Newsstands and drag artists sit alongside Soho’s inner circle in this nostalgic black-and-white series. Known for his links to the artists and writers who frequented the area throughout the 60s and 70s, John Deakin photographed its notorious watering holes, from the now-closed Colony Room to the French House. The latter supported such artist regulars Francis Bacon and playwright J P Donleavy by showcasing their works. Here illustrator Neal Fox, co-founder of the punkish Le Gun art collective, whose works depicting the French House’s debauched past made it into French House landlady Leslie Lewis’ cutthroat selection, takes a trip into the heart of Soho past and present.
When I was growing up I used to hear stories about my granddad drinking in Soho. There was a photo of him and my gran on the wall, him in a black hat and trench coat drinking a whiskey in the French pub. It became a kind of mythical place in the back of my mind and gradually I started drawing pictures about my granddad. He was a writer and publisher and ex bomber pilot called John Watson. When I was at the Royal College of Arts I did a show where I had his old desk covered in my drawings and a recording of his voice.
In a way it’s like a village but in the middle of London, a dysfunctional village of maniacs. You can drop in there and you will bump into people you know, a lot of whom are a bit outside of the norm, imaginative hedonists, the drinking class.
The French is one of the few really unique places left to drink in London now that everything is becoming a homogenised Starbucks shit parade. When I went in there that first day I met Carla Borel who was working behind the bar and she asked me to do a show in the pub with all these drawings I was doing about my granddad. So I did that and then the gallerist Daniel Blau came in by chance and asked me if I wanted to do a show at his gallery in Munich. I felt like my granddad was helping me out, looking over my shoulder.
I like Trisha's on Greek street: it’s a basement place full of pictures of the rat pack. Tony Soprano used to drink there and there's a nice man in there who talks to an imaginary dog. The Groucho is fun too for bumping into people and seeing Harry Styles sitting on Damien Hirst's knee. Some people call it the Celebrity Death Camp.
The best place in Soho was the Colony Room, which is no longer with us. Going up there was a bit like being transported into a debauched Verona green Narnia of booze. I've still got the carpet from there in my mum’s shed. I was given it for my final show at college and the security guards made me leave it outside for three days for health and safety reasons. It's covered in a hundred thousand fag burns and John Hurt's jism and almost seems alive and full of energy like some kind of Soho demon.
Under the Influence: John Deakin, Photography and the Lure of Soho is published by Art/Books and available now. The accompanying exhibition runs at the The Photographer’s Gallery April 11 through July 13 2014.