Well Read – Francis Bacon: Revelations

by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan
(William Collins, 880pp)

Rowan Pelling 

My view of Francis Bacon was formed by Daniel Farson’s 1993 biography of his friend, The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon. I couldn’t think of the painter without conjuring up Soho’s 1950s underbelly: the Colony Rooms, the French pub, rent boys, gangsters, slumming bohemians and booze-drenched lunches, with Bacon’s quip ringing in your ears, “Real pain for your sham friends, champagne for your real friends.”

So the real revelations of Mark Stevens’ and Annalyn Swan’s riveting and exhaustively researched biography don’t concern Bacon’s
debauchery, but the more sensitive or vulnerable aspects of the artist’s life: his country-house Irish childhood, the 18 months he spent as a teenager in Paris, where seeing Picasso’s work acted as a catalyst on his own ambitions, and his profound kindnesses to friends over many years. I knew of Bacon’s masochistic taste for rough sex, but less of his early love affairs with older, richer establishment types, who acted as father substitutes.

The most constant source of support and affection in Bacon’s life came from Nanny Lightfoot, the childhood carer who followed her wayward charge to London and continued to watch over him.

Bacon’s actual father, choleric Captain “Eddy” Bacon, was a veteran of the Boer War and disapproved of his sensitive, feminine, asthmatic son, who was allergic to horses and dogs – disastrous traits in a young man raised amidst the hunting classes of country house Ireland. Eddy banished his son when he came across him, aged 16, posing in front of a mirror in his mother’s underwear. His highly social mother Winnie was warmer, but was preoccupied by her own pleasures. It was her mother, vigorous Granny Supple, who took the young Bacon under her wing.

The most constant source of support and affection in Bacon’s life came from Nanny Lightfoot, the childhood carer who followed her wayward charge to London and continued to watch over him. My favourite passage in the book is the authors’ description of Nanny and a 20-something Bacon looking through small ads for potential beaus to fund their lifestyle: “It made quite a picture, Francis and Nanny sitting in the parlour… poring over the adverts, searching for wealthy men who wanted a little something on the side.” During WWII, when Bacon moved to a studio in Cromwell Place, Nanny Lightfoot helped out with a gambling den with a roulette wheel Bacon ran after hours; she was doorman and charged punters to use the lavatory.

Most startling of all is the disclosure Bacon spent a formative period in his early twenties designing modernist furniture and rugs and
working as an interior decorator, with his own gallery in a mews house in South Kensington. You glimpse a tantalising alternative universe where the painter wasn’t a hell-raising genius, but a budding Min Hogg or Terence Conran. It’s fascinating to learn how keen Bacon was subsequently to keep this short-lived venture in the shadows, alongside any hint of art apprenticeship.

Stevens and Swan write: “[Bacon] would not want to admit to having worked hard to attain success (one of his aristocratic predispositions) but would instead present his early years as a muddled disaster, a time of dissipation made possible by family money during which he gained almost no experience or training in art. He could then emerge miraculously as an artist, as if fully formed
from the head of Zeus.”

The painter’s penchant for scarves, skin-tight trousers, make-up and boot polish brushed through his hair was all part of the show. He told friends, “I’m the most artificial person you’ll ever meet.”

This all-too-human vanity makes you warm to the artist. It’s comforting to know the most electrifying amongst us can still feel the need to craft a personal myth. Although his own dramatic flourishes were quite sufficient for that purpose, such as the time he booed Princess Margaret at a party for an offkey rendition of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It” (a scene dramatized in The Crown). “Her singing really was too awful,” he said afterwards, “Someone had to stop her.” On another occasion an entire restaurant was silenced when Bacon loudly announced his desire to fuck Colonel Gaddafi.

The art dealer James Birch, who first met Bacon as a child, said he asked himself, “What would this man be if not a painter? He would be someone in the theatrical world.” The painter’s penchant for scarves, skin-tight trousers, make-up and boot polish brushed through his hair was all part of the show. He told friends, “I’m the most artificial person you’ll ever meet.”

Bacon’s life was stippled through with tragedy. Even before his love George Dyer died of a drugs and drink overdose on the eve of Bacon’s retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1971, he had seen his two brothers and beloved Granny Supple die within the space of a couple of years, while Bacon was still in his late teens. Later the artist worked as an ARP warden in the war, watching bombs and debris splatter London. Small wonder that, like John Webster, he “saw the skull beneath the skin”.

What’s remarkable about this biography is how extraordinarily immersive it is. When you read Francis Bacon: Revelations you are there by the artist’s side

What’s remarkable about this biography is how extraordinarily immersive it is. When I

read Farson’s memoir I felt like an urchin, nose pressed to the window of a rowdy Soho lock-in, but never asked in. When you read Francis Bacon: Revelations you are there by the artist’s side, mingling with family, friends, lovers, and the art world characters who gave the 20th century so much of its élan.

Stevens and Swan are blazingly insightful on Bacon’s art itself and generous in reproducing other critics’ opinions. When Bacon died of a heart attack in Madrid in 1992 Tom Lubbock wrote that the artist’s gift was to make “extraordinarily vivid imitations or impersonations of the flesh”, calling him “a great and original caricaturist of the body and like the best caricaturists he became a creative natural historian: after Bacon there are now these strange kinds of creatures in the world which weren’t there before.”

And isn’t that the truth of it? It’s impossible to see the world now without Baconesque figures grappling and crawling through it, strangely sensual in their flayed torment. As the authors write: “The restless Bacon figure, far from sealing off questions with answers, gave form to the elusive, questing, and mercurial understanding of human identity that coursed through his dark century.” I have no doubt this brilliant book will come to be regarded as the definitive study of one of the 20th century’s defining artists.

 

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