Drunk Artist Round-Up

Francis Bacon by John Deakin, early 1950s.

There’s Francis Bacon in all his sinister pomp, as photographed by his friend John Deakin in the 1950s. Deakin was a very talented photographer, contracted to Vogue no less, but also a shabby, unpleasant drunk. He was so careless with his archive that by the time of his death his surviving prints and negatives were largely trashed. This was a pity as he was a Soho insider and his portraits of the principals of fifties Soho are very fine – although, in some cases, the fact that the prints are damaged gives the images an additional power: an authenticity borne of nihilistic carelessness on the part of the artist.

Like his some time friend and artistic rival Lucian Freud, Bacon used London lowlife as the raw material for his art and made it universal. But, naturally, the Soho scene of the forties and fifties was full of artists who failed to be anything other than local curiosities, ‘characters’ even, their art failing to transcend their immediate environment, and whose fate is to be remembered as footnotes in memoirs of the time. But some of them were talented, whilst others deserve to be remembered precisely because they were such specific products of the milieu. John Minton fits both categories. He was a teacher at the Royal College of Art and a prolific book illustrator but also a painter of real ambition. (He was also a man of means, as he was an heir to the Minton china dynasty.) A conspicuous fixture at The Gargoyle Club, to which he also contributed a mural to offset the works by Matisse, he would enter with a motley entourage of rough trade and proceed to dance extravagantly to favourite tunes like I’m Going To Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter. But for Minton The Gargoyle was more than just a place to dance: it was one of the few places where he could be openly gay without fear of being adversely judged.

John Minton: Self-Portrait, 1953.

The poet Ruthven Todd recalled Minton at The Gargoyle, ‘… his long sad clown’s face, lashed by breakers of dark hair, as he danced a frenetic solo on the otherwise unoccupied dance floor. His arms and legs were flying this way and that … Clapping and encouraging him was a ringside audience of the faceless nonentities whom he gathered as an entourage as a magnet does rusty filings.’ Minton felt marooned by the shift away from figurative painting and towards abstraction that happened in the later fifties – and the soaring success of his friend Francis Bacon, fleshy embodiment of the zeitgeist, probably didn’t do much for his morale either. His work was seen as decorative, illustrative, lightweight. One week of his appointment diary is blank except for one word scrawled across both pages: ‘DRUNK’. He killed himself in 1957, at the age of just 40.

Similarly, the tragic story of the demented, kilt-wearing, Scottish painters Robert MacBryde and Robert Colquhoun, universally known in Soho as ‘The Two Roberts’, is a cautionary tale of the fickle nature of artistic success. They were lovers, and shared a studio and an energetic social life in all the usual Soho and Fitzrovia hang- outs, as well as hosting parties at their studio in Kensington. But whereas John Minton inspired protective affection, the Two Roberts could be a social nightmare. In their cups they were fearsome, dancing the Highland Fling one minute, performing Scottish folk songs or reciting ballads, then abruptly threatening fellow punters to buy them a drink, or offering a handshake whilst concealing broken glass in an outstretched hand. As for the art itself, it didn’t really survive the period: both worked in a sort of sub-sub-Picasso idiom (that link is to a Colquhoun canvas, here’s one to a MacBryde) that was eclipsed by the passing fad of the ‘Kitchen Sink’ school of the fifties, and then the more durable fashion for abstract art. In addition to artistic redundancy, a succession of misfortunes overtook the pair. A retrospective exhibition was destroyed by vandals who broke into the studio on the eve of the private view; and Colquhoun expired at his easel, just 47, in 1962. MacBryde carried on as best he could, only to die a few years later in a bizarre traffic accident in Ireland, hit by a car as he was dancing a jig in the street outside a pub.

The Two Roberts: Robert MacBryde, left, and Robert Colquhoun. Picture Post, 1949.

Without wishing to sound callous, it is doubtful that posterity would remember MacBryde or Colquhoun at all if it weren’t for the ghastly vividness of their social lives and their impact on others within their circle. By contrast, Minton, has become more appreciated in recent years due to the numerous book jackets and illustrations that he executed with such fluency and skill. He might have been a ‘minor’ painter but his attractive and atmospheric book designs have helped to define our image of cultural life in fifties Britain. As for John Deakin, the surviving photographs are testament to a powerful, forensic talent for portraiture: a sort of guttersnipe Bill Brandt. His work seems to anticipate some of the bolder experiments of Richard Avedon, and its rediscovery offers a valuable record of the period. But Deakin the man is perhaps best remembered not at all: remembrances of him by acquaintances indicate a thoroughly repellent personality, a cadging drunk who turned out to be a wealthy miser. He was commissioned by Bacon to do a session of nude photographs of Soho scenester Henrietta Moraes, photos intended for use as the basis of a painting, and Henrietta discovered that Deakin had been selling additional prints to sailors in pubs. After Deakin’s sudden death, Francis Bacon found himself tasked with making formal identification of Deakin’s body and noted that in death Deakin was able to do one thing that he was never able to do in life: keep his mouth shut. And there are other artists who outstayed their welcome. Gerald Wilde was another ‘mad artist’ of the period, another fixture at the Wheatsheaf, the Caves De France, etc., a pioneer of Abstract Expressionism in the forties whose work was highly rated but whose drunken persona would try anyone’s patience. According to Daniel Farson, Bacon once held him in high regard but later on regarded him as ‘a dreadful bore’ who had once turned up at his studio at four a.m. demanding money for drink. As for himself, Bacon knew that he was lucky, hitting a raw nerve of the century and surviving to occupy Greatest Living Artist status. But his patience and good manners had limits. There’s a nice story about him at the Colony Room, politely refusing a rather insistent young artist’s repeated invitations to visit him at his studio, until Bacon finally had enough and said ‘I don’t need to see your paintings, I’ve seen your tie.’

See also:
Francis Bacon In The Colony Room
Spies and Queens at The Gargoyle Club
Rathbone Street Pubs

One More Before Doomsday

This post originally appeared in April last year. I am running it again to mark this summer’s extreme weather. Pour yourself an apocalyptic one …

It should, by now, be apparent to everyone that we are living in a dystopian sci-fi scenario, but who wrote it? John Wyndham? Too cosy, perhaps. Or there’s J.G. Ballard … he wrote extensively about various kinds of societal collapse, either in ‘hard’ sci-fi novels like The Drowned World, or in his later sly and speculative manner, e.g. High Rise. But Ballard didn’t do comedy and the black absurdity of Donald Trump requires a satirical touch. Kurt Vonnegut’s brand of savage, slapstick sci-fi fits the bill, but I have been unable to locate my copies of Cat’s Cradle or Galapagos to refresh ecstatic youthful impressions. (It has also been suggested to me that Channel 4’s 1982 comedy show Whoops Apocalypse is relevant, chiefly with respect to its portrayal of the President of the United States as a total cretin.) 

But one work of science fiction that has been haunting me over the past few weeks is the 1961 film The Day the Earth Caught Fire, directed by Val Guest from a script written by himself and Wolf Mankowitz (the same team behind the Soho musical Expresso Bongo). The idea behind this inventive British movie is that nuclear testing has thrown the orbit of the earth out of whack and sent our planet spinning toward the sun. London becomes hotter than Cairo and the city’s residents wilt and go mad in the heat. It is a great time capsule of London locations, and the heroes of the film – as unlikely as this sounds now – are journalists working on the Daily Express, then still operating out of its beautiful Art Deco building on Fleet Street, right opposite St. Bride’s church. The nominal stars are Edward Judd (the producers wanted Richard Burton but couldn’t afford him), Leo McKern, and the delightful Janet Munro. The newspaper scenes have a sense of authenticity amidst the dodgy science, and the verisimilitude extended to the casting of the editor of the Daily Express, a character played by a former editor of the paper. (Arthur Christiansen, editor from 1933 to 1957. A nice conceit, but Christiansen couldn’t really act.)

Fleet Street’s finest … Leo McKern, Edward Judd and Janet Munro feeling the heat outside The Express Building.

There’s a lot wrong with the film: the banter-ish, ‘Front Page’ type dialogue is cringeworthy, Edward Judd is a charm-free zone, and the special effects are often risible – but for all that it remains unsettling and eerily prescient. The clever use of genuine news footage, indicating drought and out of control weather, now looks like an anticipation of recent wildfires in Australia and California. The evocation of oppressive, unnatural heat is very effective: everything dries up or burns up and water becomes the most precious of all commodities. Black market water is spreading typhoid, alcohol is in short supply and even a warm Coke will cost you. As society buckles under the strain, decadent young people express their nihilism by wantonly chucking buckets of priceless water about, drenching themselves to the implausible sound of trad jazz. (‘Beatnik music by Monty Norman’ is the byline in the credits. The crazed, trumpet-touting kids were perhaps inspired by riots at the Beaulieu Jazz Festival in 1960. Was Acker Bilk a baleful influence on British youth? Discuss. )

And, as you’d expect in a film that trades in Fleet Street clichés (‘They say you used to be a writer’), there are many episodes where the hacks go the pub. The pub in question is ‘Harry’s Bar’, a private members’ club just next to St. Bride’s (a fictional one, as far as I am aware). By the end, the trip to Harry’s Bar has acquired a devotional aspect: the film concludes with our heroes assembled in the club – one that by now looks more like a bar in the Australian Outback – and wait to hear whether an operation to save the planet has worked. (The great powers set off ‘corrective’ nukes in an attempt to blast the Earth back to its correct orbit.) Harry’s Bar has run dry, but the manageress gives the small band of regulars a drink on the house from a special, reserved bottle of scotch. This scene reminds me of the titular bar scene at the end of Ice Cold In Alex, where an ordinary glass of lager is a miraculous answer to a fervent but unspoken prayer. And this link between booze and prayer feels pertinent to where we are now. Many of us are offering prayers of one sort or another, even non-believers like me who are simply praying for the pubs to re-open. Of course drink is not always the answer; but whilst we might not be able to drink Covid19 away, we can at least toast its demise. As Leo McKern says as he raises his glass in Harry’s Bar: ‘To the luck of the human race’. 

In Harry’s Bar, listening to the countdown over the radio …

For the cineastes out there, The Day the Earth Caught Fire is also notable for Michael Caine’s film debut in a bit part as a policeman (‘Stay clear of Chelsea, they say it’s pretty rough down there’); and also a groundbreaking moment of nudity in British cinema, when Janet Munro’s nipple is briefly glimpsed in her bathroom mirror. Society would never be the same again …

Summers In The Dark

David Hemmings, Nikon in hand, prowls Maryon Park in search of … what? ‘Blow Up’, 1966.

The abrupt blooming of London after a November-like May has produced a palpable frisson of excitement in the city, all that pent-up energy seeking release from Covid morbidity. Suddenly, London is beautiful again. It’s the kind of weather that makes you want to put on a pair of white strides, grab a Nikon and a velvet jacket, jump into a vintage Rolls, and drive around town in search of nothing in particular.

Directed by the austere Italian auteur Michelangelo Antonioni (a man who didn’t do jokes), Blow Up features David Hemmings playing fashion photographer ‘Thomas’ abstractedly investigating a murder he may or may not have photographed. Thomas is a composite figure, a confection drawing on contemporary fashion photographers John French and John Cowan (whose studio doubles as Thomas’s in the film), as well as more obvious models like Donovan and Bailey. The film is a remarkable time capsule of London in 1965. Unlikely spots in Peckham, Woolwich, Stockwell, and the bomb-scarred City are rendered significant and hypnotic, whilst groovy goings on ‘up West’ look deeply silly. The piazza of the Economist Building on St James’s St., a prime example of 1960s Brutalism, is buzzed by a Land Rover full of mimes, who then proceed to drive across London in a vastly irritating form of ‘happening’ (a distant echo of the Bright Young Things who capered so pointlessly in the West End of the 1920s). Or that scene in ‘Ricky Tick’s club (a real club but the interior is a sound stage at Elstree) wherein The Yardbirds pretend to be The Who – Jeff Beck smashing his guitar on film as he never did on stage – before a zombified crowd. This vignette is only slightly more comic when you discover that the lone female dancer in the stripy leggings is the young Janet Street Porter. 

Hemmings/Thomas at the wheel of a Silver Cloud Mk.III. According to IMDb, this vehicle once belonged to Jimmy Savile. I prefer to think that this is not true.

Blow Up is often considered an indigenous product but this is false. Like many key films of the 1960s, it was a result of Britain’s sudden contemporary resonance and shitloads of American money. This is a point worth emphasising. An Italian director and production team, backed by MGM, chose London as an emblem of an international cultural moment. And their other choices were shrewd. A Spanish literary source, a story by Julio Cortazar, was adapted by Edward Bond; they commissioned a jazz score from the young Herbie Hancock; and Don McCullin supplied Thomas’s photographs. (McCullin is as British as they come, but he specialised in global warfare, not fashion.) The Yardbirds onscreen line-up included both Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, but the band weren’t first choice. Antonioni wanted The Velvet Underground, before they even had a record deal, because he’d seen them in New York as house band for Warhol’s Factory. (The Velvets couldn’t get UK work permits.)

Blow Up was a touchstone for generations of photographers who wanted the lifestyle shown in the film. Hemmings floats around London in his achingly beautiful Silver Cloud convertible, occasionally retrieving his Nikon from the glove box to photograph tramps and strangers in parks, returning to his period-perfect studio on Pottery Lane, W11, for a fashion shoot with Veruschka and erotic encounters with the likes of Jane Birkin and Vanessa Redgrave. That side of it has been comprehensively sent-up (Austin Powers etc.), but the best thing about Blow-Up is its luminous depiction of odd, forgotten corners of London and its feeling for the atmosphere of the city. I can’t think of another film that conveys the sound of London in the summer: the soughing of trees in a park, of footsteps in city streets. It took an Italian auteur with no local knowledge to make a film with such an authentic sense of place. Nearly sixty years on, the film’s London locations have acquired their own folklore: the red houses Thomas drives past in Stockwell, the calm and green of Maryon Park in permanently unfashionable Charlton (Antonioni ordered that park grass be painted green), the dawn over Chelsea Embankment as Thomas leaves a Cheyne Walk party, and so on. (Ian Sinclair devoted a fair bit of Lights Out For The Territory to Antonioni’s treatment of south London.) And the fascination of seeing – or not seeing.  The centrepiece of the film is a 45-minute sequence shadowing Thomas in his studio, obsessively, silently, poring over huge prints, before returning to the darkroom to make yet another ‘blow-up’ to explain what he saw in Maryon Park.  Any photographer will tell you that the level of detail he pulls out of that negative is impossible, but it doesn’t matter: this scene captures better than any other the romance of working in a darkroom, of taking a tiny slice of time and making it something you can hold in your hand. What you make of it after that is up to you.

I suppose I had this image in mind when I got my first job, at 17, working as a press photographer’s darkroom assistant. I remember 1979 as a beautiful summer, which sat oddly with the fact that I was spending most of it in the dark. Also, my employer was based in dusty, unlovely Streatham, not Notting Hill. And the romance of working in a darkroom is contingent on being in control of your working hours – like Thomas in Blow-Up, it’s best to work at night if you can – and choosing what it is you want to print. As a press hack’s dogsbody, I was entrusted with printing indifferent photographs of celebrities at events. (I once spent an entire day printing photographs of John Inman, a task with no attendant glamour whatsoever.) As luck would have it, my older brother lived in Balham, just a couple of stops away from Streatham, so I availed myself of his hospitality more than was really good for me. My brother was a loosely-employed actor in his mid-20s, using his free time to experiment with various kinds of home-brewing. Some of his preparations would have challenged the most grizzled of Fleet Street paps, so my virgin liver didn’t stand a chance. One hot evening saw us drinking lukewarm Holsten Pils in a ratty local pub, before heading back to his maisonette to attack whatever he had left in the flat: dregs of red wine, Pernod and, finally, fatally, his home-brewed mead. The next morning I gamely dragged myself to work and was immediately ordered to run off a dozen snaps of Joanna Lumley, looking radiant at some VIP do or other. Bravely, I stepped into the dark and turned on the red light. Despite the throbbing chaos in my head, I made a good start and got out a few prints; but before long the acrid smell of the fixing solution got to me and I was sick into the wash tray, all over the divine Ms Lumley, who didn’t deserve such an indignity. I was let go soon after that. David Hemmings I was not.