On a Mission

The pioneering British Pop Artist Derek Boshier now lives and works in Los Angeles. Last year, he was in London for two exhibitions of his work: Rethink, Re-entry at Flowers Gallery on Cork Street and The World Goes Pop at Tate Modern.  While in London, Boshier visited the GAC to see his painting I Wonder What My Heroes Think of the Space Race, 1962. As we knew little about the painting prior to buying it at Sothebys in 1976, we were keen to hear what he had to say about the work, a classic example of British Pop Art from the ’60s …

Derek Boshier at the GAC with 'I Wonder What My Heroes Think of the Space Race'

Derek Boshier at the GAC with ‘I Wonder What My Heroes Think of the Space Race’

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I Wonder What My Heroes Think of the Space Race is currently in our London HQ, having come back to Britain from Moscow where it had been on display in the British Embassy. Before he had the chance to lay eyes on the painting, Derek Boshier explained that he hadn’t seen it for many years except in reproduction. Clearly surprised and excited to see the work again, he immediately placed his hands on the surface. ‘The last time I saw this painting was in [film director] Ken Russell’s flat in Notting Hill Gate’, he said. ‘I’d asked him to look after it for me as he had a bigger flat than I had!

Larger than an average sized door, the unusual composition of I Wonder What My Heroes Think of the Space Race, revolves around two spheres – the earth and the moon. Boshier commented that at the time he was keen to make a work that was specifically about the Cold War and the beginning of the space race between the US and USSR. The painting references the moment, on 12 April 1961, that the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (1934–1968) became the first person to orbit Earth.

Amid the clouds are recognisable historical figures – the ‘heroes’ that Boshier refers to in the title. A half portrait of Lord Horatio Nelson (1758–1805) shows him in military dress and eye patch. Nearby, before a row of American flags, is the bearded figure of Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865), 16th President of the United States. Below, is the spectacled face of Buddy Holly (1936–1959), the US rock and roll singer of That’ll Be the Day and Peggy Sue. Laughing, Boshier said he liked the fact that these heroes now seemed like a ‘fairly arbitrary bunch’.

Boshier noted the blood-spattered globe, saying he was thinking about the Cold War tensions and the possibility of actual war breaking out. He also explained that the imagery to the far left of the work was derived from a comic about aliens. The smaller globe in the centre contains the various dogs that were sent into space in the ’60s: Belka [‘woof’] a Russian dog; Ham, a US dog; Hector, a French dog. ‘There wasn’t a British dog’ said Boshier ‘because the British love their dogs too much to send them into space’!

In the painting, a figure tumbles from the clouds and Boshier described how a falling figure became a common motif in his work. Apparently it dates from a meeting at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in the ’60s where students were told to ‘stop this Pop Art nonsense’ and work from an existing masterpiece. He chose William Blake’s painting The Simoniac Pope 1824–7 in which Pope Nicholas III is punished by being suspended head downwards in Dante’s well of fire.

Boshier’s interest in falling figures is also connected to Nic Roeg’s seminal 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth, starring the late David Bowie. Boshier was first introduced to Bowie by the photographer Brian Duffy in the ’70s and at this meeting Bowie asked Boshier to design the cover for his album Lodger. Boshier remembers how they made it look as though Bowie was tumbling from the sky by building a table and shooting from ’10 or 12ft above with a bathroom sink placed on the floor beneath the table so it looks like he’s falling’.

I Wonder What My Heroes Think of the Space Race famously featured in a BBC film, Pop Goes the Easel (1962), directed by Ken Russell, which focused on Boshier, Pauline Boty, Peter Blake and Peter Phillips, four of the leading British Pop Artists. Shown sitting in front of the painting in his studio, a youthful Boshier wistfully remarks how his ‘childhood heroes’ [Nelson, Lincoln and Holly] had ‘one thing in common, they all died young – a heroes’ death’.

Derek Boshier was born in Portsmouth and attended Yeovil School of Art (1953–57), and the RCA (1959–62) where he was one of a younger generation of British Pop Artists. Since 1962 he has exhibited widely and is well represented in British public collections. Major group exhibitions featuring his work include Art and the Sixties at Tate Britain (2004) and Pop Art Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery (2007). In 1980 Boshier was invited to take up a Professorship at the University of Houston, Texas. Today he lives in Los Angeles where he continues to work, teach and write extensively.