John Deakin: Acerbic Court Jester With A Critical Gaze

John Deakin

Under the Influence, John Deakin, Photography and the Lure of Soho, curated by Robert Muir, explores the lost world of 50s and 60s Soho through portraits of its inebriated iconoclasts. From its artists to its literary bohemians; with the likes of Francis Bacon, and Dylan Thomas, to Frank Auerbach, and Muriel Belcher – the proprietor of the now infamous Colony Room Club. All of which defined themselves by being constantly drunk, and caught by the photographer’s cruel lens, in a series of portraits that now define an era.

George Melly once described John Deakin as “a vicious little drunk of such inventive malice that it’s surprising he didn’t choke on his own venom”; this may well be reflected in Deakin’s ‘Contact sheet of self-portraits’, 1952, (Vogue), where the photographer looks awkward, irascible, and a little dangerous, if not physically; at least in intention. He was fired from Vogue. Twice.

But Deakin certainly had a talent for capturing the shabby glamour of Soho’s occupants, of which he was one; often it would seem through the filter of a post alcoholic haze, where his subjects seem vulnerable and sharply exposed to the photographer’s unforgiving lens. Deakin described his subjects as his ‘victims’, among them many famous faces of 50’s and 60’s Soho, most notably Francis Bacon – as the artist drank and gambled his way through the gilded gutter life of bohemian London.

The photographer created one of his most famous images with ‘Francis Bacon’ 1952 (Vogue), with a bare chest, Bacon holds up two sides of beef from either arm of a cruciform position; a quite prescient image and a reflection of Bacon’s own tortured preoccupation with the figure. Bacon’s and Deakin’s commonality was that they both found a cruelty in their respective fascinations; both had more victims than muses.

In fact it was his association with Bacon that resurrected Deakin’s photography to a kind of sleazy iconic status. John Deakin died of lung disease in a Brighton hotel in 1972. It was Jeffrey Bernard’s brother who found Deakin’s portfolio of tattered images stuffed under his death bed. The photographer’s work was also found festooned among the paint daubs and other assorted references in Bacon’s Reese Mews studio after the artist’s death in 1992. Deakin’s portraits seem all the more effecting with the passage of time.

John Deakin’s Soho has long since disappeared, scrubbed clean with bleach and made overly sanitary in comparison to its insalubrious heyday. Only the Coach and Horses pub – the hang out of Jeffrey Bernard – remains as a kind of theatrical tourist attraction for art students to get drunk in, while pretending to reside with Bacon, Bernard, and Freud [of which I confess I was one] – a eulogy to a period in British cultural history with a dash of the hyper-real, instead of lime.

This leaves Deakin’s photography as a fascinatingly raw historical document of a people in place and period, although subjectified by the photographer’s desire to expose the vulnerability and prospective guilt of his boozy sitters. Yet in doing so Deakin quite fittingly portrays the era in which his photographs were taken; the rather broken yet gilded gutter life of the notorious, of which the author and fellow of Deakin and Bacon; Daniel Farson wrote about so entertainingly, describing the photographer’s portraits as prison mugshots taken by a real artist.     

It was in John Maybury’s biopic of Bacon ‘Love is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon’ 1998, in which Deakin is rather unflatteringly portrayed as the very same peevish spiv that is referenced by George Melly, of which Derek Jacobi’s Bacon declares: “Champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends” as the artist pours the remains of his Bollinger over Deakin’s head. The scene may be apocryphal, but it serves to highlight that Deakin left enough of a mark on his era to be portrayed on film and enter the cultural lexicon of the London art scene – in spite of the fact that he had submerged himself in alcohol for the best part of the 1960’s. Or considering the Soho of the day – maybe because of it.

Under the Influence, John Deakin, Photography and the Lure of Soho is at the Photographers’ Gallery London until 13 July.


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