Martin Elliott’s ‘Tennis Girl’ is an iconic classic across the world, selling two million copies to become the world’s biggest selling photograph. It is a true piece of original, timeless, brilliance that portrays true elegance in its simplicity.
The famous saucy picture was licensed to Athena and became an instant best-seller when it was first published as a calendar for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977 – the year Virginia Wade won the Wimbledon singles title.
The photo was released as a poster which became a worldwide sensation and adorned the bedroom walls of teenage boys for a generation.
Few people know that the photograph was taken on at Birmingham University’s tennis court in Edgbaston, in the summer of 1976. And mystique surrounded the identity of the tennis girl who remained anonymous until 25 years after it was taken.
Martin revealed in 2001 that the girl with the most famous bum in the world was Fiona Butler. She was an 18 year old art student living with her parents when modelling for the shot. Fiona was Martin Elliot’s girl friend at the time and unable to play tennis, and never even learned how to.
Martin was a young Black Country photographer and was dating 18 year-old Fiona when he came up with the idea for the poster.
After borrowing a racket and getting a friend to make the sexy tennis dress, a set of pictures was taken at Edgbaston.
“At the time, the idea of selling a picture to be used for a poster was a dream to me,” recalled Martin.
“But everything on that day happened naturally. Me and Fiona both had lots of fun.
“But the idea that Fiona never made any money out of it, and was sore because of that, is absolutely ridiculous.
“She was my girlfriend and doing me a favour. It was as simple as that. We were living at home at the time, so I paid for everything, anyway. There there was never any problem with Fiona about the money I made.”
Fiona, married to millionaire Ian Walker, is now 52 and has teenage twin daughters and a son and living in a small mansion near Kidderminster, Worcestershire. She is an illustrator, doing work for the likes of Marks and Spencer – presumably for the fun of it rather than the money. Her illustrations of flowers were first published in 1978.
Ms Walker said she had no regrets over the photo, but that she had “no idea whatsoever” that it would become so popular.
Laying bare her feelings about the photo, Fiona said: “I think it’s the light that makes it so appealing.
“I was very naive and was paid nothing, and I think it’s the biggest-selling poster ever.
“My mother has a very faded copy in what used to be my father’s study and I just have it in the form of a very small postcard.”
She said: “It never ceases to make me smile when I see it. I think my children tell people that it’s me but most people don’t believe it.”
Fans of the picture have included world-famous movie stars Ernest Borgnine and Charlton Heston, and British serial killer Dennis Nielsen. Scottish-born Nielsen, a former army butcher, killed at least 15 men while living in London. He kept the bodies of his mutilated victims, some of them lovers, in his apartment before disposing of them in his drain and garden. He was sentenced to life in 1983.
The impression is of Fiona walking away from the camera, tired with the right arm dropped trailing the racket with her head slightly dropped. Her left arm is reaching behind her body with the hand lifting her dress scratching her left buttock. With a good athletic body with wide shoulders and no surplus fat, Fiona was perfect for a pose of a professional tennis player. Fiona was posing static giving the impression she was walking – doing so very convincingly. The photograph is true creative brilliance from Martin aided by Fiona.
Most people thought it was a real candid shot of a famous tennis star caught unaware scratching her bum revealing no underwear. Speculation was rife as to who the girl was, comparing shots from the rear of stars. Martin did eventually reveal that the shot was staged and not an opportunist candid shot. Fiona’s name was only revealed about 25 years after the photograph was taken.
Martin did not receive all the royalties owed by Athena, the poster publishers. Otherwise he would have been wealthy judging by the millions of posters sold. Martin conceived and shot the biggest selling photograph of all time which never gave him such financial gains. Martin achieved fame with fortune eluding him. He had to work to supplement the royalties, which were Ł65 for the first year. Martin died peacefully in his sleep in Pulla Cross, Cornwall on 24 March 2010, aged 63, after a long battle with cancer, leaving a widow Noelle. Royalties are still paid to Martin’s widow even today.