after Girl on a Chair, photograph by Lewis Morley (Australia, b. Hong Kong) 1963
Nothing like a burnished throne the chair she sits on, just a knock-off of the Arne Jacobsen Model 3107 bought for five bob in a sale at Heal’s . And no Cleopatra she, instead a cut-price price red top nymphet, a little tart about to help bring down a government. Besides, she sits less like a queen than a Hollywood cowpoke, straddling the seat the way Jimmy Stewart might have in a Hollywood cow-town saloon after cutting in on the bad guys’ poker game. She was nineteen.
Nineteen, and on the day the photograph was taken she would have made her way through Soho, a district she must have known from working topless at Murray’s in Beak Street, to the Establishment Club. The Establishment Club, oh, the irony of that! Would she have understood? Third floor up then. Lewis Morley, the photographer, waits for her in his studio with the film men and the money men.
Perhaps she was late. She’d signed contracts for a film of her short life and wicked ways. She’d bedded crooks, Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for War, and, oh yes, Captain Yevgeny Ivanov, naval attaché at the Soviet embassy in London and a spy. She’d shaken the Establishment all right, but not the club downstairs, the other one, the real one. Lord Hailsham, losing his rag, has told the great British television viewing public that “a great party is not to be brought down because of a squalid affair between a woman of easy virtue and a proved liar.” Well, here she is, Christine Keeler, the woman of easy virtue, nineteen years old and supposed to be getting undressed.
Supposed to be getting undressed, but now she doesn’t want to. She’s signed papers to the effect that she will get undressed. Now she doesn’t want to? The film men and the money men must have wanted to know why not. It isn’t as if this would be the first time. In some ways the whole thing, the thing the red tops have styled “the Profumo affair”, begins with her naked, skinny-dipping in Lord Astor’s outdoor pool where she, unwitting Aphrodite, is surprised by John – "please call me Jack" – Profumo. Profumo is with his wife, but still gets Christine’s number and in no short while Christine herself. But today, in the studio, she would prefer to keep her clothes on.
And this is a problem because the men of film and money want the flesh their pounds have paid for. Morley clears the studio; he talks to Christine about an idea he’s had, explains how he can shoot her naked and yet not let anybody see a thing. He’s a real gent. He even turns his back while she undresses – though in all the interviews in all the years that follow she’ll insist she kept her knickers on.
The photographer introduces her to the chair. The chair is her shield. The chair keeps things clean, clean the way Max Miller’s jokes are clean. The smut, if that’s what it is, is in the mind or here the mind’s eye of the beholder. The shape of the back of a five-shilling chair says it all. The letter-box slot irregularly hacked out to fend off copyright complaints allows for thoughts of What the Butler Saw – or, in this case, didn’t.
Still, Christine is just nineteen, a kid, awkward before the camera, self-conscious. She tries it this way, then that, that way, then this. Then this. Then this, the very last frame left on the roll of film, almost an accident, that catalyst for so many transfigurations of the everyday into art. And that’s that.
The film she had her photo taken for never did get made. May became December, as it always must, and Christine went to prison after pleading guilty to a charge of perjury. What money she’d received she said she paid to lawyers. Her story long continued with lots of sad but never even a single happy ending. She died in 2017.
The photograph survives and in it so does she. A little awkward for ever now, or for as long as a photo can be for ever. The girl photographed on one of the floors above the Establishment Club, the girl who shook the other Establishment club, the girl who was nineteen, is nineteen always.
Today, the chair she sat on sits unoccupied somewhere in the V&A, catalogued, possessed by the nation. The image of the girl who sat on it is in the National Portrait Gallery. They should hang her – and at the time many, including a lot of women, thought they really should have hanged her – next to Charles II’s mistress, Eleanor Gwyn. “Let not poor Nelly starve,” he’s supposed on his deathbed to have commanded his brother, the Duke of York. No one ever said anything as kind for Christine. Someone should have. She was only nineteen.
Born in Leicester, England, but now long resident in Japan, Clive Collins is the author of two novels, The Foreign Husband (Marion Boyars) and Sachiko's Wedding (Marion Boyars/Penguin Books). Misunderstandings, a collection of short stories, was joint-winner of the Macmillan Silver PEN Award in 1994. He was a shortlisted finalist in the 2009 Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction. More recently his work has appeared online and in print in magazines such as Penny, Here Comes Everyone and terrain.org. Carried Away and Other Stories is now available from Red Bird Chapbooks.
The Ekphrastic Review
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