Francis Bacon: Revelations, by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, William Collins, 880 pp, £30, ISBN: 978-0007298419
Biographies are tricky things ‑ and of course it’s extreme cheek on my part since everyone before me has heaped praise on this gargantuan work on the life and art of Francis Bacon by husband and wife duo Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan ‑ but oh how my hands itched to get out the editor’s red pencil and slash away at the sometimes mountainous accumulations of chaff into which Francis Bacon, the greatest of the great twentieth Century artists, almost disappears.
Carps out of the way, Revelations is stuffed with gems. How could it not be? As art aficionado Robert Hughes once wrote: “This painter of buggery, sadism, dread, and death-vomit has emerged as the toughest, the most implacable, lyric artist in late-20th-century England, perhaps in all the world.”
Though the English claim him as exclusively their own, Francis Bacon was born in Ireland. In Baggot Street. His English parents were part of the Anglo-Irish set and he spent the first sixteen years of his life, apart from two years at an English boarding school, in the “Big Houses” of the Pale, Farmleigh, Straffan Lodge, names now familiar to us all.
He was a horribly sickly child, asthma imprisoning him in his bedroom for weeks, his father’s horse training and racing stables and gun dogs environment a daily disaster for fragile lungs, the “dusty saddle in the hall” an emblem of the gasping fits dust, horses, dogs and stables could bring on. His father, “the Major”, was ex-British army, a brute by all accounts who couldn’t stand his delicate offspring. Why couldn’t he leap on a gee-gee and ride to hounds, ride point to points, be a man? Mum was kindly, but often absent, off in search of some emotional sustenance not provided by husband, horses or stables.
The IRA meanwhile were outside, creeping across the landscape at night intent on setting fire to the oppressors’ palatial pads. The young Francis, taken out one night by grandfather Inspector Supple, came across an IRA booby trap. He found it exciting. Did it also help to know “his inward feelings of isolation, alienation and foreboding were not an anomaly? He might be a weakling in Anglo Irish society but that society itself was an island of weakness in Ireland.”
His “girly” son being asthmatic was enough to drive the peppery major mad; being homosexual was not to be countenanced. His sister Ianthe had to have it explained to her decades later what it meant; and she a married woman with grown-up children. A “condition” and a “perversion” considered so unspeakable it was not to be talked about. Not even to be named. As Quentin Crisp said when asked if he’d told his mother of his own homosexuality, “she would not have believed me. In those far off days a homosexual person was never anyone that you actually knew.”
It was said that the young Francis was raped by the stable hands in the Major’s yard but it was when he was found trying on his mother’s underwear that his father ushered his sixteen-year-old son out of the house and off to London. Tragically, while he was in London, his younger brother died of pneumonia in boarding school. Francis came home, only to be sent away again a little later ‑ Francis always said “sold”, into the very questionable arms of a family friend, “a vicious man” who took him to Berlin, and into his bed. Francis liked late Twenties Berlin, with all its squalid grandeur and avant garde culture. “I’d come from Ireland which was violent in the military sense, but not violent in the emotional sense.” Unfortunately his so-called guardian, Highat Harcourt Smith, was “a real ultra sadistic sadist” who revelled in this “kinky heaven” and “used to thrash Francis and sort of broke him in”. “He was a brute,” Bacon said, “who fucked absolutely anything.”
“Broken in”, the beautiful young man, with big blue eyes, round face and peachy skin, headed to Paris, where the brutish Highat was mercifully replaced by a charming French lady who had pity on him and took him in, one of many women to play a key role in the artist’s life. Adding literature and French to his cultural grab bag, Francis went to see the most important exhibition of his life: a Picasso. He was “stunned”. Might it be possible for him to become an artist? Might it be possible this clever, isolated, sensitive boy would find a way to express the tumult inside?
The way to becoming an artist wasn’t a straightforward one. It began with the Picasso show, but Bacon’s first commercial venture was in modern design, mainly thanks to a beautiful Irish woman, then the toast of Paris, designer Eileen Gray. Ambitious Francis, who’d now spent eighteen months in France learning the language and soaking in the liberated modern atmosphere, returned to London where he planned to open a showroom selling modern furniture, of his and others’ design. On the boat he met one of his first older men patrons, Edward Alden, who commented “he [Bacon] is only nineteen and has a most original mind, intensely modern and futurist in art”. They moved in together, with Alden indulging “the dear boy” with beautiful suits, and haircuts at Harrods. Aged twenty, he opened his showroom, with white rubber sheeting covering the windows, tubular furniture gracing the handmade rugs. His outsider cachet and passionate support for all things modern created significant ripples, but after several months the designer in him “went quiet”; nascent artistic longings stirred again. He began painting, according to his favourite cousin, Diane, “his mind seldom moved from the difficult facts of love, death, massacre and madness”.
In one of his last interviews, Bacon was queried on the darkness of his art, so unlike that of David Hockney. “Which is what?” he asked testily. Celebratory. Wholesome. “Well,” returned Bacon, “I would like to celebrate but then there comes into [the paintings] the neuroses of my century and the time I’ve lived in. I can’t ignore that. I don’t want to ignore that. It’s part of very existence.”
Painting, bringing to life this “part of very existence” was to be the hallmark of Francis Bacon’s work, and his philosophy, a “welling up of rage and despair against the falsity of convention”, a convention in which he had felt stifled, almost extinguished. Most of the British art world then was dominated by the upper classes, conventional and firmly non-European. Kenneth Clark, director of the National Gallery, said: “In 1920s England, people who had seen a Cézanne or a Renoir, even in reproduction, were few, and for the most part hostile.” Bacon on the other hand was devouring Nietzsche, “the profound crisis of nihilism”, the great questions of cruelty, despair and meaninglessness. Drawing room art was definitively not his cup of cocoa but he didn’t yet have the conviction or experience to express what he wanted to.
His career as an artist moved forward in fits and starts. Apart from his two years at boarding school and attending some drawing classes in Paris he was unschooled, something which all his life he felt to be a great advantage. Everything had to be learned by trial, and error, hopefully with one of his favourite “familiars”, chance, close by. In 1933, and now living with yet another older man patron, a war hero, an alderman, a married man and a rich man, Bacon got his first shot at being part of an exhibition. He subsequently destroyed the painting Woman in the Sunlight, but it was included in a second show that year, “Art Now”, and his Crucifixion painting, described by art critic John Richardson as “an orgasmic gush of white paint2, was his start. There followed a row with the gallery, with the artist subsequently opening his own salon des refusés. His erstwhile lover said it was “altogether too morbid, eccentric and peculiar”. The Daily Mail dismissed the works as “exotic monstrosities”. No one came, apart from friends. The artist was devastated. He destroyed the paintings.
Bacon withdrew from the art world but continued painting and as World War II lurched into view he avoided being called up by hiring an Alsatian dog for the night, ensuring his asthma was at peak activity for his medical the next morning. But he did join the ambulance service and the ARP (Air Raid Precautions), witnessing appalling scenes as bombs fell on densely populated London. As the war came to a close, Bacon’s own health teetered on the brink, asthma inflamed by London’s bombed-out dust and rubble streets, with the death of his father pushing him towards breakdown. His friend and lover found him a cottage in the country, and it was there that the thirty-year-old Bacon had to come to terms with himself. A failed designer. A failed artist. A homosexual. What to do? After two years of painting, and reading obsessively, he re-emerged as a “confident English artist”. He felt he was starting to find the right images. He destroyed most of the paintings he’d made, found a flat and a studio in London and began again.
Typically he worked hard all morning in his studio, then donning his “mask” – “Kiwi” boot polish for the hair, Vim for the teeth, pan stick makeup, Vaseline and a touch of lipstick for the face ‑ off he set, “prancing” through Soho and its pubs for afternoon and evening, pushing through the “crowd of whores, airmen, ‘negroes’ and French sailors”, “incorrigibly a deep end girl ‑ not minnying about on life’s pavements”. He also, crucially, reconnected with powerful painters of the day like Graham Sutherland. In April 1945 he had his hard-won breakthrough, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of the Crucifixion. The art world was astounded at these monstrous grotesques with snarling mouths, bulbous bodies reeking of despair. His work was declared “completely original, and absolutely terrifying”. Many hated the work but discerning critics spotted something unique: “What excitement to find a young English painter of such staggering virtuosity,” wrote Roger Mavell.
For Bacon, painting was fun, but life was fun too. With some welcome cash in his pocket and accompanied by his lover and the wonderfully named Nanny Lightfoot, who had looked after him since he was a little boy and lived with him till her death aged eighty, he set off for the Côte d’Azur. This became a pattern. Ferocious dedication to work, followed by a show and some cash, followed by zooming off somewhere warm, often with roulette tables, followed by forced return to London from lack of money or of interesting conversation: “One could tire of fresh air and sunshine.”
Back in London Bacon returned to his Soho haunts, principally now The Colony, the famous members’ bar ruled over by Muriel Belcher, who greeted the painter with the salutation “Hello Daughter” and paid him a tenner a week just to show up and bring friends, such as his new bestie Lucian Freud, already another “comet of astonishing brilliance”. The two artists critiqued each other’s work and egged each other on; at Lady Rothermere’s ball Princess Margaret got up to sing, to the sycophantic oohs and aahs of her groupies, known as “the Smarties”, soon interrupted by loud booing. “That dreadful man, Mr Bacon” was at it again. Freud thought it the bravest and funniest thing he’d ever witnessed.
Meanwhile there was work to be done. Despite daily Bacchanalian excesses in Soho and beyond Bacon had “iron discipline”, rising at six and working alone in his studio, facing up to and trying to give artistic life to life’s horrors. “Though what could I make,” he asked Melvyn Bragg, “that could compete with the horrors going on every day?” His goal was to trap reality without “making an illustration”, making images by instinct that intellect alone could never make, images that are “concentrations of reality”. Realistic at least in his approach to the practice of his art, he believed inspiration came from working regularly.
Bacon, famous for his “rough sex” sorties in Soho, also had deep one-to-one relationships, such as his ten-year love affair with Peter Lacy, a fellow upper class homosexual who had had a similarly horrible childhood. Their relationship was “complicated”. Bacon said he adored needling Lacy into a frenzy of rage, finding it unutterably moving to see his lover unmanned, the beast revealed beneath the mask. Lacy would then beat Bacon up and rape him. He once threw him out of a window. The British consul in Tangiers, where they had set up home, contacted the chief of police, worried at Bacon’s “wandering the streets at night in an appalling state”, the chief rather wisely replying: “Pardon, mais il n’y a rien à faire. Monsieur Bacon aime ça.” (There’s no point: Mr Bacon likes it.) Still it was Lacy who died alone, alcoholic and broken-hearted, confiding in a blind artist years after the break-up, how “beautiful” Bacon was, how incomparable. The blind artist, in a letter to the Tate, said he had “never met anyone more in love. More destroyed by the break-up of that love.”
Bacon was intensely charismatic, but also “a selfish shit”. Two of his lovers, Peter Lacy, and the young Cockney George Dyer, with whom Bacon lived in his sixties, died by suicide on the eve of his most triumphant shows ‑ a touring retrospective organised by the Tate (1962), and the Grand Palais in Paris (1971). The shows went on.
Charmingly, two of our own feature here. The wonderful artist Anne Madden le Brocquy partook of a long luncheon with Bacon in Paris. She remembers him suggesting a club and a glass of champagne, and the next thing “it was four in the morning”. She also remembers his struggle to be accepted, “and those astonishing eyes”. He came to every one of her openings. Poet Paul Durcan, visiting London in the early seventies saw him at a bus stop, “that rare bird of paradise, a creature of integrity in whom the work and the life are one”. When the bus arrived the poet saw the artist swing “up the staircase, like a gibbon in the Dublin zoo”.
Old age, as Katherine Hepburn once said, is not for sissies. Bacon did his best. Ill with asthma, high blood pressure, a cancerous kidney, a dodgy liver, and a dodgy heart kept going with champagne and fistfuls of pills, including amphetamines, he was “living on time wrenched from the teeth and claws of death”. “The nearer I get to death,” he said, “the stronger the urge to paint.”
And what extraordinary paintings he left us. The Crucifixions, the screaming popes, the bullfights, George Dyer spilling towards death, the two male lovers on the rumpled bed, Henrietta Moraes on another rumpled bed, the self-portraits, the despairing dog, van Gogh on the road to Tarascon haemorrhaging despair, the final, beautiful bull. The Times saw reflected in his paintings the black night of the twentieth century soul, the cry of agony of an age that had lost its faith. His paintings were ‘a shock to the nervous system.’ Or as the critic and curator Lawrence Gowing put it: “One has no way of preparing or protecting oneself … for some unknown reason one’s private view of oneself is at stake.”
Uninterested in politics, Bacon was wise to false prophets, writing to his friend Sonia Orwell: “I have a deep suspicion of the people who back the helpless in their search for power without really knowing what the powerless want … who, if they were to gain power, would impose a greater tyranny than we have already.”
Nor was he interested in most other artists. Lisa Sainsbury remembers delightful afternoons as he destroyed other artists “with great pleasure;, ditto with a delighted Mervyn Bragg on the South Bank Show, dismissing sacred moderns such as Rothko – “the most dreary paintings that have ever been made” and Jackson Pollock, “the old lace maker”. He wasn’t precious about his own work either: “If people really dislike my paintings it means there might be something there.”
He could be vicious, cruel and ruthless. Notes of explanation and flowers would arrive the morning after the night before: “Don’t worry, it was the drink”, but he sustained friendships and loves throughout his life, and in an era where being gay could mean being dead (Alan Turing, his contemporary, was chemically castrated) he lived an openly and unapologetically homosexual life.
His end came at 9 am in a private clinic in Madrid, attended to by nuns. “Can you imagine anything more horrible?” he’d joked with William Burroughs some years previously. But it could have been a good deal more horrible. It was out of the public gaze, without a funeral of any kind, on his strictest orders. He slipped away, his body cremated two days later; ever the outsider he even kept “his dust outside”.
And so goodbye to the “vivid modernist who stripped the Western mask to reveal a difficult interior truth”, a man who every afternoon and evening in Soho had “staged a kind of Irish wake for himself – creating moments of elevated intensity with food, drink, talk, argument, rage, despair and merriment. What else was one to do when there was always (for those who noticed) a pale corpse laid out in the drawing room?”
Luckily for us we have a precious part of him back here, with his Reece Mews studio, the chaos he found so fecund, faithfully recreated in the Hugh Lane gallery in Dublin. The Great Master who transformed his own pain, the pain of his century, into astonishing art. What a gift to us all. Welcome back, dear boy.
Rosita Sweetman is a writer and journalist. Her books include On Our Knees, a look at Ireland in the 1970s, Fathers Come First, a novel, and On Our Backs, a look at sexual attitudes in 1980s Ireland. Her Latest work is Feminism Backwards, published by Mercier in 2020.