Old and New Soho. Photo & text Angus Forbes (1/5)

Francis Bacon (centre) and Ian Board (right) in the Colony Room, 1983. Photo © Angus Forbes.

Angus Forbes writes:

September 1983: the book publisher Malcolm McGregor is organising A Day in the Life of London, and the commissioning photographer Red Saunders wants me in. I tell Red I’ll cover legal London in the morning and the West End drinking clubs, of which at that time I was a frequentee, in the afternoon. On the day (Friday, September 14) I roll up at the Colony Room in Dean Street shortly after opening, at half three. The sun is reflecting off the buildings opposite and streaming through the first-floor window. I’m a member there, so I tell the irascible owner Ian Board what I’m doing and would it be OK if I took some casual, non-flash pictures? Ian’s in a mellowish state today and says yes. It’s early for the Colony and people are only just starting to drift in. I take some pictures, nothing special, and am thinking of moving on when Ian says don’t go, Francis will be here in a minute. Francis Bacon. By the time Bacon and team arrive, the drinkers have become accustomed to my Nikon-wielding antics and I ask Francis if I can take some of him too. He does not demur. My scoop in the bag, I head off to The Little House, a similar establishment in Shepherd Market, and sitting at the bar is Patrick Caulfield.

A few days later and I’m viewing the contact sheets in my darkroom in Chancery Lane. It occurs to me that by simple photocomposition I could combine the images of Francis and Patrick and drop Bacon into The Little House (which I know he uses, as that’s where I first met him). A double-scoop. But to carry it through to print, fresh permissions must be sought. I arrive at the Colony at about seven. Ian’s paralytic and his barman, Michael Wojas, is pretty well-advanced himself. I have with me three photographic enlargements: one is the shot of Ian and Francis in the Colony, another shows Patrick at The Little House and the third is a mock-up of the proposed photocomp. I show Ian the first shot and he likes it; Francis’ champagne glass is at the right angle, and Ian, arm in a sling from some rough, looks suitably mad. Next shot: indifference. But when Ian Board sees the mock-up of his Francis in a rival hostelry, all hell breaks loose.

So incensed is Ian by the image I’ve just shown him, he pitches forward and topples onto the foetid, cigarette-scorched carpet of the notorious green boite with an almighty, clattering thump. When Michael and I manage to heave him back onto his throne, Ian’s right index finger is dripping blood. He grabs the mock-up and starts jabbing at it, daubing it with dollops of his own blood. ‘It’s a disgrace! It’s an insult!’ shrieks Ian, lunging for the telephone. He gets Bacon on the line. ‘Know what that cunt photographer wanker’s done?’ Ian bellows, ‘He’s only put you in that fat Jamaican whore’s place with someone called ‘Cauliflower’ or something!’ He thrusts the phone to me. ‘Francis wants to speak to you!’ ‘The negatives must be destroyed!’ Bacon booms. He’s drunk as well and now I’m downing vodkas like there’s no Sunday – this photocomp’s not such a good idea after all. ‘Francis, I wouldn’t dream of publishing without your say-so. I just thought that as you and Patrick use the same places…’ ‘Who?’ he interrupts. ‘Patrick Caulfield’ I say. ‘Never heard of him!’ Bacon thunders.

Later I relate the story to Gerry Clancy. He tells me that not long ago Bacon had turned up at an opening at Fischer Fine Art where Caulfield was showing miniatures. Francis had proceeded to walk round the gallery, dashing the works from the wall, muttering ‘Postage stamps! Postage stamps!’ After the affair has subsided I see Patrick in the Zanzibar with John Hoyland. I repeat the Colony tale, including Bacon’s last remark to me. Patrick Caulfield bursts into tears.

Red Saunders uses my shot of Bacon and Board as a double-page spread in A Day in the Life of London. A decade later and all has long been supposedly forgiven. Francis has been dead for three years and a framed print of my shot of him and Ian has been hanging in the Colony since the time it was taken. Ian Board is on his usual perch and I’m at the next barstool knocking back the tonic water. We’re having a desultory conversation about nothing in particular, no animosity, when Ian suddenly reaches behind him, seizes the framed print from the wall and smashes it over my head. A rivulet of blood runs down my nose and splashes onto the palm of my hand. I turn to Ian in astonishment.

‘Cunt!’ says Ian Board.

© Angus Forbes 2011