Pariah Genius: John Deakin and the Soho Court around Francis Bacon – A Psychobiographic Fiction by Iain Sinclair - review by Tancred Newbury

Tancred Newbury

Man With a Camera

Pariah Genius: John Deakin and the Soho Court around Francis Bacon – A Psychobiographic Fiction


Cheerio 325pp £19.99

In the depths of the Covid lockdown, Iain Sinclair received two enormous yellow boxes ‘like cardboard coffins on special offer from Ikea’. They contained seventeen albums of photographs – fresh prints made from recovered negatives and contact sheets – by the ‘elective pariah’ John Deakin. The boxes arrived ‘without a single word of explanation to deface the purity’. Together, they formed a ‘serial autobiography in images’. 

The self-destructive Deakin died unknown in 1972. His friend and patron Francis Bacon considered him ‘the best portrait photographer since Nadar and Julia Margaret Cameron’. Much of what remains of his work was pulled from under his bed in his flat on Berwick Street after his death or chanced upon by the curator Robin Muir in the archives of English Vogue (from which he was sacked twice in six years for repeated loss of equipment and drink-fuelled misdemeanours). Over the past forty years, a succession of books and exhibitions have brought overdue attention to Deakin’s portraits of the hard-drinking bohemians of demimonde Soho in the 1950s – stark, truthful mugshots, unpolluted by flattery. Evidence of the influence Deakin’s work had on Bacon – which he sought to erase – also keeps mounting. 

The contents of the yellow boxes are the means through which Deakin ‘dictates’ his own story to Sinclair, his ‘ghostwriter’. The approach is part chronological investigation, part seance. The result is a remarkable fictional biography – or ‘psychobiographic fiction’ – written in Sinclair’s highly poetic and dazzlingly allusive

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

RLF - March

A Mirror - Westend

Follow Literary Review on Twitter