Philip Hoare: Demon lover

The Independent on Sunday, March 13, 2005


Francis Bacon and George Dyer

Sometime in the mid-1980s in South Kensington, I saw Francis Bacon hopping on the back of a bus. I stared in recognition, nonplussed at the apparition, in the flesh, of Britain’s most famous living artist, riding on public transport. I suppose I must have gazed too long, for his eyes stared back, out of a high-coloured, slapped cherub’s face. Was he angry? Or was it a come-on? I’m still not quite sure. But in retrospect, that brief encounter seems symbolic of Bacon’s life: so public a figure, so private a person; as paradoxical as his art.

Francis Bacon was as recognisable as his paintings. His petulant yet impassive features, his aristocratic rough-trade dress sense and youthful figure were memorably described in Cecil Beaton’s 1960 diary as “incredibly lithe for a person of his age and occupation, muscular and solid. I was impressed with his ‘principal boy’ legs, tightly encased in black jeans, with high boots. Not a pound of extra flesh anywhere”. As the art critic Martin Harrison observes, Bacon was part Edwardian aristocrat, part teddy boy: “Even in his 80s it was difficult to predict whether he would attend a function wearing a leather coat or a hand-tailored Savile Row suit.” And Michael Wishart, the artist, marvelled at Bacon’s adept adaptability when it came to make-up: “He applied the basic foundation with lightning dexterity born of long practice. He was more careful, even sparing, with the rouge. For his hair he had a selection of Kiwi boot polishes in various browns. He blended them on the back of his hand, selecting a tone appropriate for the particular evening, and brushed them into his abundant hair with a shoe brush. He polished his teeth with Vim.” It was as if the artist were making up to enter his own drama.

Bacon’s appearance was a counterpoint to the controlled violence of his works; where his paintings reflect an apocalyptic century, his painted face seemed to give much less away. Only now, 13 years after his death in a Madrid hospital, is the private life of the artist becoming public as two new studies finally bring us face to face with the real Francis Bacon. The first of these, a new book called Francis Bacon in Camera by Martin Harrison, focuses on the source material that inspired the painter’s work - from the 19th- century photographs of Eadweard Muybridge to Sergei Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin - and illustrates how his use of such material was startlingly modern. What also comes as a revelation is the proof of how much Bacon drew on the popular culture of his time.

But the second study, a new BBC film called Francis Bacon’s Arena made by the Bafta-award-winning team of Adam Low and film editor Sean Mackenzie, goes even further in its biographical reach. What the film uncovers is remarkable new evidence about the degree to which Bacon’s series of tempestuous relationships from the 1930s to the 1980s steered his art.

Famously, Bacon rejected interpretation of his work. “I am a direct and simple painter,” we see him tell the camera, as though confiding in the viewer, over the rim of an ever-present glass of wine. But this was a deceptive statement, and it hides the truth about his complex emotional life. And yet, for all the high-octane manner in which Bacon lived, his bohemian addictions and sometimes dangerous loves, he survived most of the 20th century surprisingly intact, albeit a little beaten. In one telling moment in the Arena film, Bacon’s surviving sister Ianthe protests that, contrary to the impression his lifestyle might give, her brother was actually a “very, very collected” man. But this raises more questions than it answers. Did Bacon use as much as he was used?

Bacon was born in Dublin in 1909 to Anglo-Irish Protestant gentry. His father was a soldier and race-horse owner, an Edwardian who had almost as little time for his offspring as his wife, a more modern figure in her cloche hats, but who equally ignored her son’s early artistic efforts. Matters were made more difficult by the fact that the young boy suffered from a severe, lifelong and disabling asthmatic allergy to dogs and horses. Given the hunting and shooting lifestyle of his parents, it was a disability which proved disastrous for family relationships; it would also eventually kill him.

Bacon’s family background - moving between England and Ireland in his childhood, receiving little formal education - was a stultifying one. It was also overshadowed by sectarian violence, in the early years of the Irish Troubles. “I was made aware of danger at a very young age,” Bacon would say. It was a world from which Francis Bacon had to escape, in order to invent Francis Bacon. Perhaps apocryphally, the moment came when his father discovered his teenage son trying on his mother’s underwear, and as a result, expelled him from the family home. In fact, as the Arena film reveals, Bacon was sent, with a stipend of £3 a week, to live with a family in Chantilly, a small town outside Paris. Here the mother of the family introduced Bacon to the wonders of modern art. He was enraptured by the work of the cubists, and, above all, Picasso. Soon he had begun to paint in a cubist style. But he was also gripped by the surrealists, and especially the films of Luis Bunuel; Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or, with their scenes of sliced pig’s eyes, or a beautiful, androgynous woman poking a severed hand on the street with a stick. Bacon was fascinated by their “remarkable precision of imagery”; he saw in it an augury of what he would attempt in his own art, “…the acuteness of the visual image that you’ve got to make”.

Bacon’s year in Paris still remains clouded in mystery, but as he later announced to a French interviewer, he saw it as an exile predicated on his sexual otherness. “My father and mother were disgusted with me,” he says, laughingly, exulting in the fact, “because I was a pederast!” He proved the point by being “picked up” by a lover and taken to Berlin, the very nexus of inter-war decadence. “After Berlin I was completely corrupted,” he declared. He stayed at the Hotel Adlon, overlooking the Brandenburg Gate on Unter den Linden, from where he explored the city’s less respectable venues.

In one remarkable photograph taken at the time (and reproduced in Harrison’s new book), he resembles a kind of teenage movie star, looking a little like Richard Attenborough, circa Brighton Rock. In its stylised, Weimar image, it reveals Bacon’s boyish good looks - he was ever the Peter Pan of bohemia. Back in London, the city which he would thereafter call home (albeit in the most peripatetic manner), he set up a studio in Queensberry Mews - not, initially, as a painter, but as a designer of Bauhaus-influenced furniture and rugs.

Surviving photographs of this interior show a clean-lined modernist space, far from the littered anarchy we associate with Bacon’s working environment. Fascinatingly, the Arena film has located the few remaining examples of Bacon’s surprising foray into design, including an Omega-like painted screen, and carpets woven to Bacon’s designs by the Royal Wilton carpet factory. It is odd to think of Bacon as a designer to Thirties versions of Sloane Rangers, and it is part of his career which the mythomaniacal artist later sought to suppress, just as he suppressed or destroyed his early paintings as if to make his later, post-war emergence as a painter of the apocalypse that much more extraordinary.

For Bacon, there was an emotional anchor to that period, in the shape of the artist Roy de Maistre. Since coming to England from his native Australia, de Maistre had also been influenced by the modern French painters - although, in his increasing attraction to the Catholic church, he would later abandon himself entirely to sacred depictions in his art; his Stations of the Cross still decorate the walls of Westminster Cathedral. But his early portrait of Francis Bacon, his young lover, betrays a more decadent side. Bacon is depicted as a fey habitue of some Berlin cabaret, complete with cherry-red lipstick. It remains a stunning image, more 21st century than 1930s; it could almost be a contemporary, faux-naif painting of a member of Franz Ferdinand.

Under de Maistre’s guidance, Bacon began to develop as a painter. But as political events in the Thirties took a more serious turn, a sense of darkness began to pervade his work. In a crucifixion scene - evidently influenced by de Maistre’s Catholicism, and tellingly reproduced next to a Picasso in a 1933 edition of Herbert Read’s influential magazine Art Now - Bacon displays the nascent style which would become his signature: blurred, vaguely cubist figures enacting a religious martyrdom - but one shaded in ambivalence.

As Bacon and de Maistre grew apart, the young painter fell into petty thievery and prostitution. He was working in a gentlemen’s establishment known as The Bath Club, when he found a new father- figure. Eric Hall was a director of Peter Jones’s department store, a Tory councillor, and a married man with two children. Yet, as the Arena film reveals, their relationship would last until the late 1950s, for much of which time he installed Bacon in a series of studios and even a country cottage, The Lodge, near Petersfield in Hampshire.

Here, during the Second World War (Bacon was exempt from military service on account of his severe asthma), he spent his time painting. Virtually none of the work made by Bacon during this period survives, but with Hall’s patronage, he launched his career as a painter, exhibiting in the prestigious London gallery, Agnew’s. In 1941, Bacon and Hall moved into 7 Cromwell Place, formerly the studio of the Pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais. It was in this cavernous Victorian space that the most vital work of mid- 20th- century British painting - Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion - was created. And as Martin Harrison points out, for the atheistic Bacon - who was nonetheless obsessed by religious imagery - the use of the indefinite article “a” in the title of the painting reveals its subversive intent.

The painting was exhibited in April 1945, just one month before the end of the war in Europe. It was a breathtaking moment for British art, as recent history and Bacon’s personal vision melded in a manner which even now seems astonishing. As a Spanish gallery guide in the Arena film reveals to the camera, those three disembodied, viscerally terrifying figures with their demonic mouths and phallic necks represent an utter lack of security; a disjointed horror which looked forward, with utter pessimism, to a future tainted by the mushroom cloud, and back to an immediate past perverted by the Holocaust.

And, as Harrison shows, although the traces of this style had long been gestating in Bacon’s work, this triptych broke new ground. Equally, it heralded another change in Bacon’s life. His relationship with Hall ended, apparently unhappily; Bacon declined to speak about his former lover, and the only memorial to him was his 1945 canvas Figure in a Landscape, in which Hall is a headless figure, identifiable only by his business suit.

Bacon moved in with two bohemian friends, Paul Danquah and Peter Pollock, who were living in a mansion flat overlooking Battersea Park. It was supposed to be a temporary arrangement, but the painter ended up living there for eight years. Danquah, an actor now living in Tangiers, is interviewed in the new film. A wonderfully dissolute- looking character, he describes the utter mayhem which existed in the studio Bacon created in the flat, bringing home an array of partners - “boyfriends who were bad news”.

Poignantly, Danquah also produces a tattered letter from Bacon, written around the time he knew him, in which the painter describes sailing to visit his mother - then living in Rhodesia - and how, en route, he seduced an apparently straight man: “He says he hates poofs - I don’t know what he thinks I am.” Bacon, with his faintly slurry, boho-aristo tones, was famous for his dry wit and devastating one-liners. Much later in life, when he was a lauded and internationally celebrated artist, and a guest at a stuffy party, he was introduced to a cabinet minister. “And what do you do?” asked the sadly ignorant politician. Bacon replied, “I’m an old poof.”

By the 1950s Bacon was living the London life for which he became notorious. Rising at 6am, he would paint till lunchtime - his hangover gave him “a sort of freedom”, he claimed - then worked his way through the bars of Soho, with Muriel Belcher’s infamous Colony Rooms as his home from home. His intoxicating clarion call would become famous: “Champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends.” But life still had much pain in store for him.

Bacon’s relationship with the dashingly handsome, former fighter pilot Peter Lacy was the most destructive of his life. Initially, things went well. They sojourned in Tangiers - “a safe naughty haven”, as Paul Danquah describes it, and home to the likes of Paul and Jane Bowles, and later William Burroughs and Joe Orton. But soon Lacy revealed his sadistic side. Danquah alludes to Bacon’s love of “the excitement of extremes - both the punished and punisher”, yet, as both Low’s film and Harrison’s book reveal, it was Lacy’s extreme behaviour that would overwhelm them both.

It was as if the violence enacted in Bacon’s art was being replicated in his personal life. Or was it the other way around? Bacon’s paintings recorded this self-destruction in overtly sadistic images, yet disguised their models to all but the cognoscenti, with titles like Study for a Portrait of PL No.2. He and Lacy lived together in a Berkshire village, drinking all day in the pub next door - the prosaically named The Jolly Farmer - then fighting through the night. Bacon was “physically obsessed” with Lacy; but it was Lacy’s delight to debase his lover, at one point inviting Bacon to give up painting and live “in a corner of my cottage on straw. You could eat and shit there”.

In an attempt to escape this terrifying scenario, Bacon would retreat to the Imperial Hotel at nearby Henley-on-Thames. Here he struck up other fleeting, anonymous relationships - commemorated by paintings such as the Man in Blue series (1953-4). Such inconstancy melded with the gypsy- like nature of his life to shape Bacon’s pessimism: “We’re born and we die and in between we give this purposeless existence meaning by our drives.” “I have a feeling of mortality all the time,” he also said. “Because, if life excites you, its opposite, like a shadow, death, must excite you… You’re aware of it like the turn of a coin between life and death… I’m always surprised when I wake up in the morning.” What he could not control in his dramatic private life he tried to capture within the confines of his canvases.

In 1961, at the age of 52, Bacon escaped back to London and a first-floor flat over a stables at 7 Reece Mews, South Kensington. Here he would live for the next 30 years. Low’s film takes us through the geography of this now iconic space, showing Bacon making tea for his guests in a tiny kitchen piled with unwashed china - an echo of Quentin Crisp’s celebrated slumming. For all his private reticence, Bacon was one of the most filmed artists of his age, and Low has gathered fascinating interviews between the painter and fellow Soho drinker Dan Farson, who later claimed that Bacon had been so drunk leaving the Colony Room one afternoon that he tripped and fell “and hit the right side of his eye and put it half out. He just pushed it back in again”.

It was at this time that Bacon, now at the height of his fame and power, began his relationship with George Dyer. Dyer’s arrival in Bacon’s life in 1963 was memorably rendered in John Maybury’s biopic of the artist, Love Is the Devil, in which Dyer, played by Daniel Craig, falls through the Reece Mews skylight and on to Bacon’s bed (the painter being played by Derek Jacobi). It is another apocryphal scene - more like an angel falling in a dark canvas by Caravaggio - and, indeed, Bacon’s love for Dyer would result in its own mythic images: at least 40 portraits which seared themselves on the aesthetic consciousness of a generation.

Living and travelling together through the 1960s, Dyer and Bacon seemed to merge into each other. Dyer’s features are reconfigured in Bacon’s anonymous representations of existential horror and there is a sense of foreboding in the paintings which ended in actual tragedy. In 1971, Bacon was awarded the accolade, given only to one other living artist - his revered hero Picasso - of an exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris. The night before the opening, Bacon and Dyer argued over a boy Dyer had brought back to their hotel room. Bacon protested that the boy’s feet smelled so bad that he had to stay in another suite which had been taken by his friend, Terry Danziger Miles, of the Marlborough Gallery. Danziger Miles, speaking for the first time about the affair in the Arena film, describes how, the next morning, Bacon sent him to see if the coast was clear. On entering the suite, Danziger Miles found Dyer on the toilet, dead. He had overdosed on the Tuinol barbiturates which Bacon took as a sedative.

Astonishingly, Bacon still attended his opening-night party. Watching the footage of the event in Low’s film is almost as grim as the scenes of bullfighting with which it is intercut. Bacon, made up as ever, wears another mask to cover his grief. As Bacon’s sister Ianthe reminds us, on the night of his first retrospective (at the Tate in 1962), he had received a telegram telling him Peter Lacy had died suddenly in Tangiers. Now, at what should have been one of the greatest moments of his life, Bacon had to smile at strangers knowing his lover had killed himself.

Bacon’s relationships had come full circle. In 1974, he met John Edwards, to whom he became a father figure. The pair were introduced by Muriel Belcher, the enchantingly foul-mouthed maitresse of the Colony Room. Although he said “You don’t want an old boiler like me”, Bacon seduced Edwards, taking him gambling in casinos and cavorting in nightclubs. Edwards was dyslexic and illiterate - but as one friend remarked cattily, “He learnt to write his name quickly enough, as soon as he got a chequebook.”

In his biography of the painter, Andrew Sinclair writes that their relationship echoed “the Pinteresque world of the play The Homecoming, where a refined menace pervades throughout”. In the film, Edwards appears as an affable East-Ender, seen sitting on the arm of Bacon’s sofa and looking a little like a Cockney John Travolta. Bacon steered and directed his protege, forbidding him from wearing gold jewellery because it made him look cheap. He also moved in with Edwards’ family, in a barricaded Suffolk house with signs declaring “GUARD DOGS - WARNING”, while at dinner his friends found themselves seated next to convicted burglars.

Edwards would duly inherit Bacon’s £11,370,244 estate and later donated the Reece Mews studio to the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin, where its chaotic interior was painstakingly reconstructed. But by the time the painter met a handsome Spanish banker in the late 1980s, Edwards and Bacon had long been living separate sexual lives. Bacon pursued his new affair with characteristic passion, painting portraits of himself and Jose. It was fitting that this final love should take Bacon to Madrid, home of Velasquez, whom he venerated. And here he died, having suffered a respiratory crisis, a result of his lifelong asthma, on 28 April 1992. He was nursed on his death bed by a white-clad nun, an earthly representative of the religious certainties which he had raged against in life. And even at that unquiet end in a foreign land, I like to imagine that Francis Bacon still wrestled with dreams of his dark angels. 

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