John Deakin

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Photograph of John Deakin likely taken in the early to mid-1950s

John Deakin (8 May 1912 – 25 May 1972) was an English photographer, best known for his work centered around members of Francis Bacon's Soho inner circle - see The Colony Room. Deakin had wanted to be a painter, and doubting the validity and status of photography as an art form, he did not hold his photographic work in high esteem; many of his photographs have been lost, destroyed or damaged.[1] Bacon based a number of famous paintings on photographs he commissioned by Deakin, including Henrietta Moraes on a Bed.[2]

A chronic alcoholic, Deakin died in obscurity and poverty, but since the 1980s his reputation has grown through monographs, exhibitions and catalogues.

Life and career[edit]

Early life and work for Vogue[edit]

One of Deakin's mid-1960s portraits of George Dyer. The picture contains pathos for the doomed Dyer, and was retouched and spattered with paint by Bacon

Deakin was born in Bebington on the Wirral and attended West Kirby Grammar School. Though he had wanted to be a painter,[1] he began to take photographs in Paris in 1939, when fashion illustrator Christian Bérard introduced Deakin to Michel de Brunhoff, editor of French Vogue.[3] From 1940 until 1945, Deakin served in the British Army Film Unit as a photographer, where he photographed the Second Battle of El Alamein.[3]

After the War, Deakin enjoyed two periods of employment as a staff photographer on the British edition of Vogue. The first period, from 1947 to 1948, ended in dismissal when he lost several valuable bits of photographic equipment.[3] His second period from 1951 to 1954 also ended in dismissal, but during those three years Deakin was at his most active. He enjoyed the support of Vogue editor Audrey Withers, even though he disliked fashion photography.[4] Deakin excelled at portraits of leading figures in literature, theatre and film. His subjects included Dylan Thomas, John Huston, Luchino Visconti and many other artistic celebrities. Deakin recognised this work was his true vocation when he wrote:

"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. But I would like to add that it is only those with a daemon, however small and of whatever kind, whose faces lend themselves to being victimised at all. And the only complaints I have ever had from my victims have been from the bad ones, the vainies, the meanies"[5]

Notorious for "his blistering personality, bad behaviour and total disregard for others",[6] Deakin was later fired from Vogue for a second time, "after turning-up with one too many hangovers".[6] George Melly paid him a double-edged compliment when he wrote that Deakin was "a vicious little drunk of such inventive malice and implacable bitchiness that it’s surprising that he didn't choke on his own venom. And yet such was his wit, his vitality, his delighted relish in his own self-destruction that we find him irresistible."[7]

Later life and relationship with Francis Bacon[edit]

Deakin spent long periods in Rome and in Paris during the 1950s, specialising in street photography. In 1951, John Lehmann published a book of Deakin's Rome photographs, Rome Alive, with text by Christopher Kinmonth. Deakin spent many years trying unsuccessfully to publish a book of his Paris photographs, but they were exhibited in 1956 in David Archer's bookshop in Soho.

Portrait of Henrietta Moraes, 1966. Francis Bacon

The catalogue accompanying the exhibition was written by Elizabeth Smart, a friend of Deakin. Smart's catalogue included the observation: "You certainly won't feel rested after a time in John Deakin's Paris. These pictures take you by the scruff of the neck and insist that you see. If you have never been to Paris, you will find it haunted when you arrive."[8] Reviewing the Paris photos in The Times, Colin MacInnes wrote: "Mr Deakin sees one side of Alice's looking glass and the infinite mysteries that lie behind it.[9]

Deakin photographed many major figures in the Soho art scene during the 1950s, including Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and Eduardo Paolozzi. Though the two had a difficult personal relationship, Bacon held Deakin's work in high regard. After Deakin's death, Bacon described him as "the best portrait photographer since Nadar and Julia Margaret Cameron."[10] During the 1950s and 1960s, Deakin took a series of portraits on commission for Bacon, many of which the painter later used as source material for some of his most noted work, perhaps most notably the Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorn Standing in a Street in Soho, 1967. Deakin's photos of George Dyer, Muriel Belcher and Henrietta Moraes have also been associated with Bacon's paintings of these sitters.[11]

One of Deakins mid-1960s photograph of Henrietta Moraes commissioned by Bacon. Moraes was upset by the invasive and almost pornographic approach Deakin took when photographing her, and in 1991 described him as "a horrible little man".[12]

Freud and Bacon appeared as two of the Eight Portraits, an unpublished manuscript of photos and writings which was discovered after Deakin's death. In this work, Deakin wrote of Bacon: "He's an odd one, wonderfully tender and generous by nature, yet with curious streaks of cruelty, especially to friends. I think that in this portrait I managed to catch something of the fear which must underlie these contradictions in his character."[11]

In 1972, Deakin was with diagnosed with lung cancer, and underwent an operation to have it removed. While recuperating, he died of a heart attack while staying in the Old Ship Hotel, Brighton. In hospital, he had named Bacon as his next of kin, forcing the painter to identify the body. "It was the last dirty trick he played on me", Bacon remarked.[6]

Critical opinion and Legacy[edit]

In 1979, the art critic John Russell wrote that, with Deakin's passing, "there was lost a photographer who often rivalled Bacon in his ability to make a likeness in which truth came wrapped and unpackaged. His portraits...had a dead-centred, unrhetorical quality. A complete human being was set before us, without additives."[13] A series of exhibitions revived Deakin's reputation after the obscurity of his final years. In 1984, the Victoria & Albert Museum mounted the exhibition John Deakin: The Salvage of a Photographer. In 1996, the National Portrait Gallery, London, presented John Deakin Photographs. An exhibition, John Deakin: Tattoo Portraits was staged in Liverpool in 1999.[3]

Daniel Farson wrote of his portraits: "I am sure he will be seen as one of the most disturbing photographers of the century. The expressions of his victims look suitably appalled for Deakin had no time for such niceties as "cheese" and the effect was magnfied by huge contrasty blow-ups with every pore, blemish, and blood-shot eyeball exposed. In this way, he combined the instant horror of a passport photo with a shock value all his own."[14] Robin Muir summed up his legacy: "His portraits still look starkly modern half a century on. His street photographs are haunting documents of three major cities. After two major retrospectives in London institutions, his place in the pantheon of twentieth century British photographers might be secure."[3]

Deakin was the basis for the photographer Carl Castering in Colin Wilson's novel Ritual In The Dark.[15] Deakin was played by actor Karl Johnson in John Maybury's biographical film about Francis Bacon, Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon.


  1. ^ a b "John Deakin". Retrieved on 21 January 2007.
  2. ^ Hoare, Philip. "Obituary: Henrietta Moraes". Independent, 16 January 1999. Retrieved 25 February 2010.
  3. ^ a b c d e Muir, 2002, Chronology of John Deakin’s life in A Maverick Eye, pp. 204–205.
  4. ^ Muir, 8–9
  5. ^ John Deakin, “Eight Photographs”. Unpublished manuscript quoted in Muir, 2002, A Maverick Eye, 11
  6. ^ a b c "A Maverick Eye: The Photography of John Deakin". Walker Art Gallery, 2003. Retrieved on 21 January 2007.
  7. ^ George Melly: introduction to Dan Farson, Soho in the Fifties, London: Michael Joseph, 1987, p.xiv
  8. ^ Muir, 87
  9. ^ Muir, 26
  10. ^ Bacon, quoted in Bruce Bernard's catalogue for John Deakin: The Salvage of a Photographer, Victoria & Albert Museum, 1984, p.7
  11. ^ a b Muir, 12-13
  12. ^ Hoare; Philip. "Obituary: Henrietta Moraes". The Independent (UK), 16 January 1999. Retrieved 8 March 2010.
  13. ^ Russell, 172
  14. ^ Muir, 30
  15. ^ Muir, 33


Further reading[edit]

  • Farson, Daniel. Sacred Monsters. London: Bloomsbury, 1988. ISBN 0-7475-0254-4
  • Peppiatt, Michael. Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1996. ISBN 0-297-81616-0

External links[edit]