Lucian Freud on Francis Bacon

In conversation with Sebastian Smee and David Dawson

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Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud in Soho, 1974. Photograph by Harry Diamond

DD: When did you meet Francis Bacon?

LF: I was friendly with [the painter] Graham Sutherland, and used to go down and see him in Kent. Being young and extremely tactless, I said to him: ‘Who do you think is the best painter in England?’ which, of course, he felt himself to be, and was beginning to be regarded to be. He said, ‘Oh, someone you’d never have heard of. He’s the most extraordinary man. He spends his time gambling in Monte Carlo, and then occasionally he comes back. If he does a picture, he generally destroys it,’ and so on. He sounded so interesting. So I wrote to him, or called round, and that’s how I met him.

SS: How did Bacon strike you as a person when you first met him?

LF: Really admirable. I’ll give you a simple example: I used to have a lot of fights. It wasn’t because I liked fighting; it was really just that people said things to me to which I felt the only reply was to hit them. If Francis was there, he’d say, ‘Don’t you think you ought to try and charm them?’ And I thought, ‘Well!’ Before that, I never really thought about my ‘behaviour’, as such - I just thought about what I wanted to do and I did it. And quite often I wanted to hit people. Francis wasn’t didactic in any way. But it could be said that if you’re an adult, hitting someone is really a shortcoming, couldn’t it? I mean, there should be some other way of dealing with it.

SS: Did you feel that he affected you in your work, as well?

LF: I realised that his work related immediately to how he felt about life. Mine, on the other hand, seemed very laboured. That was because it was a terrific lot of labour for me to do anything - and still is. Francis, on the other hand, would have ideas which he put down and then destroyed and then quickly put down again. It was his attitude that I admired. The way he was completely ruthless about his own work. After all, nearly any artist I’ve ever encountered has a bit of a soft spot about their own work. With Francis, there was nothing like that.

DD: So you started seeing each other nearly every day?

LF: Yes. He had this wonderful studio, which had been Millais’. There was a man - a very high-powered businessman, very severe, very good-looking - who kept him there. The man was married with children. He loathed me, probably because he thought, wrongly, that Francis had some kind of relationship with me. Francis liked to say, ‘I’m only attracted by men at least 30 years older than me.’ But there came a time, rather a lot later, when he said, ‘The awful thing is that now the people older than me are too old to do anything.’

DD: Would he let you look at his paintings, ones that weren’t finished, when you went around to his studio? He wouldn’t turn them to the wall?

LF: No, but he would slash them sometimes. Or say how he was really fed up and felt they were no good, and destroy them. He could be in a pretty bad mood for short periods of time.

DD: How long would it take him to make a painting?

LF: Sometimes I’d go round in the afternoon and he’d say, ‘I’ve done something really extraordinary today.’ And he’d done it all in that day. Amazing. He always said he didn’t know what he was doing.

SS: Did he have things to say about your work?

LF: I’d have thought he was completely uninterested. But I don’t know. When my work started getting some notice, he turned bitchy. What he really minded was that I started getting rather high prices. He’d suddenly turn and say, ‘Of course, you’ve got lots of money.’ Which was strange, because before then, for a long, long time, I’d depended on him and others for money. In those days, he’d simply say, ‘I’ve got rather a lot of these’ - a bundle of bank notes - ‘I thought you might like some of them.’ It would make a complete difference to me for three months.

SS: Did he become especially wild or aggressive when he drank?

LF: He didn’t become aggressive. He drank, but he was extraordinarily disciplined. When he was working he wouldn’t drink, and would usually stay in. But sometimes he went out to Soho, where I’d meet him at half past twelve. He’d have started work at half past seven or eight in the morning. But now he’d drink and get people around him. Some would be incredibly boring, but he’d get them to talk in the most amazing way. He’d go up to strangers - a businessman in a City suit, for instance - and say, ‘It’s pointless being so quiet and pompous. After all, we only live once and we should be able to discuss everything. Tell me, what are your sexual preferences?’ Quite often in such cases, the man would join us for lunch, and Francis would absolutely charm him and make him drunk, and somehow just change his life a bit. Of course, you can’t bring out things in people that aren’t there - but I was amazed at what there was!

SS: What happened towards the end with Francis Bacon? You fell out, didn’t you?

LF: Yes. He had a boyfriend - an ex-fighter pilot who, since Francis had got older and his tastes had changed, was younger than he was. He really fell in love with him. He was a rich fighter pilot, or certainly well off, and he was sadistic, which Francis liked. He knocked Francis about and beat him up. Once, when I saw Francis, one of his eyes was hanging out and he was covered in scars. I didn’t really understand the relationship - after all, you don’t. But I was so upset seeing him like this that I got hold of the pilot’s collar and twisted it around. He would never have hit me because he was a ‘gentleman’ - do you see? - he would never get in a fight. The violence between them was a sexual thing. I didn’t really understand all this. Anyway, I didn’t talk to Francis for about three or four years after that. The truth is, Francis really minded about this man more than anyone.

SS: Were you on good terms when he died?

LF: Yes. But his character had changed, which I think was to do with alcohol. It was impossible to disagree with him about anything. He wanted admiration and didn’t mind where it came from. To some degree he lost his quality. His manners were still marvellous, though. He would go into a shop or restaurant and people were absolutely charmed.

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