Christine Keeler Photograph: A Modern Icon
The urban myth that the photograph of Christine Keeler astride an Arne Jacobsen chair was taken when she was a model is false in more senses than one.
First, the chair used in the photo turns out to be a copy of the original. The hand-hold aperture cut out of the back was a ploy to avoid the legalities of copyright. Secondly the photograph was taken, not on a modelling session, but at the height of the revelations regarding the exposure, of the going-ons, of the War Minister and a young female, caught up in an affair which became known as 'The Scandal' or 'The Profumo Affair'.
Photographer Lewis Morley recalls the photo session which led to the creation of a modern icon:
'This photograph was one of a series of publicity shots for an intended film which never saw the light of day. It was not until 1989 that a film of the 1963 happenings was released under the title Scandal. The photographic session took place in my studio, which at that time was on the first floor of the 'Establishment', a satirical night club, part-owned by Peter Cook of 'Beyond The Fringe' fame. The satirical sketches took place on a small stage on the ground floor of the club. The Dudley Moore Trio played Jazz in the basement.
'During the session, three rolls of 120 film were shot. The first two rolls had Christine sitting in various positions on the chair and on the floor, dressed in a small leather jerkin. It was at this point that the film producers who were in attendance demanded she strip for some nude photos.
'Christine was reluctant to do so, but the producers insisted, saying that it was written in her contract. The situation became rather tense and reached an impasse. I suggested that everyone, including my assistant leave the studio. I turned my back to Christine, telling her to disrobe, sit back to front on the chair. She was now nude, fulfilling the conditions of the contract, but was at the same time hidden.
'We repeated some of the poses used on the previous two rolls of film. I rapidly exposed some fresh positions, some angled from the side and a few slightly looking down. 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. It wasn't until I developed the film that I discovered that somehow I had misfired one shot and there were only eleven images on a twelve exposure film. How this came about is a mystery to me.'
A chair inspired by one of the most successful 20th-century furniture designs is at the centre of the story of one of the Victoria and Albert Museum's most unexpected acquisitions. The chair on which Christine Keeler sat in the celebrated portrait session has been correctly identified as a 'knock-off', or imitation, of the classic Arne Jacobsen model 3107 chair. Photographer Lewis Morley bought half a dozen of them in a sale from a London retailer (he thought it could have been Heal’s) for five shillings apiece in 1962 . The chair is inscribed underneath by Lewis with the many famous sitters who have graced it, including Sir David Frost, Joe Orton and Dame Edna Everage, plus the names of the donors.
Although other museums had expressed a strong interest in the chair it was felt that the V&A had to be the perfect place for the chair for two reasons: because it has great collections of both photography and furniture, and because the chair is a British cultural icon. The chair is a pledged gift from Lewis Morley and John and Laura Knaus on loan from the American Friends of the V&A, Inc.
If you put the chair alongside the Arne Jacobsen original it is possible to see why the 3107 is a classic. As Gareth Williams of the Furniture, Textiles and Fashion department at the V&A points out:
'The plywood is much thicker and less subtly moulded. The cinched "waist" of the chair is more pronounced, and the front of the seat is set back too far. Unlike Jacobsen's chair this model has a cut-out handle at the top of the seat, but even this is inaccurately positioned and irregularly cut.'
Lewis Morley's image has become a classic and as widely imitated as Jacobsen's chair. You can see such chairs in second-hand shops described as 'Keeler chairs'.
If you look closely at the photographs, you can see that the back of the chair has been chafed - just like the one now in the V&A. It is touching, somehow, that the perfect photograph was posed in a flawed chair and that both are now in the Museum.
The V&A would like to acknowledge the generosity of Lewis Morley and the Knaus family for the donation of the photographs and the original chair.