The curse of the drinking classes
Soho in the Fifties, a doomed, boho world, photographed by John Deakin and painted from his photos by Francis Bacon. As an exhibition of Deakin's work opens, one of the few survivors, Henrietta Moraes, recalls her racy encounters with both men
Saturday 06 April 1996
It was 1951, and Soho was alive and kicking, full of people, and credit was easy. We led a vagrant life. We never had one single meal at home, since two people could lunch at the Gay Hussar for ten bob in those days.
Soho was run by a gangster called Billy Hill, and his men were everywhere, collecting protection money from the dutiful, and carving up the faces of the obdurate. We were outside the circle of extortion and were either left alone or chatted up. If you lived in Soho, it was like living in a village. Sid the Swimmer delivered our logs. We knew every shopkeeper, every pub and club - Italian, French, Spanish, Polish, Swiss and African. The new Hi-Ho down the alleyway was full of deviant whores and their protectors. Big Jean and Stout Sally fought with dustbin lids on Friday evenings. And the Lagos Lagoon opposite our drawing-room windows was packed with gambling-crazy Africans.
I saw a bleeding body with a knife stuck in its back erupt from the club like a clay pigeon and thud to the pavement one night. Once, I came home at four in the morning without my latchkey, and so I was nonplussed. But those lissom black bodies silently formed a pyramid and, taking my hands, ran me up the side of it, on top of their bended backs, to enter through the first floor window, then went on their way laughing.
Every night, we went to the Gargoyle in Dean Street. The sun was going down on the Gargoyle; it was like the end of the Cafe Royal. You took a lift up to the top floor and then walked down a flight of steps into a ballroom designed by Matisse in the Thirties. The walls and pillars were covered in glass squares which endlessly reflected people, things and events. Here and there, the glass had dropped away, and the overall picture was one of shattered grandeur, an aged beauty unable to visit the dentist. The band, a bunch of Greek Cypriots named Alexander's Ragtime Band, liked to play the Charleston and the Black Bottom.
The same people went there every night: Cyril Connolly, Angus Wilson, Brian Howard, Simon Asquith, Humphrey Slater, Philip Toynbee, Francis Bacon, Robert Newton, his sister Joy and wife Natalie, Michael Wishart, Lucian Freud, Johnny Minton with 20 sailors, Colquhoun & MacBryde, Elizabeth Smart, Isabel Lambert and John Deakin.
John Deakin was a small, dapper man, with enormous ears that made him look like Mickey Mouse. He always wore an ancient British "warm" (a kind of short overcoat), and had a West End picture gallery owner for a lover called Arthur Jeffress. He had an acid tongue, was virulent and mischievous in conversation, and a thoroughly unreliable friend; but he was also a talented photographer, and had graduated to Vogue magazine, which was as smart as you can get.
Two people that I was determined to make friends with, because I felt so drawn to them, were Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon. They were both quite young, not particularly well-known painters, but Lucian's hypnotic eyes and Francis's ebullience and charming habit of buying bottles of champagne proved irresistible. I was dancing with Lucian in the Gargoyle one night and said to him, "I want you." We made a date to meet at lunchtime the next day in a basement off Brewer Street, and there consummated our friendship, on the edge of an unwieldy kitchen sink. I fell in love with Lucian, and was soon going to his studio in Paddington to be painted every day.
Deakin provided a sensation one morning. He went into the Golden Lion at opening time, as was his wont, and asked for his usual, a large glass of white wine, which he drained to the dregs in one enormous gulp. He fell to the floor unconscious. Panic and consternation. What had happened? A new barman had served him with a large glass of Parozone, which he had not realised was always kept on the bar in a white wine bottle. A lesser man would have died at once. Not Deakin. He was flown to Charing Cross Hospital, stomach pumped, and he emerged later in the day, chirpy as ever and demanding drinks.
One afternoon in the early Sixties, I was having a drink in the French Pub with Francis Bacon, Deakin and others. Francis said, "I'm thinking of painting some of my friends, and I'd like to do you, but I can only really work from photographs, so, if it's OK, Deakin will come round to your house and take them. I'll tell him what I want. You are beautiful, darling, and you always will be, you mustn't worry about that."
Deakin arrived at my house in Apollo Place a few days later. We had some drinks, and a little bit later retired to my bedroom. Deakin said, "He wants them naked and you lying on the bed, and he's told me the exact positions you must get into." Feeling a little shy of stripping in front of someone who definitely did not desire me, and for all I knew might never have seen a female body in its entirety, might even be disgusted by it, I sat on the edge of the bed with my arms and legs crossed.
"For God's sake, sweetie, that's not exactly inspiring. I mean, he's not into the Pieta phase."
"Well, what shall I do then?" I squeaked.
"Throw yourself back on to the bed and abandon yourself. Open up your arms and legs wide." He started snapping wide-angle shots between my legs.
"Deakin, I know you've got it wrong! Francis can't possibly want hundreds of shots of these most private parts in close-up. I just don't believe that is what he is interested in painting. It can't be so." In the end, he overrode me. After all, Bacon had told him, not me, what he was after, and so forth. I had a couple more drinks and gave in. Snap, snap, snap, and on and on he went. "That's it," he said finally.
"Yeah, I should think that you'd have just about covered every angle," and, eventually, "Shall we go and have a drink?"
I was having a drink with Francis Bacon and Deakin in the Colony Room, Muriel Belcher's establishment. Francis said, "Look here, Henrietta: this blithering idiot has reversed every single shot of you that I wanted!"
"Ho," I said. "You astonish me!"
"Well, look here, Henrietta," - Francis shot his cuffs, displaying enormously strong-looking wrists - "would you mind letting him do the whole thing all over again, but the other way up this time?"
I gazed at him. When I was 18, I had spent all my mornings, afternoons and evenings with him, dined alone with him at Wheelers (oysters and Chablis), gone with him to the Gargoyle, listened to the wit and wisdom which flowed almost continuously from his lips. Sometimes I was aghast at the scathing sarcasm which bubbled out of him, but it had never been directed at me. At every meeting, I had learned something new from him, been captivated, spellbound. Wherever he appeared, the air brightened, groups of people were animated, electricity buzzed, and bottles of champagne appeared. I had learned so much of the ways of the world from him, and though, at times, I had not properly understood half of his teaching, it had nevertheless, willy-nilly, been assimilated.
"No, of course I don't mind. Any time."
So Deakin and I had a reverse performance, and this time it was at the right angle. "One day I'll give you a picture," Francis said.
One afternoon about a week later, I wandered into a Soho club, a bit off my beat, but in I went. The room was full of sailors, all of them crowding round a familiar figure - Deakin. His hands were full of the original photographs he'd taken of me, and he was selling them off for ten bob a time.
"Deakin," I yelled. "I don't care, really, but don't you think you should buy me a large drink?"
John Deakin was never at a loss. His leathery face grinning, he bought me several
`John Deakin Photographs' is published by Schirmer Art Books on Thursday, pounds 40 hardback (pounds 20 paperback). John Deakin's photographs are at the National Portrait Gallery from Friday
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