I was born in 1962, into a world of heightened anxiety and momentous geopolitical events; the Cuban Missile Crisis; the occupation of Bab-el-Oued in Algiers prior to France’s second referendum on the independence of Algeria; news of the execution of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem; and the first live trans-Atlantic television signal via the Telstar satellite. It was also the year of Anthony Burgess’s dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange (which gave the term ultraviolence to the world), and the death of Marilyn Monroe. I didn’t know about any of this at the time, of course. Like others of my generation I came to know about these turning points and events much later, presented to me as spectacular moments that would later be experienced vicariously, at a remove. 1962 was also the year that Admiralty clerk John Vassall was blackmailed into spying for the Soviets who were threatening to out him as a homosexual, but the Vassall case was just one of many spy-ring stories circulating in the press at the time. The most notorious, for reasons we all now know, was that of The Profumo Affair that put Christine Keeler on the front page of pretty much every newspaper in the UK.
Not wanting to put oneself too directly at the heart of the story relating to any of the above – let’s remember that I was an infant, and so somewhat lacking in influence – it is nevertheless the case that between the point of my conception in 1961 (which coincided with the overture to the affair between Secretary of State for War, John Profumo, and Christine Keeler), and my second birthday (which coincided with the day that the satirical magazine Private Eye went to press with a detailed summary of rumours that by then were circulating widely about the affair), a chain of events would be set in motion that would have seismic repercussions for all involved – including me, as it turned out! Perhaps I should explain.
If I’m honest, I’ve always had an uncanny sense that my coming into this world, and the marking of that event each year with a birthday celebration, has been of some socio-cultural as well as personal significance. For example (and these are just a few): my birth date coincided with the 505th anniversary of the appearance of the world’s first printed book, The Gutenberg Bible; the 67th anniversary of the first showing of a motion picture (by Auguste and Louis Lumière in Paris); the 58th anniversary of the publication of the first colour newspaper photograph (in the London Daily Illustrated Mirror); and the 43rd anniversary of the world’s first international airline service, between Paris and Brussels. On my 31st birthday (and I stopped noting such events after this because it was becoming draining), Intel revealed to the world their first Pentium-processor. Can it be argued that, like the printed book, the motion picture, the colour newspaper photograph, and international air travel which speeded up the interpersonal transfer of information between continental Europe and the British Isles, the Pentium-processor completely revolutionised the flow of information around the world, and was thus, like the other events listed here, a major advance in media communications? All indicate something about the sense I have of my place in the world, and in history!
Indeed, on my first birthday, The Beatles began their programme of sexualising an entire generation with the release of Please Please Me – their debut LP – on the same day (my birthday, that is) that, in the House of Commons Profumo was denying having sex with Christine Keeler – a matter that resulted in an unprecedented frenzy of public interest in the salacious details that would out over the coming months. Philip Larkin may have claimed that; “Sexual intercourse began, In nineteen sixty-three, (which was rather late for me), Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban, And the Beatles’ first LP,” but for myself, sexual intercourse came much later. First came the growing awareness that history was happening with specific reference to me, largely thanks to the fateful ‘coincidence’ of my birth date and the events that seemed regularly to occur on it. Birthdays are always important when you are a kid, but for me they were major historical and cultural events too, or so it seemed – and sometimes it still does.
While I only learned of the Profumo Affair later, as an inquisitive pre-pubescent male who was something of an obsessive, like so much of the above I still have a sense that I can claim ownership of at least a part of it, and in some ways a great many of my generation may well feel the same – although there are only a fraction of us who may take some special interest due to a sense of our integral connection arrived at by the sheer fate of the approximate date of our conception and the documented date of our birth. We are special! Forget the baby-boomers, we see ourselves as The Keeler Kids! Think about that. It has often been said that those of a certain generation can readily recall where they were on the day that news was received of Kennedy’s assassination, but thanks to a little bit of early-teenage research-knowhow, I can place where I was when John Profumo and his lawyers were meeting with ministers to agree an appropriate wording for his denial of any impropriety with Christine Keeler. I was entering this world in a shabby General Hospital in a minor suburban town far from Westminster. Almost to the hour, as my head was crowning, Profumo’s crown was slipping.
Understandably, perhaps, it is therefore with great interest that I have come to learn that the artist Fionn Wilson, whose work we recently featured in the form of a reproduction of one of her self-portraits in the pages of Art North magazine (issue 2), is also the same Fionn Wilson who has recently organised a group exhibition of work relating to Christine Keeler titled Dear Christine: at the time of writing the exhibition is still on show at Vane in Newcastle Upon Tyne, after which it will travel to Wales and then London. That it isn’t coming to Scotland perhaps indicates that Wilson may have missed a trick in some small regard, because Scotland has always had some relevant connection with The Profumo Affair, too. Fionn tells me that she did approach Sottish venues but that invitations to take the show have not yet been forthcoming – perhaps the exhibitions organiser of a Scottish venue should think about that.
The scandal may have broken first in London, but another figure who was central to it was in Scotland when came the moment for John Profumo to finally realise he had no option but to assemble his team of lawyers and admit that he had lied to Parliament about his association with Christine Keeler: That person with the Scottish connection was Prime Minister Harold Macmillan who was holidaying in the Highlands at the time.
That’s not to say that the mainstream Scottish Press had not been actively following the story up to that point, for it had, but with Macmillan refusing to cut short his holiday at first, the Highland landscape that drew him here garnered significant interest also, and Christine Keeler’s image became oddly, inextricably, attached to stories of Macmillan’s ‘presence in the glen’, which made for an incongruous juxtaposition for some several days. Ironically, Macmillan was staying near what is reputed to be the original site of the Chapel of St Mungo (Gaelic Mo Choe), Patron Saint of both Infidelity and Bullies (and no, I am not making this up)! It was on 6 June 1963 that the Aberdeen Press & Journal reported on Profumo being unable to meet with Macmillan in person to disclose the truth of his involvement with Christine Keeler and some four days later, on 10 June, that London’s Daily Mirror finally reported that Macmillan was on that day’s 9.30 train south with the biggest political crisis ahead of him since he had become Prime Minister. The arrogance of the Etonian elite, even then, was in full evidence, even at the height of the cold war.
The fact is, that the Profumo-Keeler affair touched those throughout the British Isles in different ways, particular not just to class or privilege, but to geography, too, and this has some relevance if we want to assess its overall impact. The regional press north of Aberdeen in the east, and north of Inverness and throughout the North West Highlands, gave it little mention at all, at least in terms of what the holdings of the British Newspaper Library can attest to, anyway. Here I am referring to a part of Scotland for which electricity was a novelty for a great many people in 1963, with relatively few in the Far Northern Highlands connected to the National Grid, let alone in possession of a television with which they might have watched the scandal play out on the evening news. As journalist Peter Preston told The Guardian’s readers in 1964, “Half the hydro-electric power of the Highlands remains to be realised,” which is probably why Macmillan, who was always so passionate about the place, found his plans for the North of Scotland becoming a tourist attraction to rival the Alps being ridiculed by John Maclay, his Scottish secretary, who knew there was simply insufficient infrastructure to provide for such a dream. Vast swathes of the Scottish Highlands were still navigated via single track roads (much still is).
While the rest of Britain was unwittingly gearing up for the coming of Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat of the technological revolution’ speech of October 1963, the reality of life here was quite different indeed. When John Lennon and Yoko Ono came north for a Scottish holiday near Durness just six years later, for example, those single track roads nearly did for them both, and his kids, when Lennon oversteered and the car ran off the road, injuring the occupants who had to be ambulanced to Golspie, the nearest hospital, which was then some two and a half to three hours’ drive away. But, I’m digressing.
The truth seems to be that, above a certain latitude, the division between North and South could not have been more greatly evidenced than by how irrelevant The Profumo Affair appeared to those in the northernmost part of Scotland. Culturally, the monied elite viewed Britain as a game of two halves, with a vast gulf in the middle: In Scotland they had their grouse shooting, deer stalking, and society retreats, but in London the ‘predatory privileged’ had other prey and other haunts, and Christine Keeler and the home of Stephen Ward (the facilitator) on Wimpole Mews, represented a pertinent symbol of that. Worlds apart, indeed. The mismatch between Macmillan’s romantic view of Scotland, and the burgeoning scene that was pendulously gaining its Swing in London – for it wasn’t fully Swinging yet – was only further underlined. All those ‘northern’ towns and cities in England – Doncaster, York, Darlington, Durham and Newcastle, for example – were merely places that the monied elite passed through en route to gaming estates; in many documented cases, ‘north to shoot’, and ‘south to screw’ (when south, using the cover of late sessions in the House to deceive their wives, as Profumo was alleged to have done).
Does Fionn Wilson’s Dear Christine exhibition belong in Scotland; has she really missed a trick? I’m sure it would be welcome, but maybe I overstate the case. Perhaps it merits some thought.
In some ways it is fitting that it will only travel as far north as Newcastle, however. Many of the common tropes that were a feature of the Profumo-Keeler Affair were, just a few years later, revisited in Ted Lewis’s novel Jack Returns Home (later made into the movie Get Carter starring Michael Caine); a film that transposed the class privilege of Westminster with the corruption of Tyneside’s criminal underworld, replete with its own parvenu-sex-crimes, corrupt councillors, and the abuse stories of another form of male privilege and power. Though wildly different in terms of socio-economic backstory, seen together both the Parliamentary scandal of the early-1960s, and Lewis’s late-60s fiction have something in common in the sense that they reveal worlds, fictional or otherwise, in which young women are viewed as a disposable by-product of male privilege and only fit for sex, ridicule and abuse. In one scene in the movie Get Carter, Jack, played by Caine, says to Doreen, “I’m off tomorrow, so I don't suppose I'll be seeing you again.” Pulling out a handful of banknotes, he says: “Here. Go and get your hair done… Be good... And don't trust boys.”
Doreen in Get Carter could very well be representative of so many young, working class women of the period. Brutalised, battered, betrayed, and abandoned, yet through the male gaze, viewed as beyond redemption, too. Fictional character or not, she is, and was, and remains (on celluloid), a Christine-Keeler-in-the-making.
But what of the real Christine Keeler, now interpreted through the eyes, memories, and life experiences of the female artists that Fionn Wilson has brought together for Dear Christine, the exhibition? Their perception of the treatment of Christine Keeler by the media and the scandal that piqued the interest of a public hungry for yet another victim to vilify is the subject of this exhibition, after all. In some works John Profumo, Stephen Ward, Lord Astor, Lord Denning (the Judge) and several other male figures (peripheral to the scandal or otherwise) appear in works on show here; in paintings by Natalie d’Arbeloff such as The Game, and Scarlet Women (both 2018), and Sal Jones’s I took on the sins of a generation, (2016). As d’Arbeloff comments,
the whole scandal was yet another historical example of how power corrupts and how corruption is always linked to power. The full truth about all the individuals, public and private, who were involved in the Profumo Affair will probably never be known but Christine Keeler was, in that story, simultaneously absolutely powerless and absolutely powerful, She was neither victim nor hero and could not protect herself from the manipulations of powerful men,
Hence d’Arbeloff’s picturing of Christine Keeler fenced within a cordon of men associated with the scandal, I guess.
Caroline Coon revisits and reenvisages a lost painting by British Pop Artist Pauline Boty, the original of which took a similar approach. Coon’s reconfiguration/partial transcription of the Boty painting now lost is titled Christine Keeler: Anger, Blame, Shame, Ruin, Grief (2019). Incidentally, the source work for this was not the only painting Boty made in relation to The Profumo Affair, as is evidenced by a photograph by Lewis Morley in London’s National Portrait Gallery collection, here.
For the most part, it is Christine Keeler who features as the primary focus of the works on show, though, and this seems fitting, for the full title of the exhibition is Dear Christine: A Tribute to Christine Keeler, after all. Indeed, as Julie Burchill writes for Art North in her own take on the exhibition, published here, “it seems too harsh to call her ‘Keeler’ after all the times the word was used as a sniggering slander.”
‘Christine’ it is, then, from hereon, not out of a desire to feign familiarity, but out of respect, even if written by me as what I thought of once as we ‘Keeler Kids’: that generation to which I have claimed to belong and who were born into a post-Profumo Affair world. Moral panics that find a sustained place in the public consciousness spawn such identification, but it has to be said that we pick our affiliations carefully. Nobody wants to identify themselves with the Moors Murderers, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley whose killings began around the same time that The Profumo Affair was breaking news, it seems, though reports of their crimes occupied a good deal of page space during the same period.
The adopted nomenclature of writing on Christine is complex, to say the least, then, inverting the protocols of writing about a subject (Christine Keeler the person) about whom one can pretend no direct personal connection. But then I write not as a woman. Clearly there are artists included in this exhibition who identify strongly with Christine’s vilification and I can understand why. As Fionn Wilson writes in the foreword to the book that accompanies the exhibition, “It could be said that Christine Keeler represents an ‘everywoman’ who bore that particular burden of being labelled by a society which still likes to define women in the triangle of virgin, mother and whore.” But Christine was a mother nonetheless, and as her surviving son, Seymour Platt writes,
I never even met Christine Keeler [his mother changed her name to Sloane]. I grew up in the Seventies where it was mostly just me and my mother, a single parent. I remember there being a lot of love, she was a warm and devoted mother who made a point of making sure I always knew I was loved. I’m not sure you can say a better thing about a parent. There were very few men in her life while I was growing up, and I’m sure she was probably lonely. We were poor – crushingly poor. I think we were wealthy when I was very, very young, but in the early Seventies something changed and that all went away.
In several important ways, Dear Christine, the exhibition, seeks with some noble intent to rectify this; to rescue Christine’s image and experience and reprocess it, rescuing it from the newspaper front-page-Keeler that is etched into the collective consciousness, that is, although as her son also comments, “I’m not sure what she would make of it all. Like all of us, she was still a bit vain and didn’t like pictures where she wasn’t young and beautiful.”
Few works included in the exhibition could be said to present the beautiful Christine as she herself would probably have understood them, or truly appreciated them, then. But what most have in common is a sense that here was a woman of integrity, and I’m guessing that that would be something that, if she were here today, she would have been patient enough to have accepted or understood… but then again, what do I know? She may have hated it – a further slant after all those years of vilification and cruelty? The truth is, in a much wider sense, the whole thing is a mess – not the exhibition, I hasten to add, although some works are weaker than others – but in the sense that there can never be any comfortable reconciliation between the beauty she aspired to (which turned out to be a curse for her), and the reality of her acclaimed beauty fading over the years, with her being allowed the space to accept that in a dignified way over time.
Julie Burchill puts it much better than I ever could in her own response to the exhibition in terms of what became of the men implicated in the scandal, and Profumo in particular, and so I return to the work, and assess it on its own merits.
Stella Vine’s, Christine Keeler, (2004), included in the book that accompanies the exhibition but not in the show itself, is quite a disconcerting image in light of the above, but the expressionistic handling and fluidity of mark making seems to echo something of the sheer lack of grasp that Christine would always have on holding on to her image (whatever she desired it to be). Caroline Coon’s reimagining of Pauline Boty’s painting is, I think, a most difficult work, in part because it situates Christine on ‘that chair’ yet with her arm outstretched and her breasts exposed when, as we know from the literature concerning Lewis Morley’s famous photograph of her that became the defining moment of the making of her public image, she actually found the experience incredibly uncomfortable, and so concealed her breasts with her arms and insisted on keeping her knickers on, even though the photographic portrait suggests she is viewed naked. Even at the moment of her ascendancy as ‘the harlot they all loved to hate’, her sense of propriety and control was still just strong enough to insist on being partially clothed or concealed, even if she herself was the only one to know that at the time, other than Morley.
There is, of course, much more to Coon’s painting than this, but here too, the primitivist references of this particular work are rendered in such a way that they reduce, rather than add. An artist of the time known for his stark imagery of this kind was Alan Jones, and my sense is that Coon inadvertently contributes a work that demeans Christine in the way Jones’s’ work demeans women generally, rather than arguing for something more considered and respectful. While Boty’s lost original was of its time, Coon’s seems out of step with our own, as though she’s taking liberties that in the context of this exhibition should not really be hers to take; presenting Christine as a carnivalesque grotesque, that is, although that may not have been her intention.
Christine Speaks (2016), by Catherine Edmunds (a series of three drawings in conté pencil on paper) are a series of sympathetic works here when seen as one. Derived from a video recording of a television interview they certainly merit some praise, for each individual drawing from the trio indicates a liveliness of mind and intellect, and a thoughtfulness, too, all of which was just crushed under the weight of media attention for most of her life (publicly, anyway). However much her dignity remained in her personal sphere, for Christine it would never be understood completely in the public, at least during her lifetime. Compared to other grotesques, largely expressionistic in manner and placing Christine at the very heart of the maelstrom of attention she received (and there are several of these by different artists, some more successful than others), Edmunds’ works seem far more dignified and befitting a celebration of her subject’s life. Portrait of a lady (2016), by Sarah Shaw is exemplary in this regard too, the underlying concept being to place the subject as a member of the aristocracy, as of course she was, though the aristocracy found that hard to stomach – looking at Shaw’s painting, you can feel their visceral clutch at the mere thought of Christine being one of them.
Other works, more conceptual in nature, offer the most food for thought, partly because they depart entirely from the media scrum that was a feature of the scandal, focussing instead on discrete aspects of the subject’s identity. In Christine in Gold by Fine Cell Work (as it says here, Fine Cell Work ‘trains prisoners in paid, skilled, creative needlework undertaken in the long hours spent in their cells to foster hope, discipline and self esteem […] taught and supported by volunteers from the Embroiderers and Quilters Guild’), Fionn Wilson has commissioned an anonymous needle worker to simply stitch Christine’s forename several times over as a fine yet wholly acceptably fallible work of embroidery – an apt simile/metaphor for Christine’s life itself, in fact.
And yet… collating the many contributions here is rather missing the point of this exhibition altogether, for it is a work of so many parts in its own right that it deserves to be seen as a whole. While highlighting certain works for brief perusal, let’s not forget that what this exhibition comprises is a form of installation which crosses space, time, and media to become much more than just an exhibition of contemporary fine art. It is a book, too, comprising more than 100 pages, and includes statements and writings from not just the artists involved but those who knew Christine, or whose lives were touched by hers to some greater or lesser extent. The exhibition of work seen in this way also comprises a piece of music by composer Katie Chatburn (a piece for solo cello entitled 'Dear Christine') as well, and that is also integral to the overall (dare I say it, for fear of reducing it to crass presentation?) ‘multi-media experience’ – and that is before we even get into an analysis of Caroline Coon’s performative contribution, too (and dear Caroline does like to perform!)
Of note as paintings in their own right are contributions from organiser Fionn Wilson herself, as well as Lucy Cox (an interesting hard-edge abstract take on ‘the Keeler chair’ as it became known); Roxana Halls (a realist work that speaks of resistance – “Acts of political resistance come in many forms and when I paint images of women laughing, eating, reclining, interacting or simply looking, I am always cognisant of the fact that the most seemingly innocuous actions can be subversive”, the artists comments); and as well-executed work by Marguerite Horner, Barbara Howey, Sal Jones, Julia Maddison (possibly the most minimalist in a post-conceptual sense), and so onward. Ceramic work by Claudia Clare adds a yet further dimension, but lack of mention here diminishes no contributor’s input overall, least of all those who offer contextual materials in the form of archive photography, too.
It would be all too easy to criticise the exhibition for its apparent lack of curatorial direction, but that would be to miss the point altogether. 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. Yes, there is work encountered here that, seen alone, seems not to offer a great deal, and contributions from others who offer something that merits further investigation. Overall it is a brave exhibition, and no doubt hugely difficult in execution and organisation, but when seen against the testimony relating to Christine Keeler’s life, one comes away from it with a sense that so many of us get off lightly in life. Here was a woman who, despite the full force of Power, as a person and a social construct, attempted, and in some significant ways retained her dignity and some personal control, even at those points in her life when she was wilfully and intentionally made destitute in the name of public decency and morals.
As Fionn Wilson so aptly puts it, “Only Christine Keeler knew her own truth. But I wanted to add to her legacy in a cultural sense – to organise new secondary source material around her. As Monica Lewinsky (another ‘scarlet woman’) recently elaborated […] “Shame cannot survive empathy.” 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 artworks, poetry and music which have been created within a relevant and contemporary context― and with sympathy and understanding.”
Dear Christine: A Tribute to Christine Keeler
An exhibition conceived and curated by Fionn Wilson
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.
A further response to the exhibition by writer and columnist Julie Burchill appears on the Art North Blog