Gloriously bad company

Do we really need another biography about Francis Bacon? The answer is emphatically yes, says Christopher Bray


This article is taken from the March 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

One day towards the end of the Second World War, Kenneth Clark took a taxi from Trafalgar Square over to the South Kensington home of Francis Bacon. Entering Bacon’s studio, his “tightly rolled umbrella” in hand, he looked, Graham Sutherland’s wife Kathleen remarked, “very much the Director of the National Gallery”.

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

Unsurprisingly, he didn’t linger long over Bacon’s work. His pained eye darted across those garish, gruesome studies — all boney crucifixes and howling maws — of anguish, torment and pain. “Interesting,” he sniffed. “What extraordinary times we live in.” And with that, he turned on his heel and was off.

“You see,” Bacon said to Sutherland (who had recommended Bacon’s work to Clark), “you’re surrounded by cretins.” A year later Bacon premiered one of the canvases that made his name, Painting 1946, an eye-bruising vision of a charnel house in which bifurcated cow carcasses surround a semi-decapitated patriarch whose black umbrella hovers over him like a vampire bat.

Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan’s biography is full of the casual yet savage sexual beatings Bacon loved

If that sounds grim, you might want to steer clear of Francis Bacon: Revelations. Bacon didn’t only thrill to violent imagery. He thrilled to violence period. Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan’s biography is full of the casual yet savage sexual beatings Bacon loved. At one point Bacon has left Kensington for Narrow Street in the East End. But he moves out when the presence of a new neighbour, the then up-and-coming MP David Owen, renders it “one of the best-protected and most carefully guarded streets in London”. No point in cruising when you won’t get a bruising.

Bacon does not want for books. Since his death in 1992 he has been the subject of at least three lives. Add to those Michael Peppiatt’s four or five memoiristic critiques (Francis Bacon: Study for a Portrait is just out from Thames and Hudson), and the two more analytical studies by David Sylvester, not to mention all those gallery catalogues (few years go by without a Bacon retrospective somewhere in the world; but for Covid there’d be one on at the Royal Academy now), and the shelves begin to buckle.

Do we really need another biography to tell us how Bacon’s grandfather liked to string up cats when he was drunk, how Bacon was thrown out of the family home when his father found him trying on his mother’s underwear, how Bacon polished his teeth with Vim and tinted his hair with Kiwi boot polish? Do we really need another account of all those camp, curdled nights at the Colony Club?

The answer is an emphatic yes. One unfortunate double-entendre aside (“John at first refused to enter the wider circles of Bacon’s world”) Stevens and Swan have written a masterpiece. Nearing the end of his days Bacon put off a would-be biographer, telling him that the task would take a Proust. Stevens and Swan aren’t in that league, of course. Still, their sedulous, subtle and seductively stylish life (they won a Pulitzer for their last book, De Kooning: An American Master) can stand tall next to, say, George Painter’s Proust.

Not that Revelations is all that revelatory. The lineaments of Bacon’s life have been known for decades. But his character is less familiar. Thanks to what the Daily Mail (in those far-off days when it employed an art critic) called his “exotic monstrosities”, not to mention his booze and amphetamine lifestyle, we are apt to think of Bacon as one of art’s tortured crazies. Indeed, Swan and Smith call his way of life “feral”.

But while his adult existence might have been squalid — his kitchen boasted not just the usual stove and fridge, but a bath too — Bacon hailed from a wealthy Anglo-Irish family (the philosopher and statesman Francis Bacon was a distant relative) and was raised a gentleman. Granted, his hygiene wasn’t up to much — the book reeks of sweat and sperm — but Bacon, who had “perfect manners when he chose”, was resplendently at home in even the starchiest drawing room. (And anyway, no man brave enough to boo Princess Margaret for murdering Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It” at a white-tie ball could be entirely repellent.)

Revelations’ biggest news is that Bacon’s on/off/on again affair with the cocktail pianist Peter Lacy really was a romance

Bacon was generous too. Nobody paid a bar tab or restaurant bill if he was around to settle it. He loved Nietzsche and shared his faith in man’s essentially animal status. Nonetheless, he was the firmest of friends, and a devoted lover. For all his one-night stands with sailors and stevedores, he stayed true to the men who mattered to him.

For Revelations’ biggest news is that Bacon’s on/off/on again affair with the cocktail pianist Peter Lacy really was a romance. Nor was it just that Bacon needed Lacy. Lacy needed Bacon. All those thrashings and pummellings and bloody pratfalls (Lacy once threw Bacon out of a first-floor window) were, in their way, expressions of — or camouflage for — a mutual love.

Lacy wouldn’t have been everyone’s cup of tea, but he comes out of this book a recognisable human being. He wasn’t the Rattigan cad that previous biographers have made him out to be. True, he bigged up a Spitfire pilot past that never was. (He had in fact seen out the war as a mechanic and test pilot on the altogether duller Wellington bomber.) But he was rather more like the disgraced Major Pollock in Separate Tables than he was Freddie Page in The Deep Blue Sea.

Certainly he was loyal, and Bacon was heartbroken when their relationship ended. And he was devastated when, on the eve of his first major retrospective at the Tate in 1962, he heard of Lacy’s premature, whisky-fuelled death. Bacon, Stevens and Swan make clear, never really recovered.

Nor did his work. The bulk of Bacon’s best pictures were painted from the mid-1940s through the mid-’50s. Like Auden’s Old Masters, the early Bacon was never wrong about suffering. His screaming popes and racked businessmen never stop reminding you that this is still The Age of Anxiety.

But there is no denying that a complete Bacon retrospective would have to include a lot of tiresome ’prentice work from his early years, and a lot of flaccid repetition from his later life. Stevens and Swan never openly admit this, though they do, perhaps unconsciously, half acknowledge the broken-backed nature of Bacon’s career. Several chapters in the book are appended by a brief analytic essay on a Bacon painting. These essays are done wonderfully well, but the critical sidebars crop up less and less as the book, which runs to more than 700 pages of narrative, moves forward in time. Bacon’s late work simply doesn’t deserve that kind of attention.

All Bacon criticism boils down to one question. Was Bacon a ham? Did he really mean all that Nietszchean negativity, or was he just a hysterical harbinger for Hammer Horror? Was he, as John Berger long maintained, an illustrator whose paintings are to human suffering what Disney’s Cinderella is to slipper design? Or was he, as his greatest champion, David Sylvester, never stopped arguing, a twentieth-century artist who had reinvigorated the figure in an age of abstraction?

All Bacon criticism boils down to one question. Was Bacon a ham?

Bacon himself knew what he thought good painting was. He looked, he said, for “a complete interlocking of image and paint … the brush-stroke creates the form and does not merely fill it in”. He didn’t find it very often. Revelations is larded with cutting comments on the competition.

Bacon loathed David Hockney’s work (“such rubbish”). He trashed Henry Moore’s drawings as “knitting”. Jackson Pollock was dismissed as “the old lace maker”. Even Picasso, to whose cubist and surrealist periods Bacon was heavily indebted, was lambasted for his “terrible decoration”. And though Bacon had deduced much of his palette — all those maroon shadows and burning vermilion backgrounds — from Matisse, he had “no patience” for what Swan and Stevens rightly call Matisse’s “Edenic art”.

Nobody could call Bacon’s art Edenic. His paintings offer no peace, no tranquillity, no hope. As he once joked, “Whoever heard of anyone buying one of my pictures because he liked it?”

Who indeed? Even Ronnie Kray, no stranger to battered heads and broken bodies, found Bacon’s work disturbing. When Bacon (who had a weakness for Cockney wrong ’uns and called Kray “the most attractive man I’ve ever met”) offered him a painting, Kray looked at him askance. “I wouldn’t have one of those fucking things,” he rasped.

Nor would I — or you, I’ll wager. Though Bacon wanted “to paint the scream more than the horror”, his yowling images fill you with horror anyway. So, in its way, does Revelations. Nobody not off their rocker could want to live their life as Francis Bacon lived his. Still and all. Mark Stevens’s and Annalyn Swan’s magnificent book leaves you wanting to spend more time in Bacon’s gloriously bad company.

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