DMU exhibition marking 60th anniversary of Profumo affair reassesses Christine Keeler's role in the scandal that shook Britain

They say history repeats itself and a new exhibition at De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) marking the 60th anniversary of Christine Keeler and the notorious Profumo affair may just be testament to that.

With the rise of the #MeToo / Time’s Up movement in the 2020s, the expose and downfall of sex abusers such as Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein, and sleaze accusations aimed at the Government, the curators of the show ‘Scandal ’63 Revisited’ believe there has never been a better time to reassess what happened to Christine Keeler in 1963.

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Christine's son Seymour at DMU next to a portrait of his mother by Fionn Wilson

Keeler was just 21 years old when newspapers broke the story in 1963 that she started an affair two years earlier with 48-year-old Tory Secretary of State for War John Profumo; a scandal that led to his resignation - after lying about the affair in Parliament - and the eventual downfall of the Conservative government.

The exhibition, which is free and open to the public at the Leicester Gallery in De Montfort University (DMU), pushes the view that Christine Keeler was very much the victim, as the Government and high society set out to destroy her reputation to save theirs, with then Prime Minister Harold Wilson publicly labelling her ‘a harlot’ and media calling her ‘a prostitute’ and ‘a slut’.

The viewpoint from the artworks and the numerous artefacts - that it was the rich and powerful who made Keeler a scape goat and that the scandal might have played out differently now - are reinforced by the support of Keeler’s son, Seymour Platt, who attended a preview event at DMU last night (Thursday).

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Co-curators Steve Chibnall & Fionn Wilson with Seymour and work by Caroline Coon

Mr Platt has launched a campaign to clear his mother’s name and is asking for a royal pardon over her conviction for perjury in 1963. The case is currently with the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) and being considered as a possible miscarriage of justice.

The Leicester Gallery show includes artefacts and artworks which encourage visitors to question Keeler’s guilt and sense the mood of the nation both in 1963 and now.

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Keeler's head dress from Murray's Cabaret Club, London

Artefacts include:

  • The head dress worn by Keeler while working as a showgirl at Murray’s Cabaret Club – the place where she met Stephen Ward, whose role in the Profumo affair was as a ‘provider’ of young girls, including Keeler and her teenage friend Mandy Rice-Davies, to visiting dignitaries and politicians
  • Film of the screen test taken by Keeler to star in her own biopic in 1963, which she was unable to appear in because she was in prison
  • Letters Keeler wrote to her mother while in jail
  • Paintings of the various people involved in the 1963 scandal by artists reassessing Keeler’s treatment, including by exhibition co-curator Fionn Wilson, who has been painting Keeler for almost ten years, and feminist artist Caroline Coon, who knew Keeler
  • A portrait by Stephen Ward
  • New art works by Cathy Lomax, Sal Jones and Dameon Priestly, commissioned specially for this exhibition
  • Original newspapers, magazines and photography from 1963 documenting the Profumo affair, as well as references to subsequent books, academic papers and media, including the sensationalised film Scandal, released in 1993.

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A painting by Stephen Ward of 50s star Sue Lloyd

Co-curators Steve Chibnall and Fionn Wilson are looking forward to visitors having the chance to learn about and reconsider Keeler’s role in the scandal as well as assess how society may, or may not, have changed in the last 60 years.

Steve, Professor of British Cinema at DMU, said: “What makes this exhibition so different is that it shows the relationship between art works which are a personal response to Christine Keeler’s story and artefacts which show the public response at the time.

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There are a myriad of original headlines from 1963

“These two approaches meet in the cross hairs and try and get a fix on what has happened to the name of Christine Keeler, and others, from 1963 up to now.

“For decades cultural productions [such as film, TV and even stage musicals] have tended to expose the injustice done by a repressive power elite to the man at the centre of events, the artist and osteopath Stephen Ward, celebrating him as a champion of sexual freedom.

“With the impact of the #MeToo/ Time’s Up movements the emphasis has shifted to the need to acknowledge the honesty of his mentee and muse Christine Keeler.

“Since her death aged 75 in 2017, Christine has been reimagined as a feminist icon and her son, Seymour, has seized the time to campaign to clear his mother’s name from the taint of perjury, also using art works [on display at The Gallery] to spread his message.”

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Scandalous by Sadie Lee imagines an elderly Keeler in famous pose

Painter and curator Fionn, who spent four years working with more than 20 female artists and 50 contributors for a touring exhibition ‘Dear Christine’ in 2019-20, worked with Steve to produce this anniversary show.

She said: “Powerful men abusing their position is nothing new – it’s a story that runs through most of history and most of the great works of art and literature. This is unlikely to change.

“However, nowadays we have a platform, via the internet, to connect with others and to make voices and stories heard.

“In the time of the Profumo Affair, Christine (and Mandy Rice-Davies) did not have this platform and they battled the media and the establishment with no support.

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Marguerite Horner's Paparazzi

“For the rest of her life, Christine fought this aspect of not being heard, of not being believed or properly listened to and of being judged and labelled. She had no real voice or power, as it was for most women of the time.

“… It’s satisfying to see abusive and powerful men such as Weinstein and Epstein toppled and brought to justice, but they only represent the tip of the iceberg. Abuse of power is endemic in society and the system enables it. From this point of view, little has changed in the 60 years since the Profumo Affair.”

Scandal ’63 Revisited is free to visit at Leicester Gallery, De Montfort University, and runs until Saturday 15 April.

For more information, including opening hours, visit the Leicester Gallery website

Posted on Friday 3rd March 2023

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