Under the Influence: John Deakin and the Lure of Soho, The Photographers’ Gallery until 13 July
I first came across the photographer John Deakin through the various memoirs of Daniel Farson. Back in the 1960s, Farson was quite a celebrity and made the unusual move to the East End, taking a house on Narrow Street (near the famous Grapes pub). He then bought a pub on the Isle of Dogs (now one of my local watering holes) and turned it into the place to go – regulars included visiting Hollywood stars like Clint Eastwood and performers included Shirley Bassey and even Judy Garland. Farson was also known for hanging out with the Colony Room set – a group of heavy-drinking artists, musicians and writers including Francis Bacon, George Melly, Jeffrey Bernard, Michael Andrews, Lucian Freud – and John Deakin. Farson and Deakin were close mates, although Farson introduces him in his memoir sponging money in the French House, another Soho pub popular with artists and writers.
George Melly described Deakin as a ‘vicious little drunk of such inventive malice and implacable bitchiness that it’s surprising he didn’t choke on his own venom’. Barbara Hutton said he was ‘the second nastiest man I’ve ever met’, which baffled Deakin’s friends because they couldn’t figure out who could be nastier. Born in Bootle in 1912, Deakin learned photography in Paris and was assigned to an army photographic unit during the war.
He worked for Vogue twice, but on both occasions he was sacked for losing his equipment. He washed up in Soho where he wanted to become a painter, but it was as a street photographer he produced his best work.
The results offer a uniquely unguarded glimpse of the past, framed by the familiar outline of a wonderfully seedy Soho.
Deakin, a chronic alcoholic, thought little of his photographic talents and was careless with his archives. Much of what remains of his work was pulled from underneath his bed in Soho after he died in 1972, or found, splattered with paint, on the floor of Francis Bacon’s studio.
But it was not by chance that they ended up there. Bacon thought extremely highly of Deakin’s photographic work and some of the artist’s most successful paintings are derived from Deakin’s images. In 2012, Bacon’s Portrait of Henrietta Moraes (1963) sold for £21.3 million. In 2013, Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud (1969) sold for $142 million, making it one of the most expensive paintings ever sold.
Both pictures were based on photographs by John Deakin.
I’ll be discussing John Deakin and his work on John Stanford’s radio show, The Serendipitous Compendium, on Sunday 8 June.