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‘Christine Reads the Denning Report’ by Fionn Wilson (2017)

Dear Christine: A Tribute to Christine Keeler, on display at Newcastle’s Vane Gallery until June 29 (and then touring), is featured on the ART NORTH website today, with an article by Julie Burchill (as quoted below) and ‘The Boy Looked At Christine,’ a review by Ian McKay. So if you’re in Newcastle this month, don’t miss this stunning (and free) exhibit – and you can check out the associated events here.

Three years in the making, it is a thing of beauty without cruelty, a balm applied posthumously to the wounds Christine Keeler fatally sustained in the very uncivil sex war of the 1960s. In theory everyone was free to do it with everyone else – in practice the rich (be they jaded old aristos getting in on the Swinging London lark or the newly-minted showbiz kids who drove it) still got the pleasure and the poor still got the blame. By the end of the Sixties the freewheeling sexual swashbuckler as played by the well-bred and privately-educated Julie Christie and Charlotte Rampling would be feted and imitated by women of all classes – while the perfect prototype, more beautiful than any of them, would be living in a council flat, the diminishing returns she received for repeating her warnings about the wages of sin gone into the pockets of well-fed sharks.

The difference between Christine and the dolly-birds who would ironically monetise their sexuality while hers was used as a stick with which to beat her was of course social class … had Hogarth still been around, he would have loved her. Instead she fell under the spell of the amateur artist and society doctor Stephen Ward, who immediately recognised in her Modigliani face and Ingres body that despite her dirt-poor origins she was one of Nature’s aristocrats: ‘She could have been a duchess.’ Women of her class had always been valued solely for their beauty – as muses, models, actresses and prostitutes – and discarded when it faded; Ward believed he could help her escape the fate she had been born to as well as amusing himself with the sexual escapades he stage-managed for her.

Why is this exhibition so vital, in both senses of the word? Because it’s a belated celebration – defiant, affectionate, sorrowful and more – of a life which was trashed by the Establishment – by the risibly-named Great and the Good – while the woman who lived it was still a teenager. It speaks for the legions of women desired, used and discarded not just in art but in life. Fionn Wilson – creator, curator, and keeper of the flame – says it best: ‘Her only crime was to be working class, to possess a supernatural beauty – and to try to eke out some sort of freedom.’