Artist Francis Bacon at the Tate Gallery in London. 21/05/1985. (Photo by Votava/Imagno/Getty Images)

Francis Bacon: A life lived to the full

While the authors of Francis Bacon’s latest biography deliver nothing new on the art, they do show how Bacon lived his life with a unique intensity

Artillery Row Books

The award-winning pair of biographers Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan have chosen as the follow-up to their excellent de Kooning biography, a much more challenging task: the titan of British Modernism, Francis Bacon. The impact of the de Kooning biography was mostly because (aside from various anecdotes, some interviews and detailed discussion of his artistic activities) de Kooning’s life was not commonly known. Francis Bacon: Revelations is a much sterner test because so much has already been revealed about the life of Bacon.

The authors state that Bacon lived his life with such intensity because of the constant presence of death

The biographers have distilled published texts and archival sources into a single narrative that is approachable and comprehensive. Is there anything new here? There is more family background and a little more information about Bacon’s youth. However, while expanding our knowledge, there is nothing that alters the overall impression about Bacon’s youth. Stevens and Swan emphasise Bacon’s precarious health, stating that his severe asthma was life threatening from childhood and that Bacon lived his life with such intensity because of the constant presence of death. The information that Bacon was invalided out of ARP work during the Blitz due to severe asthma caused by the dust – and that he became dangerously ill – has not previously been linked so firmly to the critical period when he was painting in a rented cottage in Hampshire from 1941-4. This coincided with Bacon’s breakthrough and the finding of his mature artistic language.

Francis Bacon: Revelations by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan (William Collins, £30)

There is new information, especially relating to Bacon’s brief stint as an interior and furniture designer, 1928-31. During this time, he produced Modernist designs that are attractive but unimaginative rehashes of contemporary French and Bauhaus pieces. Even after he decided his future was in fine art, he undertook furniture design commissions in the 1930s for income. He had ample contacts and there was little Modernist competition in London. Bacon lost enthusiasm for design work when he became obsessed by the challenge of matching Picasso as an artist. Bacon rattled around in Chelsea and Mayfair, moving with the nonchalance of the deracinated upper class, always assured of landing on his feet with a place to stay and paid-for food and drink. Bacon’s allowance was supplemented by minor pilfering and affairs with wealthy gentlemen (some married). While Bacon mentioned some of his rackety early years, he tended to underplay his youthful earnestness.

Bacon claimed to be self-taught, which was truer than not. Bacon never undertook academic instructions but he asked for guidance from painter friends. Again, nothing to be ashamed about – actually, it demonstrates his seriousness and determination to improve – but Bacon could not countenance being portrayed (even in retrospect) as the junior partner in any enterprise nor being vulnerable. “With someone who was not going to write an article, however, Bacon was more forthcoming.”

Bacon exhibited at Freddy Mayor’s gallery in London. He had risen as high it was possible to get for an ambitious young painter of tiny avant-garde art circle in London of the 1930s. Bacon drifted in the 1930s, moving between friends’ flats in West London, accompanied by his elderly, nearly blind nanny. Gambling and painting during the war years provided him with diversion. The exhibition of his Three Studies at the Base of a Crucifixion (1945) provided him with a return to public life after a period of seclusion in the Hampshire countryside. This succès de scandale and the sale of a number of good paintings in 1945-6 showed that painting was Bacon’s true calling. Thereafter, his course was set.

There is more information about Peter Lacy. Lacy was Bacon’s great love. An urbane and raffish pianist, Lacy was an ex-RAF engineer and pilot. However, he was never (as has been claimed) a Spitfire pilot. Lacy was prone to violence when drunk, something that the masochist artist enjoyed. Their experiment of living together in Henley failed, as all of Bacon’s co-habitations did. A bored Lacy moved to Tangiers, a haven of European and American bohemians, creative types and homosexuals. Bacon visited him and came into the orbit of Paul and Jane Bowles, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, whose detachment, originality and ruthless distain for social convention Bacon admired.

Revelations affirms that Bacon and a select few knew of (Bacon’s lover) George Dyer’s death just before the opening of Bacon’s 1971 Paris retrospective. The hotel agreed to delay informing the police about the death until the grand vernissage had passed off without scandal.

The biggest black hole in the Bacon story is his relationship with Frank Lloyd and Harry Fischer, the owners of Marlborough Fine Art. It is known Bacon moved to Marlborough in order to pay off debts which Erica Brausen of Hanover Gallery could not cover. In addition to more robust finances, Marlborough also offered international links, a branch in New York and plush catalogues for exhibitions. The questions relating to why Bacon did not switch to a more prestigious gallery in the 1980s seems linked to money and habit, as Bacon relied on the redoubtable Miss Beston at the gallery as his fixer. The matter is unresolved here.

Bacon’s last two years were increasingly distressing as he experienced serious medical difficulties

Another unresolved matter is the relationship with José Capelo, which started in the late 1980s. This cultured Spaniard, who worked in finance, brought the ageing artist great pleasure but also suffering in his last years. Bacon’s last two years were increasingly distressing as he experienced serious medical difficulties, slowly suffocating as his lungs failed. Capelo’s distancing of himself in Bacon’s last months left Bacon in despair. Facing death, a failing body and dwindling artistic inspiration and energy, Bacon saw Capelo as a vital part of his existence. Co-operation from friends of Capelo and contacts in Spain have fleshed out the many visits Bacon took to Spain in his last years. The price, however, is leaving unaddressed rumours of financial impropriety regarding Bacon’s money that were raised in a recent BBC documentary.

While the authors deliver nothing new on the art, they summarise Bacon’s sources, styles and materials admirably clearly and present cogent readings of Bacon’s art without veering off into speculation. The authors have a good grasp of art history and British culture of the period, not lingering over obvious points and getting to the heart of the matter. Errors are all small and not worth noting here. The selection of textual mono illustrations is appropriate and complemented by 40 pages of colour illustrations of paintings. A reservation about the otherwise good production quality is that a casual rub of the finger can mildly blur the ink.

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