Pure Sixties, Pure Bailey at Bonham’s by The Scenester

by Modculture 12 September, 2011

David Bailey

David Bailey

The Scenester checks out the selling exhibition at the London auction house.

A Friday afternoon to myself, a coffee in London’s finest Italian cafe, and two charming red-headed companions to take to the Bailey exhibition; how much better does life get?

I didn’t take much persuading to attend this exhibition, and seeing as our schedule is a little full over the next few weeks, Mme. Scenester and I thought it would be best to take an afternoon off from the fascinating world of work, so as not to miss this very temporary showing. Meeting Miss C, and a coffee or two later, we picked our way past bored shoppers and inattentive pedestrians through the building site that calls itself Oxford Street, down the designer clobber lane that is forever in the pricey end of the 1980s, finally arriving at the splendid plate glass entrance to Bonham’s of New Bond Street, sore of foot.

I know. You’re about to say ‘but we’ve seen ’em all before’. ‘Ronnie & Reggie, Lennon & McCartney, Michael Caine, seen ’em reproduced endlessly’. I’d like to bet you haven’t seen ’em life size and beyond, in huge, heavy frames, up high on the walls of the revered art dealership, their stark black and whiteness lit individually. So close, you can read the brand name of cigarette Michael Caine is dangling from his lower lip, from its watermark. You can tell which knot he used for his knitted tie (asymmetrical Half-Windsor, as if you didn’t know that). Compare and contrast the Brothers Kray’s preferred pocket-squares and even their family resemblance. Lennon’s grubby fingernails (sorry) and McCartney’s stubbly chin. That’s just the start.

Walking in to the vast hall, the first picture your eyes alight on, straight ahead, is the classic image of the two songwriters, Paul below, John above, forming a neat pyramid – or is it a sphinx? – John’s non-smile on those heavy jowls, and the great paws dangling down. They look straight into camera, hair a little untidy and faces apparently the worse for lack of sleep, all too aware that at that point in time, they were the most famous young men on the planet. To your right, a naked Jane Birkin, coltish and dreamy eyed, and rail-thin, even by the standards of that notoriously slim-hipped decade, her hair streaming about her like the branches of a windblown tree. Then the steely stare of Caine, filling the frame with his torso, tilted forward, silently demanding a light from you, for his cigarette.

Well represented, unsurprisingly, is Jean Shrimpton – now there was a supermodel – a striking head and shoulder shot, the hair a little wild, the image a little movement-blurred. A touching image of Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, both bare-chested and clutching one another for dear life. Roman’s boyish features betray a slight grin, but Sharon’s huge eyes fascinate you, taking your mind off the desperate (?) look on her face, as if a glimpse of the near future had just revealed itself to her. Threatening images of The Rolling Stones follow, Jagger with a curved dagger clutched between his liver lips, a bemasked Keef smoking a cigarette, Brian holding a glass of red wine aloft with one hand, a garden hand-fork in the other, in perhaps some parody of the Benediction. The propless images of the band in uncoordinated yet beautiful psychedelic garb are here rendered in crisp black and white, alternately stony-faced or smirking.

The jokey violence of the Stones is surpassed by the chilling image of the Brothers Kray, in all their horrible glory. Their immaculate suits and well kempt hair make them look like successful post-war businessmen, which of course is exactly what they were, albeit an illegitimate business. Ronnie & Reggie’s boxing-battered faces are a clue to their real profession, when the newspapers of the period were still referring to them as ‘London’s famous sporting twins’.

Man Ray cuts a surprising, Victorian dash, ribbon tie around his neck, wave-handled walking stick over his shoulder, like an actor straying into shot and captivating the photographer’s attention through force of his undeniable charisma. Its exact counterpoint is a contact sheet of Andy Warhol’s signature pockmarked features, gawping into the lens on another wall.

A few ‘not for sale’ smaller pictures adorn a corridor, beautifully executed fashion images of Grace Codlington’s imperious features staring off-camera, Baby Jane Holzer’s camp glamour, and Leslie Caron, her Eskimo-like face framed by a Japanese-style bob.

Around the corner, a huge image of John Lennon’s face seemingly props up, rather than hangs from, the wall, an enormous black outline of hair against the white background of his then-chubby face, recalling some outsize Japanese cartoon, perhaps a hint that John would soon meet someone very special to him, from that part of the world?

Those of you with a rich relative or a desire to run up a debt the Pope couldn’t pay may like to put in for some of these very limited, signed and authenticated editions, but you’ll have to be quick. Think five figures, and then some, depending on the size of the picture. Most of us will buy a good book to see these images, but if you live in London, or you’re around here soon, take a free look at some of the 60s most arresting images of the great and good, in huge editions on the immaculate walls of Bonham’s.