Rupert Smith first got turned on to the work of Britain's founding physique photographer when he was a teenager in the Seventies, poring over titles such as Hy! and Man to Man which he nicked from his local newsagent. "They were terribly shoddy, and really everything you feared about being gay, but the models were absolutely gorgeous and they stuck in my memory." A decade later he came across Barrington's name again while researching an article on the history of gay publishing. He decided to get in touch with him.
Smith was confronted with an extraordinary double life. On the surface Barrington was a model of respectability: he lived in leafy, suburban south London, he was married and a grandfather. But at the same time he was still picking up men in the street, taking them back to his studio, photographing them and, as often as not, having sex with them - as he had done for the previous 40 years. He insisted to Smith, however, that he was not homosexual, merely a "connoisseur" of men's bodies. He also told him he had just been diagnosed with leukaemia and was looking for someone to help him write his autobiography.
Barrington began photographing men in 1938 when he was an art student. Aged 17 and armed with his first camera, he went to the men's bathing pond on Hampstead Heath. He soon discovered his first star model, a 16- year-old cabinet-maker from Tufnell Park called David Dulak. "The thing he learnt really quickly," says Smith, "was that the average straight, good-looking, young guy is probably horny most of the time and finds the idea of being flattered, flirted with, seduced and coaxed by a photographer a big turn on. It's quite narcissistic, his models would get into the whole thing and get very turned on and I suppose if at the end he offered to `help them out' they were probably not going to complain too much."
Barrington always claimed the photography stemmed from his art studies and his interest in anthropometry - the comparative study of the size and shape of the human body - but really it seems it was mainly a way of getting men into bed without having to admit to himself he was homosexual. Picking men up just for sex or, God forbid, having a relationship with a man, would have been out of the question. "It was important to John throughout his life to emphasise the distinction between his homosexual behaviour and the actual fact of being a `homosexual', something he never admitted or accepted. Even more important was that [the model, and subsequent lover] was a normal, `healthy' young man, indulging in gay sex for the the sheer physical pleasure, and most emphatically not a queen, a queer, a class of person upon whom John heaped scorn despite the fact that he was to all appearances a major queen himself." The models with whom Barrington was most obsessed, such as David, were the ones who were totally straight, who wouldn't have sex with him at all.
The photography soon took over Barrington's life, and developed into a business. He began by selling what were coyly referred to as "references for life studies" in the back of magazines such as The Artist. He always longed for a more legitimate career and over the years tried his hand as a playwright, a novelist, a theatrical producer and a sculptor, but he would always end up returning to the one thing he was good at, and which made him money. He also longed for legitimacy in his personal life. In the Fifties, he got married, to one of his model's former girlfriends. "This thing I've prayed for so long, this normal and healthy and jolly relationship with a girl," he noted in his diary. "He wanted very badly to settle down and marry," says Smith. "He didn't want to end up as he feared, lonely and shunned by society, brave and brazen as he was in some ways. He was also very close to his mother and wanted to do what she wanted. And his relationship with his wife was genuine: the proof of the pudding is that they stayed together for 35 years."
Barrington's greatest work was done from the time of his marriage, through the Fifties and Sixties - although what Mrs Barrington thought of all this carry-on is never quite clear. There were a handful of models whom he photographed again and again, who had their own dedicated followings among his clients in Britain and America: Tibor Noszkay, a Hungarian refugee, Yves Martin, a former French air force pilot. They were usually down on their luck, happy to accept a few quid from Barrington and dazzled by the prospect of a career in modelling. Sometimes they eventually made it legitimately - there are some beautiful photographs of Alain Delon taken in Cannes when he was a teenager. In 1954 Barrington launched Male Model Monthly, the first magazine of its kind in Britain; there were no genitals or pubic hair to be seen and certainly nothing to suggest to the casual reader that it was a homosexual publication, but those in the know sent off for the additional - ie uncensored - photographs of the models featured. Barrington also contributed to other equally dodgy and dodgily produced magazines, such as the classic American title, Physique Pictorial. Work from this period has become very collectable and has a cult following. A minor industry recycles the old physique work through books, magazines and on the internet. Barrington has his own Web site, the Wickford Schatzkammer, run by a major American collector, while Kouros, a collection of some of Barrington's best work selected by him just before he died, is published in this country by Gay Men's Press. The quality of Barrington's work tailed off from the late Sixties, with the dawn of gay liberation and greater sexual freedom. The more closeted times seemed to suit him better. He seemed uncomfortable producing work which was sexually explicit or openly gay: an advert for one his titles in the Seventies promises "no banner-waving, Gay Lib hang-ups".
The biography was not completed in Barrington's lifetime, even though he survied several more years. "He was sabotaging it all the time, subconsciously," says Smith. "He craved recognition for his work but he also feared it because it would have rocked the boat, it didn't fit in with his life as a married man, a family man. He would never have allowed anyone to tell the truth about him while he was alive. He was a control freak, but had he been a normal, creative, achieving kind of person there would have been no story, he wouldn't have led the life he did."
`Physique: the Life of John S Barrington' by Rupert Smith is published by Serpent's Tail, pounds 14.99. The Wickford Schatzkammer, http://www.hpj.com/ homepage/territowe/schatz4.html