Portraits of the artists: A rare glimpse into the photographic archive of John Deakin

Photographer John Deakin chronicled the twilight world of 1950s Soho and the original Brit Art stars who inhabited it. Now a rare glimpse of his archive recalls that extraordinary generation
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The Independent Culture

When the photographer John Deakin died aged 60 in 1972, his prints, torn and dog-eared, were found scattered across London. By far the most were salvaged from under his bed in Soho by Bruce Bernard, the photographic historian, who would become his champion; when Francis Bacon's studio was exhumed and transferred piece by piece to Dublin in 1998, more Deakin prints came to light: nearly 300 fragments.

But Vogue magazine kept an archive too, a surprisingly intact one, only perhaps because the key to the filing cabinet had been lost for years. Deakin had been a staff photographer there from 1948 to 1949 and again from 1951 to 1954. He achieved the dubious distinction of having been hired and fired by the same editor, twice. She found after the first occasion – he was sacked for constantly mislaying cameras – that no one took portraits like Deakin, so back on to the payroll he went. After three productive years, an indiscretion with the actress Kay Kendall, it was said, or an insult flung at Cecil Beaton, whom he loathed, spelt the end. More likely, the lure of Soho's lunchtime pubs and afternoon drinking dens led to cancelled sittings.

The pictures on these pages rank among his best, portraits of British artists which over the years he was commissioned by Vogue to make, mostly for a 1952 feature titled 'Painters and Pictures'. No one but Deakin could have gathered these disparate figures into a fashion magazine's studio and made such incisive portraits of them. This was because, on the whole, he knew and liked them and they him. Two of the painters – Michael Andrews and Lucian Freud – returned the favour and painted Deakin's portrait, both hauntingly.

Deakin left one piece of writing after his death, Eight Portraits, in which he left perhaps a suitable valediction: "Being fatally drawn to the human race, what I want to do when I photograph it is to make a revelation about it. So my sitters become my victims. But I would like to add that it is only those with a daemon, however small and of whatever kind, whose faces lend themselves to being victimised at all."

Gods & Monsters, John Deakin's Portraits of British Artists, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, 1 October to 1 February 2011; pallant.org.uk

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