Friday, 18 July 2014

The Athena Tennis Girl Dress

The Depressive Diplomatist recently posted about the sale of the famous Athena Tennis girl dress and wondered if I might be the sort of person who would have bought it.  It would certainly make a nice addition to a modern "cabinet of curiosities"; something the Legatus has always wanted to have!

"Tennis Girl" was taken by Birmingham based photographer Martin Elliott in 1976 at the University of Birmingham sports ground in Edgbaston (which was, coincidentally where my first serious girlfriend - a striking redhead, C - hailed from).  It was also, appropriately, where the modern game of lawn tennis was invented in 1859.  Elliott was nearly thirty at the time but his girlfriend and the model for the shot, Fiona Butler, was just eighteen.

Martin Elliott

The racket, shoes and dress were all borrowed (the balls belonged to a dog).  Fiona wasn't paid anything to pose but the canny Mr Elliott, when he sold the image to Athena for a poster calendar, kept the copyright and took royalties from it from then on.  The following year Athena issued the photo as a plain poster, without the calendar dates, and it went on to sell 2 million copies (you can still buy it today).  Sadly. Mr Elliott died in 2010 at the age of 63 after a long battle with cancer, but his wife continues to collect the royalties from his most famous image.

When I went to university, in 1979, almost the first port of call was to go and get some posters for my room.  They didn't have "no posters of the walls" rules then, so my room was wallpapered in them. Oddly, although I bought a lot of posters at Athena over the next three years, I didn't have this poster, as by then it was so well known that it had become a student room cliche.  I was always surprised how many copies I saw on the walls of girls rooms.

Originally founded in Hampstead in 1964, Athena went on to have over sixty shops around Britain.  It went bust in 1995 although continues to exist online, where you can still buy a limited edition canvas mounted print of the poster, signed by Martin Elliott, for £300. 

 Fiona Butler in 1978

As for the cheeky model, Fiona Butler, she went on to become a mother of three and a freelance illustrator.  She has been quoted as saying "I think it's the light that makes it so appealing".  She certainly is nicely haloed by the sun but we think she is not taking enough credit for her pert posterior.

Fiona Butler in 2011

In 2011 Fiona attended an exhibition on Tennis in Art at the University of Birmingham, where she was reunited with a copy of the poster in its original calendar format.  The exhibition curator, Professor Ann Sumner, said at the time that the image was the one most associated with tennis by the British public.  

The picture was even used for the cover of the June 1980 issue of Lui, the French Playboy

Despite what the subject of the picture thought, it  is not the best selling poster of all time (that is Farrah Fawcett's famous red swimsuit poster with 12 million sales) or even the best selling poster in Britain (that is Spencer Rowell's photo l'enfant of a shirtless man and a baby).  It's not even Athena's biggest selling poster, which is the one of Tutankhamen's burial mask.  It is, however, an iconic photograph that takes us back to a time when students put favourite images on walls, not just download them as a desktop on a computer, as today.  Even if they can put up a real poster these are often smaller as they have to fit university provided cork boards. The visual impact of a large poster is that much more striking.  A poster was a financial investment, especially for hard up students, and was cherished in a way easily replaceable digital images are not.  Very few were as cherished as much as Fiona Butler. 

On 5th July 2014, the day of the Ladies Final at Wimbledon,  the dress was sold at auction and made £15,500, way above the estimate of £1,000-2,000.  It was sold by the lady who made it, Carol Knotts, a friend of Miss Butler, who used a shop-bought Simplicity pattern; something the Legatus was very familiar with as our redheaded girlfriend C was a keen dressmaker and we seemed to spend hours being dragged around shops looking at the blessed things.  Butler borrowed both the dress and Miss Knotts' racquet (which was included in the lot) for the picture as she did not play tennis herself.