ARTS: EXHIBITIONS Foggy nights in London Town

John Deakin caught the bohemian spirit of Soho in the Fifties like no other photographer. A new show at the NPG celebrates his work

The establishment never puts up statues in commemoration of bohemians but the National Portrait Gallery has done the next best thing by mounting a show of photographs by John Deakin. They are quite varied, including pictures taken in France and Italy and much material from the Vogue archives, but the most telling prints are of Soho characters from three or four decades ago, and this sort of portraiture was evidently Deakin's forte.

I am too young to have been part of Deakin's milieu, but my elders gave

me a thorough Soho training and I can identify a number of people who may be unknown even to Robin Muir, whose exhibition this is and who has edited a nice book to go with the show (Schirmer Mosel, pounds 20). Who, for instance, visitors will ask, is the Terry Jones who appears in a saturnine, beautiful print between the two Bernard brothers, Jeffrey and Bruce, outside a drinking club? A first- rate chap! - though admittedly somewhat morose in a Welsh sort of way - Terry had the gift of gliding to one's side as if from nowhere. He was known as the Phantom of the Opera, from his job as caretaker of the old Scala Theatre at the corner of Tottenham and Charlotte Streets.

Being a stagehand was a common job among people Deakin knew and portrayed. The calling was irregular and more than slightly rough; it was a touch glamorous and attracted young people who liked the West End and knew that they would be failures if they undertook life's graver tasks. For me, Deakin's best photographs have this kind of flavour. They belong, as it were, to the scene at the back of the set. There are a number of glamour shots of actors and actresses at the NPG, Gina Lollobrigida and Robert Morley among them. They are OK, but not seedy enough. I like the one of Maria Callas, though. Deakin managed to make the diva into a sort of stagehand's girlfriend.

By temperament, Deakin was best with boyfriends. He was born in 1912, brought up in Liverpool, got himself to London, did a bit of naive painting and was then taken up by a rich art dealer, Arthur Jeffress, who gave him quite a lot of high life around the world. Deakin knew Paris well, and there he discovered photography. This was before the war. No doubt he had much native skill, for in 1939 he joined the Army Film and Photography Unit; and when peacetime came he joined Vogue, where he worked for some years - even though pissed half the time, regularly losing equipment and filing ludicrously high expenses.

To the credit of the people at Vogue, they stuck with Deakin and his talent. Hard to define this talent, though it certainly existed. One of his sitters, Elizabeth Smart, helplessly said that he had "extraordinary eyes". Muir thinks there is a connection between Deakin as a naive artist and Deakin as the strangely frank photographer who often got effects because he seemed to be careless of effect. There's much to be said for this view, though Deakin was surely also affected by post-war documentary styles, the cinema of the day and the general make-do-and-mend atmosphere of London before the Sixties.

These pictures are also unsettlingly wary, as though they had been taken by a man who sensed that events, or death, or the coppers, might soon catch up. Nobody else has ever made artists look so much like criminals. Well, the likes of Francis Bacon did have some dodgy friends. Alan Reynolds (an RA nowadays) looks as if he'd just come out of the nick. The third Bernard brother, Oliver, poet and translator of classics, also looks to be on the wrong side of the law. I am reminded of early-Fifties press photographs of teddy boys and "cosh kids", and perhaps such pictures were also an influence on Deakin.

To return for a moment to The Phantom of the Opera, and his name. The memoirs of Henrietta Moraes - represented here by split-legs pictures of no aesthetic merit, though they may have helped Bacon (more open shots, known in the pornography trade as "Blackwall Tunnels", were sold by Deakin in pubs) -have already mentioned the Soho love of nicknames. She writes of Sid the Swimmer, Big Jean and Stout Sally. Let me salute some others, all of whom would have brushed against Deakin before his death in 1972: Scarlet Auntie Inez, Wheatsheaf Daphne, Mister Double Allen, Fred-on-the- Wing, Freaky Fiona and Tommy the Dustman.

Like a certain kind of criminal, they had these names because they were folk-heroes rather than celebrities. In the old Soho there were any number of bums, scribblers, book dealers and so on who had a genial fame only within that area. Of course some were famous, but even well-known artists were part of the village atmosphere. Deakin's photography reflects this paradox. It served Vogue, with its wide and classy circulation, but its roots were in street life.

Is the camera the natural instrument of the bohemian ethos? Maybe, and there's certainly a tradition of Soho photography. Bruce Bernard and Harry Diamond are well known in this area. I bet you didn't know that Jeffrey Bernard had a six-month-long career as a photographer. (The result was a book called Soho Night and Day, published in 1966.) But although Bernard's subject matter overlaps with Deakin's, there's always, in Deakin, a powerful sub-theme of menace and mortality.

Somewhere a killer is lurking. It's interesting that Deakin most strongly suggests death when his sitter is a male, is rich by Soho standards and has some kind of dignity or fame in the world at large. Louis MacNeice wants to frighten you but he's on the way out. The portrait of John Minton, a wealthy boy who drank himself to death, is reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley, and this is one of the few moments when we sense artistic cultivation in Deakin's vision. John Huston is brooding about who he's going to shoot. Other cinema people include Visconti and Simone Signoret. Artists are Bacon, Freud, Camille Bombois and William Scott; among the poets are Auden, George Barker, Dylan Thomas and WS Graham. I was going to count up how many of Deakin's subjects are still alive, but then felt too sad for the task.

! NPG, WC2 (0171 306 0055), to 14 July.

Arts and Entertainment
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
books
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'