A Maverick Eye: The Photography of John Deakin

Black and white photograph of a man in a dark coat with a cigarette in his mouth

Frank Auerbach, The John Deakin Archive

1 February 2003 - 27 April 2003

The striking images of influential Wirral-born photographer John Deakin are featured in Walker Art Gallery’s exhibition, A Maverick Eye.

Deakin is best known for the direct and uncompromising honesty of his portraits. Whether photographing models and celebrities for Vogue, or taking pictures of his friends in the Soho set, he treated sitters with the same unflattering gaze. The result is startling and at times unsettling.

The unique nature of his photographs made him invaluable to his friend and peer, artist Francis Bacon who held him in high enough regard to base several portraits on his paintings. Paint-splattered photographs found on the floor of Bacon’s studio are featured in the exhibition, as are Deakin’s photos of Bacon. Other contemporaries of Deakin captured on camera include Humphrey Bogart, John Mills, Lucian Freud, Gina Lollobrigida and Louis MacNeice.

Deakin was fascinated by the ordinary, documenting scenes of everyday living on the streets of London, Paris and Rome in the 1950s and 60s. Almost as an antidote to mingling with the famous and influential, he sought out shopkeepers, nuns and priests, dog-walkers, and took pictures of shop windows, cemeteries and flea-markets. He focused on the artistic capitals of Europe with the same unwavering eye as his portrait-sitters, dismissing the picture-postcard view of the cities, rooting out idiosyncrasies and exposing a quirkier side. However, in his powerful and haunting depictions of Rome in Deakin reveals unexpected beauty amongst post-war chaos and poverty.

Black and white photograph with a columned city building in the background and the silhouettes of people on a square in the foreground

Victor Emmanuel Monument @ The John Deakin Archive

Although his photographs have been highly acclaimed, Deakin himself doubted the validity and status of photography as an art form - he wanted to be a painter. He saw his photos as a way to make ends meet and after two spells as staff photographer on Vogue during the 1940s and 50s, was best remembered for his blistering personality, bad behaviour and total disregard for others. Often drunk, he made the models cry and reduced fashion editors to weeping fury. Vogue editor Audrey Withers quipped that he was ‘incapable of taking a good picture of a beautiful woman’, while Paul Scofield described him as ‘a vicious little drunk of such inventive malice and implacable bitchiness that it’s surprising that he didn’t choke on his own venom.’

Despite this, Deakin produced an impressive body of work with exceptional breadth, vision and integrity. Many of his photographs lay neglected under his bed until friends rescued them following his death in 1972. Other photographs were discovered in the Vogue archives by former picture editor Robin Muir, who has since written books on the photographer in a bid to bring him the recognition he deserves.

Portrait photograph of a young woman

Prunella Scales @ Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications

John Deakin was born in Bebington on the Wirral in 1912, where his Liverpudlian parents had moved to be near to his father’s work at the Lever Brothers factory. Very little is known about his early life, due in part to his own habit of embellishing the truth. A report from West Kirby Grammar School described him as a model student who planned to follow in his father’s footsteps. The path Deakin actually took couldn’t have been further from mundane factory life, travelling extensively and mixing with the most engaging and exciting artistic personalities of his day.

Deakin died of heart failure in 1972 following a drinking binge with his friend and peer Francis Bacon - they had been celebrating his release from hospital following a successful operation to remove lung cancer. True to the last to his eccentricities and slight sense of the bizarre, Deakin named Bacon as his next-of-kin in the hospital - some believe in a bid to impress the doctor. The artist was forced to identify the body. ‘It was the last dirty trick he played on me ‘, Bacon remarked.

Photograph of a man in a suit on a street with a taxi behind him

A Maverick Eye was organised by the National Galleries on Scotland Edinburgh | and comes to Liverpool after a successful run at the Dean Gallery.