The Arne Jacobsen chair (that is not an Arne Jacobsen chair) in this picture has become as iconic a symbol as the model sitting astride it. It illustrated the transition from a moralistic and conservative 1950s to a new decade of personal freedom and exploration.
It also stood for the political intrigue that surrounded the Cold War era where spies lurked behind the facade of a louche society; where playboys and showgirls rubbed shoulders with aristocracy and Westminster power brokers.
So how exactly did two Sixties icons – one a piece of furniture, the other a teenage showgirl at the centre of a scandal become so entwined?
The first issue to clear up is the connection between Arne Jacobsen’s Model 3107 chair and the chair in this photograph.
Jacobsen designed the Model 3107, more commonly known as a Series 7, in 1955. It was a continuation on the theme of the Ant Chair, a revolutionary design with its minimalist shape and construction from a single piece of wood. The Danish designer had received inspiration from similar chairs produced by American fellow designers Charles and Ray Eames. The husband and wife team had invented the process used to shape the wood.
At first glance, to the untrained eye, the chair in this photograph resembles a Series 7. However, a closer look should highlight some key differences: the plywood used in a Jacobsen is much thinner, the back more upright and the fluid lines are more artfully crafted. Most notable of all, the chair in this photograph has had a hole, presumably for a handle, carved out of its back.The fact is that the chair in this photograph started off as nothing more than a photographer’s prop, one of half a dozen picked up from Heal’s for a few shillings.
Yet for all that, it doesn’t really matter. The hourglass profile may not have been shaped by the Eames’ revolutionary plywood pressure moulding method. The chair may not have been exclusively produced in the ‘Republic of Fritz Hansen’ but it has nonetheless proved capable enough to deliver the subtle messages of playfulness and protection, provocation, and censorship that characterized the emerging zeitgeist of Sixties London – and helped send sales of the real Series 7 through the stratosphere!
The full tale of the Profumo scandal is told elsewhere in fuller detail but here is its essence:
In 1961, John Profumo, a man of Italian aristocratic stock, was serving as Secretary of State for War under the Conservative government of Harold McMillan. A hero of the D-Day landings, married to successful British actress Valerie Hobson and with a motto of “Virtue and Work,” Profumo was as far away from the growing movement towards free love and cultural exploration as it was possible to get – or so it seemed.
Socialite Stephen Ward, on the other hand, was the personification of the new age. An artist and osteopath to the rich and famous by day, Ward was a provider of carnal pleasure to the monied and powerful by night. It was in this capacity, while in attendance at Murray’s Cabaret Club in Soho, that he became enamored of Christine Keeler.
Keeler came from a humble background, growing up with her mother and stepmother in a house made from two railway carriages in the Berkshire village of Wraysbury. After moving to London and finding work as a waitress, Keeler was encouraged to apply for a job at Murray’s. The owner, Percy Murray, hired her immediately as a topless showgirl.
The worlds of Profumo and Keeler collided in July 1961. As Profumo, a guest at Lord Astor’s Clivedon House strolled the grounds, Ward, who was renting a cottage on the grounds, was hosting a pool party. Keeler was swimming naked when Profumo saw her and two became lovers.
The affair may have remained a secret had Keeler’s complex love life not erupted in a hail of bullets following a spat between two other lovers: jazz promoter Johnny Edgecombe and jazz singer Lucky Gordon. The ensuing investigation not only uncovered the Profumo-Keeler affair but also revealed the connections between Keeler, Ward and Russian naval attache Yevgeny Ivanov, another potential lover of Keeler’s. In the Cold War climate, the idea that Keeler might have been in a position to pass state secrets to a Soviet spy served to deepen the scandal.
Profumo initially denied impropriety but weeks later admitted the affair and stood down. Seven month’s later, McMillan also stood down on ‘health grounds.’
Displayed in the National Portrait Gallery is a 20in x 16.25in bromide print of Keeler sitting, legs akimbo, the wrong way around on the now famous copy of a Jacobsen Model 3107 chair.
It is tempting to explain the composition of the photograph, with the chair’s dark sensuous curves accentuating Keeler’s glowing figure, as a statement of artistic genius but according to the man who took the snap – the late Lewis Morley – the picture was predominately a clever solution to a contractual dispute.
Keeler was to star in a film about the Profumo affair and a photo shoot had been arranged to take place at The Establishment, Peter Cook’s Greek Street nightclub. The shoot wasn’t going well though with the producers insisting on Keeler posing nude or being sued for breach of contract. Keeler refused to comply and stood her ground.
In a moment of inspiration, Morley found a way out of the impasse. He cleared everyone, including his assistant, from the room and suggested Keeler use the chair to protect her dignity while remaining true to the terms of the contract. After a few attempts, the last shot on his last roll of film would end up being the one that would make history.
And what of the chair? This rather unremarkable Arne Jacobsen copy was eventually donated by Morley to the V & A museum in 2001 where it remains. In a way, its rise from humble beginnings to become unwittingly linked with a scandal that brought down a government is a poignant reflection of Keeler’s own role in the Profumo scandal.