The area of London called Soho has always fascinated me. It has been a favourite destination ever since I was a young kid old enough to purchase a red bus rover ticket and go exploring. From my council flat on the SE5/SE15 borders, I’d jump on a number 12 bus and hit Piccadilly 20 minutes or so later. I would then wander off into the dark alleys of old Soho and its edges and well, just mooch about. I was too young to fully understand everything that was going on there, but instinctively I knew it was edgy and obviously very different from my normal world of football and swimming in Camberwell.
Over the years, that love of the manor hasn’t really changed, despite Soho itself changing fast. I still visit it at least once a week to take in a coffee at Bar Italia or Dini’s, a red wine at The French, or later at Trisha’s, Ronnie’s or, well, anywhere really, and a bowl of pasta in Little Italy, all the while catching up with various faces from various facets of my life now.
At best, it’s a nice afternoon/evening out chatting, but occasionally work comes of it and that in turn, leads to more adventures.
I still read as much about its past as I can and I watch any film or TV programme that has Soho as part of its story.
It was while reading a magazine article many years ago on the reprobates who frequented the area in the 1950s, that I first saw a black and white photo of club proprietor Muriel Belcher, looking directly at the camera in a quizzical, hard-faced way.
It was a face that had lived a life for sure. I knew her name because of her association with The Colony Room Club, which she owned and ran, located up a flight of stairs in Dean Street. Her greeting to some of her many regulars would be one of – ‘Hello C*nty!’ – which would certainly gain anyone’s attention.
Another personal favourite Muriel story is the one of her telling anyone who would listen, that a regular of the club, a charming man who now worked in the City, had been ‘a brave little woman in the Somme.’
The portrait that I was now staring at, had been taken by John Deakin, another name that I would soon learn was yet another legend in the underbelly of Soho.
Deakin was born in 1912 on the Wirral and being a bright child, attended the local grammar school. However, it appears that he wasn’t cut out for a ‘normal’ life as he left the UK aged just 16 and spent a lot of time travelling in Spain and Ireland. When in London in the early 1930s, he lived with his lover, gallery owner Arthur Jeffress, and they became inseparable as they then moved around Paris, Rome and Florence. Deakin tried his hand at painting but soon switched to photography, which gained him an introduction to French Vogue in 1939.
During the Second World War, Deakin served in the British Army Film Unit, seeing action at El Alamein. He worked for British Vogue after the war but was sacked from the job for losing expensive equipment. However, he was liked by the editor Audrey Withers and regained his job in 1951, staying there till 1954. His work was of a very high standard in the field of portraiture of leading theatre, film and literature subjects.
‘Being fatally drawn to the human race, what I want to do when I take a photograph is make a revelation about it. So my sitters turn into my victims.’
Despite the respectable nature of his job, Deakin himself was anything but. A heavy drinker, he was always involved in scrapes of one kind or the other and he was once again sacked in 1954, though his benefactor Withers, made sure he had a decent severance pay.
He returned to the life of a freelancer, similar to his early years in Rome and Paris when he worked in street photography. He picked up a retainer with The Observer and worked on and off there until 1958.
He once again occasionally dabbled in art, but with little success. It was his photographic work that gained his reputation. His ‘victims’ included the artists Lucien Freud and Eduardo Paolozzi, but most famously Francis Bacon, with whom, Deakin had a fractious relationship.
Soho of the 50s was their playground. It was a life of cheap meals and even cheaper wine. The area was home to people of almost every nation, with Italians, Spanish, French, Polish and people from all parts of Africa and the Caribbean running clubs and pubs, cafes and restaurants, in an area largely run by gangster Billy Hill. This was a time that you could be barred from a pub for ‘being boring.’ Time that was re-introduced I think.
I have always amazed at the amount of work Bacon (known to Muriel Belcher as ‘daughter’) produced when you think of his wayward lifestyle at the time. Then you discover, that no matter how pissed he was by the end of the day, he would rise up very early the next and work tirelessly till lunchtime, then hit a bookies where he usually won a fair amount, and then spend it all in Muriel’s (The Colony) repeating it all again, day in, day out.
Deakin one day popped into The Golden Lion pub for his morning livener, which consisted of a large glass of white wine. Having sunk the beverage in one go, he promptly collapsed to the floor. He had in fact been given a glass of Parozone, a strong domestic bleach that was kept on the bar in a white wine bottle. Lesser men would have curled up and died there and then. Not Deakin. Taken to Charing Cross Hospital to have his stomach pumped out, he was back on the streets later that day as if nothing had happened.
Bacon preferred working from photographs as opposed to live models and would occasionally use Deakin to capture his subjects and the poses he required for his work. On one occasion, when he was photographing Soho socialite Henrietta Moraes for Bacon, Deakin instead took intimate portraits of her, which left her a bit puzzled. Later she found him selling them around Soho to sailors for ten bob a set.
‘Horrible little man’ she later said.
However, ‘proper’ photographs he had taken at that session, were used by Bacon and provided the basis for some of his highest earning work. He achieved £20 million for a portrait of Moraes and £142 million for a 1969 painting called ‘Three Studies of Lucien Freud.’
By 1972, Deakin was an alcoholic and living in poverty. He had been diagnosed with lung cancer and died after an operation to remove the tumour. He named Francis Bacon as his next of kin, who then had the task of identifying the body. ‘His last dirty trick that he played on me.’ Bacon commentated later.
In the last few years, Deakin’s work has been re-evaluated and his reputation as a photographer has grown. He has had exhibitions of his work at the V&A and at The National Portrait Gallery.
Broadcaster, author and one-time Soho-ite Daniel Farson, said of his portraits: ‘Deakin had no time for such niceties, such as ‘cheese’ and the effect was magnified by huge contrast blow-ups with every pore, blemish, and blood-shot eyeball exposed.’
I know the Soho I have described above is one of the past for sure, but every now and then there, if only for a few minutes, you still get glimpses of some of it still being alive, and a latter-day Deakin scuttling along.
And long may that continue.
The Mumper of SE5