‘I’d like to thank everyone who is paying tribute to my mother. She was a very brave woman. Thank you’
– Seymour Platt, son of Christine Keeler, January 2019
Though I feature in Dear Christine only through the medium of a republished essay from the Telegraph that now appears in the book that accompanies the exhibition (currently on show at Vane in Newcastle Upon Tyne), 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. Quite a few groupies have managed to become musicians and secretaries to become writers – but to move from one side of the easel to another is a task way beyond the reach of most of the youthful and passively pretty women who are chosen to inspire Great Men. Fionn Wilson – an artist from a working-class background in South Tyneside – was made to curate this project.
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. Growing up in a converted railway carriage without hot water or electricity for many years, raped as a teenager by her stepfather and his friends, removed from her home after a school health inspector found her to be suffering from malnutrition and at 17 the mother of a baby who died after six days, she arrived in London the summer before the Sixties; 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.
When a sex farce became a Shakespearean tragedy, Christine’s (it seems too harsh to call her ‘Keeler’ after all the times the word was used as a sniggering slander) punishment was uniquely cruel. Her Svengali escaped by committing suicide; her playmate Mandy Rice–Davies parlayed her tough-minded cheekiness into a career as a cabaret singer. Most poignantly her War Minister lover disappeared into good works at Toynbee Hall in the East End – ironically a charity which ‘works to bridge the gap between people of all social and financial backgrounds.’ He became their chief fundraiser, able to work as a full-time volunteer due to his inherited wealth; with his appointment by the Queen at Buckingham Palace as a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1975, his return to respectability was complete – if anything, he ended up with a better reputation than he started with.
But with no family money – indeed, with no family except one which had raped and starved her – to fall back on, Christine’s Hogarthian journey spiralled downwards. As Fionn Wilson quotes in her Foreword to the book of the exhibition (catalogue seems too slapdash to sum up this beautiful thing): ‘It's been a misery for me, living with Christine Keeler – even a criminal has the right to a new life, but they made sure I didn’t. They didn't stop calling me a prostitute for ever and ever and ever and ever. How can anyone live with that? I took on the sins of everybody, of a generation, really…’ Calling herself Christine Sloane, she sold advertising space, worked as a receptionist in a dry cleaners and latterly was a dinner lady at a London school; when the principal discovered who she was, she was immediately sacked. She died two years ago at the age of 75. During her later years of penury and ill-health, people were happy to exploit her fiscally as eagerly as they had been to exploit her physically when in her prime; in the famous chair shot she is visibly wincing (and till the end of her life protested that she had not been naked but wearing pants – a last desperate grab at decency from an inherently decent woman who lived a louche lifestyle through necessity rather than choice) and when she was paid £5000 to attend the premiere of Scandal! she watched it ‘through gritted teeth.’
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.’
EXHIBITING ARTISTS: Natalie d’Arbeloff, Helen Billinghurst, Claudia Clare, Caroline Coon, Lucy Cox, Catherine Edmunds, Roxana Halls, Sadie Hennessy, Marguerite Horner, Barbara Howey, Shani Rhys James, Sal Jones, Jowonder, Sadie Lee, Cathy Lomax, Julia Maddison, Sonja Benskin Mesher, Wendy Nelson, Sarah Shaw, Stella Vine, Fionn Wilson, and with music composed by Katie Chatburn.
BOOK: The Exhibition is accompanied by a book, featuring writing from David Astbury, Julie Burchill, Amanda Coe, Tara Hanks, Kalliopi Minioudaki and Bo Gorzelak Pedersen, with additional photographs from the Christine Keeler Collection (with kind permission of James Birch), and poetry from Sarah Caulfield and Charlotte Innes. Forewords by Tanya Gold and Seymour Platt.
(Page Banner Image: Courtesy of the Christine Keeler Collection with kind permission of James Birch).