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I used to be the Art Editor to an online magazine. I started out as just a writer—the Arts and Culture scavenger—but considering I was the only one covering that particular beat, as it were, things escalated, and quickly. Hence and so forth the Art Ed. I soon became.

Anyway, when I was just getting started—and my writing was embarrassingly bad and riddled with a sheer litany of commas—as well as having zero contacts, I also had little to no idea about what I was bloody well doing, and so very often I would just write about art I liked or artists who intrigued me.

One such maker of said fascinating arty gloriousness was Pauline Boty.

Pauline Boty. image via christies.com

One of the very first pieces I ended up writing was an essay about women artists and the prevalence of feminism in art, into which I managed to tie in a few gushing paragraphs about the too oft forgotten influence of the only woman founder of Pop Art. Back then, I described Boty’s artwork as vibrant and loud—an assessment which I think holds up—“…they pop right off the canvas,’ I said. Although with time and many, many hours having now been spent learning how best to appreciate the intricacies of creative wonderment, of artistry and of feminism, I would like to add a few more descriptors to the list.

Boty’s art is assured. She knew what she wanted to say and how; by which means and to whom. She was completely unafraid of colour, of breaking the banal rules that so often stifled creativity—especially that of innovators in fine art—and she laughed gleefully in the face of the expectations that were, purely on the basis of her gender, thrust upon her.

Another thing I said in my essay was this: “Pauline Boty was and remains to be one the most important female artists in modern history. She shattered glass ceilings, and she had fun doing it...(she) was a groundbreaking artist and a fiercely intelligent woman. She was a mother and a wife, an actress, and a broadcaster, and she contributed to an important part of the cultural fabric that makes up our art history. We should all know her name just as well as we do Andy Warhol or David Hockney, and we should be proud that she had such a riot shattering those glass ceilings…”

One of the things about Boty that struck me as being quite so strange when I was first introduced to her and her artwork, was the simple and completely confounding fact that I had never before, not once, heard of her. And that didn’t make sense to me—not then, and not now.

Completely of her own volition, in 1954, Boty won a scholarship to study art. Her father, very much the misogynist, disapproved of her attending, although thankfully she paid him little attention and had a mother who was supportive, having had her own artistic dreams long-ago quashed in not entirely dissimilar circumstances.

Boty, who studied stained glass, was quickly developing a truly unique and experimental style of painting, while also exploring collage. She ended up being accepted to the RCA, into the School of Stained Glass, despite her having wanted to apply to the School of Painting. (At the time—late 50s, early 60s—admission rates for women into painting were incredibly low.) Happily, she flourished despite the weight of sexism which was rampant at the school and emerged as one of the most talented in her class.

As well as continuing to develop as a painter, her makeshift studio based out of her student flat in west London, Boty also tried her hand at pretty much anything that captured her fancy. She was a singer and dancer and acted in several college reviews, she participated in protests regarding apparently ugly new British architecture, and published poetry in an alternative student magazine.

Post-graduation, in 1961, Boty participated in a group show, “Blake, Boty, Porter, Reeve”, at A.I.A. Gallery in London. The Blake was Peter Blake, as in Sir—a former RCA schoolmate and friend. Boty’s pieces in the show, which is heralded now as being one of the first British Pop Art shows, were predominantly works of collage.

Not long after the A.I.A showing Boty and Blake, alongside Derek Boshier and Peter Phillips, were featured in a BBC documentary film by Ken Russell: “Pop Goes the Easel”. Perhaps unsurprisingly considering the times (1962), Boty—though featured as an active member of the British Pop Art movement—was not interviewed for the programme. The three men featured, her peers, were given opportunities to speak on their work, but Boty was not.

After Pop Goes the Easel, Boty made a brief foray into acting, both television and stage, and appeared on “Ready, Steady, Go!” as an in-studio dancer. Despite assertions made at the time by men who thought they knew better (with acting being seen as not only more lucrative a choice for a woman, but also a more conventional one), Boty forsook acting to refocus on her painting, which, as ever, remained her priority.

Boty’s first solo showing was staged at Grabowski Gallery in 1963 and was a critical success. Having been exploring the ceaselessly reoccurring themes of sexism her own life, both personally and professionally, as well as in the lives of other women she admired and knew; Boty’s body of work had begun to take form as being both unapologetically sensual and openly celebrating of female sexuality, as well as searingly political in content.

Apparently encouraging of Boty’s outrageous-to-some commentary was her new husband, the film producer, writer and literary agent (and later founder of the socialist newspaper Black Dwarf), Clive Goodwin. Boty and Goodwin’s romance was the epitome of a whirlwind, with the two marrying just ten days after meeting.

In 1965, two years after she and Goodwin were first married, Boty fell unexpectedly pregnant. During her prenatal exams, Boty discovered she had cancer. She refused an abortion or to receive any chemotherapy treatment, which would have harmed her unborn child, and gave birth to a daughter, Katy, in February of 1966. Boty passed in July of that same year.

Pauline and Clive decided that Katy would have her named changed to Boty—Boty Goodwin—to keep alive the name of her mother even after she was gone from their lives. Goodwin, understandably devastated by their loss, never remarried.

Only twelve years after the passing of his wife, Goodwin too passed, and under unimaginably tragic circumstances. In Los Angeles to take several meetings, on November 14, 1978, Goodwin was at the Beverly Wilshire hotel for a business lunch. He reported earlier in the day having had a headache, but after his luncheon became terribly ill. The lobby clerk and hotel guard managed only to ascertain from Goodwin that he was not staying at the Wiltshire before he fell unconscious, and although both men later admitted to not having smelled alcohol on Goodwin’s breath (Goodwin was not much of a drinker), they assumed that he was intoxicated and called the police, who handcuffed him and remanded Goodwin to the Beverly Hills police station.

Goodwin never regained consciousness and died alone in a cell later that night. With no drugs or alcohol found in his system, he was discovered to have suffered a cerebral haemorrhage. Four years later, Boty Goodwin settled out-of-court with police and the hotel for one million dollars in damages.

Almost beyond comprehension, as far as tragedy goes, in 1995, Boty Goodwin, herself an artist like her mother, died of an overdose on the night after her graduation.

Pauline Boty’s legacy is almost as sad a story as that of her life and the lives of those she loved. After her death, her work, admired, influential and highly regarded as it was, seemed just to disappear from view. Her family had inherited the bulk of her paintings and her brother—who was a farmer in Kent—well-meaning but unsure of what best to do with a swathe of outrageously vivacious paintings, stored the collection first in his attic, and then eventually in an outhouse on his property.

David Allan Mellor, the writer/curator/art historian, began searching for Boty’s lost works in the late 80s when he was working as a curator at the Barbican. He eventually contacted Boty Goodwin, who informed him that the works were at her Uncle’s farm. Boty went with Mellor to visit the farm, where the pair of them found the long-forgotten about paintings in a shed—cared about but without knowing how best to care for them.

The Barbican restored the works, conserved them, and Mellor exhibited them in a show in 1993, called “Art in 60s London”.

A visitor to that exhibition was Sue Tate—then a student, now an expert in all things Pauline Boty. Tate managed, with a little help from Mellor, to later discover yet more lost works by Boty hidden away in her brother’s house, and another swathe of paintings—including the 1966 work BUM (her last work, which in 2017 sold for £632,750—more than 15 times the artist’s previous auction record)—as well as some sketchbooks and collage works, in a sub-building lock-up in west London.

Since then, Tate and Mellor both have gone on to become tireless advocates of the art and wonder of Pauline Boty, and if it weren’t for the two of them, it is surely possible that Boty may have been lost to us all, relegated to being little more than a footnote in history.

I first became aware of, and first fell in love with, Boty in 2014. I’d been skipping nervously around the periphery of art—Art with a capital A—for a little while, and had been taking it all seriously for barely a year when the aforementioned Art Writer gig kind of just fell into my lap. I was happy for the excuse to focus my attention a bit more keenly, but one thing I had found and was frustrated by was the lack of women artists cropping up in the meaningful recounts of art history.

Stumbling across Boty was, for me, a revelation. My first glimpse of her was in a documentary dotted with clips from Pop Goes the Easel—black and white flicking footage of Boty twisting all over the place with sheer, joyous abandon, playing carnival games and roaming around being exactly just who she was.

That's what I was, initially, most taken with—that she looked so much like she knew who she was. She seemed to have a warm but unwavering stare, and smile that broke out on her whole face. She was beautiful, to be sure, but she was also self-possessed. And I couldn’t for the life of me understand why I hadn’t ever seen or heard of her before.

I know thankfully well now just who Boty was. I understand as best I can her influence, her import, and her significance in the history not only of art, but of feminism, and I wish still now just like I did when I wrote that naive essay all those years ago that Boty’s name was as synonymous a one as Warhol’s or Hockney’s or Blake’s.

That feels frustratingly far away still, Boty’s dues, but at the same time, it doesn’t feel like an impossibility, either. And that’s because some people, women specifically—women like Sue Tate and like writer-wonder Ali Smith—do understand the importance of remembering her name and honouring her legacy.

Smith’s Autumn, the first in her 'seasons' quartet, was one of the most revelatory novels of 2016. Long and then shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize—because of course it was—Autumn follows “two old friends—Daniel, a centenarian, and Elisabeth, born in 1984—and looks to both the future and the past as the United Kingdom stands divided by a historic, once-in-a-generation summer.”

In the book, Elisabeth is a junior arts lecturer who is writing her graduate school thesis on Pauline Boty—she who herself, by extension, becomes a major character over the course of the novel.

Apart from just reminding readers about Boty—or even introducing them to her—the other thing Smith manages to do, through Elisabeth, is to encapsulate precisely the absurd predominance of highfalutin, misogynistic attitudes people (men, mostly) hold regarding the indisputable if inconvenient (apparently) fact that Boty was a trailblazer, and a crucially important one, at that.

Pauline Boty was the first, and the only, woman British Pop artist—a founder of the movement. Her work is important, enlightening, and revelatory. You should know her; get to know her if you don’t—not just because she is deserving, but because knowing her and experiencing her work is a true joy.

Boty left us some fifty-two years ago. But the thing about art—and one of my most favourite things about it—is that the vivacity, creativity, and curious intentions of the persons who made it, stay with us. Parts of them remain alive to us still, decades or even centuries on, and it’s that sense of being that people like me, a young disillusioned writer and often confounded feminist, can connect with.

Pauline Boty is alive to me, a touchstone and an inspiration. She is a whole part of the reason I do this, in the various shapes and forms I do it. I owe her much, as do we all, even if some of us don’t know it just yet.


Words | Erin Stobie
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