Boty was born in suburban south London in 1938 into a middle-class, Catholic family. The youngest of four children, she had three older brothers and a stern father who made her keenly aware of her position as a girl. In 1954 she won a scholarship to the Wimbledon School of Art which she attended despite her father’s disapproval (Boty’s mother, on the other hand, was a frustrated artist, having been denied parental permission to attend the Slade School of Fine Art herself). Boty earned an Intermediate diploma in lithography (1956) and a National Diploma in Design in stained glass (1958). Her schoolmates called her “The Wimbledon Bardot” on account of her resemblance to the French film star Brigitte Bardot. Encouraged by her tutor Charles Carey to explore collage techniques, Boty’s painting became more experimental. Her work showed an interest in popular culture early on. In 1957 one of her pieces was shown at the Young Contemporaries exhibition alongside work by Robyn Denny, Richard Smith and Bridget Riley.
She studied at the School of Stained Glass at the Royal College of Art (1958–61). She had wanted to attend the School of Painting, but was dissuaded from applying as admission rates for women were much lower in that department. Despite the institutionalized sexism at her college, Boty was one of the stronger students in her class, and in 1960 one of her stained glass works was included in the travelling exhibition Modern Stained Glassorganized by the Arts Council. Boty continued to paint on her own in her student flat in west London and in 1959 she had three more works selected for the Young Contemporaries exhibition. During this time she also became friends with other emerging Pop artists, such as David Hockney, Derek Boshier, Peter Phillips and Peter Blake.
While at the Royal College of Art, Boty engaged in a number of extracurricular activities. She sang, danced, and acted in somewhat risqué college reviews, published her poetry in an alternative student magazine, and was a knowledgeable presence at the film society where she developed her interest especially in European new wave cinema. She was also an active participant in Anti-Ugly Action, a group of RCA students involved in the stained glass, and later architecture, courses who protested against new British architecture that they considered offensive and of poor quality.
The two years after graduation were perhaps Boty’s most productive. She developed a signature Pop style and iconography. Her first group show, “Blake, Boty, Porter, Reeve” was held in November 1961 at A.I.A. gallery in London and was hailed as one of the first British Pop art shows. She exhibited twenty collages, including Is it a bird, is it a plane? and a rose is a rose is a rose, which demonstrated her interest in drawing from both high and low popular culture sources in her art (the first title references the Superman comic, the second quotes the American expatriate poet Gertrude Stein).
The following spring Boty, Peter Blake, Derek Boshier and Peter Phillips were featured in Ken Russell’s BBC Monitor documentary film Pop Goes the Easel, which was aired on 22 March 1962. Although the documentary placed Boty at the centre of the nascent British Pop art movement, unlike her male peers she did not get an opportunity to speak directly and intelligently about her work during the film.
Boty’s appearance in Pop Goes the Easel marked the beginning of her brief acting career. She landed roles in a Armchair Theatre play for ITV (“North City Traffic Straight Ahead”, 1962) and an episode of the BBC series Maigret(“Peter the Lett”, 1963). She also appeared on stage in Frank Hilton’s comedy Day of the Prince at the Royal Court, and in Riccardo Aragno’s (from the novel by Anthony Powell) Afternoon Men at the New Arts Theatre. (Boty, a regular on the club scene in London, was also a dancer on Ready Steady Go!). Although acting was lucrative, it distracted her from painting, which remained her main priority. Yet the men in her life encouraged her to pursue acting, as it was a more conventional career choice for women in the early 1960s. The popular press picked up on her glamorous actress persona, often undermining her legitimacy as an artist by referring to her physical charms. Scene ran a front-page article in November 1962 that included the following remarks: “Actresses often have tiny brains. Painters often have large beards. Imagine a brainy actress who is also a painter and also a blonde, and you have PAULINE BOTY.”
Her unique position as Britain’s only female Pop artist gave Boty the chance to redress sexism in her life as well as her art. Her early paintings were sensual and erotic, celebrating female sexuality from a woman’s point of view. Her canvases were set against vivid, colourful backgrounds and often included close-ups of red flowers, presumably symbolic of the female sex. She painted her male idols—Elvis, French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo, British writer Derek Marlowe—as sex symbols, just as she did actresses Monica Vitti and Marilyn Monroe. Like Andy Warhol, she recycled publicity and press photographs of celebrities in her art. She exhibited in several more group shows before staging her first solo exhibition at Grabowski Gallery in the fall of 1963. The show was a critical success. However, Boty continued to take on additional acting jobs. She was a presenter on the radio programmePublic Ear in 1963-64, and in the following year she was typecast yet again in the role of ‘the seductive Maria’ in a BBC serial.
In June 1963 she married the literary agent Clive Goodwin (1932-1978) after a mere ten-day romance. Her marriage disappointed many, including Peter Blake and her married lover, the television director Philip Saville, whom she had met towards the end of her student days and had worked for. (Their affair is said to have obtained for the writer Frederic Raphael the material for his screenplay, the movie Darling.) (1966). Boty and Goodwin’s Cromwell Road flat became a central hang-out for many artists, musicians, and writers, including Bob Dylan (whom Boty brought to England) David Hockney, Blake, Michael White, Kenneth Tynan, Troy Kennedy Martin, John McGrath, Dennis Potter and Roger McGough.
Clive Goodwin, who later co-founded the radical journal Black Dwarf, is said to have encouraged Boty to include political content in her paintings. Her paintings did become more overtly critical over time. Countdown to Violencedepicts a number of harrowing current events, including the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the Vietnam War and the Birmingham race riots. Cuba Si (1963) references the Cuban revolution. The collage painting It’s a Man’s World I (1964) juxtaposes images of The Beatles, Albert Einstein, Lenin, Muhammed Ali, Marcel Proust and other men. In It’s a Man’s World II (1965–66) she redisplayed female nudes from fine art and soft-core pornographic sources.
In June 1965 Boty unexpectedly became pregnant. During a prenatal exam a tumour was discovered and she was diagnosed with cancer (malignant Thymoma). She refused to have an abortion and also refused to receive chemotherapy treatment that might have harmed the foetus. Instead she smoked marijuana to ease the pain of her terminal condition. She continued to entertain her friends and even sketched The Rolling Stones during her illness. Her daughter, Katy Goodwin, was born in February 1966. Her last known painting, BUM, was commissioned by Kenneth Tynan for Oh, Calcutta! and was completed in 1966. Boty died at the Royal Marsden Hospital on 1 July that year. She was 28 years old.
After her death Pauline Boty’s paintings were stored away in a barn on her brother’s farm and she was largely forgotten for nearly 30 years. Her work was rediscovered in the 1990s, renewing interest in her contribution to Pop art, and gaining her inclusion in several group exhibitions and a major solo retrospective. The current location of several of her most sought after paintings is unknown.
A major retrospective exhibition of her work opened at Wolverhampton Art Gallery on 1 June 2013, and subsequently toured to Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, West Sussex from 30 November 2013 – 9 February 2014.
- March, 06, 1938
- London, United Kingdom
- July, 01, 1966
- London, United Kingdom