Chairman of the Board – Picture of the Month: Christine Keeler by Lewis Morley (1963)
The other day I got to touch this chair…
The year I was born this chair got to touch the bare bottom of Christine Keeler.
It was as the scandal of the Profumo Affair was exploding in Britain, marking the end of the age of austerity and heralding the new age of permissiveness.
I’ve been writing a script over the summer in which Keeler appears as a minor character so have been immersed in the era of which this photograph is an icon.
The photo session was in Lewis Morley’s studio above The Establishment Club in Soho (18 Greek Street) which was the spiritual home of the emerging anti-establishment of the early 60s. It was founded in 1961 and presented among others, on the small stage on the floor below Morley’s studio, Lenny Bruce, Barry Humphries and Dudley Moore. The club was part-owned by Moore’s partner in crime Peter Cook, another defining character of the era.
Morley was born in Hong Kong to English and Chinese parents, coming to England straight after the war in 1945. He eventually emigrated to Barry Humphries’/Dame Edna Everage’s native Australia in 1971.
The Keeler session was set up to produce images for a film that never happened (The Keeler Affair). Present were Morley, his assistant and the producers.
I recently came across another such movie that was never made featuring Keeler’s partner in crime Mandy Rice Davies. Her picture, by contrast in costume, was shot by Terence Donovan (1936 – 1996), another of the key photographers of the Blow Up generation. His first major retrospective – Speed of Light at the Photographers Gallery, London this summer – brought to light this magazine cover:
Morley decided to use one of a number of chairs he’d recently bought at (probably) Heals as a prop. They are cheap knock-offs of a classic Arne Jacobsen design, the 3107. The chair is more crudely made than its original and has a hand-hole introduced to get round copyright infringement.
At the beginning of the session Keeler was dressed in a leather jerkin, covered (just) but still plenty sexy. Morley shot three rolls of film on the day – on the first two he shot her dressed in this way both on and beside the chair.
Keeler had been a model in her early years in London before getting sucked in to The Scandal. She had also been a showgirl and good-time girl, all these activities and aspirations adjacent in England in the late 50s/early 60s.
The producers then demanded that she pose nude. They insisted that was in her contract. Morley was reluctant and protected Keeler, both with the back of that chair and by clearing everyone but himself out of the studio and averting his eyes while she stripped off and mounted the chair. In this way he protected her dignity whilst fulfilling the terms of the contract.
He then shot the third roll. He tried various angles which you can see on the contact sheet which now lives at the V&A. Morley recounted the end of the session thus:
“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.”
Last shot of the last roll – suitably mythic.
The shot in question can currently be seen in the first room of the You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970 exhibition at the V&A. As can the chair.
What’s powerful about the shot is the X-shaped composition made up of her upper arms and thighs, bright in the high contrast, combined with the echo of the top half of that white X (those upper arms joined into a curvaceous triangle by her shoulders) which matches the sensual curved triangle of the chair back. The hands and wrists also make up a mini X, reinforcing the power of the central shape. The dark V of the chair back is a massive amplification of that hidden famous vagina. But topping off the shot is an alluring yet refined face. And a strong one, as challenging as any of the enigmatic eye-to-eye starers of Manet. [see E for Enigma – Manet Picture of the Month]
Morley used the pose again two years later with Joe Orton, the playwright who best captured the essence of the 60s in Britain. I first came across Orton in the Lower 6th (the freest and best year of school) when I was looking for the subject of a project and came across Orton by chance. I’ve loved him since. But I don’t find that the Morley portrait captures him well as it gives no sense of his cheekiness or humour.
Morley also used the pose with TV personality David Frost (in the same year as Keeler), but in a less still way, capturing something of the energy which was to land Frost a chair opposite President Nixon in the next decade (in the famous 1977 interviews which did for the leader of the most powerful nation on earth). Frost, The Establishment, Cook, Private Eye were all part of the same Swinging Sixties circles.
Circles which overlapped with the establishment with a small e and their interface with Soho, pretty girls, gambling dens, sharp-suited gangsters, swinger parties, all the ingredients in the explosive brew that was Profumo.
For a very particular moment – arguably one key frame – Morley managed to transform a 21 year old (who grew up in a converted railway carriage, abandoned by her father), a 21 year old swirling helplessly in a maelstrom of post-war British politics, the Cold War and the breaking down of the class system into a strong and dignified woman, the epitome of Sixties British beauty.