Larger than life. ‘Self-portrait’ (c.1958) by Pauline Boty, the forgotten co-founder of the British Pop Art.

This is a very unusual stained glass self-portrait by Pauline Boty (1938-1966). It was recently acquired by the National Portrait Gallery. Although Boty started her artistic career studying in the stained glass department of the Royal College of Art, she was one of the key figures of the British Pop art movement, and she is now mostly known for her paintings and collages [1].

IMG_5511 (2)
Pauline Boty ‘Self-portrait’ (c.1958) stained glass (copyright Pauline Boty Estate/ National Portrait Gallery)

Superficially resembling images of Christian saints in medieval cathedrals, this is clearly a modern portrait. Short blonde hair surrounds the artist’s face like a halo. She holds a bunch of flowers and smiles lifting one eyebrow coquettishly. The figure wearing a fiery red dress complemented with blue and yellow jewellery is framed on two sides with the border of green foliage and yellow quatrefoils. Using the elements derived from medieval architecture (quatrefoils were common in Gothic art), Boty mixes the old and the new. In the stained glass tradition faces were usually painted on single undivided plates of glass. Boty breaks with this convention dividing the face with a lead placed along the line of the mouth. By cropping the head and the arms she achieved a more dynamic composition, giving the image an air of spontaneity. As if too large to be contained by the frame, the figure appears to be very close to the viewer. Being not only a good likeness in terms of appearance, this image also reveals a lot about the artist’s personality. Boty made this self-portrait early in her career, it is a happy and life-affirming image.

Unlike the works of her male colleagues in the Pop Art movement, Boty’s art was largely forgotten and has been re-discovered only in recent years. One of her best known paintings The only blonde in the world depicting Marilyn Monroe is owned by Tate.

The Only Blonde in the World 1963 by Pauline Boty 1938-1966
The Only Blonde in the World (1963) Pauline Boty (1938-1966) Purchased 1999 (copyright Pauline Boty Estate)

During the Swinging Sixties Pauline Boty was in her twenties and lived life to the full. Predominantly an artist, she also had a short acting career acting on stage, film and television. Like Andy Warhol she started using images of celebrities in her paintings, her later works were more feminist and politically engaged. Several of her works explore the subject of women in men’s world, for example It’s a man’s world I and II. Her last painting, BUM (1966, oil on canvas) commissioned by Kenneth Tynan for his erotic cabaret Oh, Calcutta was sold at Christie’s in 2017 [2].

Pauline Boty ‘BUM’ (1966, oil on canvas) image source

Diagnosed with cancer during pregnancy Boty refused both abortion and chemotherapy which could put her unborn baby at risk. She died in 1966 aged 28 when her daughter was only 5 months old. Her contribution to art was ignored for almost 30 years. Re-discovered in early 2000s, she is still not as well-known as she truly deserves to be.




Further reading: very illuminating article by Ali Smith.

For those of you who want to read more about the artist, there is a biography written by Sue Tate entitled Pauline Boty: Pop artist and  woman, published in 2013, and a novel Autumn by Ali Smith with a large part devoted to Pauline Boty, published in 2017.

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