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October 12 2019
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“The air used to be clean and the sex used to be dirty,” said the late British artist Sebastian Horsley. “Now it is the other way around. Soho has lost its heart.” The exhibition “Shot in Soho,” opening at the Photographers’ Gallery, in London, on October 18, couldn’t agree more. It celebrates the district’s rich past as a hub of tolerance and defiance.

In Daniel Farson’s 1954 photograph of Lady Caroline Blackwood and Cyril Connolly, the writer, heiress, and muse stands next to the critic and editor at the entrance to Wheeler’s fish restaurant in Soho. Here we are at the capital of bohemian London in the 1950s. Blackwood smokes. Connolly appears bemused (he has a laundry case by his feet). Both knew unhappy marriages. Blackwood, then only 22, had just separated from her first—the painter Lucian Freud—while Connolly, 50, would carry on unhappily with Barbara Skelton, who in her unkind memoir of 1987, Tears Before Bedtime, revealed that he would soak for an age in his bath and wail about the fading of his talent, until they divorced in 1956.

Daniel Farson’s 1954 photograph of Connolly and Blackwood outside Wheeler’s.

Wheeler’s was a place where guests, whether they drank to dissolve their sorrows or to gild their successes, did so as if there was no tomorrow. It was Freud’s favorite restaurant. Francis Bacon’s, too. Both men gave paintings to the owner, Bernard Walsh, so as to settle debts. The British painter Michael Wishart once said to Caroline Blackwood that he thought Bacon had two major ambitions: “He wanted to be one of the world’s best painters,” Blackwood recounted in The New York Review of Books following Bacon’s death in 1992, “and he wanted to be one of the world’s leading alcoholics. Whereas most people discovered that these two ambitions were contradictory and self-defeating, he felt that Francis had pulled them both off.”

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