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.