There is something extremely British about marking the beginning of an era with a political sex scandal.
These are of course a national specialty, going back at least to the late Georgian days of the Prince Regent, with his mistress in Brighton and epically unfaithful royal bride.
There was something unusual about the Profumo affair, which made headlines half a century ago. No other such brouhaha has ever been seen as a watershed: the beginning of the end of political deference.
True, the Brits had little enough of that in the 18th and 19th centuries, so it must have been a short-lived phenomenon. Still, the argument runs, when John Profumo, the U.K.’s secretary of state for war, stood up in the House of Commons and lied about his relationship with the model Christine Keeler, something began to change.
Before, the public had tended automatically to believe politicians, afterward not so much.
The other thing that began then, at least according to historical myth, was sex. The poet Philip Larkin famously wrote that “sexual Intercourse began in 1963.”
Admittedly, his two pivotal items were the end of the ban on publishing D.H. Lawrence’s novel “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” because of its alleged obscenity, and the Beatles’ first LP.
Larkin might just as well have added the great scandal of the year. The Beatles had much more cultural importance, the Chatterley verdict transformed what might be described in literature. Of the three, the Profumo case had by far the most drama and -- importantly -- visual impact.
This imbroglio had everything: a cabinet minister, a reputed Russian spy who also had an affair with Keeler (giving a John Le Carre touch to the tale), a fashionable doctor and Keeler herself: a beautiful young woman with connections to seedy gangland criminals. It sounds like the cast of a Cold War era film (and indeed has been the basis for several movies and plays).
In addition, the murky business threw up one enormously memorable image: Lewis Morley’s celebrated shot of Christine Keeler, naked, sitting astride a modernist chair.
This photograph, on show in a display about the Profumo affair at the National Portrait Gallery, sums up 1960s London: sensuous, enigmatic, and stylishly contemporary. In a way, the chair was just as important as the nude.
It was, it turns out, not quite a design classic, but a commercial “knock off” of a design by the celebrated Danish architect, Arne Jacobsen. Genuine or not, it was the chair that made the photograph so cool.
The allure of the image, in turn, makes the whole archaic shenanigans memorable. What we cannot visualize, we cannot easily bring to mind. This is one reason why Henry VIII, for example, is such a famous king: he was rendered unforgettable by Holbein’s pictures. Similarly, Keeler was made immortal by the click of Lewis Morley’s shutter.
There was one other artistic consequence of the photograph. It became the centerpiece of a lost painting by a beautiful, doomed artist named Pauline Boty.
A member of the same generation of artists at the Royal College of Art as David Hockney and Allen Jones, Boty (1938 - 1966) was enormously talented and beautiful (she was known as the “Wimbledon Bardot”). She was 28 years old when she died of cancer.
Her Profumo painting, “Scandal ’63” has not been seen since then. It was however recorded together with the artist herself in photographs by Michael Ward. These, which are included in the display at the National Portrait Gallery, are in their way as evocative of 1960s London as the Profumo affair itself, and more poignant.
“Scandal ’63: The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Profumo Affair” is in Room 32 at the National Portrait Gallery, London, until Sept. 15.
“Stephen Ward,” a musical based on the Profumo scandal with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Christopher Hampton and Don Black, will preview at the Aldwych Theatre in London from Dec. 3 2013.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at email@example.com.