Lewis Morley, perhaps best-known for his iconic portrait of Christine Keeler, died on September 3rd, aged 83.
He was born in Hong Kong in 1925, to an English father and Chinese mother. After the Japanese invasion in 1941, the family were detained an internment camp. They were released in 1945, and moved to Britain.
After completing his national service, Morley studied art, and painted in Paris. However, the new medium of reportage – or photojournalism – captured his imagination. He was influenced by photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, and the ‘New Wave’ film-maker, François Truffaut.
In 1954, Morley married Patricia ‘Pat’ Clifford. Their son, Lewis Morley Jr, was born three years later, just as Morley’s first photographs were published. While working for Tatler, he was approached by director Lindsay Anderson. Morley photographed many leading lights of radical postwar theatre.
In 1961, a new comedy revue, Beyond the Fringe, opened in London. Morley’s photographs of its rising stars – Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, and Jonathan Miller – were used on the cover of their bestselling LP. Cook offered Morley (who also worked for Private Eye) a studio above his satirical club, The Establishment, on Greek Street in Soho.
That year, Morley also photographed a young, unknown model, Jean Shrimpton, at a racecourse for Go! magazine. She would go on to become one of the world’s first supermodels.
In 1963, another model came to his studio. Christine Keeler was 21, and had recently sprung from obscurity to the eye of the storm, after her affair with the Minister for War, John Profumo, made headlines. The photographs were originally intended to be used to publicise a film about her life.
Morley recalled the sitting, as quoted by the Victoria and Albert Museum:
“During the session, three rolls of 120 film were shot. The first two rolls had Christine sitting in various positions on the chair and on the floor, dressed in a small leather jerkin. It was at this point that the film producers who were in attendance demanded she strip for some nude photos.
Christine was reluctant to do so, but the producers insisted, saying that it was written in her contract. The situation became rather tense and reached an impasse. I suggested that everyone, including my assistant leave the studio. I turned my back to Christine, telling her to disrobe, sit back to front on the chair. She was now nude, fulfilling the conditions of the contract, but was at the same time hidden.
We repeated some of the poses used on the previous two rolls of film. I rapidly exposed some fresh positions, some angled from the side and a few slightly looking down. I felt that I had shot enough and took a couple of paces back. Looking up I saw what appeared to be a perfect positioning. I released the shutter one more time, in fact, it was the last exposure on the roll of film.
Looking at the contact sheet, one can see that this image is smaller than the rest because I had stepped back. It was this pose that became the first published and most used image. The nude session had taken less than five minutes to complete. It wasn’t until I developed the film that I discovered that somehow I had misfired one shot and there were only eleven images on a twelve exposure film. How this came about is a mystery to me.”
Keeler’s own, slightly different version of events is recorded in her 2001 autobiography, The Truth At Last:
“These memorable photographs will always be part of history for, in 1963, the year sexual intercourse began according to Philip Larkin, I became a symbol of the sexual revolution. I am always asked if I wore knickers for the shot astride the chair. I certainly did. But it had been a battle to keep them on.
Morley had wanted to photograph me without any clothes on but I used the chair to cover up my bust and pulled up my white knickers around my waist. Although the illusion was that I was totally naked, I wasn’t. I think Lewis captured in just twenty-nine frames every facial expression I have. That was it. And just as well: it was awkward sitting on a chair in a pose which threw all my weight forward. It was difficult but I have very good balance. I like the photographs. There is a mystery there, a mask on my face. I suppose that was because so much had happened and so much remained hidden, secret.
The picture has been used thousands of times worldwide but few people know who took it – many people attribute it to David Bailey as he is so associated with sixties photography. They also got it wrong about the chair which was meant to be by the modernist designer Arne Jacobson. It was a copy. The curve of the chair back, which so closely reflects the curve of a woman’s body, was chance, an inspiration for a pose that has often been recreated. At times over the years I have hated it. It is always around and a reminder of those difficult days, but I do like it.”
In The Sixties Art Scene in London, historian David Mellor (not to be confused with the Tory MP of the same name) compared the Keeler photo to Edouard Manet’s Olympia, painted exactly a hundred years before. Keeler, Mellor observed, ‘steadfastly…returns the viewer’s gaze during the media carnival surrounding her – (a carnival which simultaneously abused, demonised and celebrated her) … Morley presented Keeler as if on a stage, in cabaret, but with her body abstracted, made both modest and titillating by her pose…’
Morley’s photograph was an instant sensation, just as controversial as Manet’s Olympia. ‘The well-known pose is deservedly so as much because of its aesthetic,’ wrote Judy Annear, who curated Lewis Morley, an Australian retrospective, in 2006. ‘The simplicity of form, the use of Morley’s preferred warm-toned paper and the deep rich blacks from which Keeler’s pale skin emerges are as timeless as they are sensual.’
Such was its impact that Morley recreated the pose several times: firstly with Edina Ronay, model and later fashion designer, who posed topless, wearing thigh-high boots. In another session, Morley and the playwright Joe Orton subverted it brilliantly.
‘In his image of Joe Orton, taken two years later to publicise the American production of Entertaining Mr Sloane, Morley turned his famously heterosexual image into a frank homosexual statement: Orton is up for it and happy to announce the fact at a time when homosexual practices in Britain were still illegal,’ Neil Tennant wrote for the National Portrait Gallery. ‘His attitude seems to say “Why not?” According to Morley, Orton told him that “he wanted it to be known that he was the fittest, best-built playwright in the western hemisphere”.’
Perhaps re-inspired by his work with Orton, Morley created a series of new prints, cropped vertically and stained with aniline dyes in primary colours. Another shot of Keeler was reinvented in garish orange. ‘Its verticality enhances the X shape of her legs and back, further abstracting her body,’ Judy Annear commented, adding that the photographs ‘endure to such an extent that they are now synonymous with the very notion of cheeky celebrity.’
The photo can be seen alongside Orton’s mirror pose in a scrapbook among Morley’s possessions, in a ‘self-portrait’ for Pol magazine from 1975. In 1996, Morley photographed his longtime friend, Barry Humphries, mimicking the Keeler pose in his Dame Edna Everage guise. Three years before, Keeler had revisited the pose herself – albeit fully-clothed, in a businesslike, grey trouser suit – with another great sixties photographer, Terry O’Neill.
Morley emigrated to Australia in 1971, where he continued to work for magazines, and exhibited his photographs and mixed-media assemblages. In 1989, ‘Lewis Morley: Photographer of the Sixties’ opened at London’s National Portrait Gallery.
Morley’s autobiography, Black and White Lies, was published in 1992. A 2003 documentary, Lewis Morley: Photographer, was followed by a photographic retrospective, Lewis Morley: I to Eye, in 2011. His wife, Pat, died in 2010.
Morley’s passing has come in the same year in which countless magazine and newspaper articles, books, and plays have marked the 50th anniversary of the Profumo Affair. His portrait of Keeler has figured prominently in the media coverage.
A few days after his death, it was announced in The Guardian that Morley’s rich archive of photographs documenting Britain in the 1960s – including the Keeler session, and associated correspondence between artist and model – will be donated to the National Media Museum in Bradford. A nude self-portrait, in which Morley adopts Keeler’s pose – with a millstone around his neck – has also been revealed for the first time.
‘First of all, he was an artist and a lover of art with a great knowledge and an impressive private collection,’ Barry Humphries wrote, in a tribute for The Australian. ‘He had an intense curiosity so that his pictures reveal their subjects intimately and with real compassion … I am convinced that he will always be celebrated as one of the finest photographers of his age and as the man who gave a nice girl called Christine Keeler immortality.’