Book review: A Whole Scene Going On

Barry Fantoni, a British jack-of-a-lot-of-trades, was there in the 1960's and remembers plenty about the era


A Whole Scene Going On by Barry Fantoni (Polygon £16.99)

If you remember the Swinging Sixties, you really weren’t there” according to a widely quoted observation attributed to an American actor and comedian, Charles Fleischer.

However, Barry Fantoni, a British jack-of-a-lot-of-trades, was there and remembers plenty about that era.

Born in London’s East End to an Italian father and a Jewish mother of French and Dutch extraction, Fantoni, who is now aged 80, earned his living as an illustrator, cartoonist, Pop artist, musician, poet, playwright and bit-part actor with an iconoclastic state of mind.

His memoir is packed with tales of his involvement with the celebrities of the 1960s. Paul McCartney would drop in
to his studio to talk about painting and play Fantoni’s harmonium. Marianne Faithful spent time with him working on songs. Pete Townshend visited to ask him about a vintage Cadillac for sale and he would meet up with Ray Davies of the Kinks at parties and jazz gigs.

His first splash of celebrity — or notoriety — occurred in 1963, when an oil painting he entitled The Duke of Edinburgh in His Underwear was displayed at a London gallery. Fantoni reckoned it would be described in newspapers as “East End Jew Mocks Duke”.

The purpose was certainly to attract attention and it did so. The show was a sell-out and the painting was reproduced in Life magazine earning Fantoni money on both sides of the Atlantic.

In this journey down memory lane, Fantoni notes how, in the Sixties, a new generation changed the worlds of advertising, fashion and publishing and he assesses the qualities of the most notable painters, graphic designers, photographers and advertising executives.

Between 1963 and 1970, he drew 40 covers for Private Eye. He was also — along with Richard Ingrams, Christopher Booker and John Wells — in the team that dreamed up the magazine’s jokes and he describes how that worked. On one occasion, he used a pseudonym to hoax the Royal Academy into displaying, for the first time, a Pop Art painting at its Summer Show, causing, as he’d hoped, another sensation.

Private Eye was constantly contesting libel actions. Certain newspapers, he says, would jump at the chance to
inform their readers that “snooty irresponsible public schoolboys making fun of the Establishment had been given a slapped wrist.”

Fantoni also notes that “Swinging London” was to some extent an illusion. Pubs closed at 10.30 pm and even Indian restaurants would close at midnight. And, for most young people, he says, life was pretty dull.

Michael Knipe is a former foreign correspondent for The Times

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