is that appenisment?). I am very inclined to play a role, she told Dunn, To listen and smile. 

Pauline smiles as Blake points at a pasted photograph of a woman’s naked bottom. He mocks the image for being cut out of Ladies’ Home Journal. Boty smiles, but she also exclaims in protest. And as she does, clever Ken Russell adroitly pivots scenes. The TV screen fills with a dazzling excerpt from the 1930s musical Shall We Dance. 

A flock of dancers in ballgowns and dinner jackets glide in sequence past bridges, canals and gondolas. They’re dancing to the song They All Laughed. Because often they do laugh, like Blake to Boty. Ken Russell’s scene selection is making a point. The song’s lyrics list pioneers that nobody took seriously, Columbus, Edison, the Wright Brothers – and yet the earth is round, humans can fly, and the phonograph did record sound. So there, sings Fred Astaire with a delicate riposte, Who’s got the last laugh now? 

Pauline Boty, Untitled (landscape with rainbow, 1961)
untitled (landscape with rainbow, 1961)
detail from untitled (red, yellow, blue abstract), 1961
Pauline Boty, detail from untitled (red, yellow, blue abstract, 1961
detail from untitled (red, yellow, blue abstract, 1961

Astaire is decked out in hat and tails. He skims across a waxed dance floor as Pauline’s voiceover speaks of a lifetime love of musicals. Her rhapsody continues as Russell cuts to a snippet of Shirley Temple tap dancing before returning to Astaire as he flies through time and space, singing of love and the naysayers who mocked, but were wrong to.

In his production notes Russell records Boty speaking of growing up on Shirley Temple and Busby Berkeley and Rogers and Astaire.  You just want to lose yourself, she marvels. I’m so involved with musicals, that they are essential to my art and life. I can’t even say why. To be vital, I suppose. It gets under your skin. I suppose I’ve absorbed all the shapes that they use and the atmosphere of the films and it’s come out in my paintings. 

They All Laughed was written by George and Ira Gershwin. Russell cuts from Astaire to Gershwin, Boty’s abstract oil painting from 1961.

Pauline Boty, Gershwin, 1961
Pauline Boty, Gershwin, 1961, detail
Pauline Boty, Gershwin, 1961, detail
Pauline Boty, Gershwin, 1961, detail

The director leads the camera on a extended tour of Boty’s canvas while an instrumental passage of the Gershwin song plays on in the background. Easel is in black and white. In colour, this passage would be a lush abstract symphony in blue, orange and black. What remains are the textures and bold forms of Boty’s composition. Russell rhythmically joins the optics to the music with a series of short staccato details of Boty’s work, followed by a elegant tracking shot in unison with the flow of the piano, as the lens moves across the painting, first left to right, then from bottom to top. As the music shifts to a short syncopated passage, Russell responds with several quick, flashing images which make Boty’s painting pulse. It’s a lovely, harmonious, sympathetic passage of filmmaking. Russell isn’t laughing like Blake. He clearly adores Boty’s work, capturing the energy and romance.

As Astaire asks for the last time, Who’s got the last laugh now? As  the orchestra winds down and the survey of Boty’s painting concludes at the centre of the canvas, the loud crash of a cymbal falls across the final beat of the song. Like something at the circus – out of the centre of her own painting Pauline’s face crashes onto the screen. T’Da!

Pauline Boty singing, Pop Goes the Easel, photo still

Boty arrives like a starburst. Her headshot fills the screen. She’s dressed to the nines – black dinner jacket, white dress shirt and raised collar, white bow tie, and a shiny top hat.

Pauline Boty singing, Pop Goes the Easel, photo still

Boty sings a verse from On the Good Ship Lollipop in a camp Shirley Temple voice. She sings well. Sings straight into the camera this peculiar song of proto-psychadelica, where the lyrics ask you to ‘dream away’ on a journey to sweet sleep.

Pauline Boty singing, Pop Goes the Easel, photo still

Boty may sing like Temple but is dressed as Marlene Dietrich. She’s not just being entertaining, she’s being queer at a time when queer meant feeling under the weather. At one level, Boty’s brief sing-song is cute and fun and perfectly in order. But Pauline singing Lollipop is also audacious and ahead of its times, collapsing the categories with a deft post-modern schtick. What skills – to be knowing, to be flirty, to be transgressive; but also to use the gift of peak TV to flaunt your talent – Lollipop is almost Boty’s show reel. (Much screen acting will come of it.) 

(The Lollipop portion of Pop Goes the Easel starts at 34.18 minutes on the clock.)

Pauline Boty dancing, Pop Goes the Easel, photo stillThe end of Pop Goes the Weasel finds Pauline and her fellow Popsters out dancing. They’re doing the twist in a warehouse venue. There’s young David Hockney in the background. Hockney’s doing the twist. Pauline is doing the twist. She’s grooving out – throwing her hips and swinging a long fluffy boa. 

Pauline Boty dancing, Pop Goes the Easel, photo still

Pauline is almost delirious. She winks at the camera and laughs in ecstasy (purple hearts?). We slow the medium shot to a crawl, like time gets warped on acid. Pauline twists – slowly. And she smiles – slowly. She smiles with such delight. She knows, she knows. She’s there and she knows it. Pauline is at the centre of something – whatever the something is. Not just the centre of attention. It’s larger than that. 

The camera leaves Boty, but returns to her. Leaves, but comes back again. It can’t stay away. Pauline embodies life. And a dream of the future. This is one of those events in Pauline’s dreams, that she replicates with her paintings, the moment just before something happens. 

Pauline Boty and Derek Boshier dancing, Pop Goes the Easel, photo still

The future moment can last a very long time. As Pauline continues to play up to the camera, the film slows, then freezes on Boty in close-up. 

Gradually the lens draws back and back and then recedes a little further still, revealing Pauline’s face framed inside a 1990s TV screen – the VCR on pause. 

Art historian David Mellor is watching Pop Goes the Easel in early 1990. (Remember Mellor? He’s the man at the start of our story, the art curator played by Colin Firth who found Pauline’s lost paintings on the farm.) This is the first time Mellor’s seen Ken Russell’s film. He’s watching the video at home. The curtains are closed, the lights are dim, the television glows. Mellor’s sat in an indigo Habitat armchair with his slippered feet stretched out across a red Habitat rug. It’s late, but the art historian is wide awake, with a pen in one hand, an open notebook on his lap, the video remote pointing at the screen, and one urgent question forming in his brain: Whatever Happened to Pauline Boty?  

Though long gone, and with the playback on pause, Boty’s exuberance and vivacity call out to the curator. Boty radiates life, promise, and a sense of big things to come. What Happened? shouts the dead artist. Where did my paintings go? Where did I go? 

Why isn’t Pauline Boty a star? 

It’s an angry poignant query. Mellor is stung by the dead artist’s demand. How can someone go missing from history? He already knows the basic tragic outline of Boty’s lifestory. Now he wants to know the rest. He replays some of the footage, then pauses. Then plays again. Then pause. Play. And pause. 

He turns to his partner, curled up on the sofa. The partner is staring at the screen. Mellor says, You see? He rewinds to an earlier moment in Pauline’s digs. He fixes on one of her lost art works in the background. One of several lost works visible over the course of the film. See? Mellor’s voice is a strained mix of sad and excited. He fast-forwards to another missing painting. See? And another one. Really, do you see?

Yes, says the partner, Yes. 

Of course they see. They actually see two things. But for now Mellor only notices the one – Boty. He doesn’t as yet perceive the second thing – that he’s about to go on a journey, on the trail of the dead painter’s lost works. The next twelve months will take a lot of searching. 

Ken Russell’s black and white art documentary dispatches a signal from 1962. An art historian receives the signal in 1990 and it turns him into a detective investigating the mysterious disappearance of Pauline Boty.****

This marks the end of Part Three of the Boty series. Part Four of Pauline: A Suitable Case for Treatment, which will arrive soon,  covers Pauline’s Swinging Years.

Pauline Boty, Living Doll, by David Bailey
Boty by Bailey

* The opening scenes of Part Three, the interviews for art college which expose the institutional barriers young women students faced at this time, do, in fairness, feature some conflations and compressions of ‘the facts’ in pursuit of a broader – let’s call it – ‘narrative truth’. (That old fig leaf.) Anyway, It’s accurate to say that Jan Haworth was not the only young woman to be told by administrators how her work didn’t really matter, that women were admitted to art school mainly to make the place look pretty. Haworth went on to be the co-creator of the art work for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. But to this day, most everyone who thinks they know who designed the landmark Beatles LP cover consider it to be the singular work of Haworth’s husband at the time, the artist Peter Blake (Benedict Cumberbatch). Which sort of perpetuates the institutional sexism.

** But did Boty actually believe her own lyrics – that she had a nice little cat of her own? In Part One she tells her lover Philip Saville she dislikes her cunt. She said the same to the writer Nell Dunn in an interview. She said that as a child her personal version of penis envy had physical consequences. ‘When I was very little, surrounded by my brothers and everything, I wanted to be a boy. I used to pull – you know that sort of skin you have – I used to pull it, you see, and I slightly deformed it to make it sort of longer and so I used to spend all my time when I went to bed with someone thinking “they’ll find out”.’ As we film the gorgeous confident Boty singing Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me a Bauhaus at the Royal College revue, we might almost be tempted to alternate her performance with this confessional anecdote as a point of contrasting realities. But, this may feel too personal and intrusive.

*** The featured version of Pauline’s nightmare from Pop Goes the Easel has been customised with the addition of a selection of tracks taken from the BBC Radiophonic back catalogue.

**** That Mellor the curator turns into Mellor the detective is implied, and not shown. We are unlikely to create a parallel narrative thread which follows Mellor as he searches for Boty’s lost art.  You don’t hear the title art curator and think hero. Not like you do with private eye – even when, in the case of Boty, it’s the same job description – where a lone searcher seeks to get to the bottom of the truth about a dead person, with the additional lure of buried treasure.

Pauline Boty, Self Portrait in Stained Glass, 1958, National Portrait Gallery
Pauline Boty, Self Portrait in Stained Glass, 1958, recently acquired by the National Portrait Gallery