Culture notes

John Deakin is no genius – and he has not been forgotten

Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon secured the Soho photographer's immortality

3 May 2014

9:00 AM

3 May 2014

9:00 AM

Every so often, John Deakin, jug-eared chronicler of Soho and hanger-on at the Colony Rooms, is breathlessly rediscovered as the unknown giant behind Bacon and the forgotten man from Soho’s  generation of genius. All that is so much tosh: Deakin is no genius and he has not been forgotten. In fact, he can never be forgotten, most importantly because Bacon commissioned photographs from Deakin that he used to make his paintings but also because Deakin himself was the subject of one of Freud’s greatest portraits (above) and because Deakin’s photographs capture Bohemian Soho in aspic for the mental tourist of the future.

In Under the Influence: John Deakin and the Lure of Soho at the Photographer’s Gallery (until 13 July), his shortcomings are made very clear — the show includes Deakin’s contrived and derivative paintings and his street and sub-Beaton fashion photography. But when Deakin takes photographs of his friends he spreads his wings and soars. His portraits are among the most beautiful images from 1950s Britain. They seem to communicate exactly how Deakin felt about his subjects, cocky Jeffrey Bernard, seedy Oliver Bernard, tragic Elizabeth Smart. The poignancy of his vision is amplified by the contempt in which Deakin seems to have held his own art. The prints that survive do so by accident, dog-eared, torn and with footprints. And they do so thanks to the heroic efforts of Bruce Bernard and, since the 1980s, James Moores, who has protected and added to the archive.

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Show comments
  • Robin Muir

    Jack. Nice to have met you in the gallery. Meant to ask if you were related to Mary Wakefield, whose writing I admire so much, and ‘interning’ on the magazine that employs her? The points you make about Deakin are fair ones, though Muriel’s was never known as the ‘Colony Rooms’ and have a quick word with your boss Mark Amory about Oliver Bernard, who was his friend and mine. He wrote for The Spectator before you you were born and he was many things. ‘Seedy’ was not one of them. Deakin would never have considered him that, nor Elizabeth Smart ‘tragic’. Both were full of life.

  • Thomas Hodgkinson

    robin’s comment is as interesting as jack’s notes

  • jack

    Robin knows lots more about Deakin than anyone else. I wasn’t talking about Oliver Bernard the person but my impression of Oliver Bernard the photograph, for which I understood Deakin had asked him to turn up unshaven. Similarly my impression of the beautiful Smart portrait no judgment on her personally. Mark Amory is the literary editor not the arts editor, that is Liz Anderson.

    • Robin Muir

      Oh Jack, Jack, Jack! Ignore me! I’m just an old man scrabbling to get an exhibition together and hoping for a good review. You were really sweet and you write beautifully and you were very fair. Seriously. Thank you for bothering to come in at all. I’m chastened.

      • jack

        I’m sorry if it didn’t come across as a good review. The construction I wanted was, Deakin isn’t good at everything but the portrait photographs are heartrendingly beautiful. I would like to think that flagging them as some of the beautiful images from 1950s Britain I might even have nudged a person or two to go. At any rate, as a fan, thanks very much for putting it on!

  • jack

    Ps Mary Wakefield is my sister but I am not interning on the magazine. As I think I told you, I pitched this short review to the arts editor.

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