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Pattie Boyd: ‘I was with The Beatles and everything was fabulous’

Model and photographer Pattie Boyd on growing up with George Harrison and her experiences at the heart of Sixties London.

Pattie Boyd was born in 1944 in Taunton. As a child she had spells living in Scotland, Surrey and Kenya, her parents divorced. After leaving school she moved to London, where she worked as a shampoo girl before becoming a model.

Boyd appeared in Vogue, Vanity Fair and Elle before being cast in The Beatles’ 1964 film A Hard Day’s Night, where she met and befriended the group’s lead guitarist George Harrison. She married him in 1966, the pair becoming a golden couple of Sixties London. He wrote many songs about her, most notably 1969’s Something. After divorcing Harrison in 1974, she got together with Eric Clapton, who had declared his love for her years earlier and reputedly composed 1970’s Layla about her, as well as 1976’s Wonderful Tonight.

Clapton and Boyd married in 1979, but she left him in 1987, citing his alcoholism and numerous infidelities. She got together with property developer Rod Weston in 1991, eventually marrying him in 2015.

Boyd has been taking photos of musicians and other friends since the Sixties, and first exhibited them in 2005 in the show Through the Eyes of a Muse. She has recently released a book of her images, Pattie Boyd: My Life in Pictures.

In her Letter To My Younger Self, Boyd looks back on her remarkable life and explains that, although she has regrets, she has enjoyed some truly remarkable experiences, particularly seeing the frenzy of Beatlemania first-hand.

I had no idea what I wanted to do when I was 16. I went to a girls’ boarding school, and we weren’t encouraged to be ambitious or get a job. We were just left to our own devices. And when you’re young without any direction it’s very difficult. You might be influenced by a girl you’ve met, or something you’ve seen other people do, possibly something you see on TV, and it’s not really you, what you really should be pursuing. If I’d got my act together when I was young, I would have tried much harder at school. Then I’d have been able to go to art school, which is what I should have done, which would have been lovely. If I’d learned more when I was young, I’d have made more of my life.

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I was an optimistic, happy-go-lucky girl. I think that’s part of my DNA; all my brothers and sisters are very similar. It was difficult growing up with my mother and my stepfather, who we didn’t like. And they were having a tough time together. So we as children were like a little gang. We knew life had to be better than what we were going through. I think that childhood, what I had to go through, gave me the belief that there’s always something sunny on the other side, something to look forward to. I don’t know why I didn’t think about my future. There was a thought then that girls should be brought up to find a nice husband then stay home to look after the children. I looked at my mother’s life and I knew I didn’t want to do that. So I was always a bit rebellious. Whatever my stepfather’s views were, I disagreed with them. He was too, too conservative. Whatever he presented I naturally rebelled against.

When I started modelling, every day was a huge adventure. [She began modelling for magazines like Vogue and Vanity Fair, posing for photographers like David Bailey and Terence Donovan, when she was 18]. I was full of excitement. I would take my portfolio to photographers’ studios to see if they liked my photos and find out whether they could use me for a job. It wasn’t like working in an office, where everything would be the same every day. It was constantly exciting. For a while it felt perfect, but then I started to want something more challenging. So I thought, right, I’ll give up modelling and do something else once I’ve been on the cover of Vogue. Once I’ve done that I can go off and learn how to do something else. In the meantime, I saved up enough money to buy a camera. So when I was working I started asking photographers for their advice on how to take photographs, what I should look for, how to set the camera up. So I was learning something when I was working.

Pattie Boyd modelling a Quorum mini dress in London
1966: Modelling a Quorum mini dress in London. Photo: Pattie Boyd Archive

I remember the day I found out I’d got the UK Vogue cover, my agent phoned to tell me. I was so excited. I could hardly sleep the night before and I didn’t eat anything that day either. I was always worried about looking fat. You see, when you have a photograph taken, it always adds a couple of pounds. But the photo was just a big close-up of my face. In those days there were no make-up artists, so I did my own. Luckily on the day I didn’t have any spots or anything naughty coming up on my face. It looked lovely, it looked gorgeous. 

George [Harrison, whom she married when she was 22] and I were very young when we met. I was 19 or 20 and he was a year older than me. In a way it was wonderful because we were growing up together, we still had so much to learn. London was exploding with creativity and in the fashion world we had all these wonderful designers appear, like Mary Quant and Ossie Clark, and great painters like David Hockney. And spirituality came into our lives as well. George discovered this wonderful Indian instrument that he was fascinated by, and that took us to India where we met Ravi Shankar. I loved him, he was the most generous man and so beautiful and intelligent and articulate. We learned so much from him, we were like little kids, soaking everything up. We were really, really lucky. And in a way, I suppose it was an education for me. 

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I was frightened when we went to America for the first time. All these people suddenly emerged and they wanted to see George and talk to him, but then they turned to talk to me. And I was so shy, I didn’t know what to say. They were just over-enthusiastic really, overwhelmed by meeting him, but that was overwhelming for me. I was just this little English girl and they wanted to know about The Beatles and the music and they were looking for answers I couldn’t give them. 

Pattie Boyd with then-husband George Harrison
1968: With then-husband George Harrison. Photo: Pattie Boyd Archive

In those days we didn’t read the papers, so we were unaware of what they were saying about us. We were in a sort of bubble, I think. It would have made me more nervous if I’d thought, oh god, every time we go out we’re going to be photographed and it’ll be in a paper. That would have made me very nervous.

In my 20s I was in that lovely heady atmosphere of being with The Beatles and everything was fabulous. We were meeting gorgeous people and fabulous musicians and I thought life would always be living in that big bubble – one party, one nightclub after another. I thought oh, this will be my life. This is it forever. [When I met Eric Clapton] I probably thought, oh great, he loves me so much. Why not get married? [After her separation from Harrison she entered a turbulent marriage to Clapton, whom she divorced after 10 years, citing his alcoholism and numerous affairs.]

I’d tell my younger self, don’t be older than your years. Don’t be so quick to think ‘this is it’ and have babies and settle down. Because life is so long and so precious. We don’t need to squeeze everything into just a few years, when we’re barely out of teenagehood. I’ve had to learn an awful lot. Learning sometimes is very painful, but if you don’t learn, you’ll never be able to take that big step into the world and learn something new. You only learn something if you’ve had pain. It’s ridiculous to try and avoid it. 

Pattie Boyd on the cover of Vogue
1969: On the cover of October’s Vogue, for which she did her own make-up.

I think we should all free ourselves from stupid ideas [about ageing] and becoming less attractive. All the pressure we put on ourselves, if we could free ourselves we’d be much happier. But it’s difficult. That time when you realise you’re not young any more, it is shocking and it’s horrible. It’s a very big pill to swallow. We’re so influenced by others and we do listen to what other people say. We look at photographs of ourselves caught at a bad angle and think oh god, that’s how I really look. But, you know, we’ve just got to get on with it. 

I’m not a mother. It would have been very nice to have had children. But I’m jolly lucky, I’ve got 13 nieces and nephews. I love them. We have great fun. I love to hear how they think, their perception of life and how it is at school and how their friends are. It’s all interesting – they are so adorable. But I have to give them back to their parents. 

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If I could have one last conversation with anyone, it would be with George. He died in 2001 and every so often in my life something will happen and I’ll think, George is the only one I can talk to about this. George will know the answer to this. We were such good friends and only he would understand so much of what I’m thinking about or remembering, because we experienced such a thick amount of life together. Before he died he came to visit me. He was very ill, but we didn’t talk about [him dying]. I think he came just to see me and catch up and to see where I live. He brought me a few little gifts and we had tea and listened to some music. And when he left I thought, I’ll never see him again. 

Pattie Boyd: My Life in Pictures is out now (Reel Art Press, £39.95)

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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