Alan Olley, Amanda Coe, Arthouse1, Barbara Howey, Bo Gorzelak Pedersen, Caroline Coon, Catherine Edmunds, Cathy Lomax, Charlotte Innes, Charlotte Metcalf, Christine Keeler, Claudia Clare, David Astbury, Dear Christine, Elysium Gallery, Fine Cell Work, Fionn Wilson, Guinevere Clark, Helen Billinghurst, J.V. Martin, James Birch, Jeni Williams, Jo Mazelis, JoWonder, Julia Maddison, Julie Burchill, Kalliopi Minioudaki, Kathryn Gray, Lewis Morley, London, Lucy Cox, Mandy Rice-Davies, Marguerite Horner, Mari Ellis Dunning, Murray's Cabaret Club, Natalie d'Arbeloff, Newcastle, Pal Hansen, Patrick Jones, Pauline Boty, Poetry, Profumo Affair, Rebecca Fairman, Roxana Halls, Sadie Hennessy, Sadie Lee, Sal Jones, Sarah Caulfield, Sarah Shaw, Seymour Platt, Shani Rhys James, Soho, Sonja Benskin Mesher, Stella Vine, Swansea, Tanya Gold, The Keeler Affair, Vane Gallery, Wales, Wendy Nelson
Dear Christine: A Tribute to Christine Keeler first took root in 2014, when Fionn Wilson painted a set of four portraits in black and white, based on 1960s photographs by Lewis Morley and others. Like myself, Fionn first discovered Keeler in retrospect. She asked other women artists, some of whom had lived through the Profumo Affair to contribute works about Christine. For many of us, her story represents a rite of passage. As Fionn notes in her foreword to the exhibition catalogue, the scandal “let the genie of sex out of the bottle” and “dealt a death blow” to class deference. At the same time, it unleashed a brave new world of tabloid exposure. “Never had the press been so bold and it has never looked back.”
“But the scandal involved real people—real people living real lives,” Fionn reminds us. “All suffered, some managed to move on. Christine Keeler somehow remained the victim, typecast forever as the ‘scarlet woman’ who deserved what she got—the judgment of the mob.” Partly this was due to British prudery, but there was also a sentiment that Keeler had ideas above her station. “Her transgression as a young woman was to be working class,” Fionn believes, “… and to try to eke out a kind of freedom.”
“Only Christine Keeler knew her own truth,” Fionn admits. “But I wanted to add to her legacy in a cultural sense—to organise new secondary source material around her.” Quoting another ‘scarlet woman’, Monica Lewinsky (“Shame cannot survive empathy”), Wilson takes that logic further: “The victors may write history, but we can rewrite it. I hope that, through this body of work, when people look for ‘Christine Keeler’ they will find more than black and white photos of her, seemingly frozen in time. That they will now also meet with artwork, poetry and music which has been created within a contemporary and relevant context—and with sympathy and understanding.”
“Like it or not, my mother is a Sixties icon,” Seymour Platt reflects in his poignant tribute, ‘My Mother, Chris.’ To him, her fame was both a point of fact and a source of bewilderment. “All of that was more than fifty years ago and today there is an art exhibition and honestly, I’m not sure what she’d make of it,” he ponders. “She could be dismissive of art when she didn’t like it or understand it, but she could always appreciate beauty in nature and life.” Since her death in 2017, Seymour has kept a rather shabby painting of three sunflowers which his mother previously owned on the wall of his home in Ireland. Christine found it in a charity shop, and “there was something about it that she liked … I think she probably understood art better than me.”
“I wanted to offer my voice to this exhibition,” journalist Tanya Gold explains, “because its subject, Christine Keeler, seems to me one of the most wronged women in popular culture; and popular culture is not kind to women in any case.” Gold’s powerful defence, ‘Where is the Redemption of Christine Keeler?’, was first published in The Guardian in 2013, half a century after twenty-year-old Keeler was thrust into the spotlight.
Although Christine is, in Fionn Wilson’s words, “a significant figure in British cultural history”—and possessed of “an almost supernatural beauty”—this rich terrain has been neglected in art. Between the romanticised, yet affecting sketches of Stephen Ward, and ending with the millennial paintings by Stella Vine and Cathy Lomax (which both pre-empted and are included in Dear Christine), only a handful of notable works have emerged over fifty years.
A showgirl turned model, Christine posed for photographer Lewis Morley as the scandal broke. The results were first published in the News of the World alongside a tell-all interview, headlined ‘Confessions of Christine.’ But one shot in particular, in which she straddles the back of a chair, has become perhaps the definitive portrait of the twentieth century. In her poem ‘Flash,’ Mari Ellis Dunning revisits that “sunless studio in Soho,” while in ‘Christine’s Chair,’ Guinevere Clark writes that Keeler has been “draping this chair since 1963.”
One of the first to recognise the power of Morley’s images was pop artist Pauline Boty, in her painting, ‘Scandal ’63.’ Unfortunately, it is now lost with only two press photos taken in her studio to indicate the work in progress. At first she painted a strident Christine leaving her home for a court appearance, but later revised this after seeing images from Morley’s shoot. When she died in 1967, Pauline’s husband gifted her oil paints to Caroline Coon, a fellow artist and countercultural icon who also befriended Christine. As time passed, Caroline became one of Keeler’s most vocal allies, revealing to The Observer in 2001 an ambition to depict her in “a large-scale history painting.”
This dream is fulfilled at last in ‘Christine Keeler: Anger, Blame, Shame, Ruin and Grief’ (2019.) Using touches from Boty’s old paints, it follows the innovative template of ‘Scandal 63,’ with a panel featuring Keeler’s lovers in monochrome above Christine. But whereas Boty celebrated rebellious youth, Coon reinvents ‘Scandal ‘63’ as a lurid, comic-book tableau. Using an outtake from Lewis Morley’s photo shoot, which removes Keeler from the shadows, rendering her a vampish Eve haunted by demons, with a weeping crone at her side. Art historian Kalliopi Minioudaki further explores the connections between Keeler, Boty and Coon in the catalogue for Dear Christine. “Coon’s painting addresses ongoing challenges not only for every woman but for woman-identified artists,” she contends, “castigating perhaps not only what she calls the ‘whore culture’ shaping patriarchy but feminist art history’s taboos, continuing an unfinished and difficult conversation on the problems with images of women, for women, and feminist art body politics.”
Natalie d’Arbeloff had recently moved to London in 1963, and remembers that the media hysteria about the Profumo Affair “seemed to me to belong to the dark ages.” Her two contributions also reference ‘Scandal ‘63’, emphasising Keeler’s ambiguity (in an accompanying statement, d’Arbeloff describes the young Christine as “simultaneously powerless and powerful … neither hero nor victim.”) Using pastel, pencil, ink and glitter on rag paper, ‘The Game’ (2018) recreates the greyed-out, prison grid of male players, with a chairless, exposed Keeler at the centre. In the oil painting ‘Scarlet Woman,’ d’Arbeloff allows a similarly posed Christine to dominate the canvas. Her flesh-toned body bursts through a red backdrop and a series of blue-tinged balsa wood frames, while the men’s disembodied heads form a snooker-ball set between her thighs.
Lucy Cox takes a geometric approach, focusing on the chair itself with its sharp angles, and how it “shields yet reflects Christine’s body. The wood is hard and unyielding, in contrast to the softness of the flesh behind …” Although the sitter is absent, her form is replicated in the chair.
In her poem ‘Like Me,’ Charlotte Innes finds common ground with the young Christine: “Like me, you were a tomboy, climbing trees.” She imagines “a child at home in herself, smiling to please no one.” However, Innes also detects the shadow of family strife: “your stepdad stifled days like these/with his look, his hands, his friends.” Poet Jeni Williams explores Christine’s rural childhood in ‘Railway’: “The girl living in a carriage is going on a journey. She doesn’t know where it will end.”
Barbara Howey contributes two silver-toned paintings of the teenage showgirl at Murray’s Cabaret Club, emphasising “the discrepancy between the fragile youthfulness of Christine Keeler and the sleazy campness of the burlesque costumes.” Noticing her slightly awkward pose, Howey is touched by “the almost quaint performance of an available sexuality.”
Stella Vine’s 2004 painting, ‘Christine Keeler,’ is based on snapshots taken by the pool at Cliveden on that fateful weekend in 1961 when she first caught the eye of John Profumo. Her smile is frank and untroubled, her swimsuit a darker shade of the blue background strokes which caress this frolicking water nymph (albeit with mascara-tipped eyelashes.) Julia Maddison’s ‘Remains’ reminds us of that summer jaunt’s dark shadow. Using old corner shop bags, Maddison replicates Christine’s discarded swimsuit, its black sheen steering us through murky depths.
Power and the Press
Wendy Nelson’s ‘Member of the Establishment’ is the black, faceless torso of a male mannequin in pinstripe jacket with a liar’s pointed nose, festooned with phallic ties and caught with his trousers down, hoisted onto the rotating metal stand of an office swivel-chair while a tiny female figure dangles on a stick. Wendy recalls reading cloth-bound Victorian novels as a teenager, and as she followed the Profumo Affair’s all-too-familiar narrative—with a provincial heroine seeking her fortune in the city, only to be seduced and abandoned by powerful men—she learned that for working-class women, little had changed in a century. “I embraced the subsequent crumbling of the old order,” Nelson recalls, adding, “We are no longer the subservient society of my formative years.” Her ‘Member’—who dominates the exhibition space—is “a ridiculous and sinister bogeyman … conjured up from my past when we still were.”
Cathy Lomax’s 2017 oil painting, ‘Welcome to the Sixties’, frames an image of a rosy-cheeked, windswept Christine on a blue-sky background—inspired by press footage as the scandal broke—within a portrait frame hung onto striped wallpaper, evoking “nostalgic post-war domesticity.” To the historians, Cathy observes, “she stands rather as shorthand for the corrupt society that existed at the end of the Fifties.” But she prefers to see Keeler as “the harbinger of a new age.” Her 2005 painting, ‘Christine Keeler 1963’, is based on a press photo taken in Cannes that year. Shown in profile, we see the regal beauty once compared to Nefertiti’s. The grey-black palette complements her smokers’ pose and thoughtful gaze, highlighted with strokes of winged eyeliner.
Marguerite Horner charts Keeler’s progression from sinner to martyr in three oil paintings, all rendered in newsprint greys. ‘Police’ is based on newsreel footage of her crowded by uniformed officers, with film star sunglasses shielding her from the flashbulbs of waiting reporters. ‘Paparazzi’ finds her at the trial of Stephen Ward, brushing hair from her face, while the final image shows her standing defiantly before the press. Its title, ‘Casting the First Stone,’ refers to the New Testament story in which Jesus defends an adulteress. “The culture of the Swinging Sixties which followed the Profumo Affair had a glamorous ring to it,” Horner writes, “but sometimes it disguised what often runs contrary to what should be our fundamental aim in life, which is to ‘Love one another’—not use one another.”
Stella Vine’s 2012 painting, ‘Christine, burn, baby, burn,’ is also inspired by press photos from her court appearances, exuding startled dignity as vampiric gawkers peer through the window of her car, mouthing curses. Keeler’s scapegoating is chronicled in Sadie Hennessy’s ‘Synecdoche (Christine Keeler Cake’), comprising twelve Polaroid images of Christine on a cake, sliced in half on top of a gingham tablecloth. This is accompanied by a written monologue from a gossipy woman in an English tearoom, ending with a line paraphrased from T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock: “In the room the women come and go, talking of John Profumo.” Hennessy expands the domestic theme with a series of plates showing further images of Christine, collectively named ‘Peach Lustre’.
Sal Jones mines tabloid tropes with two oil paintings. The first evokes the Fleet Street’s bloodthirsty ‘red-tops,’ collating images of a forthright Keeler with red-hot headlines. At the bottom, there’s a handwritten quote from Christine herself which gives us the title: ‘I Took on the Sins of a Generation.’ The second pairs a frail Stephen Ward with a downcast Keeler, flanked by two headlines: ‘Society’s Morals in Turmoil,’ and ‘Ward’s Heart Weakens’ (this painting’s title.) Referencing his suicide, it subverts the first headline’s censorious tone, implying that society’s moral turmoil is not confined to the two protagonists.
“The media used her but she also courted them to a certain extent,” Jones reflects, “paving the way for the rise of the celebrity culture we are now so familiar with … The papers hounded her for a story, persuading her to ‘tell all,’ then embellished the facts and used her as a target for blame; which shifted emphasis away from police corruption and the unsavoury behaviour of government officials.”
In her poem, ‘Christine Keeler vs. The Crown,’ Sarah Caulfield rewinds the narrative, from Christine entering Holloway Prison in late 1963 to the teenage pregnancy which had spurred her escape to London four years earlier. “What’s nine months to a woman?” Caulfield asks. “After all, nothing has been proved.” Both events were nine-month terms that ended prematurely. And Dusty Springfield, who also shot to fame in 1963, would record a song about the Profumo Affair twenty-five years later with the Pet Shop Boys, titled ‘Nothing Has Been Proved.’
“Whilst curating the exhibition,” Fionn Wilson writes, “I became concerned about the person who was Christine Keeler being somehow ‘lost’ as we explore themes to her story. We can talk about ideas but we didn’t know Christine, the individual.” With this in mind, Fionn commissioned a piece of embroidery, on gold shot silk, with Christine’s name repeatedly sewn on a sampler in a Sixties-style font resembling her own signature. The embroidery was stitched via Fine Cell Work, a social enterprise that teaches needlework to prisoners. ‘Christine in Gold’ reminds us of her incarceration—which many now think was unduly harsh—but perhaps allowed a period of reflection on her shifting identity.
Fionn dramatizes the official coda to the Profumo Affair in her narrative painting, ‘Christine at the Flamingo Club.’ Keeler is reading Lord Denning’s report, generally accepted as an establishment whitewash, against the backdrop of the Flamingo Club on Wardour Street, where two of her West Indian lovers famously came to blows. The painting demonstrates how Christine travelled between two worlds: the Westminster elite, and Soho’s bohemian nightlife.
James Birch, the art dealer who curated the 2010 exhibition, Christine Keeler: My Life in Pictures, contributes three unseen photographs. Two were taken during the 1960s, and are a study in contrasts. The first, in black and white, shows Christine looking over her bare shoulder with an unassuming smile; while in the second, she sits by a curtained window wearing an ornate mini-dress and black tights, her left eye obscured by long dark hair. In the third photo, probably taken in the early 1980s, she is modestly dressed with minimal makeup, and is holding a sheet of paper.
“I knew Christine for a number of years, so I encountered a range of expressions, showing on her face,” Birch writes. “These photographs captured her mood of the time well … Unfortunately, there are not very many photographs of Christine smiling, which is not surprising, given the dreadful circumstances she experienced during the Profumo Affair. The establishment’s treatment of her scarred her for life. If this happened now, one would hope that she would be treated differently—or, would she?”
In 1980, Allan Olley photographed Keeler in her London flat. By then a single mother in her late thirties, her hair is set in the familiar shoulder-length wave, and she holds a cigarette while a Mucha-style muse hangs on the wall behind her. In her poem, ‘Gospel,’ Natalie Ann Holbrow conjures Christine’s domestic space, and the loneliness felt by many women (“Lost in a shrinking flat, radiators hissing/radio on low…”)
Fionn Wilson has used another image from this series, where Keeler sits on her bed with a beloved tabby cat on her lap. Painted in black and white like the photograph, ‘Christine Keeler With Her Cat’ aligns the stripes on her dress with her feline companion’s fur. The original caption described Christine as ‘the mistress of John Profumo,’ but here the cat “acts almost as an advocate, daring us to make any more judgments of her.”
In the same year, Keeler was hired as an ‘agony aunt’ for Men’s Only magazine. Although it could be dismissed as a gimmick, she took her work seriously. A rather condescending interview broadcast on BBC2’s Newsnight prompted a ‘found’ poem by Patrick Jones, driven by the reporter’s snide questioning: “If you wanted to forget the Christine Keeler and what happened in 1963/You wouldn’t be selling that name now would you?”
Over the next decade Christine remade her life, trying her hand at various jobs and even changing her name. In ‘The Pieces,’ poet Kathryn Gray reassembles the fragments of Keeler’s past, from champagne at Murray’s to more routine job interviews: “ʻChristine Sloane,’ you -/say – smooth down your skirt – and sit …”
‘Christine Speaks,’ a series of drawings by Catherine Edmunds, is inspired by footage from a Channel 4 documentary, The SCANDAL Story (1989.) Keeler’s hair is shorter, and she wears a loose T-shirt. The drawings recall Stephen Ward’s sketches of the young ingénue, but Edmunds’ lively portraits release her from his butterfly net. In the accompanying text, Catherine discusses another television interview from the late 1980s, with a frosty Sue Lawley quizzing Christine on the Wogan show. “Lawley clearly has an agenda,” Edmunds writes, “but Christine continually pulls the rug from under her feet by giving honest answers —jaw-droppingly honest by the end.”
Keeler’s last professional sitting was with photographer Pål Hansen in 2012. Wearing a purple top and blue jeans, with an elegant pink scarf tied at the neck, she touches up her hair and leans on a staircase. Bringing us full circle, Lewis Morley’s famous portrait is framed on a nearby wall.
The Fallen Angel Rises
In 1964, a docudrama known as The Keeler Affair was released in Europe (though banned in the U.K.) Christine’s screen test, with her flipping through a magazine on a sofa, was used as an introduction. She had initially hoped to star, but was denied membership by the actors’ union, Equity, and the role was played by actress Yvonne Buckingham. In her essay about The Keeler Affair, Cathy Lomax opines that Buckingham “actually makes a more believable Keeler than Keeler herself whose looks are strangely off-kilter, with the proportions of her face somehow disconcertingly odd.” The finished product, an exploitation movie with new-wave pretensions, fell short of producer Nicholas Luard’s description as “the British La Dolce Vita.” Lomax, who is studying for a PhD in Film Studies, has painted black-and-white panels depicting scenes from The Keeler Affair, with the title overlaid in red.
In his essay, ‘What’s in a Chair?’, Bo Gorzelak Pedersen traces two Danish connections to the Morley session. The chair in which Keeler sat is commonly believed to be the Arne Jacobsen 3107 or ‘Seven’ chair, designed by Fritz Hansen in 1955 and manufactured ever since. However, the chair in the photo shoot was actually a cheaper replica. Nonetheless, the Jacobsen chair is now indelibly linked to Christine. In 1964, the situationist artist J.V. Martin used one of her ‘chair’ poses in a postcard, adding a speech bubble with acerbic commentary on the recent marriage of the Danish Princess Marie to the Greek King Constantine (literally putting words in Christine’s mouth.) In promotional materials for Dear Christine, Fionn Wilson substituted a quote from Keeler herself.
Wilson’s ‘Christine and the Poisoned Apple’ alludes to the fairy-tale heroine, Snow White. Based on a photograph published in the US magazine LIFE, Fionn’s portrait epitomises Keeler’s “fantastically beautiful” aura. Here she takes an apple from an unseen benefactor (only their hand is visible), but the gift is tainted: on closer inspection, a small white label on the apple reads ‘whore’. In ‘A Hand to Play,’ Gemma June Howell builds on the symbolism of a hidden hand. “With the hand’s final word/she rode across borders,” Howell writes. “The hand of rule/caged her, paraded/and staged her …”
With ‘Christine Mesmerises,’ Fionn returns to the Lewis Morley shoot, using a favourite image of Keeler’s seen on the cover of her autobiography, The Truth at Last (2001.) Her face is seen in close-up, striking a contemplative pose. Wilson has added halo-like rays of pink and green to the dark studio backcloth, as if radiating serenity.
Ceramic artist Claudia Clare’s ‘Pilgrim Vase’ has also been featured in her solo exhibition, And the Door Opened, exploring women and sex work. A gold leaf on the side of this grey earthenware pot bears an image of a middle-aged Keeler in animated conversation. The pilgrim vase, as Claudia writes, is “adapted from the leather flask people took with them on pilgrimage.” Noting that she was a Roman Catholic who struggled through periods of doubt, Claudia compares Christine’s life to “a hard journey as pilgrimages often were.” The pot was broken to “recognise and name the violence and trauma she experienced,” and then mended “to honour her fortitude and survival.”
Following on from her tabloid series, Sal Jones shows Christine smiling coyly with a Union Jack backdrop overlaying a newspaper headline: ‘England’s Sexual Revolution.’ This square portrait’s title, ‘God Save Christine,’ gives a tongue-in-cheek salute to her historic status. Sarah Shaw’s ‘Portrait of a Lady’ imagines Keeler as a dandyish huntswoman, taking her place among the aristocrats on Cliveden’s walls: “I would like to offer an alternative portrait,” she remarks. “One in which she has matured into a fully-grown woman … the questioning gleam in her eye perhaps asking us to reflect upon the hypocrisy she has endured …”
In 2013, the Daily Mail published unauthorised photos of a weary Christine carrying home bags of groceries. As we know now, she was by then suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD.) Nonetheless, these pictures were gleefully used as proof that she was no longer attractive. Sadie Lee, who describes herself as a ‘Shenaniganist,’ has reclaimed the image in her painting, ‘Scandalous,’ parodying the iconic ‘chair pose,’ and arguing that Keeler’s biggest scandal in recent years was to have “committed the most unforgivable crime for an ‘infamous beauty’—to gain weight and to grow old.”
“If Christine Keeler was discovered in Pompeii,” Jo Mazelis ponders in her poem, ‘Historiography,’ “Would they say that … She was a prostitute?” Yet by transporting Christine back in time, the poet finds new possibilities. “She might have been a visitor to the house/Of pleasure,” Mazelis concludes, “… The wide basket of her thighs/Open to speculation only.”
With ‘the evidence, christine’, Sonja Benskin Mesher presents a still-life photograph of a playing card (the two of hearts) with two broken red pieces, a stained tissue and a pair of surgical scissors, embodying a private agony for which there is no legal redress. This image is accompanied by a short poem in a barrister’s evasive tone. Mesher’s ‘small life/#christine’ (2016) combines a photographic image showing a blue plate and lace-trimmed, satin lingerie on polished wood with a short poem about how like a hashtag, Keeler might be reduced to a footnote in history. For her final contribution, ‘labelled/#christine (2),’ Mesher places a white label on red fabric, revisiting the colour scheme of ‘the evidence, christine’: “we are not made by our history,” she writes, “it is something/deeper than that.”
In ‘Pandora’s iPad,’ Shani Rhys James transposes Greek mythology to the social media age. Christine sits on her chair at the foot of this metre-long, rectangular painting, while a host of ghoulish faces crowd over her. In the accompanying work, ‘Christine,’ she is alone and bewildered. Black, smudged oils evoke the nightmarish tone of Francisco Goya’s witch paintings. “With its power to disseminate false information,” Shani comments, “the iPad might be said to have the potential of a modern-day Pandora’s Box.”
Roxana Halls’ painting, ‘Laughing While Smashing (for Mandy and Christine),’ revisits their friendship from several degrees’ remove. Two young women are crossing Beak Street in Soho, arm in arm, after breaking the windows of their former workplace, Murray’s Cabaret Club (now a burger bar.) Inside their handbags are rocks wrapped in prints from the Morley shoot. These women aren’t Mandy and Christine exactly, but two models chosen for their resemblance to Bridget Fonda and Joanne Whalley, the stars of Scandal (1989.) “Acts of political resistance come in many forms, and when I paint images of women laughing, eating, reclining, or simply interacting, I am always cognisant of the fact that the most seemingly innocuous actions can be subversive,” Roxana writes. “… I fantasise that Keeler comes to survey her oppressors with a measure of Rice-Davies’ insouciance and that together they grant themselves some form of fitting, liberating revenge.”
When the artist JoWonder heard of Christine’s passing, she set to work on a “transformational painting.” ‘The Underworld of Zos’ bridges occultist cosmology with the hallucinogenic imagery of Sixties counterculture, and is also influenced by religious miracle paintings. JoWonder depicts Christine as a pale sorceress carrying an olive branch, who has elevated herself to the “kissing circle” of the elite. Meanwhile her “mischievous friend,” an elfin Mandy, pulls the strings on a Boschian cluster of tiny male puppets, including John Profumo and Peter Rachman, who appear to be in the flames of hell. “But no one ever really burns in a land of psychedelic enchantment,” JoWonder reveals. “They are all supernatural beings in another dimension, a private trip of dream and love.”
“I was in London during the hot summer of the Ward trial,” the writer David Astbury recalls in ‘Christine … Christine,’ noting how she dominated the front pages: “The other characters, all minor to her super-nova, looked drab and second-rate.” But for the crowds who threw rotten eggs and called her names, she was a pariah. “I don’t for one moment think Christine saw herself as a trailblazer for social realignment or equality,” David adds. Keeler was the last in a long line of Stephen Ward’s protégées, “thrown in at the deep end.”
Julie Burchill’s tribute, ‘Christine Keeler Made Me Realise the Respectable Life Was Not for Me,’ was first published in the Telegraph in 2017. Her appreciation for Keeler’s “enigmatic Modigliani face, knockout showgirl style, tidy Mod style” seems to anticipate Dear Christine and her renaissance as an artistic muse. While hailing Keeler as an “erotic outlaw,” Burchill concedes that fame brought little happiness to “this lovely, lonely woman,” and although some have described Christine as the first ‘reality star,’ Julie suggests that she may have found it even harder to forge a lasting career in today’s divided Britain than she did fifty years ago.
‘I AM WHORE,’ an essay by Caroline Coon, accompanies her performance piece of the same name (the video was directed by filmmaker Charlotte Metcalf.) Coon, like Burchill, acknowledges that for Keeler, the loss of reputation was a devastating blow. She detested being called a prostitute, and in her memoir, unfairly slammed her old friend Mandy Rice-Davies as the “true tart.” While Dear Christine toured the U.K., a BBC drama series, The Trial of Christine Keeler, introduced her story to a new generation. In her essay, ‘Christine Keeler Speaks,’ screenwriter Amanda Coe argues that despite her efforts to set the record straight, Keeler was repeatedly silenced: “In public at least, Mandy was words, while Christine was pictures.” In her ghost-written autobiographies, Coe says, “it’s the angriest, pettiest moments when the real Christine seems to break through.”
The Soho of Keeler’s youth was exotic and raffish. By the 1980s, the area was swamped by strip clubs, massage parlours and pornographic cinemas. It later became a ‘Cool Britannia’ media hub, and is now an exemplar of London’s creeping gentrification. Helen Billinghurst, another former resident, revisited the old neighbourhood for her photo-essay, ‘Red Hunting in Soho.’ “The buildings are all the same,” she writes, “but Soho has changed beyond all recognition.” For Helen, “Christine floats like a phantasm … as elusive as the Soho she once inhabited, and as I try to track them down, I feel both are eluding me …” Soho, she learns, was once a royal hunting ground, named after a hunting cry. “Desperate for texture,” she adds, “I find myself nipping into doorways to photograph grubby accretions of peeling posters, glue and graffiti.” She passes the Zebrano restaurant on Greek Street, formerly The Establishment, a comedy club owned by Peter Cook, where Lewis Morley photographed Keeler. And the Flamingo Club is now O’Neill’s, an Irish theme pub. On Soho Square, she notices a Catholic church; inside are two life-size winged angels (“Let’s christen them: Christine and Mandy.”)
“Shame is the modern version of the stocks,” Jan Woolf wrote for the Morning Star after Dear Christine opened in Newcastle. “As a woman behaving in a sexually free way, Keeler was shackled and this exhibition removes them. Dear Christine channels Keeler through the lens of judgement, not of her but of the system that used her as a scapegoat and which was hypocritically outraged at her simultaneous sexual affairs—haven’t married men with lovers always had simultaneous sex?—with Profumo and Ivanov, whom MI5 were trying to ‘turn.’ Had Keeler been a honey trap and turned him in—as opposed to on—she too might have got an OBE, as did Profumo decades later.”
Borrowing a line from Patti Smith’s ‘Horses’ (and a punk manifesto), Ian McKay’s review for Art North magazine is titled ‘The Boy Looked at Christine.’ “Dear Christine, the exhibition, seeks with some noble intent … to rescue Christine’s image and experience and reprocess it,” McKay writes. “If Dear Christine is about anything then it is surely about what such an eclectic collocation of work can and does do as an appraisal of the conflicting messages of Christine Keeler’s life and, most of all, what we might learn from it.”
Julie Burchill also wrote about the exhibition for Art North, admitting that “even minor involvement in this enterprise has made me feel extraordinarily excited. It’s the sheer originality of it combined with the paradoxical feeling of inevitability—why did no one ever do this before? Perhaps because women artists are still so astonishingly rare. There can be no branch of the arts in which women can be seen but not heard from as much as painting—nowhere where the role of muse is so strictly demarcated.”
“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,” Julie continues. “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.”
“The artworks in the Dear Christine exhibition … illustrate the fact that there is no single Christine Keeler,” Jo Mazelis writes for Women in Art. “This is not just because she has been represented by a variety of artists but it’s also because she continues to have multiple selves.” As one of the poets who contributed to Dear Christine’s Welsh leg, Jo adds, “this had the effect of growing the project like a snowball, so that even more people were concentrating their attention on Keeler’s life and on the events that took place in the 1960s primarily, but also their after-effects.” (The complete poems are included in the second, paperback edition of the exhibition catalogue.)
After making its début at Newcastle’s Vane Gallery in June 2019, Dear Christine moved to the Elysium Gallery in Swansea that October, before its final stop at London in February 2020. The preview at Arthouse1 featured speeches by Seymour Platt and Julie Burchill, with Christine’s friend Desmond Banks, and Geoffrey Robertson QC among those attending. The evening featured a live performance of composer Katie Chatburn’s dedicated theme on solo cello. Arthouse1’s director Rebecca Fairman, who supported Dear Christine from the outset and produced the catalogue with Fionn Wilson, sadly passed away on February 25th, 2020.
“In the public eye she was a temptress and fallen woman, but I prefer to think of her as a witness to the bigger picture,” I wrote in my foreword to Dear Christine. “But what if there were other images to remember Christine by? A woman not so unlike the rest of us, sensual but spirited, no longer frozen in her scandalous youth … Her complicated humanity reaches out, skittish but insisting that we listen, once more, to her story.” Those words were written back in 2017, when Dear Christine was still in gestation. My own journey began many years earlier, when I wrote my novella, Wicked Baby. Thanks to Fionn Wilson and all who have shared their vision, I now know that I was not alone in my desire to reimagine the life of Christine Keeler, and others also feel that her truth is still worth fighting for.
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