Francis Bacon News









How Francis Bacon got by — with a lot of help from his friends







Despite the great volume of writing about him, the way in which a boy born in Dublin in 1909 became the artist we know as Francis Bacon has remained unclear. Many of the essays and books about Bacon – among them some of the most gloriously entertaining accounts of any artist – have been written by people who knew him, particularly in his gregarious Soho years. Bacon himself was anxious to deflect attention from the years before his late success, and was able to distract anyone who might ask with a performance in which he might draw attention to only a few picaresque details. In 1959 the writer James Thrall Soby proposed to the Marlborough Gallery that MoMA publish a book about Bacon, at a time when the artist’s star was rising. He sent a sort of pro forma questionnaire for Bacon to fill out: what led him to want to be a painter? What, or who, were his influences? Bacon’s handlers at the gallery knew they would have to get him drunk to get him to answer these questions. They took him to lunch, but it was not a great success. Bacon was unable to answer the first question, offering instead unrepeatable references to his father, and the charming but misleading idea that he had somehow led a ‘life of leisure’ until taking up painting at the age of 30 or so.

We know about this drunken lunch because of the dogged research of the authors of a new 880-page biography in which few stones, it seems, have been left unturned (this particular detail came from an unpublished letter to Soby). The writers Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005 for their biography of Willem de Kooning, and with the support of the Estate of Francis Bacon spent 10 years researching Bacon’s life and works. Stevens and Swan (a husband-and-wife team) have brought thoroughness and level-headedness – qualities not generally associated with mid-century Soho – to the task. They must have been greatly assisted by the laborious production of the catalogue raisonné published by the artist’s estate in 2016. Not only did Martin Harrison and his team track down works that were thought to be lost or destroyed (a lifelong habit of the painter), they also located diaries and correspondence that help to fill out our knowledge, in particular of the many years before Bacon’s first big success (which came in 1945 after a series of false starts).

Stevens and Swan don’t glaze over the lost years completely or rely upon imaginative reconstruction. Bacon was in close contact with his cousin Diana Watson through the 1930s and her diary (which was published by the estate in 2020) is used extensively. Research undertaken for the book also happily uncovered the diary of Eric Allden, a supporter and lover of Bacon’s before his career took off. Allden gives a first-hand account of an ill-fated exhibition organised by Bacon and Eric Hall – another important older figure in Bacon’s life – in a Mayfair basement in 1934, in which the walls were painted dark red and the windows hung with velvet curtains. The conservative Allden found the work rather hard to take. He bought a painting called Head in Ecstasy but returned it to Bacon, who – devastated by the critical failure of his show – destroyed it, along with all of the unsold paintings.

Particularly fascinating are those episodes in Bacon’s earlier life in which only with hindsight is it possible to discern anything that we might recognise in the artist’s later persona. It’s a curious treat to see him as an Air Raid Warden, instantly recognisable in a group photo, his eyes looking characteristically downwards (Lucian Freud painted him a decade later with the same melancholy averted gaze). Bacon left London during the war on account of difficulties both with asthma and his ‘nerves’ (there’s a fair bit of this), and moved to a cottage on the grounds of Bedales School in Hampshire. Guests found him charmless. He may well have been depressed, and anxious. But Stevens and Swan make a compelling case for the productiveness – despite appearances – of the months spent here by himself (more or less), reading Nietzsche, flicking through copies of Picture Post brought to him by Eric Hall, painting, making mistakes, destroying his work, becoming the painter we know while no one was watching.

Eric Hall supported the artist throughout the war years financially and emotionally; and it’s striking just how many people were always willing to support Bacon in one way or another. It’s good to see those individuals being properly credited: those who offered him a room to stay in, a studio space, a design commission, a cash advance, a word in the right ear, or the dependability he lacked from his family (hello Nanny Lightfoot). He would always have an impact on people he met, sometimes dramatically so. The married (and heterosexual) poet Thomas Blackburn fell in love with him in the back of a taxi. The painter Michael Wishart, struck by Bacon’s gaze across a room, ‘succumbed at once to his romantic charm’. Women could be enchanted by him too, like Madame Bocquentin who took young Francis in as a lodger, or – at the other end of his extraordinary life – the deputy director of the Prado, who in an interview with the authors said she’d ‘never seen somebody so gentle […] He looked you straight in the eye.’ It’s not possible to keep count of the number of people who said what excellent company he was: how he stripped life down to its essentials, how life-affirming he was, how charismatic.

This biography is the better for not being entirely seduced by Bacon’s performance or the glamour of his world. The volume of quotidian detail, especially in the unsuccessful years, serves to humanise the artist and thereby starts to unveil, in a sense, the persona he went on to create. How vulnerable he seems to have been then; how much looking after he seems to have needed, and found. Do the paintings look different after reading Revelations? Not really, but you start to see more clearly the artist’s own uncertainty and exposure in his subjects. And then it seems obvious. How else could he have done it?

Francis Bacon: Revelations by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan is published by William Collins





           Francis Bacon photographed in his early twenties.  Photo: Francis Julian Guttman, London






Francis Bacon: RA Show Explores His Fascination With Animals







The Royal Academy of Arts is presenting Francis Bacon: Man and Beast, the first exhibition to chart the development of the artist’s work through the lens of his fascination with animals, and how this impacted upon his treatment of his ultimate subject: the human figure. Francis Bacon (1909–1992) is recognised as one of the most important artists of the twentieth century. Since his death, the world has changed in ways that make his unnerving work ever more prescient. This important exhibition will include around 45 remarkable paintings spanning his career; from his earliest works of the 1930s and 40s through to the final painting he ever made in 1991, which will be exhibited publicly for the first time in the UK. Among the works, a trio of paintings of bullfights, all made in 1969, will also be displayed together for the first time.

In Bacon’s paintings, man is never far from beast. That humankind is fundamentally an animal was a truth that lay at the heart of his imagery. From the biomorphic creatures of his earliest work, to the distorted nudes that define the latter part of his career, Bacon remained convinced that, beneath the veneer of civilisation, humans are animals like any other. Throughout his life, the artist was captivated by the movement of animals, tracking them on trips to South Africa and amassing a vast collection of wildlife books. By observing their uninhibited behaviour, he believed he could get closer to the core of humanity.

Broadly chronological, the exhibition will begin with a group of paintings of biomorphic creatures produced between 1944 and 1946 which suggest a disintegration of civilised humanity. The figures, which he described as being a distortion of the human body, relate to the Eumenides, or ‘Furies’ – ghostly apparitions, neither man nor beast – derived from his reading of Greek tragedy, particularly The Oresteia by Aeschylus. One of Bacon’s earliest surviving works, Crucifixion, 1933 (Private Collection), will also be displayed in this gallery. Bacon did not subscribe to any religion, believing the crucifixion to be purely an act of violence. In the later Fragment of a Crucifixion, 1950 (Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven), a dog and an owl-like creature haunt the ‘cross’ while daily life continues in the background, describing a desensitisation that remains prescient today. By replacing a human figure with predatory animals, Bacon conflates the violence and suffering of a human crucifixion with the instinct of animals to kill. Together, these works point to a preoccupation with the catastrophic advances in man’s capacity for cruelty that were occurring in the years surrounding their creation.

In the early 1950s, Bacon made two trips to South Africa. He was captivated by the dry, arid plains of the vast landscapes there, describing his excitement while watching animals as they moved through the long grasses. At the same time, he was consulting a range of books on wildlife photography. The following section will explore Bacon’s interest in observing animals – in the wild and in captivity – and how this began to inform his treatment of the human body. Human bodies, stripped of the trappings of civilisation, are reduced to the vulnerability of an animal, while paintings of wild animals reflect his fascination with their behaviour.

Portraiture was central to Bacon’s exploration of the boundaries between the human and non-human animal. He was interested in the physicality of the head and how, stripped of the veneer of so-called civilisation, it could give expression to core instincts. In preparation for his first solo exhibition in 1949, the artist produced a series of six Heads – unsettling portraits in which not only identity, but species, is called into question. The characters are placed in cuboid structures, a compositional device that appeared here for the first time and would come to define Bacon’s work. The inner animal comes to the surface with particular force in Head I, 1949 (Metropolitan Museum of Art), which will be displayed at the start of the exhibition, whose snarling mouth originated in a photograph of a chimpanzee. Head VI (Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London) marks Bacon’s first portrait after Diego Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, replacing the divine power of the sitter with the helplessness of a caged animal. Two other subversions of Velázquez’s Pope will also be displayed. These unsettling ‘portraits’ question man’s superiority over the animal kingdom.

The movement of human and animal bodies, and how it could distinguish or conflate them, will be the subject of the next gallery. Bacon was fascinated by the work of Eadweard Muybridge, whose photographic sequences of humans and animals in motion had a profound effect on his treatment of the human body, exemplified by Paralytic Child Walking on All Fours (from Muybridge), 1961 (Kunstmuseum Den Haag, donation private collection in 1964). Muybridge’s experiments also provided a means for the expression of erotic drives, especially his photographs of wrestling men. Bacon was openly gay long before homosexuality was legalised in 1967, and Two Figures, 1953 (Private Collection), sexualises the sporting scene in a daring affront to the law.

Bacon’s preoccupation with movement, and his blurring of human and animal bodies, paved the way for the extreme distortion that characterised his work from the 1960s onwards. The next section will demonstrate Bacon’s subversion of traditional representations of the nude. Although he painted more females than males, focusing on a small group of friends, his figures are contorted and gender is often ambiguous. In Portrait of Henrietta Moraes on a Blue Couch, 1965 (Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester), the sitter’s skin seems to have been ripped away, revealing the flesh beneath. In Triptych – Studies of the Human Body, 1970 (Private Collection), three ostensibly female figures clamber across a rail, underlining Bacon’s continual linking of human and animal movement.

At the centre of the exhibition will be a powerful trio of paintings of bullfights that present one of the most direct encounters between man and beast in Bacon’s oeuvre. Displayed together in this exhibition for the very first time, the paintings of the corrida highlight the fine lines between flesh and meat, violence and eroticism, life and death. The subject of the corrida was not only a literal confrontation, for Bacon it raised the contradictory attitudes people hold towards animals: he spoke of those who condemned bullfighting but wore furs and ate meat. These three two-metre high paintings communicate the fragility of man’s supposed superiority over animals.

The next section will focus on Bacon’s lover and muse, George Dyer – an East Ender with roots in the criminal underworld. The two met in 1963, and for the following decade navigated a relationship that was both passionate and violent. However, Dyer’s heavy drinking, combined with the disconnect in their social status, created increasing tension. He attempted suicide on several occasions and finally succeeded in 1971, two days before the opening of a major retrospective of Bacon’s work at the Grand Palais, Paris. Dyer had been Bacon’s principal subject throughout the 1960s, and the artist attempted to exorcise the profound guilt he felt in the aftermath of Dyer’s death by continuing to paint him. These paintings are a reminder of the material facts of life, in which humans are subject to the same mortality as all creatures.

The ‘Furies’ are one of the most consistent but enigmatic motifs in Bacon’s works. The following section will demonstrate their ongoing importance as ciphers for the guilt and sense of mortality that Bacon grappled with throughout his life, and how animal imagery was integral to their visualisation. The biomorph in the left-hand panel of Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus, 1981 (Private Collection), has its origins in a photograph of a diving pelican that formed part of the detritus on Bacon’s studio floor. This is the only painting in which the Greek playwright is referenced by name, and Bacon played down direct links to The Oresteia, yet he was haunted by the line ‘the reek of human blood smiles out at me’ and spoke of the vivid, aesthetic qualities of blood. Deep red dominates all three panels of the other triptych in this room, Second Version of Triptych 1944, 1988 (Tate, London) in which Bacon returns to the ‘Furies’ of his works of the mid-1940s.

The exhibition will conclude with the last painting Bacon ever made, Study of a Bull, 1991 (Private Collection), which was not discovered until 2016. The bull emerges from the picture as if about to charge, but the black void behind has opened to claim it forever.

Francis Bacon: Man and Beast Royal Academy London 29 January – 17 April 2022






Last photograph of Lucian Freud’s stolen Francis Bacon

portrait published for first time




Image taken at Neue Nationalgalerie moments before the 1988 theft

features in a new book of the artist’s copper paintings






A photograph taken shortly before “the most important portrait of the 20th century” was stolen is being published for the first time this month in a new book. Lucian Freud’s 1952 portrait of his friend and fellow artist Francis Bacon was stolen in 1988 during an exhibition at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin and has never been recovered. Now, more than three decades later a photograph taken moments before the work went missing is being published in a new book of Freud’s copper paintings.

Although the installation photograph was in the Berlin museum’s archive, it was not until David Scherf was researching for his book Lucian Freud: the Copper Paintings that anyone realised quite how significant it was. When the museum first sent him the image, it was undated. Scherf asked if they had more information and the archivist scanned and sent him the contact sheets of the installation shots. “On the back was the name of the photographer and the date,” Scherf says. It read R. Friedrich and was dated 27 May 1988, the day of the theft. “Then it became interesting.”

After that initial discovery, Scherf spoke to Andrea Rose, the curator of the 1988 exhibition, and her husband, the critic and Freud biographer William Feaver. They said that the photographer who had come in that day “took the photos of the exhibition at around 11.30am”. A security guard reported the theft at 3pm and the museum’s doors were closed and visitors were questioned and searched. But nothing was found. One visitor claimed that the spot where the painting should have been, was already empty shortly after noon. “It became clear that there was just a brief period of time between the photo and the theft, possibly only minutes,” Scherf says.

According to Feaver’s recent two-part biography two-part biographyThe Lives of Lucian Freud, on the day that the theft took place only one of the “requisite three guards […] had been posted in the part of the gallery where the painting hung”. Like most of Freud’s copper paintings, the Bacon portrait was small, measuring just 17.8cm by 12.7cm, and would have easily been tucked into a coat or hidden in a bag.

A reward of 25,000 Deutschmarks was offered for any information that would lead to the recovery of the painting, which belonged to the Tate (the museum did not claim the insurance on it). The fate of the work remains a mystery despite Freud’s growing fame and further appeals including a “wanted” poster that the artist made in 2001 and had plastered around Berlin offering a DM300,000 reward. Freud appealed to the thief ahead of his major retrospective at the Tate: “Would the person who holds the painting kindly consider allowing me to show it in my exhibition next June?”

Freud was marked by the theft and requested that the lost image only be reproduced in black and white (as it is in Scherf’s book and also on the Tate website). In a 2008 review of Tate’s Francis Bacon exhibition, the Australian critic Robert Hughes recalled a conversation with Freud shortly after the portrait had been taken. The artist suggested the thief had not stolen the work because it was by him but because “he must have been crazy about Francis. That would justify the risk.” Hughes called the work an “unequivocal masterpiece”. Nicholas Serota, who became the director of Tate the same year it was stolen, called the painting “the most important portrait of the 20th century”.

The painting was one of only two portraits that Freud painted of Bacon and all the more unusual for having been painted on copper. Scherf’s new book, with an essay by Martin Gayford, brings together all of Freud’s known paintings on copper, half of which were hardly known about when he began his research in autumn 2011. “I spoke to people who were very knowledgeable about [Freud’s] oeuvre and they said there might be a handful [of paintings on copper]”.

After almost a decade of research, and having worked closely with the art historian Catherine Lampert, who is compiling Freud’s catalogue raisonné, Scherf managed to track down 14 copper paintings made between 1949 and 1953. All are included the book and two are being reproduced for the first time: a rare landscape titled The Grand Union Canal, Paddington (1952) and Sketch for a Portrait (Henrietta Moraes) (around 1952).

Scherf writes in the book that Freud’s copper paintings are “psychological and forensic examinations”. The mostly small, postcard-sized works were painted in great detail with Freud sitting right up close to his subjects. Their size also meant they were easily transported and allowed Freud to paint while away from his studio, such as during a hunting trip to Northern Ireland (Brace of Pheasants, 1952-53) or in his cabin while on a cross-Atlantic voyage (Self-Portrait, 1953).

Although Freud only painted on copper for a few years, starting out with leftover copper from etchings, Scherf believes that there may well be a few more out there. “I’m quite positive that Freud painted more than 14. But the way he worked, not a lot more.”

Scherf is also on the lookout for more images of the lost Bacon portrait. The work was in the Tate’s collection for 36 years and exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1954. Furthermore, the Berlin exhibition was the final leg of a touring show organised by the British Council that had stopped off at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the Hayward Gallery in London. Scherf says he knows of only three installation shots of the Bacon—the one in Berlin, and one each at the Hirshhorn and Hayward—and is appealing for anyone who may have snapped it during one of the shows to get in touch with The Art Newspaper.

• Lucian Freud: The Copper Paintings, David Scherf and Martin Gayford, Less Publishing and Yale University Press, 80pp, £30 (hb)





                                        Francis Bacon (1952) by Lucian Freud was stolen in 1988 and never recovered.

                                               Here it is reproduced in black and white at the request of the late artist







Francis Bacon’s Friend Has Been Accused


of Donating Fake Artworks to the Tate




An archivist connected to Bacon’s estate said many of the donated drawings


were made with charcoal, casting doubt over their authorship






According to new information divulged in a book entitled Francis Bacon: Shadows, Barry Joule, one of the late artist’s friends, has been accused of personally creating works which he then passed off as Bacon’s. Subsequently, the book posits, Joule donated a large collection of works attributed to Bacon to the Tate in 2004, but many of these works are allegedly poor imitations of the real thing. The Estate of Francis Bacon has also contributed to the ribbing of Joule. The estate recently published a report in which a curator at the Tate is quoted: “the hands that applied the marks to the material may not have included Bacon to any substantial degree.”

Sophie Pretorius, an archivist employed by the Estate of Francis Bacon, points in Francis Bacon: Shadows that many of the Bacon-attributed artworks in Barry Joule’s archive were drawn in charcoal. This is significant because Pretorius claims that no charcoal markings or indeed any charcoal at all were found in the artist’s studio in the time following his death, and no confirmed work by Bacon on paper has ever been rendered in charcoal.

Defending himself, Joule pointed out that he had clashed with the Estate of Francis Bacon in the past. “John Edwards [Bacon’s late executor] demanded that I donate my collection to the Hugh Lane in June 1998 and, if I didn’t, I would be outside the Bacon estate or family,” Joule is quoted as saying. “I told him my plan was to donate to the Tate and, one month later, the estate sent me a lawyer’s letter demanding the [drawings’] return … If they thought they were fakes, why would they demand their return?”

Earlier in September, Italian authorities have seized approximately 485 works of art thought to be counterfeit Francis Bacons; the canvases were worth approximately $3.5 million.




                                                                  Francis Bacon on September 29, 1987 in Paris, France. Photograph: Raphael Gaillarde 






Francis Bacon estate implies artist’s friend

created parts of Tate collection




New book says many pieces in Barry Joule Archive bear ‘scant resemblance’

to artist’s work, but donor insists they are real






The Estate of Francis Bacon has launched an astonishing personal attack on Barry Joule, one of the artist’s friends, and the vast collection he donated to the Tate in 2004 – even implying that he created works himself.

In publishing a damning study of the Barry Joule Archive (BJA), it quotes a Tate curator saying that “the hand/s that applied the marks to the material may not have included Bacon to any substantial degree.”

The criticisms appear in a book titled Francis Bacon: Shadows. In a chapter on the BJA, Sophie Pretorius, archivist of the estate’s collection, writes: “The story of the material associated with Joule is riddled with exaggeration, half-truths and contradictions… Bacon’s work is not easy to mimic. But the author of the items in the BJA made a stab at it.”

She quotes a Tate curator, having suggested to the Estate that “a more direct pronouncement may now be appropriate, indicating that the marks added to the BJA bear scant resemblance to those securely attributed to Bacon.”

She lists numerous discrepancies and inconsistencies, including that many figures in the BJA are drawn in charcoal: “No charcoal or charcoal marks were found in Bacon’s studio upon his death, and no work on paper by Bacon exists with [charcoal] marks.”

She adds that, in comparing some of the writing on BJA material with correspondence written by Joule, “the resemblance is striking.”

Hearing of its accusations, Joule said he was “fuming” and would consider legal action.

He was also “not surprised” by the estate’s attack as they had only raised doubts about his collection after he refused their 1998 request to donate it to the Bacon Study Centre at the Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin.

Instead, he donated an archive of 1,200 sketches, photographs and documents from Bacon’s studio to the Tate in what was then described as one of the gallery’s most generous gifts, worth an estimated £20m.

Last month, Joule revealed that he had lost patience with the Tate for not exhibiting it, as initially agreed, and he has threatened legal action to retrieve it.

He lived near Bacon’s studio in London and, in 1978, they struck up a friendship that continued until the artist’s death in 1992.

Joule said: “John Edwards [Bacon’s late executor] demanded that I donate my collection to the Hugh Lane in June 1998 and, if I didn’t, I would be outside the Bacon estate or family … I told him my plan was to donate to the Tate and, one month later, the estate sent me a lawyer’s letter demanding the [drawings’] return … If they thought they were fakes, why would they demand their return?

“I’m one of the few people alive that really knew Bacon. I was a friend and nobody in the estate knew him.” In November, he is staging an exhibition in Marseille of his photographs of Bacon in his studio.

He added that another Bacon longtime friend signed a statement saying that she had witnessed Bacon handing his friend Joule the material.

Asked about the suggestion that he could have created the works himself, Joule said: “Then I’d be Francis Bacon, wouldn’t I?”

A Tate spokesperson said: “Tate accepted the donation of the archival material to enable further study into Bacon, his studio and the environment around him. The donation was of material from the studio of Francis Bacon … and comprises notes by Bacon and photographs of Bacon as well as worked material.

“It was acquired and has been held and studied in the archive as such. Sophie Pretorius’s work, on behalf of the estate, has advanced these studies and we always welcome research which helps shed new light on any material we hold.”




           Barry Joule is staging an exhibition of photographs of Bacon in his studio





Lord Gowrie obituary



Brilliant amateur who was born to privilege, became a favourite of


Mrs Thatcher and could not afford to live on a minister’s salary





With more than three million people in Britain unemployed, Lord Gowrie caused collective gasps of incredulity when he resigned from the government in September 1985 citing the fact that he could not afford to live in London on a minister’s salary.

The said £33,000 might have seemed meagre for a man of his gifts and vaulting ambition, but it was also more than three times London’s average wage of £10,660. Darkly handsome and self-assured the hereditary peer may have been, but sensitive to the mood of a nation only just beginning to emerge from the harsh economic medicine of the early Thatcher years he was not.

 “Grey” Gowrie was a favourite of Margaret Thatcher, who had planned to promote him from minister of the arts and chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to education secretary. Instead, the earl left politics for a more remunerative opportunity at Sotheby’s — to cat-calls from the opposition benches and outraged columns in certain newspapers characterising him as a modern-day Marie Antoinette.

Gowrie segued easily into the elegant surroundings of the fine art world by taking over the international business of Sotheby’s and reputedly boosting his salary to a more manageable £150,000 a year. He would go on to become chairman of the auction house.

Rigorously intellectual but also rather fey, smart and dandyish, with a hint of scruffiness in his skew-whiff bow-ties, he was seen as something of an enigma. Yet he sparkled in both his worlds, playing a bit but telling part in the birth of Thatcherism in the 1970s, and a major one in the dynamic international fine art trade of the 1990s.

His career was proof that lords do not fall into a pattern, and neither do Tories. In this he had something in common with another Old Etonian Balliol man, Boris Johnson. The two were on friendly terms, so friendly that in 1987 Gowrie hosted Johnson’s pre-wedding dinner when he married Allegra Mostyn-Owen, his first wife.

Many found it perplexing that Gowrie could serve Thatcher not just as arts minister but as a spokesman on economic policy. Yet a man who can sell a Jackson Pollock to the National Gallery in Washington for $2 million probably has his head as well screwed on as the average politician aspiring to manage the national finances.

Alexander Patrick Greysteil Hore-Ruthven was born in Dublin in 1939 to the Hon Patrick Hore-Ruthven and Pamela, née Fletcher. He and his brother were left in Dublin while his parents fought the war in Cairo: his father as a major in the Rifle Brigade and his mother working in intelligence for Freya Stark.

He was brought up by his grandparents in genteel poverty after his father was killed leading a commando raid before he could succeed to the title. Grey was largely brought up by his mother in an Anglo-Irish environment in the Irish Republic. “I’m an Irishman,” he liked to say later, “with a Scots title, married to a German.”

An early love of poetry was imbued by his grandfather, an eccentric Anglican clergyman, who would take him on long walks and recite verse. By the time Gowrie went to Eton he could recite Paradise Lost by rote. Unsurprisingly, he “took a lot of stick” but in time he fell in with like-minded compadres and passed his schooldays writing “frightfully bad verse”.

At the age of 15 he succeeded to the title of second Earl of Gowrie and Viscount Ruthven of Canberra. He also succeeded Paul Foot as the editor of Isis while at Balliol College and, having branched out from his early bookishness, spent much of the rest of his time at Oxford as a “tremendous pursuer of women”, in the words of one contemporary. He entered university teaching, at American colleges. He was the poet Robert Lowell’s assistant at Harvard and became good friends with Henry Kissinger.

He decided, however, that “the Eng Lit thing” was not him and that he would go into politics, making use of the entrée provided by his hereditary peerage. Already it was clear there was something in him of the eccentric English milord of fiction: a brilliant amateur, born to privilege, but not much money. The handsome young earl was thoroughly spoilt by American campus society.

Back in England, he went to Bond Street to train as an art dealer. While still at Oxford he had proved he had an eye for contemporary art by picking up David Hockneys before they were fashionable. In due course he produced a slim volume of poetry, A Postcard from Don Giovanni (1972), with a Hockney sketch of the author on the cover. One critic described the hot-blooded subject matter as “dispatches from the sexual battlefront.”

His peerage was an unusual one, one of the last earldoms to be created. It had been awarded to his grandfather, a celebrated soldier — a VC of the Sudan campaign — who had gone on to become governor-general of Australia during the 1930s and 1940s.

There was an older Scottish title in the background, which incidentally explained his nickname, “Grey”. He had been named after Greysteil Ruthven, who earned a footnote in 16th-century history for what the 20th-century Grey liked to call “an early Eurosceptical gesture”: he murdered the Italian favourite of Mary Queen of Scots, David Rizzio, who had offended the Scottish prejudices of the time by being “foreign, Catholic and gay”.

When Gowrie entered Conservative parliamentary politics it was under Edward Heath, who in due course made him a Lords whip. When Heath was forced out of the party leadership Gowrie found himself a junior but hard-working member of Thatcher’s court as she set about transforming the party. Speaking confidently with donnish precision, Gowrie quickly gained respect.

His political opponent, the caustic Denis Healey, another Balliol man, said that “Grey is the only Conservative who understands monetarism.”

Gowrie would describe Thatcher as one of his best friends, along with the artist Francis Bacon and the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber. He joined the first Thatcher government in a middle-ranking and sensitive post as a minister of state under Jim Prior at the Department of Employment during the early attempts to reform the trade unions. When Prior was famously “exiled” to the Northern Ireland Office, he took Gowrie with him, with responsibility for prisons, where he had to administer the grim policy of no surrender to the Maze hunger strikers. Although Gowrie’s family background lay in the Irish Protestant ascendancy, he had little sympathy for Orangemen.

At the next reshuffle Thatcher bestowed upon him an unprecedented double post: he would be arts minister and could also remain in the ministerial mainstream by having responsibility for civil service management and personnel. In 1984 he entered the cabinet with the added non-departmental job of chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

As arts minister Gowrie belied his political founding as a self-proclaimed “unreconstructed Thatcherite dinosaur” by arguing strongly for arts subsidies, but he was also successful in attracting private patronage. He introduced an important scheme whereby the national collections could accept works of art in lieu of death duties.

Gowrie became chairman of Sotheby’s in 1987, at the heart of the rapidly growing international art market, during which time the auction house’s centre of gravity inevitably moved to New York. There were many who claimed that market forces in fine art were stripping Britain of national treasures. Gowrie argued that a free market worked both ways. He was particularly proud of a Sotheby’s deal that acquired Picasso’s Weeping Woman for the Tate.

In 1993 he succeeded Lord Palumbo as chairman of the Arts Council, a body which was then a favourite hate-symbol on the one hand among taxpayers who grumbled that their money paid for the pleasures of the rich and the follies of the pretentious, and on the other hand among practitioners of the arts — especially in the provinces, where they grumbled that London got the lion’s share of the goodies.

In this role Gowrie was considerably more powerful and financially endowed than his predecessor as a result of the advent of the National Lottery, whose grants to the arts were to be administered by the council. His first move was to strengthen links with the arts world by recruiting distinguished artistic figures to join the council. However, his chairmanship was turbulent and he resigned in 1998. It was inevitable that he became a lightning conductor for much of the outrage about the cost of the rebuilt Royal Opera House. He was never wholly successful in arguing that he had also been channelling millions into the provinces, or in persuading the public that “the opera audiences I have seen are not toffs but mainly struggling middle-class professional people.”

He was married in 1962 to Xandra Bingley, by whom there was a son, Patrick, a database developer and musician, who survives him. His first marriage ended in divorce in 1974. Later that year he married Adelheid Gräfin von der Schulenburg, a journalist and the daughter of Count Fritz-Dietlof Graf von der Schulenburg, who was executed by the Nazis as one of the leaders of the plot to assassinate Hitler in 1944.

After a period of declining health, Gowrie underwent a heart transplant performed by Professor Sir Magdi Yacoub at Harefield Hospital in 2000. Yacoub used a rare procedure known as “the domino”: Gowrie received the healthy heart of a patient suffering from lung disease who then received both the heart and lungs of another donor. The two operations were carried out at the same time.

Gowrie spent several months in hospital, firstly waiting for a suitable donor and then recuperating. The operation was a great success and prolonged his life by 21 years. Shortly after surgery, smiling gently, he asked Yacoub when he would be allowed a glass of champagne.

The surgeon later recruited Gowrie to be chairman of the Magdi Yacoub Institute at Harefield, which conducts research into heart disease and new treatments.

Gowrie would spend much of his retirement indulging in his first love of versifying, publishing a couple of volumes of poetry that, he said, put him back on the “sexual battlefront”.

The Earl of Gowrie, politician and fine art dealer, was born on November 26, 1939. He died after a long illness on September 24, 2021, aged 81




                                                                              Gowrie married Adelheid Gräfin von der Schulenburg in 1974







Lord Gowrie, politician, poet and leading figure in the arts who

served under Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher – obituary




He was a cabinet member and a government whip, but left for Sotheby’s

after complaining that he was unable to live on his ministerial salary






The 2nd Earl of Gowrie, who has died aged 81, was a man of letters, a poet, a Conservative politician and a prominent figure in the world of the arts; he was a Minister for the Arts under Margaret Thatcher, and for four years chairman of the Arts Council of England.

In 1985, after two years as Arts Minister, Gowrie resigned to become chairman of Sotheby’s. The reason he gave for stepping down from the Government – in which he was also by then Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and thus a member of the Cabinet – was that he could not afford to live in London on his ministerial salary of £33,000 a year.

This frank and well-publicised admission met with a mixed reception. “It taught me,” Gowrie said later, “that people very often dislike politicians because they don’t tell the truth – but they hate it even more when they do. It seems to me a perfectly acceptable thing to say … No one would pretend that it is or was a sustainable middle-class salary in central London.”

Subsequently, while still at Sotheby’s, Gowrie became Provost of the Royal College of Art – unsalaried. And then in 1994 he left Sotheby’s and succeeded Lord Palumbo as chairman of the Arts Council, another unpaid post, the holder of which was invariably to subjected to searing criticism from one quarter or another for the way in which the Council allocated grants.

Despite the flood of National Lottery money channelled through the Council for capital projects in the arts, Gowrie had his fair share of detractors. He bore their criticisms stoically; but when he decided to step down early, in 1998, he himself was gloomy about the state of arts funding. Many arts organisations, he warned darkly, were “on the brink of extinction.”

Alexander Patrick Greysteil Hore-Ruthven, known to all as Grey, was born on November 26 1939, the elder son of Captain (later Major) A H P Hore-Ruthven, of the Rifle Brigade; his mother was the daughter of an Anglican clergyman.

In the 16th century the Ruthvens were a rich and politically powerful family who for more than 100 years had owned much of eastern Scotland. Patrick, Lord Ruthven, was the man who stabbed David Rizzio, Mary Queen of Scots’s favourite; a cousin, Beatrix Ruthven, was the last woman to be burnt as a witch in Scotland.

The family fell in 1600, when the young Earl of Gowrie (of an earlier creation) and his brother, the Master of Ruthven, were murdered by King James VI’s attendants at House of Ruthven (now Huntingtower), near Perth – supposedly because they had tried to kill the King. Their lands were then dispersed.

Grey’s grandfather, Brigadier-General Sir Alexander Hore-Ruthven, VC, had been created a peer as Baron Gowrie of Canberra, in 1935, after a tour as Governor of South Australia. Subsequently, in 1945, after eight years as Governor-General of Australia, he was advanced to Earl of Gowrie.

In 1942, when Grey was three, his father died at an Italian hospital in North Africa of wounds received when leading a commando raid in Tripoli, where he was attached to the Special Air Service Brigade. Grey grew up mostly in Ireland, in Dublin, Donegal and Co Kildare.

When his grandfather was granted the Earldom in 1945, Grey became Viscount Ruthven of Canberra. The new Earl was Lieutenant-Governor of Windsor Castle, and when his grandson, aged seven, met Queen Mary, the boy confided: “We’ll have great jokes together when I come to Windsor Castle.”

“I wonder what jokes he was thinking of?” the Queen asked Grey’s mother suspiciously; but she sent the boy a postcard of herself wearing her crown. For a time, Grey lived with his grandparents at Windsor, with his nanny and a manservant called Mr Mustard.

He succeeded his grandfather in 1955 – and in 1956 his great-uncle as Baron Ruthven, of Gowrie (created 1919) – during his schooldays at Eton. There he was a keen actor, and gained favourable press notices for his performance, in 1956, in Danton’s Death – “Lord Gowrie’s saturnine presidency of the Tribunal stood out among the minor parts.”

In 1957 a large “Wanted for Questioning” poster showing Gowrie in Teddy Boy clothes was displayed outside Eton police station – for one afternoon only – during a shoot for Manhunt, a film by the Eton College film unit. “I am Harry Hooper,” said Gowrie, “a Borstal boy on the run. The story is about juvenile delinquents, but it doesn’t pose any particular moral problem.”

He also contributed to the Eton magazine Parade seven of his own poems, a short story, an essay on educational reform and an appreciation of Anthony Powell’s novel A Question of Upbringing, the first of the 12-volume sequence “A Dance to the Music of Time.”

After Eton – where latterly he had been a member of Pop – Gowrie worked with members of the British Association of the Order of Malta as a volunteer in a clinic at Ma’an, in the desert near Petra in Jordan. He then went up to Balliol College, Oxford, where he read English, chased girls, played canasta and for a time drove a white Alvis.

During his second year at Balliol he edited the undergraduate magazine Isis. “In politics,” noted an item in The Daily Telegraph at the time, “he tends towards the Left, in poetry the modern, in art the abstract, in dress the casual.” It was while he was at Oxford that he began to show an interest in the art market, buying a Hockney for £75 for the Balliol art collection.

Down from Oxford, Gowrie seemed set on an academic career. After brief spells working on the TLS and teaching at a girls’ school, where he met his first wife, he went as a postgraduate to Harvard. He was then a visiting lecturer at the State University of New York, Buffalo, in 1963-64; a tutor at Harvard from 1965 to 1968; and Lecturer in English and American Literature at University College London from 1969 to 1972.

He made his maiden speech in the House of Lords in 1968, during a debate on reforming the House. He described himself as “youngish, Toryish and hereditary-ish”, and expressed the view that the hereditary principle could be justified only if it was in a constant state of growth and organic change.

In 1971 he was appointed a Conservative Whip, and Parliamentary Representative to the United Nations. He was then a Lord-in-Waiting (Government Whip) from 1972 to 1974, when the Conservatives lost the general election.

For the next five years, until the Tories returned to power under Margaret Thatcher, Gowrie served as Opposition Spokesman on Economic Affairs. At the same time he worked as a fine art consultant with the Bond Street art gallery of Thomas Gibson, who had been his fag at Eton. “I worked at art-dealing for a living,” Gowrie said, “and for Mrs Thatcher for love.”

From 1979 to 1981 he was Minister of State at the Department of Employment. When Mrs Thatcher invited him to be Secretary of State, he declined; he felt that whoever held the office should be able to defend his policy in person in the House of Commons. “It was brave,” he said of the Prime Minister’s offer, “but she would have regretted it, and I was thinking of her.”

From Employment, Gowrie moved to the Northern Ireland Office as Minister of State (deputy to the Secretary of State), from 1981 to 1983. Looking back a decade later, he said: “I enjoyed being Minister for the Arts very much, but my particular interest was Northern Ireland.” From 1981 to 1985 he was also a Government spokesman on Employment and for the Treasury.

On leaving the Government in 1985 Gowrie was recruited by Alfred Taubman, the American proprietor of Sotheby’s, to be chairman of, first, Sotheby’s International, from 1985 to 1986, and then of Sotheby’s Europe, from 1987 to 1994. His chairmanships spanned the period of the art-market boom of the late 1980s and its subsequent slump in the early 1990s. Throughout the period, real power at Sotheby’s lay in the hands of the firm’s American executives.

“It’s time to move over and make room for fresh blood,” Gowrie said on stepping down as chairman in 1994. “Seven years is quite long enough for one man in one job.” The next year he retired as Provost of the RCA, of whose senior common room he gave a flavour: “Not pass the port, but you get good solid vegetables and artistic food. They are no-nonsense people at the RCA.”

Gowrie became chairman of the Arts Council at a particularly tense moment in its history. For the first time since 1946 the Treasury had cut the Council’s annual grant (by £3 million, to £186 million), and had advised them to plan on the basis of no real increase for the next three years. Moreover, there had recently been a storm of protest over funding cuts for London orchestras, and the whole system of arts funding was subject to widespread criticism.

It was, however, also the time when substantial sums were about to become available for distribution for capital projects by the Council, following the launch of the National Lottery. By the end of 1994 Gowrie had obtained a £5·1 million increase in the Council’s grant, and had also saved the Council £1 million in overheads. By October 1995 the Lottery was bringing in cash for distribution at the rate of approximately £5 million a week.

Among the most impressive, and sometimes controversial, grants made during Gowrie’s four years at the Arts Council were £78 million for the rebuilding of the Royal Opera House, some £32 million to transform the National Theatre into a “state of the art venue” and £22 million to Rada. Grants were also made for the rebuilding of Sadler’s Wells and the Royal Court Theatre.

Yet by the time Gowrie left in 1998, the Arts Council was once again in crisis. Chris (now Lord) Smith, Labour’s new Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, had announced that the Council’s share of Lottery money would be cut from 20 to 16·6 per cent; and the Council’s annual grant, set at £184·6 million, was in real terms £34 million less than in it had been 1993. “We are suffering the worst revenue crisis in my lifetime,” said Gowrie

Lord Gowrie was chairman of The Really Useful Group, the theatre company, from 1985 to 1990, and of Development Securities, the property company, from 1995. He was for a time chairman of the trustees of the Serpentine Gallery. He was a member of the Select Committee on House of Lords Offices from 1997.

His publications include several volumes of his poems, A Postcard from Don Giovanni (1972), The Domino Hymn: poems from Harefield (2005), Third Day (2008), The Italian Visitor (2013) and Collected Poems (2014); The Genius of British Painting (jointly, 1975); The Conservative Opportunity (jointly, 1976); and Derek Hill: an appreciation (1987). He considered the poet W H Auden to be “the one undisputed writer of genius born on this island this [the 20th] century”.

His poetic mentor, though, was Robert Lowell, for whom he had worked as an assistant in his twenties. They remained friends, and Gowrie was a pallbearer at Lowell’s funeral in 1977.

Gowrie was a member of the Society of Dilettanti, and an authority on jazz, “though only up to Charlie Mingus”. He was also a busy book reviewer, frequently contributing to The Daily Telegraph. “Reading a good book,” he once declared, “should be an emotional experience akin to having a love affair.”

As chairman of the Booker Prize judges in 1993 he had 111 novels to read. “I got up at 5am to read novels for two or three hours every morning, and read more than a dozen novels a day on holiday.” The winner of the Booker Prize that year was Roddy Doyle, for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.

In 1996 Gowrie appeared in an episode of the BBC television series Nightmare – The Origins of Horror. It was his first foray into acting since Manhunt. Wearing terrifying make-up and a kilt, he played the part of the first vampire in English literature, in a filmed excerpt of the 1820 play The Vampire, or the Bride of the Isles, an adaptation of Polidori’s The Vampyre.

“This vampire, Lord Ruthven,” Gowrie explained, “was an 18th-century forebear of mine. I was very pleased to be asked to portray him. But he was extremely unattractive, so a good-looking man like me had to have a lot of make-up. There were lots of naked virgins around, although I was only interested in their necks, of course.”

Lord Gowrie was sworn of the Privy Council in 1984. He was a Fellow of the Royal College of Art and in 1997 received the Order of Picasso from Unesco. He had a heart transplant at Harefield in 1999, and also a serious and persistent problem with his hip following a fall in hospital – where, because of the heart and the hip, he remained for the best part of a year.

He married first, in 1962 (dissolved 1973), Xandra Bingley; they had a son, Viscount Ruthven of Canberra, who was born in 1964 and succeeds to the peerages. He married secondly, in 1974, Adelheid (“Neiti”) Countess von der Schulenburg, whose father, Fritz Dietlof Count von der Schulenburg, was executed in 1944 for his part in the July 20 plot against Hitler.

The 2nd Earl of Gowrie, born November 26 1939, died September 24 2021





                 British poet and Arts Minister Alexander Patrick Greysteil Ruthven, 2nd Earl of Gowrie, known as Grey Gowrie, 1980. Photograph by Gemma Levine






Lord Gowrie obituary




Conservative politician whose background in literature and fine art

equipped him well as an arts minister for Margaret Thatcher






Grey Gowrie, Lord Gowrie, who has died aged 81, was an exotic and brief-flowering cabinet minister in Margaret Thatcher’s second administration. Few members of her government were published poets and former lecturers in American and English literature and, with dark curly, Byronic hair, saturnine looks, a penchant for floppy bow ties and a fastidious, courtly manner, Gowrie looked the part of a flâneur rather than a Thatcherite politician. Even fewer resigned from government, as he did, not for incompetence or even scandal, but because he bluntly claimed he could not live in central London on a ministerial salary.

At the time, in 1985, £33,000 a year, which is what he was paid as chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, in charge of reforming the English civil service, was a comfortable executive salary. Gowrie’s bluntness about its shortcomings provoked ridicule, and overshadowed what had been a competent and engaging ministerial career, including two years as arts minister, for which his background and tastes in literature, poetry and fine art made him better qualified than most holders of that office.

His remarks that £1,500 a month was “not what people need for living in central London” and that in the context he felt he had “done my bit” were, he later conceded, “extraordinarily stupid”, adding that “it taught me a lesson that in politics it can be ill-advised not to put a gloss upon the truth”.

He had been effective as a minister in the six years since Thatcher had led the Conservatives to power in 1979, and had spent a year in cabinet with responsibility for civil service reform, cutting costs and staff before his sudden resignation. Within months he became European chair of Sotheby’s for seven years and latterly chair of Arts Council England and a number of other arts bodies, including the Booker prize panel that gave the award to Roddy Doyle’s novel Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha in 1993.

As arts minister Gowrie had deployed steeliness in refusing a rescue grant to the English National Opera, and at the Arts Council he also denied funds to a project for a film about the artist Francis Bacon. He was accused of metropolitan elitism and was said to have fallen out with Virginia Bottomley, one of his ministerial successors, over diverting lottery money to Rada rather than regional theatre. But he was a supporter of Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North statue outside Gateshead and oversaw its inauguration.

He was born in Dublin as Alexander Patrick Greysteil Hore-Ruthven – known as Grey to his acquaintances and Greysteil to his close friends – and was the son of Patrick Hore-Ruthven, a captain in the Rifle Brigade, and the society beauty Pamela Fletcher. His father was killed during an SAS raid in Libya in 1942, and Grey and his mother spent the war on family estates in Ireland. His grandfather Alexander Hore-Ruthven was another soldier and a Victoria Cross winner, who served as governor general of Australia between 1936 and 1944. The boy was consciously christened after a Scottish ancestor, Patrick Ruthven, one of the assassins who murdered Mary Queen of Scots’ lover David Rizzio in front of her in 1566. Mary’s son, James VI of Scotland, had revoked the family title, Earl of Gowrie, in 1600 and it was restored only in 1945.

When Gowrie’s grandfather returned from Australia at the end of the war and became deputy constable of Windsor Castle, the boy went to live with him, mingling with the royal family. He claimed that this was something of a shock as he had been brought up by an Irish republican nanny to despise the British and their royal family, but he soon fitted in.

Gowrie joked that at Windsor Castle he had simultaneously been taught about art and the facts of life by being shown the Leonardo drawings in the royal art collection. After his mother’s remarriage, to another military figure, Major Derek Cooper, he moved back to Ireland and then was sent to Eton, succeeding to the earldom at the age of 15 on his grandfather’s death in 1955, before going to Balliol College, Oxford. Postgraduate work followed in the rather more demotic surroundings of Buffalo University in upstate New York, then by teaching at Harvard, where he became an assistant to the poet Robert Lowell.

He moved back to Britain in 1969 to lecture at University College London, and meanwhile took the Tory whip in the House of Lords. Although socially liberal and a member of the Vietnam protest generation while in the US, he was an economic “dry” and an early convert to what eventually became known as Thatcherite policies.

In the Lords under Edward Heath he became a government whip (1972-74) and then, in opposition, a Tory spokesperson on economic affairs (1974-79). On the side, he also became a fine art broker and dealer, selling Picassos and old masters on commission, mainly to wealthy American institutions, including on one occasion a Jackson Pollock, valued at $2m, to the Washington National Gallery.

After Thatcher’s election victory in 1979 he was appointed minister of state in the Department of Employment until 1981 and then – at his own request – deputy to the Northern Ireland secretary for two years (1981-83) during the height of the Troubles. Proud of his Irish roots, though he had eventually sold the family estate in County Kildare to the entrepreneur Tony O’Reilly, he served during the IRA hunger strikes, expressing quiet admiration for what he saw as the dying men’s misguided courage.

After the 1983 landslide election result, Thatcher made him minister for the arts. A published but lapsed poet – his book A Postcard from Don Giovanni had been released in 1972 – he became an assiduous attender of first nights and exhibitions, and found himself briefly pursued by the tabloids, whose censorious journalists could not believe that such a flamboyant figure did not also dabble in drugs. Gowrie denied it vigorously: “I do think that an arts minister has to spend time in low dives, but I don’t think he actually has to get stoned.”

By 1984 he had also been appointed chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in addition to his arts brief, and the following year Thatcher asked him to be education minister. However, he had already made up his mind to resign and turned the offer down, leaving for pastures new in the art world.

In 1999, after a prolonged period of declining health, Gowrie’s public life largely came to a halt when it was discovered he needed an urgent heart transplant. He spent five months in Harefield hospital in Middlesex waiting for a suitable donor before the successful operation in 2000. The stay prompted a resumption of poetry writing and he subsequently became chair of the Magdi Yacoub Institute, named after the hospital’s pioneering transplant surgeon who had carried out his operation.

Gowrie is survived by his second wife, Adelheid Gräfin von der Schulenburg, a journalist, known as Neiti, whom he married in 1974; by a son, Brer, from his first marriage, to Xandra Bingley, which ended in divorce, and a grandson, Heathcote; and by his brother, the writer Malise Ruthven.


*Alexander Patrick Greysteil Hore-Ruthven, Lord Gowrie, politician, born 26 November 1939; died 24 September 202




              Lord Gowrie in his office in London in May 1979, four days after Margaret Thatcher’s election victory






A collector in dealer's clothes’: Sotheby's


to sell the collection of Richard L. Feigen




The sale of the New York dealer, who died earlier this year and was once a vocal critic

of auction houses, will feature works from the 14th to 20th centuries






Sotheby’s has today announced the sale of 55 works from the collection of the late art dealer and collector Richard L. Feigen. The single owner sale will take place on 18 October in New York and feature a wealth of work from Feigen’s personal collection, from the 13th century to the 20th century. Feigen, who referred to himself as a “collector in dealer’s clothes” was particularly attracted to Italian art from the 13th century to the Baroque, the English and French Romantic painters and German Expressionists—examples of all will be included in the sale.

Sale highlights include eight pictures by the British Romantic artist Richard Parkes Bonington, one of the many artists Feigen thought to be “undervalued or underappreciated”, Sotheby’s says. Two of the eight are richly detailed plein air landscape sketches painted during the artist’s trip to Italy in 1826 with his patron Baron Charles Rivet. Both The Palazzo Monolesso-Ferro, Palazzo Contarini-Fasan, and Palazzo Contarini, (estimate $2m-$3m), which was painted in Venice, and View of Lerici, (estimate $1m-$1.5m) are fine examples of what drew Feigen to Bonington’s work, the artist’s skill at capturing the delicate nature of light.

Throughout his career Feigen championed artists who he felt had not yet received the recognition they deserved and helped cement the reputations of Francis Bacon, Jean Dubuffet and Jasper Johns, but there were few for whom he fought as strongly or successfully as Max Beckmann. One of Beckmann’s most powerful abstract works, Grosser Steinbruch in Oberbayern (Large Quarry in Upper Bavaria, estimate $1.8m-$2.5m) will be included in the sale, as will the 1926 portrait Bildnis enies Türken (Portrait of a Turk, estimate $2m-$3m). The sale will be rounded out by a number of the early Italian works from Feigen’s collections including the painter Domenico Beccafumi’s The Adoration of the Christ Child (estimate $300,000-$500,000).

Feigen was known for his no-nonsense advice, urging people to buy the best they could afford because Shit never costs that much less. And in 2009, he told an interviewer for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art: “Well, I don’t want to be arrogant, I have a very good eye. I have very, very good taste.

And although his collection will now be sold by Sotheby’s, in his day Feigen was a vocal critic of auction houses. In this opinion piece for The Art Newspaper in 2007, Feigen talked of the bursting of the bubble in the art market, writing: “The auction houses won’t care because they have no ongoing responsibility to their clients, and there will be an endless supply of ... the newly trendy, that they can help promote to feed these insatiable monsters.”

“In the scope of his interest, insight and impact, few American art dealers were as influential as Richard L. Feigen,” says Christopher Apostle, the head of Old Master paintings at Sotheby’s in New York. “His taste not only shaped the numerous collects with whom he worked, but also the global network of institution to which he sold the many masterpieces that passed through his hands.

The sale’s highlights will be on view in London from 17 to 23 September.





Nearly 500 Counterfeit Francis Bacon Works Confiscated in Italy







Italian police have confiscated nearly 500 works of art believed to be Francis Bacon counterfeits. The artworks, along with various other personal effects that were seized, are worth about €3 million (approximately $3.5 million). Five out of seven total suspects investigated have been charged with conspiracy to authenticate and trade forged works of art, along with fraud and money laundering, according to a statement released by Italian authorities on Friday.

The lead suspect apprehended in the operation is an art collector from Bologna. He was previously the subject of a 2018 investigation known as the “Paloma Operation,” in which two fake Picassos and other dubious Bacon works were found.

According to the Italian police’s statement, the seizure of 485 works was “preventive,” to halt the potential fraudulent sales of other forged art works. The works recovered are being examined by experts who will determine their authenticity.

In 2018, Italian police forces carried out the first investigation after uncovering a group of contemporary artwork, including two drawings with Francis Bacon signatures, in the possession of one of the five unnamed suspects.

Italian police also claimed there was a scheme to authenticate the forged drawings in the art market “through prestigious national and international exhibitions, catalogues, websites, foundations and companies under foreign law, so as to increase their ‘quotation’ and then resell them, as a result.”

Tax officials led a subsequent investigation, which found that the same suspect investigated in 2018 carried out financial transactions between foreign countries that were “incompatible with his legal sources of income,” according to the police statement. That statement said that a suspect in the case alleges that the works were gifted directly by the artist.

Forgeries of Francis Bacon works have previously caused a stir in the market. In 2016, a London gallery exhibited a selection of works on paper on loan from the Bologna-based collector Cristiano Lovatelli Ravarino that have since been disputed by experts. Though Ravarino, an ex-partner of Bacon, has claimed that the works were gifted to him directly from the artist, historians and the author of Bacon’s catalogue raisonné, Martin Harrison, have disputed the collection’s authenticity.

A representative for the Francis Bacon Estate did not immediately respond to ARTnews for comment.






                                                                                A fake Francis Bacon work seized by Italian police.









Francis Bacon Forgery Ring Italian Police Make Arrests




Italian police have seized 500 drawings and collages reputed to be by the Irish born

artist Francis Bacon. The stash also included €3m worth of cash and valuables






According to an official police statement, five people have been implicated with criminal conspiracy to “authenticate and circulate fake works of art, fraud and money laundering”.

A key suspect in the case is a collector from Bologna. He previously has been a person of interest in two separate investigations, starting in 2018. Police launched the first after discovering “numerous works of art including two drawings bearing the signature of Francis Bacon.

 The statement said that the tax authorities opened the second investigation, which found “financial irregularities with foreign currencies incompatible with his legal sources of income”.

In an article written in 2017 for Artlyst by the renowned art critic Edward Lucie-Smith, the following was stated; “In April 2016, a Gallery in Mayfair exhibited a selection of drawings and collages from the Cristiano Lovatelli Ravarino collection of works by Francis Bacon. It created quite a stir in the press, as the collection remained unauthenticated by the Bacon estate and rejected as fakes by the author of the new Bacon catalogue raisonné”.

The works are said to have been made between 1977 and 1992 and given to Cristiano in Italy. They are described as in “temporary custody” of David Edwards, the brother of Bacon’s long-term lover, the late John Edwards, but are still owned by Ravarino.

Gallery owner, Alice Herrick, told The Art Newspaper at the time of her Mayfair exhibition, that around 600 drawings were given to Ravarino, one of the artist’s lovers, from 1977 until Bacon died in 1992.

The author of the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of Bacon paintings, undertaken for the Francis Bacon Estate, has rejected the Ravarino works. In 2012 Martin Harrison told a Cambridge court that six drawings he had been shown were “pastiches, or even parodies, and profoundly disrespectful of Bacon’s authentic body of work”. To complicate matters, the works have subsequently been shown to several experts who have testified that the signatures could be correct, and the court has been unable to prove that the body of work is wrong.

Francis Bacon (1909-1992) is famous for his triptychs, one of which, “Three Studies of Lucian Freud”, sold for $142.4 million (120 million euros at today’s exchange rate) in 2013 at Christie’s in New York, making it one of the ten most expensive paintings ever sold at auction. The Irish-born artist was the son of horse breeders. He became one of the most important painters of the 20th century.

An openly gay man at a time when homosexuality was illegal, he was banished from his conservative family home by his father at 16. After that, he drifted through Berlin and Paris before establishing himself in London, with his formative years running parallel with some of the 20th century’s most profoundly disturbing events.





                            L’operazione della Guardia di Finanza e dei carabinieri                                                                         L’operazione della Guardia di Finanza e dei carabinieri






Fake paintings by Bacon, two Treviso people investigated







The accusation is fraud: Intermediaries in the sale of counterfeit canvases. 500 works seized between Padua and Bologna and 3 million euros, 7 suspects.


Two Treviso people are being investigated by the Bologna public prosecutor in an investigation by the Guardia di Finanza and Carabinieri which led to precautionary seizure of 500 works by Francis Bacon, 15 of which certified as false by artistic and scientific reports commissioned by the Public Prosecutor of Bologna. Now the investigations continue on the other cadres.

The two are accused of having been the intermediaries in the sale of fake works. Searches were carried out in the Marca, with the seizure of some works.

But the cultural heritage protection unit of the Bologna Army, which investigates with the Finance Police of Bologna, has also preventively confiscated from 5 of the 7 suspects money and assets for over 3 million, as ordered by the investigating judge Gianluca Petragnani Gelosi at the request of the prosecutors Antonello Gustapane and Elena Caruso.

The two Treviso people are accused of criminal association for the purpose of committing crimes against the integrity of the works of art and against assets, in particular fraud and self-laundering. Two other suspects reside in Bologna, the fifth abroad. Most of the works were found between Bologna and Padua, others are sought after because they have already been placed on the market.

The scam is configured, for the Prosecutor, having been sold as true the works deemed false, with prices from € 10,000 to € 600,000.

The artistic and chemical appraisals are decisive, which for at least 15 seized works they have established are not attributable to Bacon. And from the tests conducted on the materials it would have emerged that some would certainly have been subsequent to ’92, the year of the artist’s death.

Hence the preventive seizure of the other 485 works: the Prosecutor wanted to avoid other sales of works “suspected” of possible counterfeiting. They are all being examined by experts and critics.

The heart of the investigation is Bologna, an elderly collector, already known to the police, is believed to be the mastermind of the organization, if not the forger, since painting tools have been discovered between the house and the vault. The investigation started in 2018, from the “Paloma” operation, which led to the discovery of fake Picassos. And two drawings by Bacon, belonging to a collection of dubious authenticity.

The collector defended himself by declaring that he had received the drawings directly from the artist, who died in ’92. Finance then sifted through bank transactions with foreign countries, according to investigators. “incompatible with his legitimate sources of income”.

Decisive, to accredit the fakes and sell them, the passages in national and international exhibitions, catalogues and sites. The position of a UK company is being examined, on which the assets collected from sales ended up, redistributed to the suspects once “cleaned up” with other rounds with companies based in Spain and Poland.





          Lovatelli Ravarino fake Bacon drawings at the Herrick Gallery in 2016                               Carabinieri display a fake Bacon Pope confiscated from Lovatelli Ravarino






Italy seizes 500 fake Francis Bacon works




Five people have been charged with criminal conspiracy to

authenticate and circulate fake works of art






Italian authorities have seized 500 works of art suspected of being Francis Bacon counterfeits, along with cash and other valuables worth about €3m (£2.6m).

Five people have been charged with criminal conspiracy to authenticate and circulate fake works of art and fraud and money laundering, according to an official statement.

The main suspect is a collector [Cristiano Lovatelli Ravarino] from Bologna, according to media reports. He had been the subject of two different investigations since 2018, the statement said.

Police launched the first after discovering “numerous works of contemporary art … including two drawings [purporting to be] signed by Francis Bacon, one of the most famous artists of the 20th century” at the man’s home.

The second investigation was opened by the tax authorities, which found “financial flows with foreign countries … incompatible with his legal sources of income,” the statement said.

Francis Bacon (1909-92) is known for his triptychs, one of which, Three Studies of Lucian Freud, sold for $142.4m (£103m) in 2013 at Christie’s in New York, making it one of the 10 most expensive paintings ever sold at auction.






                          The main suspect is a collector [Cristiano Lovatelli Ravarino] from Bologna, according to media reports.






Guardia di Finanza and Arma dei Carabinieri execute an order

for the application of factual precautionary measures







On 9 September 2021, the Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage (TPC) of the Carabinieri TPC Unit of Bologna and the Economic-Financial Police Unit of the Guardia di Finanza of Bologna carried out an order for the application of measures precautionary measures issued by the GIP of the Court of Bologna Dr. Gianluca PETRAGNANI GELOSI, consisting in the preventive seizure of about 500 works considered counterfeit by the artist Francis Bacon and in the preventive seizure aimed at confiscating money, assets and other utilities worth over €3 million.

The measures were issued against 5 of the 7 persons investigated, for various reasons, of criminal association aimed at committing an indeterminate series of crimes against the integrity of works of art (contemplated by the “Code of Cultural Heritage and Landscape” Pursuant to Legislative Decree no. 42 of 2004, art. 178 and, in particular, possession for trade, authentication and circulation of false works of art) and against assets (fraud and self-laundering, of which respectively to articles 640 and 648-ter, paragraph 1, criminal code).

The joint activity, coordinated by the Public Prosecutor of Bologna in the persons of the Deputy Prosecutors Dr. Antonio GUSTAPANE and Dr. Elena CARUSO originates from an investigative convergence in the activities carried out by the two police forces, which had led to:

The arm of the police seized, in May 2018 as part of the “PALOMA” operation, numerous fake contemporary works of art in possession of a subject already burdened with specific criminal and police records, including 2 drawings by signature of Francis Bacon, one of the most famous artists of the twentieth century, belonging to a collection of dubious authenticity and allegedly received directly by the artist from one of the current suspects;   the Guardia di Finanza to analyze the financial movements with foreign countries attributable to the same subject, found to be incompatible with its legitimate sources of income, investigating some reports for suspicious transactions received in the meantime from financial intermediaries.

The subsequent investigative developments required, among other things, the execution of complex technical investigations aimed at substantiating the non-authenticity of the works and further investigations of a financial nature, also through the activation of international channels of judicial collaboration in order to trace the destination of the funds deriving from the massive fraud perpetrated. This made it possible to seize in Bologna and Treviso, between the months of March and May 2020, a further 13 works, in addition to the 2 already seized in the first phase of the investigation, attributed to the same artist.

From the meticulous reconstruction of the financial flows deriving from fraudulent sales, it emerged that the association, in order to hinder the identification of the illegal origin of the sums, used a company based in the United Kingdom where the assets were conveyed and reused and then redistributed them, once “cleaned up”, to the various suspects (directly or through national and foreign companies based in Spain and Poland). At the same time, the complex technical investigations ordered by the AG on the seized works made it possible to determine their non-authenticity and consequently the falsity of the more than 500 belonging to the entire Italian collection.

The objective of the identified group would have consisted in accrediting these drawings in the art market through prestigious national and international exhibitions, catalogues, websites, foundations and companies under foreign law, so as to increase their “quotation” and then resell them, as a result, fraudulently and at great cost, to unsuspecting buyers.

Emblematic are the considerations of the GIP, who considered that there was an “artfully prepared arsenal of fraudulence”, including the attribution of the works exhibited to a unitary corpus deriving from a bequest of the artist.

The investigations thus led to the “preventive” seizure of the entire collection of works of art and the “preventive” seizure aimed at confiscation both directed for approximately 1.8 million, as a profit from the crime of fraud, and “for equivalent” of money, goods and other utilities up to a value of approximately 1.4 million, as a profit from the crime of self-laundering. The execution of the provision required the use of over 60 soldiers of the Guardia di Finanza and the Carabinieri of the TPC Command who worked, jointly and in close synergy, between the provinces of Bologna, Padua, Milan and Treviso.

The operation testifies to the effectiveness of the specialized investigative convergence put in place by the Guardia di Finanza and Arma dei Carabinieri, under the direction of the aforementioned Judicial Authority.

Bologna, 10 September 2021





A Writer’s Deathbed Portrait of Francis Bacon




Max Porter’s new novel imagines the last days of a painter who shares his obsession with mortality






Max Porter is a writer who’s spent a long time thinking about death. “I would say I’m a death-obsessed, or a mortality-preoccupied, person,” he said recently in a video interview from his home in Bath, England.

HIS 20015 debut “Grief Is the Thing With Feathers,” follows the passing of an unnamed mother survived by her husband, a college professor, and two young sons. As the family mourns, an enormous crow moves into the family home to guide and antagonize them. In “Lanny,” his Booker Prize-listed second book, a child goes missing in the English countryside, setting off a paranoid manhunt.

For his latest novel, “The Death of Francis Bacon,” set to be released by Strange Light on Sept. 14 in the United States, Porter has turned his attention to an artist who shared his morbid fascination.

Bacon’s artwork is characterized by images of screaming faces, grotesquely contorted bodies and the crucifixion. One of his most famous works, “Triptych May-June 1973,” depicts a recently deceased lover, George Dyer, dying on the toilet.

Porter explained that the dark themes of his writing were also influenced by tragedy. “I would locate that probably in my childhood,” he said, “with the death of a parent.” Porter’s father died when Porter was 6, he added.

In his teenage years, Porter said, he was drawn to bleak subjects — “death, the bomb, the body and the Holocaust” — and it is little wonder he was attracted to Bacon’s paintings, as well. At 17, he said, he painted several Bacon “knockoffs” for a high school art class.

The book Porter has produced, 20 years later, isn’t an art history lesson or a chronology of Bacon’s life. Instead, “The Death of Francis Bacon” is an experimental reimagining of the short period before the painter’s death in Madrid in 1992.

The novel is split into seven chapters, which Porter described as “written paintings.” In each of them, he envisions Bacon’s thoughts as he lies on his deathbed, haunted by his legacy as his mind fragments.

In April 1992, Bacon traveled to Spain from London, aged 82 and suffering from asthma. His doctor warned him not to go, but Bacon wanted to renew a relationship with his estranged lover José Capelo, a banker whom he had painted several times. “It was a sort of last gamble,” Michael Peppiatt, an art historian, biographer and friend of Bacon, said in a telephone interview. “A desperate bid to rekindle love.”

Shortly after arriving, the artist was hospitalized at the Clínica Ruber, a private clinic run by nuns. Porter blends invented dialogue between Bacon and his nurse, Sister Mercedes, with a stream-of-consciousness monologue from the painter himself, littered with references to figures from his life. There’s no obvious plot or exposition, and the references are never explained.

Porter said he would never write a conventional novel, with character back stories, or a linear narrative. “Other people do that much better than me,” he said, “and that’s not the kind of book I want to write.

Porter blends verse and prose to create books that aren’t quite poems, but aren’t quite novels in the traditional sense, either.

Because of this ambiguity, he never thought “Grief Is the Thing With Feathers” would be published, he said. When he wrote it, Porter was working full time as an editorial director at Granta, a publishing house. It was intended as an experiment: “a private investigation into form, poetry and grief,” Porter explained.

A tender study of loss told from the perspectives of its mourning characters, “Grief Is the Thing With Feathers” also features passages from the consciousness of an enormous, cawing bird. At just over 100 pages, it wasn’t an obvious international best seller.

Regardless, he gave the manuscript to Hannah Griffiths, a friend who was working as an editor at Faber and Faber. Griffiths said she read the slim manuscript in one sitting, on a train ride. “I couldn’t believe the audacity of it,” she recalled in a recent interview. “I couldn’t believe what was happening to my heart.”

She stepped off the train in tears, she said, called Porter and told him, “I really want to publish this.”

The book came out in September 2015 and won the Dylan Thomas Prize for young writers the next year. Since then, “Grief Is the Thing With Feathers” has been translated into 27 languages and adapted for the stage by the Irish playwright Enda Walsh. The theatrical production, starring Cillian Murphy, premiered in Galway, Ireland, in 2018, before playing in Dublin, in London and at St. Anne’s Warehouse in Brooklyn.

In an email exchange, Murphy described the development of the stage production as a collaborative effort. “Max and Enda had a particular strong understanding, which informed Enda’s adaptation of the book,” he said. “And Max was extremely generous and unprecious with his work.”

The adaptation retained much of Porter’s signature prose style, which Murphy said was well suited to the stage. “The words are absolutely beautiful to say,” he said. “Like all good writing, the more you say them, the more they reveal.”

Porter’s second release, “Lanny,” shares much with Porter’s debut. Both novels are concerned with loss, told through multiple perspectives of a single family, and feature an ageless, omnipotent observing presence. This time, instead of a crow, we’re introduced to Dead Papa Toothwort, a mythical woodland creature that lurks in the shadows, watching over the drama.

Like the staccato rhythm of the chapters featuring the crow, Dead Papa Toothwort’s voice is also frantic, with his narration interrupted by wayward digressions. These interruptions are expressed through irregular typesetting, with words weaving and meandering across the page.

These chaotic sections echo the content of Porter’s notebooks, where the ideas for his novels are formed. Each book is filled with scrawled room layouts, doodled characters, scribbled sentences and haphazard blocks of text. While developing “The Death of Francis Bacon,” he said, he sketched away in his notebooks while studying reproductions of the painter’s work.

“For three months,” he said, “I did nothing but look at Bacon pictures every day.”

That was last year, during England’s first coronavirus lockdown. It was an intense time to be locked away in his study, Porter said, writing and thinking about death under the shadow of the pandemic. He welcomed the frequent disturbances from his two young sons, he added. “I want life flowing through this room,” he said. “I don’t want a closed-off box.”

Amid the book’s gloom, Porter found some room for levity in the darkness, breaking up the mood with playful turns of phrase: Bacon refers to himself as “piggy” throughout, and has a “little linen hill belly”; someone’s chin is “stuck on like a dumpling.

While writing “The Death of Francis Bacon,” Porter said, he “never wanted to take myself, or it, too seriously.” Just because something’s bleak, he added, it doesn’t have to be depressing. “The absurdity of modern life is worth laughing at,” he said, “because what else are we going to do?”





                                                                                  Francis Bacon in his London studio in 1974. Credit: Michael Holtz






Richard Chopping:




James Birch and Jon Lys Turner In Conversation






We are delighted to share this week’s Long Read; creative director Jon Lys Turner in conversation with curator James Birch to celebrate the Salisbury Museum’s current exhibition, RICHARD CHOPPING: THE ORIGINAL BOND ARTIST. The exhibit, which was curated by Lys Turner, is on until 3rd October.

The exhibition celebrates the life and work of writer, illustrator and teacher Richard Chopping (1917 – 2008), best-known for illustrating the original book covers for James Bond. ‘Dickie’ Chopping and his partner Denis Wirth-Miller, a landscape painter, were two of Francis Bacon’s closest friends and they knew a kaleidoscope of important twentieth century cultural figures, including virtually everyone in the British arts scene from the 1930s onwards; from Noel Coward to Benjamin Britten, David Hockney to Zandra Rhodes.

Lys Turner was a close friend of the couple and, as an executor of their estate, inherited their vast personal archive of letters, diaries, artwork and ephemera. Lys Turner’s book, tells the story of the couple’s lives and their friendship with Bacon, based on the archive.

Gallerist James Birch knew Chopping and Wirth-Miller as a boy and went on to exhibit Wirth-Miller’s work at his galleries, as well as many other artists including Grayson Perry, Gilbert & George and Francis Bacon. Birch has written a book, BACON IN MOSCOW, about his audacious quest as a young curator to mount the ground-breaking Bacon exhibition at the Central House of Artists, Moscow in 1988. BACON IN MOSCOW will be published by CHEERIO in February 2022.

Jon Lys Turner: I break Dickie’s work into three eras; his illustrations, his children’s books, and at the end, the Bond era. Which was your favourite?

James Birch: Well, I suppose it’s the James Bond era. When my parents had a holiday home in Fingringhoe, across the river from Wivenhoe [where Dickie and Denis lived], a new Bond book would come out – The Man with the Golden Gun (1965), Thunderball (1961), You Only Live Twice (1964) – and Dickie would always bring a copy of the book over and give one to my parents and one to me.

JLT: How lovely. Have you still got them?

JB: I have. The covers were kind of surreal, and they were really what turned me on to surrealism.

My sister sort of fell in love with Dickie because he was so kind to her. He would bring over posters for bookshops and give them to her. And he would take her out to operas, to restaurants, to galleries, to the Colony Room

I found both Dickie and Denis incredibly kind, enthusiastic and fun to be with. They were always ready to give up being the adults and play – to have pillow fights with me on their shoulders at age five or six.

JLT: So many people are coming forward with stories about things Dickie had done for people since the show opened, saying he really went out of his way for them, that he mentored them. It’s amazing.

Of course, Dickie and Denis are always remembered for their hell raising which, in anecdotes, becomes funny – though in reality it could be absolutely horrible.

I remember they would carry Francis [Bacon] into parties like a ventriloquist dummy with his arms around their shoulders. Once, when we went to the White Tower, Francis was in a particularly waspish mood. He had a few snipes at me because I wasn’t going to go on holiday with the three of them – they were planning a holiday in France and had been including me in the ‘we’ – and Francis suddenly looked across the table said, ‘She’s not coming.’

He was getting more and more pissed and I remember he had £2000 in £50 notes. He wanted more wine and he just wasn’t getting the waiter’s attention, so he threw the empty wine bottle at him. Then whole evening just deteriorated. Francis got up, put his hands on a trellis that went in between the tables, and then fell into it, landing on the table of the people next door. They were suitably upset, but they weren’t above having £50 each put into their hands.

JB: I went with Francis once to The Golden Lion, the pub in Soho across from the French. The was a post-skinhead who had a tattoo around his neck saying ‘Tear round here’. Francis said to him, ‘Have you got any other tattoos?’, and he said ‘Yes, I’ve got one on my cock’. So Francis said, ‘Show it to me’, whereupon the guy shows it to him and he gave him 50 quid!

JLT: 50 quid was quite easily earned wasn’t it!

Let’s talk about The Fly. It was a best seller in 1965, and Dickie at this point wanted to give up painting and illustration and become a writer. His own agent described it as ‘a perfectly disgusting concoction.’ Have you read it?

JB: I read it many years ago but I need to read it again. I do remember there were some quite controversial pieces in it.

JLT: Well, the whole concept of The Fly at first it lands on a condom outside in a filthy puddle and is eating away on that. Then it flies through an office window and lands on the mouthpiece of a telephone as the secretary is talking into it… And it just goes downhill from there! It’s of an era when it was deliberately shocking. It took years to produce and the author Angus Wilson came in and finished it off for him. So many people said, this is disgusting, you’ll never get this in print. But he did, and it was a best seller! Number five in 1965 in the UK charts.

JB: I didn’t know that, wow

JLT: The thing that I take from Dickie is observations. He taught me about really appreciating details. What is it that makes us form a decision about somebody else? What little details do we see? What makes that person different? He used to keep books of these observations. I can sometimes make myself go to sleep by asking myself, what tiny thing did I see today?

JB: You do see that in his paintings. The attention to detail is unbelievable. What’s very odd about the cover of The Fly is that the eye is upside down.

JLT: Yes! While he was drawing it, Denis walked past and said, ‘You want to do the other way around, it would be much more impressive’. You can imagine with those two that that was like a red rag to a bull. The eye coming through the wooden hole on the cover on For Your Eyes Only was also Denis’s idea...

In one interview Dickie said, the fly is everything about life. That horrible thing that just doesn’t go away. It attacks your time. It’s always there. But in actual fact, when you look at it really close up, it’s just beautiful. The original fly is in the show – in a box with a pin through it – the one he looked at through a magnifying glass for the Bond covers and other things. And it’s the star of the show!





                                                                                            Richard Chopping, Francis Bacon and Denis Wirth-Miller by John Minihan






The row between art galleries and donors



is bigger than bringing home the Bacon




As Tate faces potential legal action from a Francis Bacon donor, British galleries’


relationships with private collectors need more scrutiny






With squeezed budgets, British museums are increasingly relying on private patronage, for financial support and donation of artworks. Yet while the former has faced close scrutiny in recent years, the latter have received little attention.

Now Tate faces potential legal action from one donor, Barry Joule, over his disputed claim that the British gallery has not honoured the terms under which he donated 1,200 sketches, photographs and documents from the studio of his late friend, the artist Francis Bacon.

Under the 2004 agreement, Joule says that Tate agreed to stage an exhibition of the material, a not uncommon stipulation when donors hand over parts of their collection. Often keen to champion the artist whose work they have donated, major shows inevitably also bring the donors social cachet and potentially raise the value of the artwork they still own.

Tate say of the Joule donation that it “has been catalogued and made available for the public to access, as with all material in Tate’s archive. Items from this archive were also exhibited in a display at Tate Britain in 2019. Tate has proposed a meeting with Barry Joule in September.”

Between 2019 and 2020 figures reveal Tate was donated art worth a total of £13.2m by private patrons. In the same period, the National Gallery received paintings to the value of £12m and the National Portrait Gallery accepted £1.6m worth of art.

Arts Council England runs a scheme in which the wealthy can donate art with a percentage of the value offset against tax. Last year the government wrote off £40m in public revenue, receiving artwork to the total value of £65m. The Arts Council says each work is vetted to ensure its importance and quality before being placed in a museum. In 2020 the Ashmolean in Oxford received paintings by Frank Auerbach and a drawing by RB Kitaj. The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art took a minimalist sculpture by the American sculptor Fred Sandback.

Jack Kirkland is a collector who sits on the Tate’s acquisitions committee for photography. He used the Arts Council scheme to donate his family’s collection of contemporary photography to the museum. “It made it a transparent process and involved several third parties checking the value, significance and condition of the works so there could be no sense of any impropriety on either my or Tate’s part,” he says. “It was part of the collective effort on the part of Tate curators and patrons to really create a photography collection at Tate.”

Yet of the almost 500 new acquisitions made last year by Tate, 223 were privately organised and did not involve the Arts Council scheme. One common practice is for commercial art galleries to insist that if a collector wants to buy the best work by the hottest artists, they must also buy a second for a museum. By placing the work within an institution it raises the prestige of the artist, and the gallery is able to increase the price on future sales.

Critics say this can leave museums beholden to the art market. “If the museum doesn’t take the artwork when offered, they risk losing vital funding and support from a patron,” said one former salesperson of London’s biggest art galleries. “It’s not how the whole system works, but museums do risk being dictated to by opportunists. And it’ll happen more as funding declines for the arts.” The salesperson, who has turned over millions of pounds worth of sales in their career, described the practice as “BOGO” – buy one, gift one.

“[This] tends to happen when an artist whose inventory is limited hits the market in high demand. If a collector buys an artwork to give to a museum, in turn the collector is much more likely to be able to acquire an artwork for their private collection.” The dealer says that in their experience, nothing is ever put in writing. “They will hint at the museum they have in mind. The calibre of the institution will affect whether the commercial gallery decides to push them up the waiting list for an artwork. Donating to Tate will have more of a sway than, say, a regional museum.”

A Tate spokesman said that while the museum “is not party to discussions between commercial galleries and private collectors … [we do not] simply accept works of art offered by private collectors for donation. All the works Tate brings into the national collection are carefully selected by our curators based on their own research, in line with our wider collection strategy, and subject to a rigorous process of review and approval by our Directors and Trustees.” Both the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery said that those institutions, too, had never knowingly benefitted from a deal of this kind.

Alain Servais, who owns a collection particularly focused on emerging artists, says that in the 20 years he has been buying art he’s been asked numerous times to donate a second work when negotiating a purchase. “Every time I receive this kind of proposal from a gallery I throw it away. If I miss this work, fine, there is other art to buy. I don’t like it morally because it pushes the agenda of commercial dealers to the forefront and it puts museums, who receive so many of these kinds of offers, under pressure.”

If they accept stipulations, institutions may restrict their ability to programme freely or react to changing trends. In recent years Tate, like museums globally, has come under pressure to diversify their programming and collections. Though Tate director Maria Balshaw reassured Joule that his gift was still “very much appreciated” it is likely that the already much-venerated figure of Bacon is felt to have had enough exposure, while female artists and artists of colour from the same generation have not received their due.

The International Council of Museums recently proposed redefining museums from being institutions that “acquire” art and artefacts to being “participatory and transparent” bodies “in active partnership with and for diverse communities”. Servais says he supports the move. “Museums have got less and less public support over the last 20 years, while the one percent have seen their wealth consolidate – museums are simply not in a position to both collect and share knowledge. They have to make the choice as to which is the most important. It’s pretty clear in my opinion, if they concentrated on education and merely borrowed artworks, they could more surely maintain their independence. The public don’t care who owns the work when they see it in a show.”











It was hardly at all surprising that the Tate Gallery did not include the Barry Joule Collection of material attributed to Francis Bacon at the artist’s second retrospective in 2008: one does not need to be a Bacon scholar to realise that they were certainly not executed by the hand of the artist.

Just a cursory glance over the Joule material one can immediately see that it is all extremely overworked and has a heavy-handed clumsiness and bearing absolutely no resemblance to Bacon’s oeuvre

The alleged 1936 Self-Portrait was painted in a pseudo Cubist style utterly alien to the works produced by Bacon at that time; whilst the alleged Study for a Portrait of William Blake is far too naive and mannered to have been made by Bacon’s elegantly economic swift suave hand.

If we look at the Tate’s own archive of sketches by Bacon (previously owned by the artist’s friends, Paul Danquah and Peter Pollock) they are antithetical to the laboured sketches made by Joule; for Bacon’s hand was so suave executing his sketches with a delicate light-fleeting grace.

It is an indisputable fact that Barry Joule’s archive-gift to the Tate in 2004 was not created by Francis Bacon. Any material that may have come from Bacon’s studio, such as photographs and reproductions, were then doctored by Joule later on.

It absolutely beggars belief that Maria Balshaw and Nicholas Serota are far too cowardly to come clean and denounce Barry Joule as a fraudster; Joule has made a laughing stock out of these Tate Gallery directors.


Alexander Verney-Eliott,

London WC1











Dear Sirs,

You report that Barry Joule “donated more than 1,200 sketches, photographs and documents from the studio of Francis Bacon” and ask: why is the Tate “acquiring more and more collections of art when it has no room to display them.”

The answer is quite simple: the Tate Gallery and the Francis Bacon Estate have still not authenticated the material owned by Mr. Joule as being the work of Francis Bacon. It was hardly at all surprising that the Tate Gallery did not include the Barry Joule Collection of material attributed to Francis Bacon at the artist’s second retrospective in 2008: one does not need to be a Bacon scholar to realise that they are not executed by the hand of the artist.

Just a cursory glance over the Joule material one can immediately see that it is all extremely overworked and has a heavy-handed clumsiness bearing absolutely no resemblance to Bacon’s oeuvre.

I can say with absolute certainty that Barry Joule’s archive-donation gift to the Tate in 2004 was not created by Francis Bacon. Any material that may have come from Bacon’s studio, such as photographs and reproductions, were doctored by Joule later on. Many from the Bacon community support my position.


Mr Alexander Verney-Elliott,

London, WC1





Tate’s unseen Bacon gift paints a poor picture of galleries  







You might think that the sole purpose of a gallery or museum is to put on public display the great art it owns. You would be wrong: Britain’s largest arts institutions have instead become hoarders of works of art, continuing to acquire bequests and collections even when they have no idea what to do with them. This hoarding is what lies behind a bitter public row between Barry Joule, a philanthropic donor, and the Tate.

Joule donated more than 1,200 sketches, photographs and documents from the studio of Francis Bacon, one of Britain’s most celebrated modern artists, in 2004. At the time it was hailed as one of the most generous gifts the gallery had ever received, estimated to be worth £20 million. But Joule claims that, almost two decades after his bequest, no significant public display of the work has taken place. The Tate maintains that the terms of the contract to catalogue and exhibit the works have been fulfilled: Joule is now threatening to withdraw his gift and is right to do so.

The question is why the Tate is acquiring more and more collections of art when it has no room to display them. It already owns nearly 70,000 works, only a fraction of which will ever go on show. It is estimated that most large art museums now have upwards of 95 per cent of their collections in storage, with thousands of objects locked away in warehouses. Clearly those running our galleries think the size and prestige of their collections matter more than whether the public ever gets to view the objects.

A lot of vital work is done by the big galleries and museums in helping to preserve and maintain significant and valuable art collections. The knowledge and scholarship of the curatorial staff benefits everyone. But the leaders of these institutions need to move away from an obsession with blockbuster exhibitions, often involving the difficult and expensive process of borrowing from other international collections, and instead make better use of the art they already own. It might be a good start to undertake and make public a full audit of their vast institutional holdings.

It certainly makes no sense for the Tate to keep part of its Bacon collection under lock and key. Why not offer it to regional and local museums and galleries which would no doubt gladly display them? It is surely a betrayal of their public purpose that our major galleries and museums are seemingly content to own an ever-growing stash of art that no one else is allowed to see.






Edinburgh Festival Fringe — Bacon ★★★★★




Pip Utton gives a resplendent performance as Francis Bacon, “that dreadful man who paints those horrible pictures”, as


Margaret Thatcher once said, in an entrancing journey down the sleazy, evil-smelling alleyways of Soho and his psyche






Bacon, regarded by many as the greatest British artist since JMW Turner, the English romantic landscape painter of the 18th and 19th centuries, was born in Dublin in 1909 and died in Madrid in 1992.

Whipped as a boy by his father on whose Irish farm he worked, he had a penchant for the stableboys, sometimes having sex with them and sometimes being beaten by them too.

“It was a very normal childhood,” Utton says atonally, surrounded on his lonely barstool by champagne bottles and a light blue 1970s landline telephone, whose callers he variously invites to gossipy dinners or tells to “fuck off!”

We follow the amoral “old poof” from the Colony Room Club in Soho, meeting its fearsome lesbian owner, Muriel Belcher – who called him her daughter while he called her his mother – and some of its artistic and bohemian denizens such as “Foreskin”. From there, we bound on to Berlin where he bedded his uncle before being ditched for a chambermaid.

Then it’s on to Paris where we hear of his encounter with “a dark-skinned man” he picked up in Montmartre before he returns to London where he matter-of-factly recalls blow-jobs and “being buggered by a couple of sailors” he had picked up in the East End.

In between, he throws paint on the ceiling, on the floor and over the furniture, as well as, happily for posterity, on various canvases.

“Enough to keep me in champagne and oysters,” he reflects, as he shuffles, increasingly sozzled, about the stage.

Bacon’s licentious lifestyle, his acid wit and bar-room banter are warmly depicted by Utton, 69, from Somerset, in an unsparing performance against a mellow, jazz-filled backdrop.

By the end there is a strong sense that the glorious gore of Bacon’s paintings was inextricably linked with his gory relationships and abusive upbringing.

“Cheerio,” he repeats, as he sips a never-ending supply of champagne, transporting him into oblivion. “Cheerio.”

Bacon Pleasance Courtyard until August 13




                                                                                                                 Pip Utton in character






Francis Bacon’s Former Handyman Has Threatened to Sue Tate

Because the Works He Donated Are Sitting in Storage




Barry Joule said his donation might be better off in a French museum, where it could be shown more prominently.




BY  NAOMI REA  |   LAW   |   NEWS   |   ARTNET NEWS   |   MONDAY, AUGUST 09, 2021


A onetime friend of Francis Bacon who donated an archive of materials from the artist’s studio to Tate has threatened to withdraw the gift because, he claims, the gallery has failed to prominently display it.

Barry Joule, a handyman who got to know Bacon in the late 1970s, donated more than 1,200 sketches, photographs, and documents from Bacon’s London studio at 7 Reece Mews in 2004. The trove was estimated to be worth £20 million at the time. Now, criticizing the institution for keeping the works in storage, Joule has suggested that his generosity might be better appreciated by a museum in France.

In an email sent to Tate director Maria Balshaw on August 3, Joule threatened to sue the gallery for the return of the works, the Guardian reported. The threat has come after years of back-and-forth between Joule and the gallery in which the collector expressed his dissatisfaction that the materials had not been the subject of a major exhibition.

Tate, for its part, claims it abided by the terms laid out in the donation contract, which required it to catalogue and display the works. Since 2004, the materials have been available for public access in its archive, and items were exhibited in a display at Tate Britain in 2019, though they were notably left out of the gallery’s major Bacon exhibition in 2008. 

Joule says that’s unacceptable. He contends that Tate curators implied that the materials, which include an oil painting, Study for Head of William Blake, would be suitable for a more prominent exhibition, but as time went on, “I was continually met with silence, ignored or just fobbed off.” Now, the collector is prepared to take legal action for the return of the donation “if a satisfactory conclusion is not reached… by October 2021.”

Joule also told The Guardian he is cancelling a promised bequest to the gallery: a 1936 Bacon self-portrait and nine other paintings from the same period along with other artwork, letters, books, and tape recordings.

The issue of donors withdrawing promised gifts is a nightmare for museums—and one that is growing in frequency. Collectors who stand to profit from skyrocketing cntemporary-art prices are increasingly reneging on pledged donations.A spokesperson for Tate told Artnet News that it has proposed a meeting with Joule in September.

There may be more to Tate’s reluctance to prominently display Joule’s materials than mere curatorial preference. The artist’s estate has cast doubt on the authenticity of the archive, and none of its material was included in Bacon’s 2016 catalogue raisonné. Contacted by Artnet News, a representative for the estate pointed to a recent publication that includes an essay by researcher Sophie Pretorius, who concluded that the archive’s materials were not consistent with the rest of Bacon’s oeuvre.

Pretorius wrote that the story of the Joule material is “riddled with exaggeration, half-truths, and contradictions.” She added that a combination of “Bacon’s soaring prices, his tantalizing obtuseness regarding sketches, and the relative lack of comparative material against which to measure this material helped create the perfect storm.”

In 2002, then-Tate director Nicolas Serota wrote in a letter accepting the donation that while most of the papers and collages had “probably” come from the Bacon studio, “the majority are by other hands.” More recently, according to Pretorius, a Tate curator said the institution would consider “a more direct pronouncement” about Bacon’s involvement in the material in light of her research.

Joule, who has also claimed he is the unidentified subject in Bacon’s acclaimed series of cricket paintings, met the artist in 1978; they remained friends until his death. He said that Bacon gifted him the archive shortly before the artist left for Spain in 1992, where he died from a heart attack.

Joule could not be reached by Artnet News. He has said he chose Tate as the destination for the archive because it had been Bacon’s favourite gallery. His donation of 80 Bacon drawings to the Musée Picasso in Paris was the subject of a major exhibition there in 2005. He told The Guardian that if he withdraws the trove from Tate, he intends to donate it to a museum in France, where he currently lives.

Notably, Pretorius’s research also references Bacon works in the Musée Picasso, the National Gallery of Canada, and other private collections, which she said are “consistent in style and technique” with those in the Joule archive, although not having studied them in person, she does not go as far as to suggest that they are not authentic.





                                                                                             Artist Francis Bacon at the Tate Gallery in London. 21/05/1985






Francis Bacons Ex-Handyman threatens Tate

with Lawsuit over Donated Works







Barry Joule, Francis Bacon’s former handyman and close friend, has threatened to sue Tate over its failure to publicly display any of a trove of works by the late figurative artist that he gifted to it in 2004. According to The Guardian, Joule has been waiting for nearly two decades for the museum to stage an exhibition centering around the $37 million donation, said to be one of the most generous gifts the London institution has ever received and comprising 1,200 sketches, photographs, and related documents. He has also said he will rescind a promised gift of an important 1936 self-portrait by Bacon and nine other paintings by the artist from around the same time.

He has also said he will rescind a promised gift of an important 1936 self-portrait by Bacon and nine other paintings by the artist from around the same time.

“If a satisfactory conclusion is not reached  . . . by October 2021 over the exhibition terms of the Tate-Joule contract,” Joule wrote Tate director Maria Balshaw on August 3, “I shall most seriously consider taking the legal path for resolution of this very frustratingly long outstanding troubling matter—one which clearly means I shall seek the complete return of this my 2004 Tate Francis Bacon Studio donation. And so the matter may ultimately be decided in the courts.”

Joule says that Nicholas Serota, who was director of Tate at the time Joule proposed the gift, assured him in 2003 that the organization would present an exhibition themed around the gift within three years of its being made. A 2004 gift announcement made by the institution seems to support this claim, reading, “Tate will undertake to study, photograph and catalogue the collection over the next three years, before displaying these items and making them available for loan.” Tate staged a major exhibition of Bacon’s work in 2008 but included no items from Joule’s donation. In 2017, Balshaw stepped up to become director of the Tate, and Joule began writing to her in an effort to get the exhibition staged, but says he has been continually put off, though Balshaw has expressed Tate’s deep gratitude for the gift.

Joule, who met Bacon in 1978 when the Irish-born artist spied him repairing a television antenna on a neighbour’s roof and invited him for a glass of champagne, has said he donated the objects to Tate because it was Bacon’s favorite museum. He also gifted some eighty drawings by Bacon to the Musée Picasso, which Joule says exhibited all of them in 2005 in a large exhibition pairing his work with that of the renowned Spanish artist and accompanied by a catalogue.

Tate has said that it has reached out to Joule to arrange a September meeting regarding the matter.





Francis Bacon treasures could be lost to France

in row between Tate and artist’s friend




Barry Joule, who donated around £20m worth of Bacon’s work to the Tate,

is threatening to withdraw his gift and give it to a French museum






Francis Bacon treasures could be lost to France after a row between the Tate and the artist’s friend erupted.

Canadian writer Barry Joule was a long-term friend of Bacon, whose 1969 portrait, Three Studies of Lucian Freud, sold for £89 million in 2013.

Mr Joule was left a huge amount of his archive material after he died at the age of 82 in 1992, and said he had wanted the items to go to the Tate, which was the artist’s favourite gallery.

He went on to donate an estimated £20 million worth of his material to the art gallery in London in 2004, including more than 1,200 sketches, photographs and documents from Bacon’s studio.

The donation, which included Bacon’s intricate oil study of the head of poet and painter William Blake, was described as one of the biggest gifts the gallery had ever received.

But 17 years later, Mr Joule has now threatened legal action over claims he repeatedly wrote to staff at the museum to ask why they had still not displayed the works.

He is now threatening to donate the multi-million pound haul of Bacon’s work to a French museum instead if he withdraws his gift.

Mr Joule told The Observer: “In 2008, the Tate held a large Bacon exhibition... Not a single item from my 2004 Tate donation was included.”

He explained that the Parisian museum, the Musée Picasso, had displayed 80 Bacon drawings he donated.

He said: “All these donated drawings were exhibited in a large Bacon/Picasso painting exhibition held at the Musée Picasso in 2005.

“Musée Picasso published a handsome separate catalogue... The exhibition was a huge success and, two years later, the French government awarded me the highly sought-after Chevalier des Ordres des Arts et des Lettres – the French equivalent of a knighthood.”

He also said in an email to the Tate’s director Maria Balshaw, which was seen by The Observer, that he was prepared to take legal action over the delay in the material being displayed.

He wrote: “If a satisfactory conclusion is not reached... by October 2021 over the exhibition terms of the Tate-Joule contract, I shall most seriously consider taking the legal path for resolution of this very frustratingly long outstanding troubling matter – one which clearly means I shall seek the complete return of this my 2004 Tate Francis Bacon studio donation.

“So the matter may ultimately be decided in the courts.”

Another email to Ms Balshaw contained a poignant insight into why the material meant so much to Mr Joule.

He wrote: “On April 18 1992... I dropped Francis Bacon off at Heathrow airport, this only hours after he had given me the huge pile of art and material.

“During our long parting embrace in the busy departure lounge, he spoke directly into my ear, ‘You will take care of things when I have gone.’

“Naturally I promised to do so and thought at the time he meant finishing off some handyman chores... whilst he was away in Spain, never imagining for a second that this would be the last time I or anyone else in England would ever see him alive.”

Mr Joule first met Bacon in 1978, when he lived near his studio in London. Bacon saw him fixing a neighbour’s television aerial and asked if he wanted to come to his house for some champagne. They quickly became friends until he died from a heart attack in Spain.

Back in 2004, the Tate said after receiving the donation: “Tate will undertake to study, photograph and catalogue the collection over the next three years, before displaying these items and making them available for loan.” 

The gallery said in a response to The Observer: “We have proposed a meeting with Barry Joule in September.”

The Telegraph has contacted the Tate for a comment.










Tate donor warns: Ill take back my

£20m Francis Bacon collection




Barry Joule, who was a close friend of the artist, tells Dalya Alberge that

the gallery has not kept to a pledge to stage exhibitions of the works






When more than 1,200 sketches, photographs and documents from the studio of Francis Bacon were donated to the Tate in 2004, it was described as one of the most generous gifts the gallery had ever received, estimated to be worth £20m. Now the donor is threatening to cancel the gift, accusing the gallery of reneging on pledges to stage exhibitions of the material.

Barry Joule, a longstanding friend of Bacon, had wanted the items to go to the Tate, as it had been the artist’s favourite gallery. Over the years, he kept expecting the Tate to do justice to it with an exhibition, as he says they had planned on accepting the gift. He wrote repeatedly to curatorial staff, asking when the show would happen.

After almost two decades of waiting, he has lost patience.

Not only is he prepared for a legal battle, but he told the Observer he is also cancelling a planned bequest to the Tate of an important 1936 Bacon self-portrait and nine other Bacon paintings from the same period. Nor will he leave them “a considerable amount of other Bacon artwork, letters, books, tape recordings” that he had intended to leave if the Tate fulfilled “all of the terms and the spirit of the 2004 contract”.

Last week, he copied the Observer into an email exchange with the Tate’s director, Maria Balshaw, dating back to 2018. Most recently, on 3 August, he wrote to her: “If a satisfactory conclusion is not reached … by October 2021 over the exhibition terms of the Tate-Joule contract, I shall most seriously consider taking the legal path for resolution of this very frustratingly long outstanding troubling matter – one which clearly means I shall seek the complete return of this my 2004 Tate Francis Bacon studio donation. And so the matter may ultimately be decided in the courts.”

Joule’s gift had included Bacon’s dramatic oil study of the head of William Blake, the poet and painter. He argues that a couple of display cases in the archival exhibition area, which showed some of his letters from Bacon and his photographs of the artist some years ago, did not do justice to the collection.

He disputes the Tate’s claim that the terms of the contract to catalogue and exhibit the works have been fulfilled. He wrote to Balshaw: “Where and when exactly did this take place?”

He told her: “When Tate curators … saw my Bacon archive long before my Tate donation was completed, they all suggested an exhibition at the Tate … [Then] director Sir Nicolas Serota in 2003 assured me a month before the contract was signed this would be the case and within three years of my donation. Yet, as time passed, I was continually met with silence, ignored or just fobbed off …”

In its 2004 gift announcement, the gallery noted: “Tate will undertake to study, photograph and catalogue the collection over the next three years, before displaying these items and making them available for loan.”

Bacon is widely regarded as the greatest British painter since JMW Turner, although he never imagined that his 1969 portrait, Three Studies of Lucian Freud, would sell for £89m in 2013. He once said: “When I die, my paintings won’t be worth anything.”

Joule had lived near Bacon’s studio in London. In 1978, Bacon saw him repairing a neighbour’s television aerial and invited him in for some champagne. They struck up a friendship that continued until the artist’s death in 1992, after he had a heart attack in Spain.

There is a poignant paragraph in Joule’s latest email to Balshaw: “On April 18 1992 … I dropped Francis Bacon off at Heathrow airport, this only hours after he had given me the huge pile of art and material … During our long parting embrace in the busy departure lounge, he spoke directly into my ear, ‘You will take care of things when I have gone.’ Naturally I promised to do so and thought at the time he meant finishing off some handyman chores … whilst he was away in Spain, never imagining for a second that this would be the last time I or anyone else in England would ever see him alive.”

There were initial questions from the Bacon Estate about the material’s authenticity – prompted, Joule believes, after he refused a 1998 request to donate the material to the Bacon Study Centre at the Hugh Lane gallery, Dublin.

She reiterated the gallery’s gratitude and assured him that material had featured in various displays and was “very much appreciated”.

But Joule is all the more frustrated because he says the Tate’s response contrasts so dramatically with that of a French museum – the Musée Picasso in Paris – to which he donated 80 Bacon drawings. Bacon began to paint in around 1930, inspired by a Picasso exhibition. Joule told the Observer: “All these donated drawings were exhibited in a large Bacon/Picasso painting exhibition held at the Musée Picasso in 2005. The Musée Picasso published a handsome separate catalogue … The exhibition was a huge success and, two years later, the French government awarded me the highly sought-after Chevalier des Ordres des Arts et des Lettres – the French equivalent of a knighthood.”

But the Tate accepted the gift and, last month, Balshaw wrote to Joule that the material “sheds unique light on the working habits and environment of one of the leading painters of the last century”.

He added: “In 2008, the Tate held a large Bacon exhibition. Not a single item from my 2004 Tate donation was included.” If he withdraws the Tate gift, he will donate it instead to a French museum.

The Tate said: “We have proposed a meeting with Barry Joule in September.” The Bacon Estate declined to comment.




                                                           Barry Joule with Francis Bacon in London, March 1986.






The Colony Room: Soho’s secret club beloved

by Francis Bacon and Tom Baker




It was a grimy post-war Soho club beloved of actors and artists,

but the Colony Room’s great appeal was its drunken anonymity






A tiny green oasis hidden from the real world, the Colony Room Club functioned both as a drinking den and a cultural barometer. Like a small living room with a bar at one end, it was packed with actors, artists, and misfits like me. Muriel’s, as it was affectionately known, was dominated by two personalities — that of its owner Muriel Belcher, who opened the club in 1948, and the artist Francis Bacon, her most devoted customer.

She referred to Bacon as “Daughter” and he called her “Mother”, so close was their relationship. In its 60-year history, more romances, deaths and sex scandals took place in the Colony than anywhere else. If they didn’t happen there, they were planned on the premises.

Walking in through the dark anonymous doorway off the street in London’s Soho and climbing the rickety staircase felt like a clandestine act. The drinking laws were different then; you could not consume alcohol in a pub from 3pm to 6pm, only in a private members’ club. The original attraction of the Colony was that when the pubs shut, Muriel opened.

Everyone who frequented the Colony Room Club can remember the first time they went there. Like stumbling upon a murder scene, the club left its mark on anyone who entered. I arrived there in 1988 with my former sparring partner, the artist Joshua Compston.

It seemed an unusual place to frequent as I was an art student at the time and there was hardly anyone under the age of 30. Fortunately for me, Muriel’s former barman and successor, Ian Board, took me under his wing.

He would often ask at the end of the evening, “How’s your handbag, dear?”, meaning, are you going to be okay getting home or do you need money for a taxi? He knew the perils and pitfalls of being a young artist, and could recall just how difficult money was to come by for Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and countless others he’d known over the years.

Unlike Bacon, many other talented people squandered their artistic wealth in Soho. Long before the advent of mobile phones the club formed part of Soho’s “Bermuda Triangle”: The French (House), The Coach & Horses and the Colony Room Club – a diabolical trinity where loved ones could enter, dissipate and not be heard of again for what seemed an eternity.

Soho, as a beacon of counterculture, attracted the talented like moths to a flame. Many members shone brightly and faded out too young, like Joshua, who died at 25.

The club was like a psychological pressure cooker; all aspects of life were condensed in that tiny room which produced a learning curve so steep that many crashed and burned. Running a successful private drinking club was a real balancing act.

You had to be tough enough to win the gangsters’ respect so they would leave you to prosper, urbane enough to collect aristocratic clients, worldly enough to hold court over hardened businessmen and tolerant enough to empathise with all the strange flotsam and jetsam inevitable in Soho.

On top of all this you also needed a good barman who would not allow himself — or the customers — to rob you blind. Little wonder Muriel was crowned The Queen of Soho. The Colony Room thrived on frisson and Francis Bacon rarely disappointed. He was very fashion-conscious and always immaculately dressed.

One afternoon he stormed in, clearly annoyed. “What’s wrong Francis?” someone asked.“Bloody Harrods, I’m never going back there again.” He’d attended a special night for select clients and bought a lot of clothes, but when he got home, he’d decided he didn’t like any of them. “I bought so many suits and shirts and threw the whole lot in the dustbin.”

Artists, actors, authors and poets found Muriel a witty and generous, if foul-mouthed, mother figure who once quipped of club member Peter O’Toole: “If she was any prettier they’d have to call her Florence of Arabia.” Alcoholics can never remember people’s names so Muriel gave them nicknames that would stick in her memory.

It was possible to drink there for years and be unaware of the real names and professions of members — they were characters of club folklore, such as “Stuttering Sara”, “Miss Hitler”, “Brian the Burglar” and “Twiggy” — an international businessman of huge girth.

According to Barry Humphries, the secret of Muriel’s success was that the Colony Room was “the alcoholics’ paradise. You merely ran up a slate. Later, much later, came the reckoning.”

I recall bizarre afternoons spent chatting to Myra Hindley’s psychiatrist, or karate play-fighting with the actor Burt Kwouk (Cato in the Pink Panther films). There were also disappointing occasions when you’d encounter someone who was legendarily famous.

“Miss Whiplash” was once pulled on to the lap of a very drunk old man, who fondled her and turned out to be film star Trevor Howard. After which she was never able to enjoy his film Brief Encounter again.

Doctor Who, AKA actor Tom Baker, would materialise after lunch and prop up the bar wearing his trademark hat and long scarf. He drank large gin and tonics with lots of ice from a pint jug. Everybody knew Tom. At 5.30pm on a Saturday they’d say: “Put the telly on, Tom’s on.”

And Tom would declare: “Look Francis, that’s me on television.” Francis would reply,  “Oh, is it, dear? Another bottle of champagne please.”

At the time the legendary journalist and alcoholic Jeffrey Bernard was in hospital for necking too much Sally Smirnoff. As Jeff was telling Tom he had to change his lifestyle or die, the hospital DJ came round and enquired: “Is there a song you’d like to request for your friend?”  “Yes” beamed Tom, “Can you play him, I’ll Be Seeing You (In All The Old Familiar Places)?”

There was often a queue for the club’s only loo. Francis Bacon, drunk and bursting to pee, arrived to be told: “There’s a woman inside.” He began yelling: “Come out of there,” and violently kicked the door which unbolted and a beautiful woman emerged, head held high. It was Christine Keeler. As she strode back to the bar, she spat out the word: “Men!” with all the contempt she could muster.

The biggest crime in the Colony was to be a bore and Muriel’s barman Ian Board would often complain of the actors: “They’re never offstage, that lot, are they? Look at John Hurt, that twit?” One night Hurt bored Ian so much that he exploded: “Francis Bacon told me you’re the most boring person in the world!”

John replied: “Oh no, Francis wouldn’t say that about me!”

“Go and ask him,” Ian shot back. Bacon turned round: “No, I didn’t say that... what I did say is you’re the MEANEST because you never buy a drink.”

Muriel didn’t mind people being at each other’s throats as long as they didn’t spill their drinks on her carpet. It was so tacky that if you stayed in the same position too long, your feet stuck to it,

The Colony once received a letter from Westminster Council branding it a health hazard because it possessed the most disgusting carpet their health inspector had ever seen in. Reluctantly, they replaced it with a new one so when you walked in, you were startled by a flash of bright green.

When Bacon arrived he was horrified. He immediately ordered a dozen bottles of champagne and sprayed them all over the new carpet. “That’s better,” he sighed.

We loved a sing-song around the piano, which was drenched in alcohol and hadn’t seen a tuner since 1948. “It was like dental work. If you lose a few teeth, you learn to get on without them,” remarked the pianist, Kenny Clayton One night a funny loud-mouthed northern girl in bovver boots and a beret turned up.

When I heard her sing, I thought: “If you went professional, you’d make a fortune.” A few weeks later watching Top Of The Pops, Lisa Stansfield was number one. I thought, “Jesus — it’s that girl with the beret!”

An annual holiday to Kenya was a necessary relief for Muriel and Ian from the stresses of clubland. One year, they spotted the comedian Ronnie Corbett and his wife on the other side of the hotel dining room. They had many mutual friends in common such as Danny La Rue and became inseparable until the fateful evening they dined in the grill-room as the temperature rose.

Everyone was ordering flambé bananas. Muriel was trying to cool herself with the menu, but when the young couple on the next table ordered the flaming bananas too, she cried out: “I hope they bleedin’ choke you.”

“If you are going to behave like that,” raged Ronnie. “I must leave.” And he stomped off to settle the bill. Upon his return, met by the sight of the two tables united in laughter, his rage ran out of steam and he rejoined them. Sadly, Bohemian Soho evaporated long ago

The Colony Room has been converted into an apartment and its characters supplanted by a social media-obsessed generation who’d rather message a stranger on the other side of the world than converse with the person standing next to them at the bar.

Our Bohemia was a borderless country where big hopes were often matched by short purses. The inhabitants had untidy lives and even untidier deaths. Fortunately Bacon, Belcher and Board became Soho legends. Such is the legacy of the Colony Room.

Tales From The Colony Room: Soho’s Lost Bohemia by Darren Coffield (Unbound, £12.99) is out now




   Tom Baker & Francis Bacon at the Colony Room. Photo: Mary Dunkin





Photographs, psychoanalysis and sex: three books provide

enlightening studies of rock star Francis Bacon




The artist seen from varied perspectives on his work and influences





Standing head and shoulders above other books in this clutch of recent titles about Francis Bacon is Francis Bacon: Study for a Portrait. Published by the Francis Bacon MB Art Foundation, Monaco, this book reproduces a unique selection of photographs of the artist. Majid Boustany, the founder of this non-profit foundation, says the book draws from “the foundation’s unique photographic archive [including] over 700 prints of Bacon by more than 70 photographers, ranging from portraits by eminent photographers to rare snapshots caught by his inner circle”. The photographs start in 1929 and run up to just months before the artist’s death in 1992.

Published alongside the images are quotations by photographers of their experiences capturing Bacon on film; Bacon scholar Martin Harrison explains connections between Bacon and some of the photographers. This exquisite, absorbing book includes the Baconian orange cloth spine and elegant black endpapers, testament to the foundation’s characteristic attention to detail. Each book comes with a signed, numbered print of a Bacon photograph by Michel Nguyen. The edition is limited to 584 copies (the number of paintings in Bacon’s catalogue raisonné), each numbered and including a photographic print. Only 300 are available for sale through the foundation, the Centre Pompidou and the Photographers’ Gallery, London.

Photographs of Bacon besieged at a vernissage remind us of how the painter was treated like a rock star in Paris. That status was cemented at the Centre Pompidou exhibition last year, Francis Bacon: Books and Painting. Bacon was a great reader and authors responded greatly to him. The catalogue for the Paris exhibition includes a list of all the books the artist owned at the time of his death. It makes for a curious read. It is a mixture of classics, foreign language textbooks, guide books, cookery books and magazines, alongside art monographs. Among these are a few books given by author friends.

The catalogue reproduces copies of the books that Bacon owned, provides some choice quotes and explains how certain writers had a significant impact on his thinking. We are well informed on this because not only do we have his book collection, but the literature that was important to him was raised in many published interviews.

Like the contemporary artists Bacon admired—Picasso and Giacometti—he was the subject of insightful literary treatments by prominent writers, many of them French. Gilles Deleuze, Michel Leiris, Claude Simon and Philippe Sollers wrote about Bacon; Georges Bataille praised him. Aeschylus, Nietzsche, Bataille, Leiris, Joseph Conrad and T.S. Eliot were particularly important to Bacon and recurred in his conversation, imagery and painting titles. Eliot also provided a model of artistic collaboration in relation to his editorial work with Ezra Pound on The Waste Land. Overall, the catalogue makes a clear case for the rich relationship between Bacon’s art and the books he read, as well as illustrating some of Bacon’s best paintings.

The second volume in the Thames & Hudson Bacon Studies series is Francis Bacon: Painting, Philosophy, Psychoanalysis. Topics include the influence of ancient mythology, the use of mirrors, the significance of self-portraiture and potential Hegelian interpretation of Bacon’s realism. The volume is well illustrated and has footnotes and sources. All of the volumes in the series are supported by the Francis Bacon MB Foundation.

Gagosian’s catalogue accompanied its 2019 London exhibition Couplings, which centred on scenes of sex or physical proximity of bodies. The catalogue includes installation photographs of this excellent show, images of all the works and a previously unpublished interview with Bacon and the curator, Richard Francis, in 1985.


 Majid Boustany, ed. Francis Bacon: Study for a Portrait, Francis Bacon MB Art Foundation, 308pp, €295 (hb)

• Didier Ottinger, ed. Francis Bacon: Books and Painting, Thames & Hudson, 242pp, £39.95 (hb)

 Ben Ware, ed. Francis Bacon Studies II: Francis Bacon: Painting, Philosophy, Psychoanalysis, The Estate of Francis Bacon/ Thames & Hudson, 176pp, £28 (pb)

  Richard Calvocoressi and Martin Harrison, Francis Bacon: Couplings, Gagosian, 100pp, $100 (hb)

 • Alexander Adams is the recipient of the 2018 artist scholarship of the Francis Bacon MB Art Foundation, Monaco. His latest book, On Art, is published by Golconda Fine Art Books





                                                        Brutal coupling in real life too: Francis Bacon’s Portrait of George Dyer in a Mirror (1968)






Annalyn Swan ’73 and Mark Stevens ’73 Illuminate a Dark Artist




A husband-and-wife team has published a biography of artist Francis Bacon





“Annalyn is a bloodhound,” says Mark Stevens ’73, of his wife, classmate, and co-author, Annalyn Swan ’73. “Do you mind being called a bloodhound?”

Swan confirms over Zoom that she does not.

“She’s a fabulously energetic researcher, and I’m a lazy gadabout, really,” explains Stevens, a longtime art critic whose work Swan used to oversee as senior arts editor at Newsweek. “I mean not entirely — I can be provoked, but I don’t have the same appetite that she does” for research.

That appetite — as well as flashes of what Swan calls her husband’s “very witty and wry” prose style — informs their second biographical collaboration, Francis Bacon: Revelations (Knopf), published in March. The Anglo-Irish figurative painter, who died in 1992 at 82, stunned the mid-20th-century art world with his grotesque images and flamboyant lifestyle. A decade in the making, the new biography offers a more nuanced portrait, including Bacon’s early foray into modernist design, his unabating self-criticism, and his frequent kindnesses to friends, family, and lovers. 

 That appetite — as well as flashes of what Swan calls her husband’s “very witty and wry” prose style — informs their second biographical collaboration, Francis Bacon: Revelations (Knopf), published in March. The Anglo-Irish figurative painter, who died in 1992 at 82, stunned the mid-20th-century art world with his grotesque images and flamboyant lifestyle. A decade in the making, the new biography offers a more nuanced portrait, including Bacon’s early foray into modernist design, his unabating self-criticism, and his frequent kindnesses to friends, family, and lovers.

The couple’s first project, de Kooning: An American Master (Knopf, 2004), on the Dutch American abstract expressionist painter, won a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Los Angeles Times Book Award for Biography. Francis Bacon has received mostly rapturous reviews. Charles Arrowsmith’s critique in The Washington Post described it as “bejeweled in sensuous detail.” The New Yorker’s Joan Acocella wrote that the biography was “warmed by the writers’ clear affection for Bacon.” Parul Sehgal of The New York Times praised its “ambition and scope,” but took issue with the authors’ handling of Bacon’s lurid private life as “prim and almost anthropological.” 

“It’s because people really don’t want to see him in the round,” Stevens says in response to the Sehgal comment. Along with Bacon’s well-known predilection for sadomasochistic gay sex, Stevens says, “he had these desires for friendship, for domesticity, for some sustained relationship.” 

Bacon was a descendant and namesake of the Enlightenment philosopher and statesman Francis Bacon (1561–1626). A gambler and a drinker, he partied relentlessly through London by night and painted faithfully each morning — only to destroy many of his canvases. Francis Bacon instances his petty cruelties, but also his elegant manners, charm, and generosity.

Illustrated with Bacon’s images of disemboweled carcasses and screaming popes, as well as his portraits of male lovers and female friends, the biography traces the artist’s career arc as he careened from destitution to celebrity. It catalogs his turbulent friendships with artists such as Graham Sutherland and Lucian Freud and romances that could be transactional or violent or both. The greatest of Bacon’s loves, the test pilot and pianist Peter Lacy, once threw him out a window. “It’s a bizarre relationship,” Stevens says, “but, for both men, it was very important — and the violence was part of it.” 

Biography, Stevens says, “has its own imperatives. It’s portraiture.” Swan, who teaches biography at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and the Middlebury Bread Loaf School of English, stresses the need to infuse the narrative arc with drama. The couple refashion each other’s prose “in endless iterations,” she says, bringing “a novelistic sensibility to bear on the facts.” They aim for a style, her husband says, that is “alive and epigrammatic, but also transparent, so that you see through the words to the subject, and you’re not being distracted always by the writing itself.”

Swan and Stevens met at The Daily Princetonian, where Swan was the newspaper’s first female editor-in-chief and Stevens the paper’s chairman. An English major, Swan also took art history courses. Stevens, the son of the artist Polly Kraft, concentrated in the then-Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, but was drawn to English and “art-tinged history.” Both earned master’s degrees (he in cultural history, she in English literature) at King’s College, Cambridge, where she was a Marshall Scholar.

They were married, in 1977, in the Princeton University Chapel. Stevens was an art critic at Newsweek, The New Republic, and New York Magazine. Swan became the classical music critic at Newsweek’s chief competitor, Time, before moving to Newsweek. In the late 1980s, she was editor-in-chief of the women’s magazine Savvy.

When the couple were given the opportunity to write the de Kooning biography, the artist’s reputation was “in some eclipse,” which Stevens says made him intriguing. So, too, did his immigrant background, which gave him “a larger emblematic importance for American culture,” Stevens says. Stevens and Swan took a house in Sag Harbor, Long Island, to conduct interviews with members of de Kooning’s artistic circle living nearby. That immersion “created a template for how we would do research,” Stevens says. The book also established their storytelling approach: “making the art essential to the story we were telling, but also not trying to reduce the life to the art or the art to the life.” 

Even after their success with de Kooning, Stevens was ambivalent about a second biography. But Swan says she was “captured by the process,” and pushed for an encore. Then the Bacon estate approached them to write the first comprehensive biography of the artist.

Stevens found the prospect enticing because Bacon, reacting to the genocidal violence of World War II, “sets the dark edge of art in the 20th century. He is arguably the darkest artist, and he’s responding to a very dark century. Also, he developed this existentially drenched, somewhat corny persona that is very dramatic and important — a kind of Wildean persona for our time. And he was a homosexual before gay liberation. That’s interesting, too.” 

Swan saw the research possibilities. No prior biographer had visited Ireland to investigate Bacon’s childhood terrain. “And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the Anglo-Irish background was incredibly powerful in shaping his sensibility,” she says. An asthmatic in a culture that prized toughness, Bacon had a brutal, violent upbringing and little formal schooling. The New York-based authors also visited England, France, Tangier, Spain, and Italy, places Bacon had lived or frequented, to mine archives, conduct interviews, and scout out his environs.

Their thoroughness affords a rare intimacy. Two of Peter Lacy’s nephews helped transform Lacy from caricature to character, and close associates of Lucian Freud attested to both the intensity and the demise of his friendship with Bacon. The authors communicated through intermediaries with José Capelo, the “elegant young Spaniard” (per the biography) who was Bacon’s last romantic interest and has always declined to talk to journalists. “It’s safe to say that José would be comfortable with everything in our book,” Swan says.

Whatever Stevens’ doubts about Bacon’s art — “a lot is mediocre,” he says — he became fascinated by the project of unraveling his personality. “He was a very complicated man who hid behind a rather simple persona,” he says

The title references the authors’ own discoveries and the “revelatory aspirations” of Bacon’s art, including its religious connotations, Stevens says. He adds: “Most important of all is that he was interested in flinging open closet doors — not just [to] homosexuality, but all the doors of the Western tradition that conceal uncomfortable truths.”

Bacon’s sexuality is manifest in his depictions of various male lovers, but also in his concern with “absolute power and powerlessness in a larger cultural way,” Stevens says. Yet it is too limiting, Swan adds, to say that “his vision was brutal and tough and violent and masochistic.” Stevens points to two later self-portraits: “Those are not violent images. And they show two very different states of being, each of them quite remarkable: one of them quite lovely, strict and melancholy all at the same time, and the other, this aging queen, who’s just all powder and rouge.”

The authors wrestled with the question: “How far do you step in to judge your subject?” Their answer was, not far. “I really want to present the situation as truthfully and as amply as possible — and then leave the reader to react,” Stevens says.





                                   Artist Francis Bacon in his studio in 1951.  Cecil Beaton





On Francis Bacon and my sleep paralysis hallucinations




Talia Foster gives a moving account of her experiences with sleep paralysis and how she

found comfort in Bacon’s anthropomorphic creatures.






I still remember the first time I experienced sleep paralysis, though it’s been more than a decade since then. It was around ten in the morning, but my bedroom was dark and cool because I liked to keep my curtains pulled tightly when I slept. The only source of light in the room seeped through the bedroom door: a rectangular, yellowed-out halo which slunk in through the crevices of the frame. I knew something was wrong when the sound of static started to fill my ears. The static turned up so loudly that nausea began to kick in. Immediately I found that I couldn’t move. My heart pounded, eyes flickering as I tried to reel in the panic, but the panic became insuppressible as I realised that my limbs were locked in. When my eyes landed on the mirror that stood in front of my bed, something had appeared in its reflection. It was a hunched humanoid figure, grey all over, just standing there motionless, staring at me without eyes. To this day, I still remember what it looked like, the angling of its neck, how real it appeared within the familiar configurations of my room.

I think that is what’s most unnerving to me about sleep paralysis. It’s not that I can see ghostly figures (I can easily find scarier ones in movies) – it’s that the ghostly figures appear integrated into the scenery of reality. I am not in some rundown motel far from civilisation, nor am I in some clichéd horror-flick forest; fiction warned me about places like that, where the real world is liminal. No, I am in the comfort of my bedroom – and it’s that element of the experience that is the most unsettling. In the years since, I’ve become accustomed to this kind of fear. From cockroaches crawling across my chest, to voices whispering in my ears sentencing me to death, the hallucinations have almost become part of the routine. But my first sleep paralysis experience is still the one that stuck with me the most – and I think it’s because that first encounter took me by surprise, because it undermined the certainty that my room was familiar, that it is a refuge.

To me, then, it’s no wonder that there’s a persistent link between sleep paralysis and anxiety disorders. The relationship is almost too obvious. When I am gripped with anxiety, or experiencing a panic attack, it feels as if the familiar scents, smells, sights of my room have all turned against me. My overloaded senses become so overwhelming that they paralyse, fix me to the spot, in much the same way that sleep paralysis does.

When I first saw Francis Bacon’s “Three studies for figures at the base of a crucifixion”, it was as if my hallucinations and anxiety had converged onto one painting. There have been many representations of sleep paralysis in both literature and art through the ages, from accounts recorded by Ernest Hemingway, to arguably the most recognisable of these representations, Henry Fuseli’s “The Nightmare”. In the search for a depiction most accurate to my experiences, however, I have always found myself drawn back to Bacon’s triptych.

Bacon’s distorted figures, propped onto chairs and stools, conjure up that figure I saw in the mirror as if through some black magic: that greyish creature, animated and hunched, its flexed, organic curvature signifying something of my anxiety. Each pose maximises the monster’s tautness, its tremors, its tense energy. The mouths of these creatures, wide open, gesture with their gape towards the constant discomfort of potential intrusion, of allowing some foreign, unwelcome gaze to peer into the most vulnerable caverns of the body. Just like the figures who appear in my hallucinations, Bacon’s subjects veer towards the human, stopping short at the borders between the familiar and the foreign. It is because they’re so familiar that I cannot dismiss them as fiction, yet it is because they’re so foreign that I can never surmise their intentions.

There is always some strange comfort I find in seeing Bacon’s paintings. The sheer bodiliness of his subjects allow me to grasp firmly onto my experiences, to interrogate my fears in broad daylight rather than give them the opportunity to sneak up on me under the cover of darkness. To see my hallucinations on a painting is to subjugate them, to trap their unpredictable motions onto the nonthreatening surface of a still frame.





                                                             “Bacon’s distorted figures, propped onto chairs and stools, conjure up that figure I saw in the mirror”





Behind the Hedonist Persona of Francis Bacon




Annalyn Swan and Mark Stevens’s comprehensive study of the British

artist is a sensitive investigation into his artistic identity.






In August of 1998, a team of curators, conservators, and archaeologists arrived at 7 Reece Mews, a small flat in London’s South Kensington neighborhood, to start work on the month-long task of transporting its contents to the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin. There, over the next five years, the team labored to painstakingly reconstruct the flat, which for some 30 years had served as the home and studio of Francis Bacon. The artist had moved to Reece Mews in the fall of 1961 and lived there until his death, in 1992, of a heart attack while on a trip to Madrid. The studio re-creation opened at the Hugh Lane in 2001 with some 7,500 pieces of material—slashed canvases, crumpled photographs, pages ripped from medical textbooks, drawings, and hand-scrawled notes—now available for consumption by a public hungry for insight into Bacon’s life and artistic process.

In the three decades since his death, that appetite seems not to have waned but waxed, as indicated by the staggering amount of material now devoted to Bacon: centenary retrospectives at the Tate and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a five-volume catalogue raisonné, and various biographic monographs whose titles (The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon; Anatomy of an Enigma) point to his canonization in the public eye as the enfant terrible of 20th-century art.

With Revelations, the latest addition to this litany of biographies, Annalyn Swan and Mark Stevens (who previously collaborated on a lengthy biography of Willem de Kooning) enter the fray, offering the most comprehensive study of one of the leading figures of modernism, someone whose “paradoxical pop gravitas” places him with the likes of Beckett, Camus, and Sartre. In some 800 pages of text and footnotes, the authors—aided by the artist’s estate—detail the trajectory of Bacon’s career with archaeological precision, excavating public and private records to unearth how the openly homosexual painter, “preternaturally attuned to the social stage,” crafted a rebellious public persona characterized by excesses of sex and violence, drink and drugs. As Swan and Stevens tell it, the “ultimate secret” of Bacon’s life was an intractable contradiction: his desperate wish to partake in “the ordinary joys and solace denied him as [a sickly] child and young man,” and his fear of anything that would shatter his glamorous veneer and “make him appear commonplace, vulnerable, or pathetic.”

Neither hagiographic nor sordid, Revelations is divided into three sections detailing Bacon’s youth and early success and failures, his breakthrough in the mid-1940s, and his final decades in London. The authors are adept at contextualizing Bacon’s artistic development within the story of his romances and exploits and go to great lengths to correct the record, dispelling errant mythologies (often propagated by Bacon himself) that lean too heavily on assertions of natural genius, such as Bacon’s claim that he rarely made preparatory drawings. Where the last major biography, Michael Peppiatt’s Anatomy of an Enigma—which drew from the author’s confidential conversations with Bacon over the course of several years—indulges the mythography of its subject, conceding to Bacon’s many quips, his claim of being “the most artificial person there is,” to justify his use of cosmetics, Swan and Stevens are far more restrained, if also excessively discursive, preferring to refract Bacon through the company he kept, studies of his family, and analyses of his art. Their comprehensiveness is particularly instructive when illuminating his years as a commercial furniture and rug designer in the 1930s, a facet of his career that Bacon rarely discussed in public, lest it detract from his reputation as a painter of the macabre—a reputation he achieved only in midlife with his 1945 triptych, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. That painting marked, according to John Russell, a transition in English art, shocking a society numbed from the long years of World War II. And it also marked a transition for Bacon, who would insist that he “began” as a painter with this work, a claim that drives Swan and Stevens’s investigation into the contours of his artistic persona.

The appeal of an artist biography typically lies in its discussion of creative genius, as well as the hindrances and defeats—or the comforts—that led to artistic success. Bacon was in no shortage of the elite privilege, particularly in his early years. Born in 1909 to an aristocratic Anglo-Irish family, he was the second of four children, his father a British major who had served in Burma and later trained horses and his mother the heiress to a steel fortune. Asthmatic from a young age, Bacon suffered from an inability to participate in the masculinist traditions of hunting and riding, causing his father—to whom Bacon claimed to be sexually attracted—to regard his son as sexually effete and weak. Both his asthma and his early sexual awakening would provide fodder for Bacon’s early self-mythologizing. He often spoke of an experience as a child, struggling to breathe and nearly fainting while locked in a dark closet by the family maid, who purportedly kept him hidden away so she could cavort with a secret boyfriend; he also claimed to have had his first sexual encounters with his father’s horse grooms, who purportedly whipped him in the family stables.

While the veracity of these claims remains uncertain, what is true is that Bacon left his family home in the English countryside at 16, supported by a weekly allowance from his mother. In the spring of 1927, he moved briefly to Berlin, where he imbibed the libertine atmosphere of Weimar, and then headed to Paris, where he first saw the works of Picasso in person and fell in with a crowd of artists and designers who inspired him to pursue a career in design. He returned to London in 1928, and it was at this time that he began his relationship with Eric Allden, the first of several powerful older men who provided him not only with sex and companionship but also financial support, as he pursued his ambition of becoming a furniture and rug designer, freelancing for prominent designers and debuting in popular magazines. Men like Allden, and later the well-connected Tory politician Eric Hall, would be among the many sponsors, financial and emotional, that Bacon relied on throughout his life as he stubbornly attempted to develop his own career outside the family name; others included his childhood nanny, who accompanied him for nearly 40 years, and later the gallerists who bailed him out when his gambling debts and profligate spending rendered him temporarily destitute.

A common feature of the artist biography is the allusion to a transformative moment, the pivot point at which the subject recognizes their artistic potential. Swan and Stevens do not stray from this convention: For Bacon, as intimated in this biography as well as the many interviews he gave during his lifetime, this moment came in 1931, when he saw “Thirty Years of Picasso,” an exhibition held at Alex Reid and Lefevre Gallery in London, and committed himself to studying art. He went back to Paris for two years and took painting lessons from the modernist Roy de Maistre; returning to London in 1933, he exhibited at successively more prominent galleries with the support of his many confidants and connections and was recognized—though often with mixed reviews—in the British press. (John Berger, in a scathing 1952 review in The New Statesman and Nation, remarked that Bacon was “not an important painter.”)

Bacon’s early paintings were riffs on the surrealist mode that had taken Europe by storm in the early 1930s, and for the next several years, he struggled to find a style that would set him apart and that he could claim as his own. By 1937, he stopped exhibiting entirely, a personal defeat that was eclipsed by the arrival of the Second World War in England. When London was bombed by the Germans in 1940, Bacon fled to the countryside to escape the dust that now filled the air. For two years, he worked there in solitude, using as source material newspaper photos of Nazi soldiers and the wreckage of war. The authors of Revelations are at their best when reflecting, as Bacon did, on these moments of “internal reckonings,” the junctures at which artistic development meets introspection.

After these quiet but crucial years, the figure that begins to emerge is not only the recognized painter of crucifixions and cadavers but the Bacon of popular lore, who prowled the clubs and bars of Soho, gambled away his earnings in Monte Carlo, and had long, torrid, sadomasochistic affairs with a succession of lovers—first with former fighter pilot Peter Lacy and later with George Dyer, the East End hustler who did not, in fact, crash through the Reece Mews skylight (as Bacon claimed) but who met him in a bar. With Lacy, Bacon spent time in Tangier, borrowing advances from gallerists to live in North Africa, where he fell in with American expats like Paul and Jane Bowles and William Burroughs.

But to understand Bacon’s legacy as an artist—not the one marked by astronomical auction prices but by his assault on the modernist sensibility and his dogged determination to succeed at whatever cost—the authors direct readers to Three Studies at the Base of a Crucifixion, the triptych that debuted at London’s Lefevre Gallery in April of 1945, near the end of World War II, to what Swan and Stevens portray as a minor moral and critical uproar. Across its three panels, Bacon depicted the Three Furies from Aeschylus’s Oresteia, mythological creatures of vengeance painted with sharp, attenuated necks and engorged bodies against a blood-orange backdrop, a color “to shock wan, gray, war-weary London, where for years there had not been any intense light apart from the bomb flashes and subsequent fires.”

The true shock of Three Studies, however, was not the sacrilegious subject matter or its garish composition, but rather its moral ambiguity. In refusing to distinguish between good and evil within his painting, Bacon presented a quandary for critics who sought a neat paradigm in the context of the war against German fascism. “Nobody wanted to believe that there was in human nature an element that was irreducibly evil,” wrote the critic John Russell, and yet Three Studies asserted this condition as primeval fact in a confrontation too beguiling to ignore. That in subsequent decades Bacon would, in his own revisionist approach, use this very painting to mark his beginning as an artist—a decision that Swan and Stevens present as convincing evidence of his shrewd approach to fashioning his legacy (as well as, frankly, his good taste)—justifies the authors’ somewhat outsize focus on the painting in this biography, though one wishes there were richer descriptions of other notable works.

Revelations lingers on the period between the mid-1940s and the early ’70s when Bacon ascended to celebrity, detailing the elite social milieu that swirled around him, which included designer Isabel Rawsthorne, writer Sonia Orwell, and painter Lucien Freud. The authors provide many sketches of the coterie of sponsors, confidants, lovers, and enemies that populated Bacon’s life, but the effect is one that occludes the subject of their study, as the presence of so many supporting characters thrusts Bacon himself into the background. As rife as they are with tales of excess, these years are also marked by moments of tragic symmetry: Lacy died the night of Bacon’s first retrospective at the Tate in 1962, George Dyer two days before his 1971 retrospective at the Pompidou. In the following two decades, Bacon garnered international acclaim and embarked on long-term, obsessive relationships with younger lovers, including John Edwards, to whom he bequeathed his estate, and José Capelo, the man who would be with Bacon in his last moments in Madrid. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, Bacon maintained his reputation for grandiosity and hedonism by swanning around in a Bentley and jet-setting through Europe and the United States, flush with cash from his sales with Marlborough Gallery.

Critics have argued that it was during this period that Bacon’s paintings became branded, his once-eviscerating symbolism now rote, his celebrity obscuring his talents. This is the double-edged sword of biography, which, like the tortured visages Bacon wrought in his lifetime, may distort as much as it clarifies. In attending to the many details and specifics of Bacon’s life as well as his legacy, Revelations comprises a more satisfying portrait of the artist.




           Francis Bacon, Ian Board and Ian Winchester at the Trattoria Otello Restaurant, 41 Dean Street, W.1, Soho, in 1961.





Francis Bacon’s friend claims BBC led to theft of his painting



Barry Joule claims he told BBC programme makers to omit either his distinctive


French farmhouse or the painting from their documentary





The BBC has been engulfed in a fresh documentary row after a former friend of Francis Bacon blamed them for inadvertently leading thieves to his multi-million painting by the artist.

The deception surrounding Martin Bashir’s BBC interview with Princess Diana has prompted Barry Joule to claim he too was deceived by the corporation in agreeing to be interviewed for a documentary.

He accuses programme-makers of filming both the distinctive exterior of his 15th-century Normandy home and a painting by Bacon inside even though he says he specifically asked them not to do so for security reasons.

He believes it is no coincidence that, shortly after the documentary was aired, he suffered a highly-professional burglary in which that painting was stolen.

Mr Joule, who was Bacon’s friend from 1978 until the artist’s death in 1992, told The Telegraph: “The BBC have ruined my life.”

Having lived next-door to Bacon in London, he now resides in France. In allowing the film-makers to visit his Normandy farmhouse, he claims that he had told them that its exterior could not be filmed as its distinctive Normandy style and “very strange” chimney would make it easily identifiable.

He also says he insisted that they were not to film his Bacon painting, one of the iconic Pope pictures from the early 1950s — only to discover that they did just that.

When the BBC agreed to show him the documentary before it was aired, he was horrified to see footage of both the house exterior and the Bacon painting.

He recalls his “strenuous objections” and claims senior BBC executives assuring him they would be deleted, only - he says - to discover that they did not keep their promise before the one-hour documentary, titled The Strange World of Barry Who?, was shown on BBC4 in 2002. A BBC spokesperson stressed “recollections differ”.

The BBC’s blurb for the programme states: “A friend and confidante to the stars, Barry Joule is said to have inherited money, paintings or property from artist Francis Bacon, dancer Rudolf Nureyev and model Toto Koopman. But how did this little-known man become one of the greatest arts networkers of all time?”

In agreeing to be interviewed, Mr Joule had been told that this would be a portrait of “an important figure in the arts world” but claimed the show made him “look fairly suspicious”.

Recalling the screening at the BBC’s White City offices, he said: “There’s about 15 or 20 executives there... I was horrified to see that they had filmed the Bacon Pope and identifying features on my house… I said, ‘you have to take [those out]’. They said, ‘yes, yes, we’ll do it’. They didn’t… They lied to me…

“Months later, there’s a highly-professional robbery in my house and only the painting is stolen, cut out of its frame. Bacon had given me the painting after I saved his life…pumping his chest, giving him oxygen on 18 January 1992 after a minor heart-attack.”

He added: “The police did a huge investigation. They think that the painting’s in Moscow, with a gangster collector because people have…seen it.

“That’s what the BBC did to me, leading burglars to my French home, though I must admit I have no proof.”

The robbery was so professional that the thieves had put a tap on his telephone line and knew exactly when he would be out.

What is all the more painful is that the painting was not insured. It was worth about £8m. He assumed it was safe because only his closest friends knew that he owned it and he had good security: “The insurance was extremely high, so I was going to sell it or put it in a safety deposit.”

He added: “The painful memories have come flooding back in reading about what happened to Diana and how the BBC treated her, and the paranoia that she suffered afterwards - exactly what happened to me.”

A BBC spokesman said: “When people raise concerns of this kind about programmes, we of course look into them. This is a programme made nearly two decades ago and it is clear that recollections differ… If Mr Joule has concerns about the film, we welcome the opportunity to speak to him directly.”

A BBC source denied there was sufficient information in the film to enable a viewer to work out where Mr Joule lived, describing the house exterior as “not a long lingering shot”. They added that Joule had given the crew a tour of the house.

But Joule argues that the house is a “distinctly” Normandy style and he was known to have a home there.

Of the burglars, he said: “They were a highly professional bunch of crooks… Searching for details, they would certainly find it. No question about it… If they’re focussed on stealing a very expensive painting, they would pick up on any clues.”





BBC led thieves to my £8 million Bacon painting,

claims friend




Artist’s old neighbour says corporation misled him about filming the work,

in echo of Diana deception






A FRIEND of Francis Bacon has blamed the BBC for inadvertently leading thieves to his multimillion-pound painting by the artist.

The deception surrounding Martin Bashir’s interview with Diana, Princess of Wales has prompted Barry Joules to claim he was deceived by the corporation in agreeing to be interviewed for a documentary.

He accuses programme-makers of filming both the distinctive exterior of his 15th-century Normandy home and a painting by Bacon inside — even though he says he says he specifically asked them not to do so for security reasons.

He believes it is no coincidence that shortly alter the documentary was aired he suffered a well-planned burglary in which that painting was stolen.

Mr. Joule, who was Bacon’s friend from 1978 until the artist’s death in 1992, said; “The BBC have ruined my life.”

Having lived next door to Bacon in London, he now resides in France. In allowing the filmmakers to visit his Normandy farmhouse, he claims that he told them that its exterior could not be filmed because its distinctive Normandy style and “very strange” chimney would make it easily identifiable.

He also says he insisted that they not film his Bacon painting, one of the artist’s Pope pictures from the early 1950s, only to discover that they did just that.

When the BBC agreed to show him the documentary before it was aired, he was horrified to see footage of both the house exterior and the Bacon painting.

He recalls his “strenuous objections” and claims senior BBC executives assured him that they would be deleted, only —  he says — to discover that they did not keep their promise when the one-hour documentary, The Strange World of Barry Who? was shown on BBC Four in 2002. A BBC spokesman stressed that “recollections differ”.

Recalling the screening at the BBC’s White City offices, Mr Joule said: “There’s about 15 or 20 executives there. I was horrified to see that they had filmed the Bacon Pope and identifying features on my house. I said, ‘you have to take [those out]’. They said, ‘yes, yes, we’ll do it’. They didn’t. They lied to me.”

“Months later, there’s a highly professional robbery in my house and only the painting is stolen, cut out of its frame. Bacon had given me the painting after I saved his life, pumping his chest, giving him oxygen, on Jan 18 1992, after a minor heart attack.”

He added: “The police did a huge investigation. They think that the painting’s in Moscow with a gangster collector, because people have seen it.

“That’s what the BBC did to me, leading burglars to my French home — though I must admit I have no proof.”

The robbery was so professional that the thieves had put a tap on Mr Joule’s telephone line and knew exactly when he would be out.

All the more painful is that the painting was not insured. It was worth about £8 million. He assumed it was safe as only close friends knew he owned it, and he had good security: “The insurance was extremely high, so I was going to sell it or put it in a safety deposit.”

He added: “The painful memories have come flooding back in reading about what happened to Diana and how the BBC treated her, and the paranoia that she suffered afterwards — exactly what happened to me.”

A BBC spokesman said: “When people raise concerns of this kind about programmes, we of course look into them. This is a programme made nearly two decades ago and it is clear that recollections differ. If Mr Joule has concerns about the film, we welcome the opportunity to speak to him directly.”

A BBC source denied denied there was sufficient information in the film to enable a viewer to work out where Mr Joule lived, describing the house exterior as “not a long lingering shot”. They added that Mr Joule had given the crew a tour of the house.

But Mr Joule argues that the house is a “distinctly” Normandy style and he was known to have a home there.

Of the burglars, he said: “They were a highly professional bunch of crooks. Searching for details, they would certainly find it. No question about it. If they’re focused on stealing a very expensive painting, they would pick up on any clues.”





Why ‘The Empress and I’ is the most controversial

book in the art world right now




An exiled Empress, a score-settling curator, and $3 billion worth of modern art need we say more?






The legacy of Iran’s last Empress, Farah Pahlavi (née Diba) wife of the late Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi is unquestionably her patronage of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA). With 1970s Iran flush with oil money, the modern Empress set off with a nearly unlimited budget to amass an art collection that represented a fusion of Western and Eastern art.

It’s in said context that the 78-year-old former Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) curator Donna Stein writes her highly controversial 2021 memoir, The Empress and I: How an Ancient Empire Collected, Rejected, and Rediscovered Modern Art. Stein’s disputed account which has faced equal parts praise and criticism chronicles her time working for Her Imperial Majesty’s Private Secretariat between 1975–77.

At the end of Stein’s tenure and in celebration of Empress Pahlavi’s 39th birthday the TMoCA would open its Neo-Brutalist doors filled to the brim with a variety of modern art that far eclipsed any other collection outside of Europe and the United States. Despite the advent of the Iranian revolution a mere two years later, even Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini could not bring himself to dismantle the museum. Initially purchased for less than $100 million, the TMoCA’s expansive collection is currently estimated to be valued at over $3 billion.


An American in Tehran

‘Because I was a foreigner working largely in secret, my leadership role in forming the National Collection has never been fully acknowledged,’ writes Stein in her book’s foreword. She argues that her male Iranian superiors ‘boldly grabbed the credit for my aesthetic choices… so I have finally written The Empress and I to correct the record.’

 Having jumped at the chance to work on the TMoCA project in 1975, Stein found herself thrust from the gritty streets of New York City to the sun-baked ones of Iran’s capital. Upon her arrival, Stein began working behind the scenes as both a researcher and advisor for Karim Pasha Bahadori - the project’s chief of staff and a childhood friend of the Empress.

While her initial responsibility appears to have been writing the museum’s acquisition policy, Stein purports she soon began organising scouting expeditions, identifying potential purchases, and acting as a liaison between artists, gallerists, and her superiors. ‘I was the filter for quality, and I used that filter very strongly,’ Stein told the New York Times.

Recounting her experience of being a single woman in Tehran, Stein recalls the Empress’ staff referring to her as the ‘woman who lives alone’ - despite knowing her name. ‘This unfortunate phrase was also used to describe women of questionable virtue,’ explains Stein, ‘It was inconceivable that a woman would live by herself.’

Given her trying experience at the centre of Iran’s most ambitious artistic endeavour of the 20th-century, Stein makes no attempt to hide the fact that her book aims to settle some old scores. However, the Empress for whom Stein claims to have been a ‘confidante’ emerges from the memoir relatively unscathed.


Palace intrigue abounds

Arguably the most riveting portions of The Empress and I chronicle the palace intrigue that became ubiquitous during any major art acquisition. Believing she’d earned the professional respect of Bahadori, Stein recalls personally lobby him to acquire Mark Rothko’s No. 2 Yellow Center (1954); Francis Bacon’s Reclining Man With Sculpture (1961); and Roy Lichtenstein’s Roto Broil (1961)

To the chagrin of her former Iranian colleagues, Stein also takes credit for the museum’s historic acquisition of Paul Gauguin’s Still Life With Japanese Woodcut (1889) writing, ‘I was thrilled that we obtained the Gauguin, which I considered among his greatest still-life paintings.’ Adding that the unique canvas, ‘Demonstrated [Gauguin’s] interest in Japanese ukiyo-e woodcuts…thereby anticipating the cross-cultural dialogue that shaped the philosophy of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art.’

So why is Stein’s name nowhere to be found on the museum documents that record these lofty acquisitions? According to her, the answer is simple: misogyny. Stein alleges that while her star continued to rise, Bahadori the public face of the museum team whom she had rejected romantically took credit for her work and forced her to remain in the background.

After the Empress’ cousin Kamran Diba was named the TMoCA’s director, Stein asserts that her reputation deteriorated rapidly hinting that Diba may have been envious of her high standing with the Empress. Eventually, Stein was ousted due to accusations of bribery which she maintains are false and were contrived to drive her from Tehran.


Contested Claims

Given the immense cultural pride the TMoCA brings to the Iranian people, it’s understandable that they seek to protect its legacy from perceived slights. On numerous occasions Stein’s general tone feels condescending, as she describes the museum’s audience as ‘uneducated’ and refers to Iran as the ‘Third World’ both evocative of 19th-century orientalist sentiments.

Diba, who lives exiled in France, voiced his objections to the assertions levelled in The Empress and I. In a formal statement to Artnet News, Diba counters Stein’s narrative stating she was primarily involved in ‘building the photography collection’ a holding he doesn’t consider to be particularly impressive.

Speaking with Tatler, celebrated photographer Cyrus Mahboubian who’s of Iranian heritage and has been presented to the Empress remarks: ‘Regardless of whether Donna Stein’s role in building the collection was pivotal or only peripheral, let’s not forget that Iran is a country with thousands of years of civilisation and artistic output.’

There’s also the issue of Stein’s characterisation of her relationship with the Empress whom she only ever met face-to-face three times during her work in Iran. However, Stein claims that the two established an over-the-phone rapport between their formal encounters that continues today.

While critics cast doubt on the veracity of such claims, the Empress is on record with The New York Times this past year saying: ‘Donna Stein was a professional, hardworking individual who delivered results. I trusted her opinion. We have a friendly relationship, and we communicate by phone, although not too often.’


Lasting love for an exiled Empress

Tuning out the controversy surrounding Stein’s memoir and her insensitive language, what becomes irrefutably clear is that many Iranians have a lasting love for their exiled Empress and the TMoCA remains a symbol of her love for them.

Thanks to Empress Farah Pahlavi, great Western artists like Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, and Henry Moore, engaged in a dynamic interplay with their contemporary Iranian counterparts. Contrary to Stein’s unilateral view, the Empress facilitated a reciprocal dialogue between East and West which still endures an investment in soft power not even a revolution could overshadow.

From her home in Paris, Iran’s last Empress continues to champion the artistic prowess of her homeland and support the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art through her collaboration with erudite publishers like Assouline who produced the glorious (and pricey) tome Iran Modern: The Empress of Art in 2018.




                            RECLINING MAN WITH SCULPTURE BY FRANCIS BACON, 1961






Portraits of the artists: Anne Madden and Francis Bacon




Anne Madden shares with Rosita Sweetman snapshots of her friendship with Bacon






When I told Anne Madden I was reviewing Revelations, the gargantuan new life of Francis Bacon by husband and wife duo Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, and that she was in it, specifically herself and the great maestro heading off for a night on the town, Anne said, “You see, we were friends. He came to all of my openings and I went to his.”

Then she said she had photographs of herself with Bacon. She would dig them out and I must come over and look at them.

Okay. Wow.

Heading into her 90th year (next year) and painting more beautifully, and more daringly, than ever Anne remembers clearly the early days when Bacon struggled to get his work accepted. The artist whose work now sells for tens of millions was seen as “this painter of buggery, sadism, dread and death-vomit”, as well as “the toughest, most implacable, lyric artist in late 20th-century England” (Robert Hughes).

The photographs Anne “digs out” are from an opening of hers in the Galerie Darthea Speyer in Paris in 1979, black and whites taken by Edward Quinn, and a colour shot taken by John Edwards at a dinner after an opening of Bacon’s work at the Galerie Maeght Lelong in Paris again, in 1984.

They are wonderful, intimate shots while the photographers are interesting in their own right. Edward Quinn was born in Dollymount in 1920, his Dad a Guinness brewery worker. He went on to snap the stars, artists and celebrities who flocked to the dazzling light and casinos of 1950s and ’60s Cote d’Azur – Picasso, Onassis, Max Ernst, Brigitte Bardot, Bacon. In later years, though he never came back to live in Ireland he made a photographic book about Joyce’s Dublin, which another great maestro, Samuel Beckett, praised for capturing its “atmosphere, humour and essence”.

John Edwards, the illiterate Cockney barman, with oodles of street cred, who Bacon said was his “best friend” for the last 16 years of his life, who he painted many times, and to whom Bacon left his estate, took many photographs at openings and “afters” and it’s thanks to him we have Bacon’s entire Reece Mews studio here in the Hugh Lane gallery in Dublin.

Sad that so many of these greats are gone – Francis Bacon, Louis le Brocquy, Edward Quinn, John Edwards – but thankfully we have their work, and these wonderful photographs. 

And Anne.




       Anne Madden, Daniel Lelong, Christine Dupin, Francis Bacon, Paris, 1984





     Anne Madden and Francis Bacon at the opening of an exhibition by Madden 





Best shows for... art history nerds




Lost in Italy


Until 3 July, Luxembourg & Co, 2 Savile Row, W1S 3PA






 The Italian super-curator Francesco Bonami has brought together this group show exploring Italy’s overlooked role as an international, experimental art hub in the 1950s and 60s.

The eclectic selection is a who’s who of Modern masters, with works by Francis Bacon, Yves Klein, Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly alongside Italian greats such as Lucio Fontana, Alberto Burri and Pino Pascali.

What connected them was a generation of risk-taking art dealers and collectors in Milan, Turin and Rome—a community obscured by the well-worn narrative of America’s artistic ascendancy after the Second World War.

 Unexpected affinities emerge, for instance between the live animals at the heart of Richard Serra’s radical debut exhibition in Rome—represented through enlarged photo panels—and the mythical creatures evoked by Pascali’s playful sculptures.

The Italian-American connection is brought up to date with another visual surprise: art prankster Maurizio Cattelan’s darkly funny new work You, a besuited, smiling self-portrait sculpture that hangs by a noose from the flagpole outside.




                         Francis Bacon, Figure arising from the Sea, 1956






Francis Bacon’s Frightening Beauty





Obsessed with the body and its torments, the artist said that he wanted

to strike the viewer’s “nervous system.”






“I have always been very moved by pictures about slaughterhouses and meat,” the painter Francis Bacon said to an interviewer in 1962. He regarded meat with fellow-feeling. “If I go into a butcher’s shop, I always think it’s surprising that I wasn’t there instead of the animal,” he later said. We have a photograph of him gazing serenely out at us from between two sides of beef. Cloven carcasses—indeed, piles of miscellaneous innards—recur in his paintings. Basically, he liked whatever was inside, as opposed to outside, the skin.

His favorite body part was the mouth. Once, in a bookshop in Paris, he found an old medical treatise on diseases of the oral cavity. The book had beautiful hand-colored plates, showing what Bacon called the “glitter and color” of the inside of the mouth, the glistening membranes. He bought the book and cherished it all his life. He said that he always hoped he could paint the mouth as Monet had painted sunsets.

The moment that the mouth showed its insides most unashamedly, Bacon realized, was when it screamed. In his studio, he kept a still of the Odessa Steps massacre from Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin”: an old woman, gashed in the face by one of the imperial soldiers, screams violently, her shattered pince-nez hanging from her eyes and blood coursing down her cheek. When Bacon saw Old Master paintings of the Crucifixion—he especially loved Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, with Jesus almost rotting on the Cross—they lined up in his mind with the meat and the screams.

All of this went into Bacon’s work. In his “Head I” (1947-48), now in the Metropolitan Museum, in New York, we see a head sliced off just below the nose. The mouth is open, screaming, and the teeth are a mess. Bacon included that picture in his first major one-man show, in 1949, in London. The critics had a field day at this exhibition. They told their readers that if they went they would see “a tardily evolved creature which had slithered out from below a large stone that had been in a noisome cellar for a century or two.” Wyndham Lewis described “shouting creatures in glass cases, . . . dissolving ganglia.”

Yet the ganglia were interesting, Lewis found: “Bacon is one of the most powerful artists in Europe today.” Likewise, the critic of the Sunday Times. While “nothing would induce me to buy one of Bacon’s paintings,” he wrote, “a representative collection that did not contain one would lack one of the most definite and articulate statements made by contemporary art.” In fact, curators and collectors were not initially eager to buy: how could you hang something so unpleasant on your wall? Bacon caught on in France faster than he did in England or the United States, but eventually he caught on everywhere. For the opening of a 1977 show in Paris, so many people showed up that the police had to close off the street. “You are the Marilyn Monroe of modern art,” a French minister said to Bacon that night. During the few decades before his death, in 1992, his celebrity doubled and redoubled, and it has gone on growing since. In 2013, his triptych portrait of Lucian Freud set what was then a world record for an art work sold at auction—more than a hundred and forty-two million dollars.

Many books have been published on Bacon since his death, but now he has been accorded the Big Biography treatment, “Francis Bacon: Revelations” (Knopf), by the husband-and-wife team Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan—he a former art critic for New York, she a former arts editor for Newsweek. The pair won a Pulitzer for their 2004 biography of Willem de Kooning, and the new book is a comparable achievement. It is enormously detailed; we get the details, and the details’ details. When some friends come to visit Bacon in Monte Carlo and go off on a side trip without him, we hear about their side trip. When he pays for his brother-in-law’s funeral, we learn how much the bill came to. We’re told about the business of art—prices, taxes, exhibitions, catalogues, catalogue essays, shop talk that many art books are too high-minded to get into. Such exhaustiveness can be deadening, but here, for the most part, it isn’t. Swan and Stevens are very good storytellers. Also, the book is warmed by the writers’ clear affection for Bacon. They enjoy his boozy nights with him, they laugh at his jokes, and they admire his bloody-mindedness. They do not believe everything he said, and they let us know this, but they are always in his corner, and they stress virtues of his that we wouldn’t have known to look for: his gregariousness, his love of fun, his erudition, his extreme generosity. However many people were at the table, he always picked up the tab.

Bacon was born in Dublin in 1909, into an English family that might have preferred a different sort of boy. His father, Eddy, had been an Army man, serving in Burma and South Africa and retiring in 1903 with the honorary rank of major. By the time Francis arrived, Eddy was a gentleman horse trainer. He didn’t earn any money, but that wasn’t a problem. His wife, Winifred, from a Sheffield steel family, had come with a considerable dowry. Francis, shy, girly, and asthmatic, was a poor fit for Eddy’s idea of what a son of his should be. Eddy tried to straighten him out. He got the grooms in his stables to thrash the boy regularly, but this didn’t change him, or not in the direction that Eddy intended. If we are to believe what Francis later suggested, the stablemen, when they got tired of beating him, liked to sodomize him. If this is true, it presumably nurtured his lifelong association of sexual pleasure with physical punishment, and with men.

Homosexuality was hardly unknown in Francis’s world—many of the young men of his class were probably bisexual, if only by virtue of having attended all-boys schools—but a firm intent, in an adult male, to confine his sexual relations to men was widely regarded as disgusting. Until 1967, homosexual acts were illegal in Britain, and subject to harsh punishment. George V, upon being informed that someone he knew was homosexual, is reported to have said, “I thought men like that shot themselves.” When Eddy happened upon the sixteen-year-old Francis dressed only in his mother’s underwear, he threw him out, Bacon later said. The banishment was not entirely brutal. Winifred gave Francis an allowance of three pounds a week, enough to live on in London, where he landed, taking odd jobs—cook, house cleaner, dress-shop assistant.

Soon afterward, Eddy, still hoping to make a man out of his disappointing son, suggested that Francis accompany a cousin of theirs, a certain Cecil Harcourt-Smith, ten years older than Francis—a fine young man, Eddy thought, from a fine family—on a trip to Berlin. Harcourt-Smith collected Francis, took him to Germany, and introduced him to all the raunchiest sex clubs of Weimar Berlin. And then? Bacon was never willing to say, on the record, but he seems to have confided in his friend John Richardson, the future Picasso biographer, who reported that Harcourt-Smith was an “ultra-sadistic sadist” and, according to Bacon, a man who “fucked absolutely anything.” Whatever Francis may have learned from his father’s grooms was enlarged by this postgraduate education. After a couple of months, Harcourt-Smith tired of Francis and took off with a woman.

Abandoned, Francis was somehow not discouraged. He knew little of the world. He had been to school for only a year and a half. (He kept running away from the place, until, he said, his parents finally gave up and let him stay home.) But he’d surely heard that Paris was the capital of the European avant-garde, and he headed there, learning the language, making friends and seeing, for the first time, art shows, art books, and art magazines. He encountered Picasso’s work and was stunned. “At that moment I thought, well I will try and paint too,” he recalled. He went to a few group classes—the only art education he ever had.

At the end of 1928, Bacon returned to London, which remained his headquarters, more or less, for the rest of his life. For a while, he tried to start a career in furniture design. But slowly, fitfully, he inched his way toward painting.

Bacon as a young man had a face like an angel, together with beautiful manners and a ready wit. He had some bad habits, but they were of the regular, walk-on-the-wild-side variety. He enjoyed the company of sailors and petty thieves. When he was hard up, he didn’t mind doing a bit of escort work. As an adult, he was drunk most nights, and in the course of his revels he offended a fair number of people. Come morning, however, they could expect to find on their doorstep a note of apology and a bunch of roses.

He was a kind, loyal, and generous friend. A good example of this was his treatment of his childhood nanny, Jessie Lightfoot. When he moved to London, he took Nanny Lightfoot with him. (What? You’re British, and you move to London with no money, and you don’t have your nanny with you? Suppose you’re drunk and can’t get upstairs?) When he was young and poor and scrounging for a living, she would shoplift groceries for them. She scanned the newspapers to find personals from wealthy older men seeking a young companion. “Well, Francis, look here. . . . ” she would say, when she found a good prospect. Later, when he held illegal roulette parties in his apartment, it was she who collected the fees for use of the bathroom. By the time Nanny Lightfoot died, in 1951, she and Francis had lived together for twenty-odd years. It broke his heart that her end came when he was out of town. Every week, for years afterward, he visited the friend of hers who had looked after her in her final days.

Bacon was included in a few group shows in London in the mid-thirties, but, insulted by the reviews, he destroyed most of what he had made. When the Second World War began, he was excused from military service on account of his asthma. (Reportedly, he hired a German shepherd to stay with him the night before the medical examination, to exacerbate his condition.) He then worked for the Red Cross and Air Raid Precautions, a program that helped protect Londoners during the Blitz, but the dust from the bombardments eventually irritated his lungs to the point where he had to leave the city.

Toward the end of the war, Bacon seems to have felt the forces in his life, as in the world, converge, and in 1944 he painted a triptych that he called “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion.” The figures in question were not those one ordinarily saw in paintings of the Crucifixion. There was no Madonna in her blue cloak, no Mary Magdalene in red, but, rather, three Furies from Aeschylus’ Oresteia, gray-white creatures, monstrously truncated, looming from a livid orange background. In the left panel is a shrouded figure, its face ominously turned away. The creature in the middle panel is an ovoid shape, seemingly trapped in the corner of a room. Its long neck sticks out to the side, terminating not in a head, exactly, but just an open mouth, with two rows of threatening teeth, and a dripping bandage where its eyes might be. In the right-hand panel is the most horrible figure. Vaguely female, she rises from a patch of spiky grass, long neck thrust forward. Her mouth, too, is open—she is ready to eat us—but, apart from the one leg and also one ear, that is all Bacon gives us of her.

This piece may be the most disturbing painting produced in Britain in the twentieth century. Executed when Bacon was thirty-four, it was the first one, apparently, that truly satisfied him. In any case, he did not destroy it. Eric Hall, his respectable older boyfriend at the time, bought it before it could be exhibited. (Hall later donated it to the Tate, Britain’s national showplace for modern painting, where it hangs, doubtless scaring the pants off anyone who passes by.) With this picture, Bacon said, “I began.” That is, he had found his artistic core—a reigning emotion of suffering and menace. The discovery was influential. “There was painting in England before the Three Studies, and painting in England after them,” the critic John Russell later wrote. “No one can confuse the two.” Damien Hirst, who often cites Bacon as a hero, has observed, of a different Bacon Crucifixion, “That splat over the head of the brush is definitely like brains.” This is probably the first time that the color of brain matter has been discussed in relation to the Crucifixion.

Why, in a period when abstraction was the going thing in Western painting, did Bacon insist on doing figurative painting? It’s worth remembering that British art, relative to its Continental neighbors, had long been conservative. Years after Picasso produced “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” Bloomsbury artists were still doing pictures of one another sitting in their tastefully furnished parlors. The Tate didn’t acquire its first Picasso until 1933, and the piece was from 1901, a nice picture of a vase of flowers. When Bacon was coming up, probably the most respected painter in England was Graham Sutherland, who made his reputation with landscapes and then with portraits. Lucian Freud, Bacon’s foremost competitor—and, for many years, his best friend—was a portraitist, too.

But national trends can’t fully explain Bacon. For all his intelligence, he was an instinctual artist, and he couldn’t really operate without the human figure. It was always before his eyes. If, when discussing his forebears, he wasn’t talking about Velázquez, he was talking about Grünewald or Rembrandt or Degas. The human body—the face, the joints, the armpits, the angles of the spine—spoke to him, told him the story he wanted to hear, and make us hear. When describing to interviewers what he was aiming for, he often used the language of physiology. He said that he wanted his images to strike the viewer’s “nervous system.” (He had a diagram of the human nervous system pinned on his studio wall.) He wanted, he said, to “unlock the valves of feeling.” Again and again, he used the word “poignant”—not in the sense of “sad” but in the archaic, concrete sense of “piercing,” and thereby making one’s opponent bleed. Bacon wanted to make us bleed, and in order to do so he had to show us the thing that bleeds, the body.

Some of his early viewers, pledged to abstraction, saw him as a purely figurative painter and therefore old-fashioned. Indeed, because his work was so often gruesome he was not just figurative but Grand Guignol, they said: a shock jock. Others grouped him with German Post-Expressionists of the New Objectivity school, such as Otto Dix and Christian Schad, an association Bacon indignantly rejected. Nothing was further from his intentions than the objective representation of reality, which he called “illustration,” or, God forbid, “narrative,” the mobilization of such representation for a story.

Some critics, sensing this, took the position that Bacon was both figurative and abstract, and that the power of his art derived from the tension between the two sources. Bacon sometimes gave a tentative nod to that position, but he was insistent that, however distorted his figures, he was not an abstractionist. (Most artists believe that they are sui generis, and, above all, that they are not part of the big new craze. In the fifties, when Bacon came to prominence, the American abstractionists were the new craze. Bacon said that Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings looked to him like “old lace.”) Bacon wanted his work to convey human emotions, but not unambiguously. He said, “I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail, leaving a trail of the human presence and memory trace of past events as the snail leaves its slime.” This is oblique, but not a bad description. You are drawn in, then repelled, then drawn in, then repelled.

Bacon spoke about his paintings with honesty and intelligence. There is a book, “Interviews with Francis Bacon” of the conversations he had with the art critic David Sylvester, who was also a friend, between 1962 and 1986. Sylvester asks the most important questions: Why did Bacon so often destroy his early paintings? Why, a firm atheist, did he paint the Crucifixion again and again? Why did he obsessively paint meat? What was it with him and meat?

Almost better than reading these exchanges is looking at them, which you can do on YouTube. Sylvester asks his questions, and Bacon, looking him straight in the eye, answers him directly. Yes, he says. No, he says. Well, he says, what interested me about meat was . . . Artists don’t owe us explanations of their art, and many aren’t able to provide them, but it’s nice to hear someone, now and then, who actually makes the effort.

Bacon went on to paint many more triptychs, including a lot of Crucifixions. Beginning in the nineteen-fifties, he also produced many paintings inspired by Velázquez’s famous “Portrait of Pope Innocent X,” but with the Pontiff’s commanding face often contorted in a scream. In the sixties, Bacon concentrated on portraits. But almost all of these pictures partake, in some measure, of the same wrenching emotion as the “Three Studies.” It had been with Bacon for a long time.

He came from a rough world, however moneyed. Being beaten and possibly raped by his father’s grooms as a boy is shocking enough, but casual violence seems to have been taken for granted in the family. Bacon’s father was given to terrible rages, and his grandmother was married to a man who, on the morning of a hunt, would catch cats, cut off their claws, and throw them to his hounds, to pique a taste for blood. When he was drunk, he would also kill cats by hanging them. Then, too, the family lived among Irish Catholics who hated Anglo-Irish people like them. They always feared a knock on the door from the I.R.A. Bacon’s mother refused to sit with her back to a window at night.

Stevens and Swan view the violence of Bacon’s painting as a direct result of his childhood: “Some volatile sexual compound—father, groom, animal, discipline—gave Francis a physical jolt that helped make him into the painter Francis Bacon.” That seems to me too direct, too sure, and too sexual. Still, the world of Francis’s childhood was a dangerous one, and the authors are probably right to take its influence on Bacon’s iconography seriously. As Bacon said, “Time doesn’t heal,” and his preoccupation with violence was unquestionably deep. Once, when he was sick, a neighbor checked in on him and went into his bedroom, ordinarily off limits. On the wall opposite the door was a vast mural of a crucified arm, she recalled: “Just a hint of torso and an enormous arm with nails in it.”

The lacerating intensity of the emotions in Bacon’s work can be felt in his destruction of his paintings. By the time he was nearing forty, Time reported that he had slashed apart some seven hundred canvases. It was when a painting came close to completion, he said, that the trouble started. Sometimes he was elated by what he saw on his easel and wanted to push it further and then ended up spoiling the piece. At other times, he would let the painting get as far as the gallery; then he would call and ask for it back, and mess it up. His main handler at the gallery, a shrewd and kind woman named Valerie Beston, became adept at sensing when he was finished with a piece. No sooner had the two of them got off the phone than she would appear at his front door in a gallery van and proceed to distract Bacon with tea and gossip while the driver quietly took the piece away.

Manny of Bacon’s early commentators were shocked not just by the gruesomeness of his work but also by its seeming lack of moral purpose. He himself disavowed any such purpose. A number of writers felt that he was actually mocking their postwar gloom. The influential critic John Berger wrote that although Bacon was a remarkable painter, he was not, finally, “important,” because he was too egocentric to address the moral problems of the postwar world: “If Bacon’s paintings began to deal with any of the real tragedy of our time, they would shriek less, they would be less jealous of their horror, and they would never hypnotize us, because we, with all conscience stirred, would be too much involved to afford that luxury.”

Remarks like Berger’s were probably a response to Bacon’s life as well as to his art. He was not a discreet man, bless him, and his daily routine was widely known. He woke up at dawn and was at the easel by about 6 a.m. If things went well, or fairly well, he painted until midday. Then he put on his makeup (he wore lipstick and pancake makeup and touched up his hair, including his carefully positioned spit curl, with shoe polish), and went out and had a big lunch at one of the Soho bars that served him not just as drinking establishments but also, with their louche clientele—drunks, slackers, hoodlums, gay people—as social clubs. Then he was back at the bar, where he drank pretty much till he dropped. (When he was young and short of funds, the proprietress of his favorite bar, the Colony Room, gave him ten pounds a week and free drinks to bring his friends in, which he did.) Sometimes, before resuming drinking, he had sex. For that, he liked the afternoon best.

Who did he have sex with? In his early years, there were relationships with older men who loved him for his charm and his talent, and didn’t mind supporting him, but that phase ended eventually. Around 1952, he met the person who was probably the love of his life, Peter Lacy. Lacy was a handsome and dashing man from a prosperous family with Irish connections, like Bacon’s. He had been in the R.A.F., but only as a test pilot; he was a pianist, though only in piano bars. Like Bacon, he was a far-gone alcoholic, but further gone. And he was a mean drunk. He frightened people. Bacon said that, at gatherings, other guests would ask him, “ ‘Who is that awful man you’re with?’ and of course I had to say, ‘Well, I don’t really know.’ ” Lacy frightened Bacon as well. As Swan and Stevens tell it, Bacon would provoke Lacy until Lacy turned on him, beat him up, and then took him by force. At one point, he threw Bacon out of a window, an experience that the artist, relaxed by drink, somehow survived. When doing his makeup, Bacon made no effort to hide the bruises that Lacy had left on his face.

There is a painting by Bacon, “Two Figures,” from 1953, soon after the couple met, that shows two men in a desperate-looking embrace, one on top of the other. Although the work drew on an Eadweard Muybridge photograph of two wrestlers, it is widely interpreted to be a portrait of Bacon and Lacy in bed. (Lucian Freud bought the painting shortly after it was finished, hung it above his own bed for decades, and resolutely refused to part with it for later shows of Bacon’s work.) It has been described as tender; no one seems to mention the sharp teeth displayed by the man underneath. For much of the nineteen-fifties, Bacon and Lacy tried to be together. Then they tried to be apart. Lacy’s alcoholism got worse. Bacon began taking amphetamines. Lacy, who had inherited money from his father, moved to Tangier. Bacon followed him, even renting his own place there. Eventually, though, the two men gave up and stopped seeing each other.

In 1962, Bacon had a retrospective at the Tate, the most important show of his life thus far, which would confirm him as one of England’s foremost painters—perhaps even the foremost. The day it opened, Bacon sent Peter Lacy a telegram about the show’s success. The telegram that came back said that Lacy had died the day before. In Tangier, he had finally drunk more than a person can drink and stay alive. As Bacon later put it, his pancreas had exploded.

The following year, it is said, Bacon one day heard a terrible crash in his studio. A burglar had fallen through the skylight, and the painter, discovering the young intruder, ordered him into the bedroom. The two men were together for the next eight years. The story became famous—it appears at the start of the 1998 bio-pic “Love Is the Devil”—though it was widely contested by people close to Bacon, who said, sorry, the two men just met in a bar, like everybody else. The new man, George Dyer, really was a burglar, though, and, like Lacy, a sort of dropout. Unlike Lacy, however, Dyer did not have much in common with Bacon. More than twenty years younger, he was an East Ender with a thick Cockney accent, and he was not the only criminal in his family. According to a friend of Bacon’s, he wasn’t even primarily homosexual. He just knew how to be accommodating; he had learned that in prison.

In the beginning, Bacon loved just to look at George, with his wonderfully muscled forearms and his commanding nose. If you saw that nose in a Bacon painting, you knew you were looking at George. Indeed, it is said that the artist’s turn to portraiture in the nineteen-sixties was due, in large measure, to his having George to paint. (He did more than twenty portraits of the man.) Bacon also appreciated Dyer’s ability to sit in a chair in his underpants for hours on end and just pose, without fidgeting, or distracting Bacon with conversation.

That was, in part, because George had no conversation. He was innocent. It was something of a tradition, in London’s gay pickup world, that in the morning the younger man stole the older man’s watch, the heavier and more expensive the better. Dyer, after he and Bacon first slept together, instead left him the gold watch he had stolen from the man with whom he had spent the previous night. Such things touched Bacon’s heart. He liked to spoil Dyer. He paid him a salary, sixty pounds a month, for posing and doing handyman work. He also gave him money to buy a lot of expensive Edwardian-style clothes, which George was very proud of.

And then Bacon tired of him. If Bacon was drunk every night, George was drunk every day and every night, which gradually made him impotent and prone to wet his pants on people’s couches. Bacon began to wish he could unload him, a fact that did not fail to register with George. In response, George threw Bacon’s furniture down the front stairs. Later, he ripped up a number of Bacon’s paintings and set fire to his studio. He planted drugs in the studio and called the police. The court case dragged on for months.

In 1971, Bacon had a retrospective at the Grand Palais, in Paris. Nothing could have been more important for his reputation. The day before the opening, Bacon came back from a lunch and found George, who had accompanied him to Paris, drunk and incoherent, in bed with a rent boy. He eventually went downstairs, to the room occupied by the gallery’s driver, and slept in the spare bed there. In the morning, he asked the driver to look in on George. On the way upstairs, the driver ran into Valerie Beston, Bacon’s heroic handler. They found George on the toilet, leaning forward, apparently dead.

So, in a sort of appalling rhyme with Lacy’s death, Bacon received similar news on the cusp of another great triumph. If I read Stevens and Swan correctly, Bacon was both stolid (he may even have been relieved) and devastated. The hotel manager was summoned, and the situation was explained to him. Would it be possible to defer George’s death until the next morning? he was asked. Otherwise, his death would overshadow the opening. The manager, evidently the soul of discretion, agreed and locked the room with dead George inside, still on the toilet. Bacon got through the festivities—the private view, the official opening, the red carpet, the honor guard—with aplomb. Then the authorities came and took George’s body away, and the newspapers published the news. Bacon flew back to London, but he was never the same. The French autopsy determined that George had died of a heart attack, but people who knew him—including, eventually, Bacon—assumed that he had died, accidentally or deliberately, of an overdose of alcohol and pills. He had made previous suicide attempts.

In the next two years, Bacon painted four triptychs that dealt with George’s death. The first three show George in various guises. The last—“Triptych, May-June 1973”—is more confessional and more sensational. Here we are shown the actual death. In the left panel, we see George naked, on the toilet, leaning forward, almost to the floor. On the right, we see him vomiting into the sink. And in the central panel, where the Christ would go if this were a Crucifixion (which, in a way, it is), we get just George’s face, bloated and bloodshot, presumably dead. In all the postmortem-George triptychs, Bacon uses looming shadows. We seem to watch George spilling over, leaking his life onto the floor. But, in the central panel of this last triptych, there is something yet more horrible. A shadow comes to greet George that is like nothing we have seen before: huge, black, like an enormous bird.

Many people would nominate “Triptych, May-June 1973,” with its narration of George’s death, as Bacon’s most formidable painting, because it is so bluntly what his work is said to be: horrific. But I would pick the series of canvases—there are something like fifty of them—that he based on Velázquez’s “Portrait of Pope Innocent X.” In them, the Holy Father is shown in full papal regalia: cape, cap, lace-trimmed cassock. (In some versions, you can even see the throne.) And then, in place of the calm, even crafty face that Velázquez gave the seventeenth-century Pontiff, we see a screaming mouth, with a full set of sharp, vicious teeth. This is Bacon’s familiar hybrid of menace and suffering, expanded now by a mixture of shock and formality. You can see this mixture in the George Dyer triptychs, too, but there it is more studied; Bacon is working something out, getting George’s death out of his system, as he himself acknowledged. In the Popes, on the other hand, the terrible thing seems to come from nowhere, both controlled and spontaneous, ineluctable. You could be the Pope and not be able to stop it.

When Bacon was about forty, his doctor told him that if he had one more drink he would die. In fact, he lived another forty years, drinking just as much as before, and therefore was around long enough to have a “late period.” It is sometimes painful to watch. He still painted, but he had to have oxygen cannisters near him at all times in case he had an asthma attack. His fame was assured. Honors rained down on him, but now he often refused them. French intellectuals—Michel Leiris, Gilles Deleuze—had written books about him and he was proud of this, but now he shooed book writers away. He also stubbornly delayed the production of a catalogue raisonné. Many of his old friends died. Many others he avoided, including Lucian Freud. (In the words of a friend of Freud’s, “Lucian took the view that Francis’s late paintings were frightfully bad. Bacon was saying the same thing about Lucian. ‘Such a pity he doesn’t go on doing his little things.’ ”) Old pleasures, too, were lost. He had a boyfriend, but the boyfriend also had a boyfriend.

Yet the spark that had always been in him still flared up sporadically. He himself spoke of the “exhilarated despair” that underlay his paintings, accurate words to describe the sheer vigor—you could even call it delight—with which he produced his grim visions. The Pope might be screaming, but, oh, that purple and gold, and even the wit, or at least surprise, of the painting. You’re not the only one screaming about life; so is the Pope.

In 1991, during a trip to Madrid, Bacon decided that he had to see the collection of Velázquez paintings at the Prado, and to do so alone. He telephoned Manuela Mena, a senior conservator at the museum, and asked if he might come on a day when the museum was closed. This was hard to arrange—the guards were on strike—but Mena worked it out, and told him to knock on a little-used side door, next to the Botanical Gardens, at the appointed hour. She later recalled, “We opened that door for him at midday, and in with the sun came Francis Bacon.”

He was back in Madrid the following year. Eighty-two and dying, he nevertheless had a nice Spanish companion, and, in the last photograph of him that Swan and Stevens offer us, we see him at his favorite bar, sitting there with what looks like a quart-size Martini in front of him. He seems hearty; he wasn’t. Within a few days, his friend had to check him into a hospital. The supervising nurse said that he was starting to suffer from “slow suffocation.” Soon his breathing stopped, and then his heart—meat at last. 






            Bacon in his studio in 1962. He wanted his pictures to leave “a trail of the human presence and memory trace of past events as the snail leaves its slime.”  Photograph by Irving Penn






Disrupting Optical Coherence




Ordovas : Francis Bacon & Peter Beard : Wild Life





The painter Francis Bacon is known for his glutinous depictions of raging pressures and mobilities at work in the human organism and manifesting in distorted body parts and bruised flesh ruptured from within. Peter Beard is best known for his photographs of African wilderness and, in particular, die-offs of elephants en masse in Kenya. If artist and adventurer Beard was ‘half-Tarzan, half-Byron’, as one writer described him, Bacon’s blend of modernism and morbidity could make him half-Picasso (‘the father figure, who gave me the wish to paint’) and half-hypochondriac. Both Bacon and Beard possessed highly distinctive chemistries and perhaps this has something to do with them finding shared sensibilities and becoming lifelong friends. They first met in the mid-1960s.

A new London exhibition – Wild Life – celebrates their partnership and the fulfilment they found through using one another for inspiration. Beard photographed the painter and his works in his London studio; Bacon painted canvases based on photographs that Beard sent him (hundreds of them were found on Bacon’s studio floor after his death). The exhibition also shows correspondence between the artists and Beard’s remarkable Dead Elephant diary.

Although there is no critical consensus about either artist’s achievement – let alone the impulses fuelling their symbiotic relationship – the vocabulary tends to recirculate terms like violence, despair and death. Existentialist tropes tend to congregate around iconic Bacon paintings like his ‘screaming pope’; all angst and aaaaarghhhh.

Wild Life’s success lies in managing to make this approach a tad reductionist. As an instance of pop cultural analysis, the approach is only unusual in the reversal of its usual vector in that it complicates what is otherwise a simple truth: humans make up just one of many species of primates but practise an unparalleled and predatory disrespect for other animals. In their different artistic ways, Bacon and Beard confront their audiences with this truth. Beard provides pictorial and textual evidence of the destruction of wildlife in Africa while Bacon finds a strange beauty in the photographs of decomposing elephants, confirming and deepening his compulsion to portray the corporeal kinship between man and beast. In his canvases, this relatedness is painted with visceral intent, going all the way down to blood and meat, bone and brain. Both artists are out to shock.

The Wild Life exhibition and its catalogue are eloquent testimony to the simpatico relationship that developed between photographer and painter, quintessentially expressed in one of the exhibits based around a photograph by Beard of the artist on the roof of a house where he lived in London. The building backs on to the Thames in an old docklands area of London – wharves on the opposite bank can be seen in the background – and the painter sits comfortably on a wooden chair, one hand holding its back and the other resting on a knee of his crossed legs. The photograph is framed on all sides by collages of small prints, an assemblage made up of some Bacon paintings (like Study for a Bullfight, Number 2, now belonging to the Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon) and, more commonly, Beard’s own shots of African wildlife. Such a mixing of media is typical of Beard’s diaries but the central photograph of Bacon renders the head in a blur, imitating this characteristic aspect of the painter’s style. It serves as a way of paying homage to his friend, ‘the most important influence on my life’. The head’s haziness contrasts strongly with the photographic clarity of the torso and limbs and the grey colouring of one side of Bacon’s face leaks into the waters of the Thames behind him. The face looks to be in motion and becomes indistinguishable from the flowing river. The effect is to disrupt, as Deleuze put it of Bacon’s paintings, the ‘optical coherence’ that builds up around familiar representations of particular figurative images.

The Wild Life exhibition is on at Ordovas in London until 16 July 2021.




         Francis Bacon on his roof at 80 Narrow Street, 1972, by Peter Beard





The Heirs of Late Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-Hee Will Give 23,000

Works of Art to Korean Museums to Polish Their Tarnished Image



The family’s art collection is worth a reported $2.7 billion.





The family of late Samsung chairman and art collector Lee Kun-Hee, who died last October, will pay an $11 billion inheritance tax bill on his $20 billion fortune.

South Korea, which charges up to 60 percent in inheritance taxes—one of the steepest in the world—gave the family six months to decide how to pay the bill upon his death.

In addition to paying the tax, the family will voluntarily donate over 23,000 artworks to state museums in an apparent effort to polish its image, which was tarnished when reports indicated in March that it was considering selling off the art to foot the bill. The son of Lee, Lee Jae-yong, is chairman of Samsung and serving a prison sentence for a conviction of bribery and embezzlement.

Among the family’s holdings are examples by Pablo Picasso, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Marc Chagall, and Andy Warhol.

Alberto Giacometti’s 1960 sculpture Tall Woman III is estimated to be worth around $140 million alone, and a Francis Bacon painting, Figure in a Room from 1962, is valued at $133 million, according to The Korea Economic Daily. The collection is worth a reported $2.7 billion in total.

South Korean artists including Park Soo-Keun, Lee Jung-Seop, and Kim Whan-Ki, plus Korean antiques, are also represented.

According to South Korean news reports, works by Monet, Chagall, and Picasso will be given to the National Museum of South Korea and the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art.

Works by Giacometti and Rothko will remain in the family’s possession, and the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art has also inherited parts of Lee’s collection.

The family said it would pay the full bill through multiple instalments. In an apparent snipe, it said in a statement that the total bill was “equivalent to three to four times the government’s total estate tax revenue last year.”

Last month, former ministers of culture and arts organizations called for tax reforms that would stop the heirs from paying the tax by selling off the collection, which activists feared would be sent overseas.

Lee’s family will also donate $900 million to charities and help fund the creation of a specialized infectious disease lab. It is unclear at this time whether the family will need to Samsung stocks, which could alter the family’s controlling stake in the company, to pay for everything.





                               A Francis Bacon painting, Figure in a Room from 1962, is valued at $133 million.





Exploring the relationship between Francis Bacon

and his muse Peter Beard




A new exhibition chronicles the enduring friendship between the

legendary painter and the renowned wildlife photographer






Remembering his first meeting with Francis Bacon, photographer Peter Beard wrote in his 1967 diary, “I was at one of his openings at the Marlborough Gallery in London where he was standing in some kind of reception line and I simply said, ‘Hi – Peter Beard.’ He said, ‘I know who you are.’”

From that moment, a rich and long-lasting friendship between the two legendary figures began. A new exhibition at London’s Ordovas gallery, Wild Life: Francis Bacon and Peter Beard, considers this mutually creative relationship and how both men touched and influenced each other’s work. 

The handsome New York-born photographer became a muse for Bacon, who painted nine major portraits of Beard alongside several others clearly inspired by his unmistakable chiselled features. Many photographs of him were found among what Bacon called his “compost” – the thousands of images collected in piles all over the painter’s littered studio floor.

Best known for photographing African wildlife, Beard also supplied Bacon with inspirational images of the natural world in all its appropriately Baconesque horror. “Over the years, Peter Beard has given me many of his beautiful photographs,” the artist recalled. “For me, the most poignant are the ones of decomposing elephants where, over time, as they disintegrate, the bones form magnificent sculptures, which are not just abstract forms, but have all the memory traces of life’s futility and despair.”

Reciprocally, Bacon contributed to Beard’s prolific diaries by sending him mementoes from his “compost” to include amongst their pages. And it was as a result of their correspondence about the “bestial nature of man” that Beard was galvanised to continue his book The End of the Game (1963), documenting the terrible plight of the African elephant and other Kenyan wildlife. Beard conducted a series of interviews with Bacon in 1972, parts of which were later published in the catalogue for Bacon’s 1975 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The “Dead Elephant Interviews”, as they came to be known, cast an illuminating light on what’s been described as the “open and curious exchange of ideas” that existed between the two long-time friends.

Wild Life, now open at London’s Ordovas gallery on Saville Row, features many excerpts and recordings from the previously unpublished “Dead Elephant Interviews” along with photographs, diaries, and letters from Beard’s archive. The exhibition also includes Bacon’s “Two Studies for Portrait” (1976), on display for the first time since 1977, and shown alongside the photo of Beard from which it was painted. 

Take a look through the gallery above for some of the special artefacts and artworks on display in the exhibition.

Wild Life: Francis Bacon and Peter Beard is showing at London’s Ordovas gallery until July 16









John Minihan on Francis Bacon:


Champagne and paint splatters in Soho










Francis Bacon was a man whom I both knew and did not know. There was a reserve in him that discouraged familiarity, and he was happier in the company of photographers, terrified of writers and biographers, and he had more reason than most.

Born in Dublin in 1909, certainly Irish by birth, if not by blood, he had the Irish love for gambling, drinking and perpetual desire to be somewhere else. I first met Bacon outside Marlborough Magistrates Court in London in 1971. The Daily Telegraph published a story, Irish Artist on Drugs Charge. He was acquitted. In his defence, he told the magistrate that he could not have smoked the cannabis found in his house because he was asthmatic

Some months after the case I was drinking in the French House, then called the York Minister, in Dean Street, Soho, with my friend the writer Stan Gebler Davies and Garech Browne, who was one of Ireland’s most colourful and influential cultural figures, a Guinness heir and custodian of the exquisite house Luggala in Co Wicklow. Garech loved Soho and was a good friend of Gaston Berlemont, proprietor of the French House. Gaston saw us all go through the many ups and downs that are part of the precarious structure of the artistic life and was always generous. He would change a cheque for me without a cheque guarantee card. Those little problems did not concern Garech, of course.

After drinks at the French, Garech invited us to join him at the Colony Room where I met Muriel Belcher and her barman Ian Board for the first time. Muriel knew Garech was a friend of Bacon. It was champagne for the rest of the evening. She was famous for the foul-mouthed greetings she gave to visitors, aided and abetted by Ian Board shouting “Hello Cuntie”.

The small room on the first floor was full of bright young things, most I suspected waiting for the appearance of Bacon who could be affable and abusive. Muriel died in 1978. The club was kept going by Board and, after his death in 1994, by Michael Wojas, the final proprietor who passed away in 2010. I photographed him holding the famous Colony sign. Michael would joke, “I’m the proprietor, the bar manager, lavatory attendant, psychiatric counsellor, odd job man and accountant.” Vodka had taken its toll on his liver.

Bacon founded the Colony Room with Muriel, who he adored and who was the subject of many of his paintings. Famously Bacon rejected interpretation of his work. “I am a direct and simple painter,” he would say over the rim of the ever-present glass of champagne. I learned most about Soho from that legendary bar above a trattoria in Dean Street, which opened six days a week at 3pm and had been in business since 1948. I would meet friends there like the photographer Harry Diamond; John Heath-Stubbs, friend of Dylan Thomas; and John Moynihan, son of the distinguished painter Rodrigo Moynihan.

John wrote features and diary items for the Evening Standard. His parents lived in Old Church Street, Chelsea, which became a haven for Bacon and fellow artists Lucian Freud and John Minton. I remember him telling me that Bacon would bounce him on his knee as a child. John went on to become an outstanding football writer, notably for The Daily Telegraph, settling into his true metier, happier sitting in the press box at Chelsea Football Club than a bar stool in the Colony Room or the French. He also helped me become a member of the Chelsea Arts Club during the 1970s often in the company of Francis Bacon.

One of my greatest regrets was that I never got to meet John Deakin, Bacon’s photographer, who worked for Vogue on and off from 1948 to 1954 after which time he became unemployable, known around Soho as “that little bastard”. He died in 1972 but has now achieved cult status with exhibitions at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Portrait Gallery. Deakin lived in Paris like Bacon and was a fan of Eugène Atget, who photographed Paris in the early 1900s. Bacon told me that Deakin was the best portrait photographer since Nadar and certainly he must take credit for elevating those Deakin shots of himself stripped to the waist, holding two sides of beef like angel wings, taken in the butcher’s shop in Old Compton Street. Those paint-splattered gelatine black and white prints found in Bacon’s studio have become precious documents of a time.

Over the next 20 years, I would see and photograph him on numerous occasions, in London and at his invitation in Paris for his show at the Claude Bernard Gallery on the Rue des Beaux Arts in 1977, very close to the hotel where Oscar Wilde lay dying in 1900.

Some six years earlier, the French did him the great honour of putting on a retrospective show of his work at the Grand Palais. This is the kind of consecration that Bacon was accorded in a city that gave birth to photography in 1839 when Louis Daguerre shouted from his balcony, “I have seized the light, I have arrested its flight.” Bacon loved Paris since his first visit in 1927 when he saw a show of paintings by Picasso, which triggered in him the motivation to paint.

Like others who have seen Bacon’s paintings, you become fascinated or repelled or both by their power and effect on the emotions. I have been brooding over Bacon’s art since I first saw it on the wall of the Tate Gallery, London over 50 years ago. It’s hard to describe the impact. Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944. The figures isolated in an empty space were nightmarish freaks, half-human, half-beast with necks like twisted snakes expressing the horrors of life that Bacon created not to amuse or inspire but to disturb and provoke.

Valerie Beston from the Marlborough Fine Art Gallery, who Bacon trusted and depended on to make judgment on who he should and should not see, arranged for me to photograph the artist in his studio home in Reece Mews, South Kensington, in 1984. I knocked, Francis looked out one of the windows signalling he would be right down. It was important for me to photograph him in his home. I knew that photography was one of his primary interests and the vital source of inspiration for his paintings, particularly Eadweard Muybridge’s moving images of humans and animals in motion. Muybridge along with Deakin’s photographs are the most ubiquitous presence in his paintings.

After navigating the narrow steps with the help of a rope banister, I was on the first floor, his studio to the right with the famous paint-splattered door open, to my left his bedroom with a bookshelf and photographs of previous lovers on the mantelpiece, directly in front the kitchen with the wall peppered with coloured photographs of his work. He was very excited about his second retrospective opening in early May 1985. Over glasses of wine, we chatted about photography. He regarded Nadar as one of the greatest figures in the history of photography. I mentioned George Bernard Shaw and JM Synge, who were both accomplished photographers and like himself did much to promote photography. He was very aware of Victorian photographers.

Francis lived only minutes away from the Victoria and Albert Museum, which housed a collection of Muybridge’s images and Bill Brandt’s, who photographed him on Primrose Hill in 1963. Bacon told me he hated the picture. I became quite friendly with Brandt during the 1980s, photographing him with Andre Kertesz at his show at the Serpentine Gallery, Hyde Park, in 1979.

When I left his studio that morning, I knew I was among the privileged to be invited to his private chamber where he allowed no one to observe or document the artist at work. Among the best of the photographs taken in Bacon’s studio/home was by the American photographer Arnold Newman in 1975, of the artist at the top of the stairs with a naked light bulb over his head.

When I arrived at South Kensington tube station I saw the photo booth. Bacon was a devotee of the automatic photo booth, a cheap alternative to a formal photo-shoot. In the booth, he adopted whatever attitudes and faces he pleased, rarely smiling for the camera. He would then use the images to paint from. On the morning of his exhibition at the Tate Gallery, now called Tate Britain, in May 1985, I called Francis to ask if I could get a photograph of himself on the steps of the Tate. He thought that a good idea and told me he would arrive about 2pm with friends. Francis arrived on time with his best friends Denis Wirth-Miller and Richard Chopping. I got my exclusive shot of Bacon outside this illustrious building that I had first set foot in over 50 years ago, and most recently in 2019, to see the spectacular exhibition of photographs by Don McCullin whose photography took over two floors of the building.

Soho in the early 1950s and 1960s was a place of character and above all characters. The only unforgivable sin was to be boring. A bohemian quarter with its clubs and pubs, coffee houses and strip-joints attracting the rich, the poor, the infamous, the deluded. From Bacon to Beckett, William Burroughs, Dylan Thomas and Brendan Behan, all were fuelled by its hedonistic atmosphere. Before the Covid-19 lockdown, I walked down Dean Street, passing the now closed Colony Room where once I heard Bacon’s cry of champagne for your real friends, real pain for your sham friends, his favourite Irish toast displayed with an icy ceremonious politeness.

Since his death in Madrid on April 28th, 1992, aged 82, the glory days of Soho died with him. Happily, Lesley Lewis is still at the French House, Norman Balon who called last orders at the Coach and Horses, retired some years and in his late 90s is tending his roses. The reputation of Francis Bacon has not diminished in the 30 years since his death; those who knew him have.

The story of Soho and Francis Bacon has yet to be told. I was privileged to have had a rare glimpse into the world of Bacon. I did have an exhibition of Bacon, Beckett and Burroughs at the October Gallery, London, in February 1990. Like Beckett, the more Bacon hides himself, the more he reveals himself.




                                                    BACON IN 1976





Hans Rasmus Astrup, Savvy Collector Who Transformed

Norway’s Art Scene, Is Dead at 82






Hans Rasmus Astrup, the scion of a Norwegian shipping empire who built a world-class museum for his vast collection of contemporary art, has died at 82. In an Instagram post, his museum, the Astrup Fearnley Museet in Oslo, wrote that he died on Friday morning.

“We are struck with sadness and will always treasure his extraordinary philanthropy and cultural leadership that has impacted so many in so many ways,” Solveig Øvstebø, the museum’s director, wrote in its statement.

Astrup, who ranked on ARTnews’s annual Top 200 Collector list  each year between 1992 and 2020, was known throughout Europe as a collector with a penchant for cutting-edge art. One of Norway’s richest men, he made his fortune in the shipping and real-estate businesses, and is believed to have been worth around $1 billion. In 2013, he donated all of his commercial assets, including his company’s art collection, to his namesake foundation in order to support the Astrup Fearnley Museet, which is now considered one of the world’s top private museums.

The Astrup Fearnley Museet is home to the nearly 1,500 works in Astrup’s holdings. These include an array of pieces by today’s most famous artists, from Cindy Sherman to Cao Fei. Notably, his collection features a mix of work by blue-chip artists and emerging artists, with stars like Anselm Kiefer, Christopher Wool, and Matthew Barney sharing space with up-and-comers like Korakrit Arunanondchai and Juliana Huxtable.

Astrup took an interest in certain market giants early on. In 1993, for example, he bought Damien Hirst’s  sculpture Mother and Child Divided (1993), which features a bisected cow and calf suspended in formaldehyde. “When I was making the formaldehyde works, they were big pieces to buy, a big commitment, and he buys it without knowing where it’s going to go or how you transport it,” Hirst said in a 2008 interview with the Norwegian TV network NRK, adding, “It’s a rare breed, that kind of person. You don’t meet many like that today.”

At auction, Astrup’s purchases even set records. In 2001, Sotheby’s sold Jeff Koons’s 1988 sculpture Michael Jackson with Bubbles, featuring the famed singer alongside his pet chimpanzee. Astrup bought the work at that sale for $5.6 million, at the time setting a new benchmark for Koons, who is now the world’s most expensive living artist. In 2018, Astrup’s Michael Jackson with Bubbles was shown at the Met Breuer’s survey “Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300–Now).”

In July 2020, the sale of a work from Astrup’s holdings generated headlines. The Astrup Fearnley Museet announced that it would sell Francis Bacon’s Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus (1981) at Sotheby’s in order to “provide significant funding to further develop and diversify the collection through future acquisitions.” It sold for $84.5 million, becoming the most expensive lot of 2020 and the third-most expensive Bacon ever to sell at auction.

Hans Rasmus Astrup was born in 1939 and largely kept a low profile. He attended the University of Oslo, where he received a master’s degree in law in 1972, and he went on to take over his family’s business, the shipping brokerage firm Fearnley & Eger A/S.

Astrup formed the Astrup Fearnley Museet in 1993, though the museum didn’t become the subject of greater international attention until 2012, when it relocated to Oslo’s harbor with a new $110 million building designed by Renzo Piano. “This museum now becomes our identity,” Gunnar B. Kvaran, then the museum’s director, told The New York Times  in 2012. “We now have the possibility to expose the collection, giving us a totally new profile in the city and in the art life of Oslo.”

For museum officials based outside Norway, the new museum signaled a major entry into the European art scene. “Each [museum] has a different era in its DNA: The Louisiana has the 1950s, Moderna the ’60s. This is a museum of the twenty-first century,” Guggenheim Museum director Richard Armstrong told Artforum upon its opening. “They’ve really upped it by 300 percent.”

The museum’s reopening in a new location was not without its controversy, however. Norwegian critics pilloried the Astrup Fearnley Museum for partnering with Lundin, an oil company that is being investigated in Sweden for its involvement in war crimes and genocide in South Sudan. (That inquiry is still ongoing.) The editor of Kunstkritikk, Norway’s most prominent art publication, accused the museum of leading “an effort to launder the image of a company that has exploited resources in the Third World since the 1970s.” In 2020, Kunstkritikk reported that Lundin was no longer a sponsor of the Astrup Fearnley Museet; the museum’s chairman said that an agreement with the company ended in 2019.

The Astrup Fearnley Museet now ranks among Oslo’s most-visited institutions, alongside the National Museum and the Munch Museum. Now in its 28th year, the museum has grown its ambitions to also include a grand exhibition program. Among its current offerings is Europe’s biggest Nicole Eisenman exhibition ever; it has also staged surveys devoted to contemporary Brazilian art, Josh Kline’s work, and Cindy Sherman’s horror-inflected photography in recent years. Alongside these presentations, the museum still shows the most famous works from Astrup’s holdings, among them Anselm Kiefer’s sculpture The High Priestess/ Zweistromland (1985–89), which features 196 lead books on a shelf strewn with copper wire.

In a rare interview with NRK in 2018, Astrup said that he hoped the Astrup Fearnley Museet would contribute to Oslo’s art scene in the long term. “We plan for it to exist forever,” he said. “You can never be one hundred percent sure of that, but we try to add up both the quality and not least, the expenses, so that we can exist in a hundred years. These are the kind of goals you need to set. And that is one of the goals we have set [for] ourselves.”





         Hans Rasmus Astrup in the company of Queen Elizabeth II view Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus 





Bacon’s Shadow






Michael Kuczynski is correct in stating that Francis Bacon hated illustration, and criticises Colm Tóibín’s reading of Triptych May-June 1973  accordingly (Letters, 1 April). Yet Kuczynski repeats the error in his own interpretation: ‘It is likely that the shadow is nothing more – or less – than the shadow of death.’ For Bacon, it was not ‘the shadow of death’ and not necessarily a shadow as such: rather it was a non-illustrational (non-referential) form from the subconscious, referring to nothing but its own nebulousness. It has ‘a life of its own’, as Bacon remarked to David Sylvester:

What has never yet been analysed is why this particular way of painting is more poignant than illustration. I suppose because it has a life completely of its own. It lives on its own, like the image one’s trying to trap; it lives on its own, and therefore transfers the essence of the image more poignantly. So that the artist may be able to open up or rather, should I say, unlock the valves of feeling and therefore return the onlooker to life more violently.


Alexander Verney-Elliott 

London WC1




                   A ‘shadow’ in the central panel of Triptych May-June 1973





Art detective Arthur Brand reveals how he foiled the

£3.4m sale of two stolen paintings by Francis Bacon






Art detective Arthur Brand reveals how he foiled the £3.4m sale of two paintings stolen in the most audacious raid.

When Arthur Brand got word that underworld buyers were interested in two stolen paintings by Francis Bacon, he used an unusual ploy to stop the sale.

The renowned art detective was passed a video by a contact in which the thieves showed off one of the paintings by the late Irish painter.

The paintings were among five Bacon works of art valued at £25.5m which were stolen in a daring raid in 2015 from a house in an exclusive part of Madrid, near the parliament and therefore ringed with security.

Three paintings were recovered two years after the raid by police, but two were still missing, but at least Brand stopped them disappearing into the hands of shady buyers.

Brand passed the thieves’ video to the media and alerted the police, ensuring the unwelcome publicity frightened off buyers. “I got hold of this video through people who I cannot name, of course. This time I knew they were trying to sell [the paintings] abroad for €4m [£3.4m]. If they would have succeeded in selling them to a country far abroad, we would never see them again,” Brand tells the i. “You have to stop it – you have to act.”

It was another success for the art sleuth, who recently published a book in Britain about his most famous case, Hitler’s Horses: The Incredible True Story of the Detective who Infiltrated the Nazi Underworld. The book, whose film rights were sold to MGM, reveals how Brand, together with the German police and a journalist, recovered two giant bronze horses which Adolf Hitler adored and which once stood outside the Reich Chancellery in Berlin.

As the Russian army closed in on the German capital in the dying days of the Second World War, it was presumed that they had been destroyed. Their recovery is a thrilling tale involving a modern-day neo-Nazi, a far-right German group and the Russian army.

“Finding these huge statues that everybody thought had been destroyed was my biggest success,” says Brand. “So much has been written about the Third Reich yet there was still one mystery to be solved, and we did it. The Wall Street Journal called it the most interesting find in decades.”

The 51-year-old Dutchman, who lives in Amsterdam, is something of a workaholic, who has said he must be on call 24 hours a day in case he receives a tip-off.

He was proved correct when, in 2019, he recovered Buste de Femme, a Picasso painting said to be worth about £70m.

After investigating the painting, which was stolen from a sheikh’s yacht in 1999, he was approached by two men representing a Dutch businessman.

The men had bought the Picasso, unaware that it was stolen and took it round to Brand’s flat, where it hung for one unforgettable night.

“It was great to have such an important painting, which was one of Picasso’s favourites, hanging on your wall. We were right on time to save the painting, which would have been lost – after all what do thieves know,” he says.

The same year, Brand also recovered Oscar Wilde’s gold ring, which had been stolen 17 years before from the University of Oxford, where the Irish playwright studied. Initially, the university did not believe he had found the original ring, but Brand insisted that Wilde had an inscription on the outside of the ring rather than the inside.

“Oscar Wilde’s ring was incredibly good. I had it on my hand for two weeks,” Brand recalls. “What more do you want in life? He is one of my favourite writers.”

The detective, who has recovered more than 200 valuable artefacts, was inspired to take up his career by tales his grandfather would tell about a forger who sold a fake Vermeer to Hermann Göring during the Second World War.

“Han van Meegeren was in school with my grandfather. He was very famous because he used to fake Vermeers,” says Brand. “During the Second World War, he managed to sell one to Göring, the second man in the Third Reich. He thought: ‘Let’s give this man a fake.’ That takes some guts to sell a fake to a man who would kill for less.”

As a student in Spain, Brand got a taste for hunting down lost art when he went searching for treasure.

Brand is on good terms with police forces across the world but also depends on contacts with criminals, with whom he maintains an uneasy relationship.

“The public is always on [the thieves’] side,” he says. “In films like Ocean 11 and the James Bond movies, they have a glamorous image. I don’t see that at them seriously,” he adds. “Sometimes when I see how they do it, I think they are so smart. To catch a thief, you have to think like them.”

“On the other hand, they are my enemies, I do have to respect them, to take them seriously,” he adds. “Sometimes when I see how they do it, I think they are so smart. To catch a thief, you have to think like them.”

Brand once bumped into Octave Durham, a burglar who stole two Van Gogh paintings in 2002 in a professional raid which took three minutes and 40 seconds. The paintings were recovered from a Mafia drug lord in 2016.

Though natural adversaries, the art detective and famous thief ended up exchanging views over a beer. “Durham once told me: ‘The more they secure a museum, the more I want to go in’ – he sees it like a personal challenge,” laughs Brand.




            The painting was among five Bacon works of art stolen in a daring raid in 2015





Will the real Isabel Rawsthorne please stand up?




   A new biography by Carol Jacobi explores the artist’s role in bringing the Paris scene to

London and considers how frequent name changes and reinventions muddied her legacy





Early in her new book about Isabel Rawsthorne, Carol Jacobi steps briefly out of her role as biographer to note conventions that bedevil art historians and biographers alike, particularly when addressing overlooked female artists. “Sex, conception and reproduction are marginalised events in art history, appropriated by biography, or neglected merely as such,” she writes. “They are particularly problematic when the artist is a woman, often set aside as ‘other’ to her art making or incorporated into a reduction of that making to self-reflexive illustrations of her life.”

The event in Rawsthorne’s life that provokes this observation is a newspaper announcement of 1934, that she was “renouncing and abandoning” her birth name of Isabel Nicholas. She would henceforth be known as Margaret Epstein—the name of the actual wife of sculptor Jacob Epstein. Two months later, when Rawsthorne gave birth to a little boy, the baby’s mother was duly noted as Margaret Epstein, wife of Jacob Epstein. Aged only 22, she had effectively erased herself for the sake of another woman.

Rawsthorne had been living with the Epsteins for two years, modelling in return for lodgings and studio space. Epstein sculpted vivid Minoan-inspired busts of Rawsthorne, but their creative relationship was reciprocal. Aged only 21, Rawsthorne’s animal studies were shown at the Valenza Gallery and her flower paintings at the Redfern. The two artists painted from the landscape side-by-side (Jacobi notes that some works attributed to Epstein from this period merit “a proper comparative study” with Rawsthorne’s.) But when she became pregnant, it was Rawsthorne who gave up her baby, her name and her relationship with Epstein and left London, penniless, for Paris.

This early episode is emblematic. Throughout her life, this scintillating, forthright and bewitching woman embarked on mutually inspiring partnerships with brilliant men (often more than one at a time). She was embedded in the intellectual life of Paris before and after the Second World War, talking ideas with George Bataille, Jean-Paul Sartre, Walter Benjamin and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and art with Pablo Picasso, Balthus, André Derain and her great love, Alberto Giacometti. Yet Rawsthorne’s partnerships, begun on equal footing, too often concluded with her left penniless and unmoored again, her studio lost, her work abandoned.

One of the tasks Jacobi sets herself is to demonstrate Rawsthorne’s role in introducing London’s bohemia to art and ideas, artists and thinkers advancing the scene in Paris. “Traditional models of ‘influence’ […] are wholly inadequate for understanding the richness of relations in London and Paris after the Second World War,” Jacobi notes. “The players were individuals rather than masters or disciplines […], Isabel’s long years working on the Left Bank and her particular associates there, not to mention her fluent French, made her by far the most informed of the School of London group.”

Rawsthorne’s correspondence and diaries reveal her wrestling with philosophies of touch and perception, poring over the latest illustrated publications on marine and bird life, and studying William Bedell Stanford’s radical 1942 translation of Aeschylus. As an artist, Jacobi portrays Rawsthorne taking up emblematic questions and themes of her time, and subtly indicates the influence of, for example, her zoological subjects of the late 1940s on the work of those around her.

Jacobi’s decision to focus on Rawsthorne’s intellectual influence in the post-war period is perhaps tactical, since very little of her art made before this point remains. In part this can be blamed on her many name changes. Born Isabel Nicholas, after her brief stint as “Margaret Epstein”, she was married first as Delmer, then Lambert before her union with the composer Alan Rawsthorne in 1954. Poverty, precarity and conflict, however, play an even greater role—work was abandoned along with homes and studios, or destroyed in bombardments. Jacobi describes Rawsthorne and Walter Benjamin as “typical during this period of artists whose reflections on the shocks and discontinuities of modern times were themselves preserved only in provisional and discontinuous forms”.

Rawsthorne’s social circle in London after the war included Francis Bacon, with whom she became close. Theirs, again, was a relationship of mutual respect: he understood her exploration into veiled, uncertain perception, her desire to paint a figure as though it were on glass, at once both definitely there and insubstantial. Bacon’s many depictions of her over the years include the celebrated Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne Standing in a Street in Soho (1967). Painted the year after Giacometti’s death, Jacobi sees the painting fretted with references to Rawsthorne’s relationship with one of the few artists Bacon revered: from the great sculptor’s walking figures and cube forms, to the car that hit and injured him after he left her hotel in 1938, and, in the charging bull, to Isabel’s own fascination with emblems of Minoan art.

Rawsthorne’s was a remarkable life, and Jacobi delves deep into her relief, resistance and intelligence work in 1930s Europe, her involvement with anti-fascist propaganda during the 1940s, and her unapologetically colourful love life. (She even appears to have made love with Bacon.) Jacobi’s bigger project here, though, seems to be to reimagine what an artist biography—notably one of a woman artist whose work is largely forgotten—can be. If the tone is less galloping and gossipy than Annalyn Swan’s and Mark Stevens’ recent biography, Francis Bacon: Revelations, published by William Collins, it is because Jacobi treats Rawsthorne’s art with the intellectual seriousness of purpose with which it was conceived. She does not “reduce” Rawsthorne’s art making to self-reflexive illustrations of her life; rather, she addresses the two as richly intertwined.

• Out of the Cage: the Art of Isabel Rawsthorne, Carol Jacobi, Thames & Hudson Ltd: £30




                                Isabel Rawsthorne photographed by John Everard in 1933






The Turbulent Life of Francis Bacon





Bacon’s contradictions make him the rare artist who

warrants an infatuated 900-page biography.







The same day that Francis Bacon’s landmark retrospective opened at the Grand Palais in Paris, in 1971, his longtime boyfriend and muse George Dyer died on the toilet in their hotel. It was unclear whether the cause of death was an accidental overdose of sleeping pills or suicide. The day before, Bacon had returned to the Hôtel des Saints-Pères to find Dyer drunk in bed with a young man. The couple argued. Bacon stormed out to spend the night in another room. Faced with the prospect of Dyer’s death overshadowing his triumphal exhibition, Bacon asked the hotel manager to postpone notifying the authorities—an amenity apparently available only to the famous. The bathroom where Dyer’s body still slumped on the toilet was discreetly locked, and Bacon went off to be feted by France’s cultural elite.

This episode suggests ruthless careerism, but as the Pulitzer Prize–winning critics Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan write in their new biography, Francis Bacon: Revelations, the reality turned out to be more haunting. Beginning in 1972, Bacon regularly checked into the hotel room where Dyer died. He slept in the same bed where Dyer had cheated on him; he sat on the toilet where Dyer took his last breath. Bacon wasn’t spiritual, but these private rituals, which could last up to two weeks, had the intimacy of a séance. It was the closest Bacon came to sentimentality.

There’s a dreamlike gravitas to Bacon’s art that matches his do-it-yourself ghost hunt. He gave to the twentieth century a visual repertoire—screaming popes, deformed heads, distended bodies, crucifixions—that symbolizes a universal if often inscrutable anxiety, while still imparting the psychic drama of Bacon’s own self-contradictions. “What I’ve always wanted to do is to make things that are very formal yet coming to bits,” he once said, and the tension between control and breakdown is the subtext of his life and paintings. The Bacon who emerges in Stevens and Swan’s biography has the clammy decorum of a proper Englishman cut with the tragicomic wit of the Irish. He erased or denied parts of his history he didn’t like; he destroyed canvases that fell short of an impossible perfection; he couldn’t speak about himself without getting drunk first. He was an S&M enthusiast who lived with his childhood nanny. He painted disturbing vignettes but was an effervescent fixture at London bars. His states of betweenness, of paradox, make him that rare artist who actually rewards 900 infatuated pages.

Bacon was born in Ireland in 1909, descendant of an illustrious bloodline of military adventurers and rich industrialists. His parents were recent arrivals from England. “When I think of my childhood, I see something very heavy, very cold, like a block of ice,” Bacon told an interviewer. There was much to detest in his early years: the asthma that confined him to a sickroom and necessitated medicinal candles and occasional hits of morphine; his father, an ex-soldier and horse trainer disappointed by his weakling son; the outbreak of World War I, which drove the family back to England (Stevens and Swan suggest that searchlights may have inspired the “ghostly white” stripes that appear in some later paintings); and, after the war, the Irish Republican Army, which terrorized aristocratic families like Bacon’s. “It was both magical and unnerving—thrilling and dreadful—to go to bed knowing that somewhere in the dark field beyond the window there might be strangers waiting and watching, phantoms who lit flares and sang songs,” Stevens and Swan write, noting that “watchers would appear decades later in many of Bacon’s pictures.” (“Thrilling” and “magical” perhaps overstate the whimsy of partisans threatening to torch the neighborhood.)

There was also the matter of Bacon’s burgeoning homosexuality. Like many young gay boys, Bacon was conflicted by an attraction to his own father. He also—facetiously or not—claimed to be aroused by the smell of horse manure, which would have been in rank abundance given his father’s profession. When he was 15, Bacon was raped by a groom in his father’s stable, a story Stevens and Swan treat skeptically. Many of Bacon’s claims buttressed a self-mythology designed to make him seem more feral and less calculated than he actually was. He later said he didn’t read serious books or take art classes, although each assertion was a lie. He alleged that his father kicked him out of the house after he discovered Bacon wearing his mother’s panties. Whether the anecdote is true or not, it’s the kind of tawdry provocation Bacon relished. “What was certain,” Stevens and Swan write, “was that some unstable sexual compound—father, groom, animal, discipline—gave Francis a physical jolt that helped make him into the painter Francis Bacon.”

In his late teens, he drew inspiration from the “gilded squalor” he found in London, Berlin, and Paris. A visit to Berlin in 1927 introduced him to Europe’s sexual and artistic vanguard: prostitution, drag shows, sex clubs, and drugs. (The trip may have also kindled his connoisseurship of seedy bars and lowlifes, a taste he shared with his friend William S. Burroughs, another intermittent expat who rejected his family’s bourgeois pieties.) Bacon may have first seen Battleship Potemkin in Berlin; his fascination with mouths and screaming subjects can be traced to the film’s “indelible image of the nurse caught in the massacre on the Odessa steps ... her pince-nez bloodily shattering as she opens her mouth in a scream.”

It was in Paris, though, that Bacon the artist first emerged. His discovery of Picasso in the late 1920s was an “epiphany.” Although Bacon sometimes downplayed Picasso’s influence, the older artist’s biomorphic figures and scrambled anatomies are an obvious precursor to Bacon’s figures. In a pattern that was consistent throughout his life, Bacon also rebuffed other artists with whom he was certainly familiar and by whom he was perhaps even inspired, including Otto Dix and Chaim Soutine. Dix’s elongated bodies and harsh figuration and Soutine’s garish expressionism are natural referents for Bacon. Equally important were the illustrated books Bacon bought from dealers along the Seine—books about diseases of the mouth, big game animals, supernatural emanations, and other esoteric subjects. (His library of oddities eventually totaled more than 1,200 volumes.) Later, he was drawn to the motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge and to Nazi propaganda.

In the early 1930s, Bacon found a creative outlet in rug and furniture design. Encouraged by several women—including Madge Garland and Dorothy Todd, the powerhouse lovers who led British Vogue—Bacon envisioned a career creating modernist decor. His prospects were buoyed when he met Eric Allden, a bureaucrat 23 years his senior who became Bacon’s first male companion. (Peter Lacy and Dyer were Bacon’s two other great loves; both died on the brink of major Bacon exhibitions.) Allden spoiled the young artist with expensive haircuts and tailored clothing, and with outings to the theater and museums. With Allden’s help, Bacon opened a design showroom in London, with living quarters in the back for the two men and Bacon’s nanny, who served as cook and housekeeper.

Despite his modest success as a designer, Bacon was determined to be a serious artist. “A thing has to arrive at a stage of deformity before I can find it beautiful,” he told his cousin Diana, and in his early canvases he not only depicted deformed subjects—the crucifixion was an obsession—but also deformed the paint itself: “He added … whatever amounts of oil, water, and probably dust he thought might awaken the flesh or help generate a powerful image,” Stevens and Swan write. A crucifixion from 1933, showing a spindly ectoplasmic figure with raised arms against a black background, remains one of Bacon’s eeriest works and is a thematic rehearsal for his later notable triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. 

Bacon’s career through the ’30s followed a jerky trajectory of acclaim and failure. He made an uneasy companion to the other stalwarts of British art at the time: Henry Moore, John Piper, and, especially, Graham Sutherland. Bacon and Sutherland had a competitive influence on each other, although Sutherland was fundamentally more provincial than Bacon and championed the English tradition—and Englishness as a virtue—in a way Bacon never did. (Bacon and Lucian Freud had a similarly fraught relationship.) As Stevens and Swan write, Bacon’s art was torn between opposite impulses: “Explosive or restrained; bestial or civilized; naked or revealed; raw or cooked.” He wasn’t a surrealist, although his desolate geometric architecture and nightmarish creatures recall that movement’s dreamlike juxtapositions. Nor was he a cubist, despite his discordant faces. He didn’t seem to belong to any school or ism of contemporary art. Stevens and Swan invoke a lineage of old masters such as Rembrandt, Titian, and Velázquez, and Bacon himself aspired to such grandeur.

Yet he also understood the essentially moral, Manichean universe of the old masters as a farce. Bacon isolates and aestheticizes the human condition—a phrase he would have mocked—as a series of elemental traumas. Head 1, from 1948, presents a necrotic head disintegrating into yolky runoff, the exposed teeth reminiscent of certain deep-sea predator fish. “Human control, vested in settled human features, is an old-master illusion,” Stevens and Swan write of the painting. The same can be said of one of Bacon’s most iconic works, Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Innocent X,  from 1953, which remakes Velázquez’s original as an eruption of luminous distress. Velázquez’s pope is regal and indomitable; Bacon’s looks as if he’s mid-sizzle in an electric chair. Head VI, from 1949, also reworks the Velázquez, this time framing the pope’s screaming head behind both a phantasmal cube and a gauze of oxidized drapery. The artist Lawrence Gowing wrote that “the paradoxical appearance at once of pastiche and iconoclasm was indeed one of Bacon’s most original strokes.”

Stevens and Swan extend that idea to the literal presentation of Bacon’s art. By putting his canvases in heavy gold frames, Bacon employed a “kind of satirical costume—the old masters in drag.” Bacon was a deadly serious artist, but not humorless. There’s a whiff of camp in his bombast and even in his public persona—the suit and glossy leather jacket that gave the impression of a gentleman fetishist. The notion of a gay, irreligious man painting flamboyant popes and crucifixions, and then framing them in a way that self-consciously evokes the canon, is more amusing than most critics acknowledge. (John Berger initially and unfavorably compared Bacon to Walt Disney.) For Bacon, the sober traditions of Christian iconography and Western art were suitable subjects for art but never for veneration.

Stevens and Swan’s biography is also the story of interwar and midcentury gay British culture: discretion and code-speak, confirmed bachelors rooming together, followed gradually by the sordid vivacity of Soho nightlife. The book paints a vivid portrait of the Colony Room, the bar in London where Bacon (and Dylan Thomas) spent many obliterated hours. The place was presided over by Muriel Belcher, a mordant lesbian who lingered “like a musk” amid her regular gay clientele: 

The freedom inside the bilious green room, while naughty, funny, and subversive, also included the darker liberties. You could wound and be wounded. You could choose to drink yourself to death. Veneers were stripped; masks were picked up in pieces. Sloppy drunks often fell down the narrow staircase. By the next day the performances were forgiven or forgotten—or perhaps not.

Queer life was still scandalous in that era. In the 1950s, police routinely cracked down on gay offenses: In 1952, the code-breaker Alan Turing was convicted of gross indecency and opted for chemical castration instead of prison. (He committed suicide two years later.) The 1954 trial and imprisonment of conservative politician Edward Montagu, landowner Michael Pitt-Rivers, and journalist Peter Wildeblood became a cause célèbre. Homosexual acts remained officially illegal in Britain until 1967. In this environment, circumspection was the rule, although Bacon pushed both his romantic life and his art to the edge.

“Until late in his life Bacon was attracted to beautiful but suppressed men in whom there lay—somewhere between weakness and power—a seductive but dangerous line that he could test,” Stevens and Swan write. In Peter Lacy, a former fighter pilot, Bacon found the perfect collaborator. Lacy beat and raped Bacon, and once threatened to chain him up in a corner, where Bacon would have to sleep and shit on a bed of straw. During one particularly violent exchange, Lacy threw Bacon through a window.

This hard-knock eroticism pervaded some of Bacon’s paintings, as well. Two Figures, from 1953, depicts two naked men grappling on a disheveled bed. The men’s skin has the mottled plum undertones of a bruise, while their faces are mostly blurred, almost rinsed out, aside from one man’s bared teeth. It’s an ambiguous image that suggests both rapture and violence. (Lucian Freud hung the painting over his bed and refused to ever lend it to museums.) Bacon explored similar themes in Two Figures in the Grass, from 1954, and The Wrestlers After Muybridge, from 1980.

Bacon’s Men in Suits series may be his most cohesive rejoinder to the stifled sexuality of British culture. In 1954, Bacon lodged at the Imperial Hotel in Henley-on-Thames, about an hour west of London. It was a faded pit stop for businessmen and commuters, some of whom were there to drink their lunch and some to have hurried trysts, and some of whom agreed to model for Bacon. The resulting series is a monochromatic blue-and-black frieze of solitary men seemingly trapped inside spectral cages. Stevens and Swan argue that the figures are stand-ins for “the tormented everyman of postwar corporate culture.” The figures also represent a performance of masculinity—broad-shouldered, hefty, on a payroll—alienated from itself. The unanimous darkness of the backdrops evokes the darkness of the closet. The paintings suggest how isolating queerness can be, and also how banal its self-deception is, symbolized here by conformist wardrobes and dreary routine. 

Performance is the flip side of homosexuality, and for Bacon, that meant playing the roles both of bitchy bon vivant—heir to the tradition of his fellow Irishman Oscar Wilde—and of dissipated artist. Neither role was a perfect fit. “It was Bacon’s secret that he was not just a radical master of the twentieth-century stage who exulted in the dark arts,” Stevens and Swan write. “He was simultaneously an Englishman suffused with longing for the ordinary patterns of joy and solace denied him as a child and young man.” Bacon was a conservative at heart—when drunk, he’d sometimes lambaste poor people for their supposed weakness—but his art, as channeled through his queerness, cast a critical, if oblique, eye on the prevailing culture. Bacon understood life as a zero-sum proposition: There are no winners except death; we are all meat; in a world without meaning, you might as well do what you want. He once observed about the Nazi imagery that riveted him, “Amid the clatter of Hitlerism you saw shadows in the process of becoming substantial.” The opposite is true of Bacon’s art; there you see once substantial figures in the process of becoming shadows.

Jeremy Lybarger is the features editor at the Poetry Foundation. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Art in America, The Nation, The New York Review of Books, and more.




                                                                                          COURTESY OF THE CECIL BEATON STUDIO ARCHIVE






The horror safari:


why was Francis Bacon so triggered by dead elephants?




When the great painter died, 200 macabre photographs of elephant carcasses were found in his studio.


They were by Peter Beard – and they propelled the artist into the heart of darkness






If you look into the eyes of a portrait, especially a self-portrait, by Rembrandt, you seem to see a “soul”. Such religious ideas and readings have shaped the story of art from its very beginnings and continue to seduce us today. But Francis Bacon was the first artist to paint people as animals. His subjects are rendered without souls, as flesh and bone, as blood and brain – in short, as animated meat. This ruthless Darwinian vision of the struggle of life makes him one of the most unnerving of artists. And his radical eye for humankind’s natural history gives a certain resonance to his friendship with one of the most brilliant wildlife photographers of the 20th century.

 After the Irish-born British painter died in 1992, more than 200 photographs of dead elephants were found in his London studio. They were given to him by Peter Beard, who took many of them from an aeroplane flying low over the grasslands of Kenya. The two would converse avidly about Beard’s images of these great, grey giants slowly rotting into monuments of white bone and ivory in the African sun. They inspired some of Bacon’s most pungent thoughts about art and life. “I would say the photographs of elephants,” he said, “are naturally suggestive.” What he saw was “a trigger – a release”.

Beard’s charged photographs of dead elephants are about to go on show at Ordovas in London, alongside a great diptych of the photographer by Bacon himself, called Two Studies for Portrait and featuring near-identical images. The black void in which Beard’s face is isolated invades part of his face. His left cheek has gone and his mouth is a gory mess. It seems likely that this double portrait, painted in 1976, was inspired by photographs of first world war soldiers with horrific facial wounds. It is a good example of how Bacon let photographs “release” his thoughts.

The work reveals Bacon’s complicated feelings for a man he loves but cannot have, at least not physically. The photographer’s renowned good looks are still there in the portrait, despite the disfigurement. The pair met in 1965 but their relationship intensified from 1972 onwards, as Bacon mourned and tried to recover from his disastrous relationship with small-time criminal George Dyer. In 1971, Dyer was found dead from an overdose in the toilet of a Paris hotel where he and Bacon were staying, just before the opening of a retrospective at the Grand Palais that would secure Bacon’s reputation as the greatest figurative painter since Picasso.

Bacon’s art in the 70s is one long howl at this loss, not just in his depictions of his lover’s death, but with a string of despairing self-portraits, too. Then suddenly, in the middle of this anguish, he starts portraying Beard. And you see something like joy emerging. He’s in love. A friend observed that Bacon had “a thing” for the photographer. But you don’t need the gossip. The portraits say it all.

Beard was a nightclub regular who married model Cheryl Tiegs and is credited with “discovering” Iman, after spotting her on a street in Nairobi. Born wealthy, the New Yorker styled himself after Ernest Hemingway, but instead of hunting Africa’s big mammals, he reported their peril in his 1965 book The End of the Game. He died last year at 82, after vanishing from his Long Island home and wandering into woods, where his body was found more than a fortnight later. He had dementia.

It wasn’t just Beard’s looks that inspired Bacon. The two shared an intense creative dialogue driven by a shared passion for animals, Africa and the macabre. In The End of the Game, Beard included pictures of living elephants as well as the rotting forms and desolate skeletons of creatures that starved to death due, he argued, to the mismanagement of wildlife reserves. With each edition, he added more shots of elephant remnants.

Taken from above, these photographs home in on death with a raw honesty. There is what an elephant looks like when its insides have been eaten away. And here is what one looks like when it is nothing but a bleached structure of bone. Bacon found these much more memorable than the shots of live elephants. He explained why in 1972, when the two met in London to record a series of conversations known as The Dead Elephant Interviews. “Dead elephants,” he told Beard, “are more beautiful because they trigger off more ideas in me than living ones. Alive, they just remain beautiful elephants, whereas the other ones are suggestive of all types of beauty.”

It is a startling concept of the beautiful: Bacon clearly took a perverse pleasure in what some might call horror. “I once saw a bad car accident on a large road,” he says at one point in the conversations, “and the bodies were strewn about with broken glass from the car, and the blood and various possessions, and it was in fact very beautiful.”

It sounds like he had been reading Crash, JG Ballard’s novel about a group of people who are sexually aroused by car accidents, except it wasn’t published until the following year. The Dead Elephant Interviews show Bacon as a man of that moment, chatting to the fashionable Beard, who was friends with the likes of Mick Jagger. In his apparently affectless claims that car crashes and dead elephants are beautiful, Bacon captured the darker side of early 1970s decadence.

Of course, he was not as wicked as he sounded. He gave Beard a full explanation of why death can be beautiful – and it’s the oldest, most moral theory of art there is. He mentioned the Isenheim Altarpiece, the harrowing masterpiece of German Renaissance art that shows Christ covered with festering sores on his grey-green body, already rotting while still just alive on the cross. “But that is grand horror in the sense that it is so vitalising, isn’t it?” said Bacon. “Isn’t that how people came out of the great tragedies of Greece, the Agamemnon?”

In other words, a dead elephant is something on a par with Greek tragedy. Here are the remains of a creature so immense it’s like a living world in its own right. And we are not the only animals impressed by the sight of elephant bones: the creatures themselves will recognise the remains of their species. They will stop by skeletons and fondle the bones with their trunks.

Bacon’s admiration for Beard’s art was interesting for another reason: it was a unique instance of him treating photographs as something more than raw material. He took medical illustrations, female nudes and Eadweard Muybridges famous motion studies and transfigured them – quoting them in new contexts, assimilating them into his nightmares of sex and death in orange rooms. But his friendship with Beard was that of two artists. Photography did not have the artistic status in the 1970s that it enjoys today. Bacon gave Beard confidence he was making art. Encouraged by this approval, Beard created collages and annotated albums of his nature photographs. It may be that Bacon helped Beard to see photography in a new way.

One of their shared passions was Joseph Conrad’s 1902 story Heart of Darkness, which inspired the film Apocalypse Now. In the book, narrator Marlow skippers a boat on the River Congo where he meets Kurtz, a supposedly idealistic imperialist who turns out to be a dying husk of moral nothingness. For Bacon, there was a bit of Kurtz in this last of the great white photograph hunters. One of the photographs Beard sent Bacon was not by him, but of him: it showed Beard with a shaved head, after he was arrested for assaulting a poacher on his ranch in Kenya. Bacon turned this photograph into a giant looming head in a large and spectacular painting called Triptych 1976, which he told friends was directly influenced by Conrad’s story – as well as Greek drama. It also features a man cradling an elephant foetus in his lap.

Does Conrad’s story also explain the black void that so encroaches on Beard’s face in Bacon’s other portrait of the photographer? It was painted the same year. The face that saw so many dead elephants seems to be literally consumed by, to quote the famous line from Heart of Darkness, the horror, the horror of it all. No other artist in recent times has created such a comprehensive personal mythology, such a claustrophobic theatre of tragic extremes. Despite Bacon’s feelings for the photographer, he couldn’t resist his own creative urge – to turn those impressive features into a ruin, a tragedy, another dead elephant.

 Wild Life: Francis Bacon and Peter Beard is at Ordovas, London, 12 April-16 July.





                                                                                         ‘Complicated feelings’ … Bacon, left, and Beard in the 1970s.












Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, coauthors of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize–winning biography of Willem de Kooning, speak

with Michael Cary about the research and revelations that went into their forthcoming biography of Francis Bacon





ANNALYN SWAN  After our de Kooning biography was published, we were approached by several estates with proposals for artists we might like to write about. Bacon won out for two reasons. John Eastman, who is a copresident of the de Kooning Foundation, was collaborating at that point with the Bacon estate on various legal matters. One thing led to another and Brian Clarke, the head of the Bacon estate, signed off on the idea and has been very helpful to us ever since. So that’s technically how it came about. But from the point of view of why it was interesting for us: there was no comprehensive, thoroughly researched biography of Bacon. Nobody had actually done the boots-on-the-ground work, and there was nothing from twenty-five years ago until now, so it looked like a great opportunity to write about a remarkable artist, many of whose dimensions had not been explored.

MARK STEVENS Also, both Bacon and de Kooning had a kind of emblematic importance—extending beyond the paint. Bacon is arguably the darkest artist of an often dark century, and that’s immediately interesting. He set the outer edge, in a way, for twentieth-century art. He also matters as an unashamed homosexual before gay liberation. And he had a powerful philosophical aura in that existential period; there are echoes of Samuel Beckett and other existential playmakers of the time. Plus, he created a celebrated persona in an age of celebrity. All interesting for a biographer.

MC Since much of the existing biographical writing on Bacon was written by friends and intimates, it inevitably contains elements of memoir; you end up with very, very subjective portrayals of Bacon in the literature.

AS Exactly. We’re very grateful to Dan Farson [The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, 1993] and Michael Peppiatt [Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, 1996] because both of them knew Bacon personally. But having said that, there are also limitations in that their books are based on the personality and the interaction and don’t necessarily take a dispassionate look at Bacon. Who is this man really? That’s what we were trying to come in and do.

MS Bacon circulated in many different milieus, so people knew him in different ways and he could be a different person in different places. It’s too bad that we didn’t know him personally, that we could not call on that kind of visceral knowledge. At the same time, we could hope to navigate his life with some objectivity.

AS That whole “Bacon, the great legend of Soho” narrative narrows him. There’s so much more to Bacon than that.

MC I love Farson’s book because it’s outrageous, but both of those books prop up the Bacon persona, right? Bacon’s persona has a huge presence in the popular imagination. So the subtitle of your book, Revelations—one of the revelations is that Bacon was a whole person.

MS There’s a well-known observation by E. M. Forster about the importance of both flat and round characters in a novel. Bacon has been presented in an interesting but flat way, and what we wanted was to draw him in the round.

MC It struck me when I got to your chapter “Performance Artist” that you very much deal with the Bacon “persona” in that chapter. It comes quite late in the book, so we’ve had five hundred or so pages of Bacon as a person before you address the persona in a direct way. It’s remarkable: you’ve arranged for us to be able to see the performance and the persona more clearly because you’ve given us the material to know him more intimately as a person.

AS That chapter comes toward the end because as he grew older, the performance became more important to him. He had so many physical issues, emotional issues, anxieties. He was struggling. He maintained that indomitable facade at huge cost into even his later years.

MS Structuring the book that way lets you experience the evolution of a life. Bacon never wanted to appear vulnerable or weak, probably a consequence of his difficult childhood. So he developed a very powerful persona over time, with the help of David Sylvester and others. He was already beginning to do that in the ’60s, when the press started to approach him and people wanted to know more about his life. He was well-known then, but it wasn’t until the ’80s that his myth really began to inflate. So the “performance artist” in that chapter feels contemporaneous—it’s happening at that time, while having earlier roots. And as Annalyn says, it’s poignant because he’s painting himself up and performing and being outrageous in a way that also reveals weakness and vulnerability.

The persona is never fake news. It’s a vital part of Bacon, and we think it helped him make his art, it helped him get through the world. It’s intrinsic. It’s just that there’s much else.

MC You never met Bacon, which seems an advantage—but would you have wanted to meet him? Would you have enjoyed going out to dinner with him . . . besides the champagne and the caviar?

AS Well, other than the fact that he could be immensely dangerous . . . shall we start with that? He could absolutely eviscerate his friends, so it was always a gamble to go to dinner with Francis Bacon. If he got too drunk, he could get mean and vicious. But when he wasn’t too drunk—and he often wasn’t too drunk—he could be the most marvelous, charming, entertaining presence. That was his best stage.

MS He had exquisite manners, unlike many artists and unlike many people. That’s one thing that he took from the privileged circumstances of his birth. The manners are wired into the sensibility.

AS Bacon’s sister, Ianthe, told us that at one point Bacon said to her, “I’m so glad that I know where the silver is on the dinner table and that I learned manners.” Then Ianthe paused and said, “Not that he always used them, of course” [laughs].

MS David Sylvester said, “He was never rude unintentionally.”

MC You said Bacon was perhaps the darkest artist of a dark century. Was it depressing at all to spend ten years of your life with this artist?

AS I have to say, we had such fun. Bacon had been kind of trapped in this myth as a so-called monster, and very English, but this was also a man who loved France and had many close friends there: he adored French intellectuals. His Anglo-Irish background was a whole new world and no biographer before us had actually crossed the Irish Sea and gone to Ireland, which is so revealing about his youth. We went to Dublin and visited all of these grand houses in the Pale, we learned everything we could about the horse-racing country and about the big-house traditions. It was wonderful. And we spent some time in Tangier . . . that was really tough [laughter]!

MS It wasn’t depressing because Bacon wasn’t depressing. The reason he was so good at darkness was that he was full of light. You need light to make a shadow. He loved gambling, he loved conversation, he loved wine, and he was funny. One time in the 1970s he was gambling at the Playboy Club in London, playing roulette and losing badly, so he’s bitching and cursing and carrying on. One of the bunnies asks him to please behave. Bacon mutters, “Bunnies! What they need around here is more buck rabbits” [laughter].

AS There’s a sort of a playfulness that just doesn’t translate into what most people think about Bacon. He didn’t take himself too seriously. It’s kind of unimaginable, the way he just flung money across the table, but it speaks to how wonderfully high-spirited he was, that he would just go for the gold, just go for whatever, just fling it all out there. Isn’t that an interesting character to pursue?

MS Bacon thought most people were being cagey and holding back. He didn’t keep that kind of savings account. Most serious players of roulette develop these obsessive systems, but Bacon had no interest in that sort of safety. He had a kind of ancient Greek feeling for fate: he didn’t mind being struck down, he didn’t mind losing. At least then something was happening.

MC And he gambled with his work?

MS Yes, he depended on chance in his work—gambling in the studio much as he did at roulette. He would take a chance and very often would ruin a portrait, for example, or upset an almost finished picture. He didn’t care, he would relish slashing it up and getting rid of it. You don’t always hit the jackpot when you put all your money on twenty-eight, you know? It doesn’t happen that often. It’s important to judge Bacon not by the lesser bets that escaped the studio but by his best work, which is like nothing else—and does hit the jackpot.

AS Bacon was so judgmental of his work, so prone to destruction. Valerie Beston of Marlborough—“Valerie from the gallery”—her primary job was to intuit when Bacon had finished a painting so she could somehow coax it out of his Reece Mews studio and have it whisked off to the gallery in the van. And they would have to hide the paintings so when Bacon came into Marlborough he wouldn’t see them. He was so self-critical, he probably would have destroyed half of the surviving paintings had he had a chance.

MS Remember, Bacon was largely self-taught. An artist who has formally trained in a school is not going to screw up to the same extent that a self-taught artist might, especially in the treatment of the figure. Matisse and Picasso, both such fluently trained artists, they’re never going to make a really bad picture because they don’t know how to make a bad picture. Bacon is different. The self-taught aspect of his sensibility helps explain why he became a great original, but you can also sometimes see related weaknesses. John Richardson and David Sylvester and others, for example, have complained about the sometimes awkward relationship between the figure and the ground in a Bacon painting. People with an eye know that the ground is almost as important as the figure, the negative space about as important as the positive space. Bacon struggled with that. And the struggle sometimes led to terrific solutions, poignant and powerful and steeped in a sense of the terror of blank space. But not always.

AS There was another advantage to being self-taught, which was that he experimented until he got things right. We write about his time in the village of Steep, in 1941 and ’42 during the war, when he takes himself away from London for two years. It turned out nobody had really looked into that period very much, for one reason: Bacon completely hid it. But it was the rough experimentation that he did hidden away in Steep that led to Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion [1944], his breakout painting. So there are periods in there when he just took the time to teach himself to go to the next level.

MS He was certainly what we would now call a controlling person—and that extended to his past. There are two periods in his life that he essentially erased. One of them is Steep and the other is when he was in Paris as a very young man. He was in Montparnasse in the late ’20s, surely the art mecca of the twentieth century. He never talked about it! It’s erased. He’s in Paris for a year and a half then and he says almost nothing about it? Why?

AS His time in Paris is fascinating because it was the beginning of his short-lived design career, which he completely buried later. He did everything he could to dynamite it out of people’s memory, but in fact he was very much plugged in to the design world then, on both sides of the Channel. It had been a mystery where Bacon’s very modernist design aesthetic came from, but it clearly came from seeing Eileen Gray’s Jean Désert showroom in Paris. He would have had exposure to Gray through a woman named Madge Garland, who was best friends with that whole group of designers in Paris. Madge was the fashion editor of British Vogue for four years in the 1920s while her lesbian partner Dorothy Todd was the top editor, and the two of them were the queen bees in the design and fashion world at that period. In a book Garland wrote later, she mentioned a room that Bacon had designed—a room for her, actually—but no writers had discovered this connection to Garland before. We asked John Richardson if he knew whether Bacon knew Madge, and he gasped, “Madge Garland!” and of course he was off to the races. “Yes, he knew Madge.” John described her—one of my favorite lines—“Madge Garland is the kind of woman who would move in next door to you if she thought you would be useful.” She was a connector [laughter].

MS And Bacon wanted to be connected. The remarkable thing about this, from a biographical standpoint, is that Bacon, at only eighteen years old, is already setting out on a very ambitious design career. Madge knew Virginia Woolf, she was very much interested in modernism and in bringing modernism to London. And she fastened on Bacon and Bacon accepted her as a mentor. So this is not a young and dissolute wastrel killing time, as Bacon would have you believe, but a determined young man looking for helpers and mentors, first in Madge Garland and then, back in London, in one of the chief modernist designers at the time, Arundell Clarke.

MC We knew that Bacon designed a bit of furniture here and there, but it always seemed strange, because how does an eighteen-year-old manufacture furniture? It was never really elaborated.

MS And how does an eighteen-year-old get to painting without any training? It would have been intimidating, almost absurd, for an eighteen-year-old Englishman in Paris to start painting serious pictures in Montparnasse while Picasso was just down the block. What’s he going to do instead? He moves into the very powerful design world in Paris, which has English, Irish, and American figures. It becomes a natural segue. Once you gain some fluency in design and you get to know people, well, it then becomes easier to take a chance at painting to see what happens. The design is not just an interlude; it helps make possible the move into more serious painting.

MC Design is also a profession, it’s a job. And a young man on his own who’s been cast out from the family has to figure out a way to make a life.

AS He probably loved making money on his own. But he was also never abandoned by his family. Being “cast out from the family” seems to be another myth more than anything else. Decades later, Bacon’s sister Ianthe said, “Our mother never knew he was homosexual. She always said, ‘Oh, I hope Francis settles down and gets married.’ And our parents never threw him out.” And Ianthe would have known, there would have been something in the family legend. So again, Bacon is not the most reliable narrator.

MC The relationship with Ianthe in Bacon’s later years really surprised me, and another of the revelations in your book is the extent to which a series of women played important roles in Bacon’s life.

AS It goes all the way back to his grandmother, Granny Supple, the one he lived with in Ireland. She was the first woman to take up Francis apart from his nanny, who lived with him until her death, in 1951.

MS He didn’t know other little boys when he was a child. He knew little girls. And then he moved on to women who were somewhat older than he was, who liked to help this charming boy.

AS He had this ability to be close friends with women that gets overlooked in the Soho sacred-monster legend, which is very much a male narrative. But Madge Garland, Isabel Rawsthorne, Sonia Orwell, Janetta Parladé, Valerie Beston, Nadine Haim, and other lesser-known figures were powerful characters who were of enormous help to Bacon. And when you include them, another dimension of Bacon starts unfolding before your eyes. Generally he liked strong, tough women.

MS Valerie Beston, for example, had that sort of no-nonsense “I’m not going to pity myself” English character. A bit Miss Marple. Stocky and sensible shoes. Bacon could be a bitchy gossip about his friends, including Miss Beston, but he also liked to keep his friends. One important revelation in the book is that he remained so interested, not just in rough trade and being a sexual alley cat, but in serious long-term relationships. He didn’t usually give up friends, and he didn’t give up lovers; he was even a bit clingy.

AS Companionship and wanting companionship, that was really true throughout his life. And you see it particularly toward the end, with John Edwards and José Capelo. Both of them were sympathetic characters who were very helpful to Bacon in his waning years. So there was a cozy side too. Bacon really wanted the companionship, not just the S&M sex.

MS Peter Lacy never spoke publicly about Bacon, but we found two of Lacy’s nephews who knew him well and they were aghast at the traditional and caricatural portrait of him as a sadistic fighter pilot. They told us that he’d never been a fighter pilot. They presented him in the round. If you actually look at Bacon’s letters to his various friends and see his anxiety about Lacy, you can begin to piece together, almost forensically, that these two men simply never got over each other. Their relationship was tortured and sometimes violent, but also revelatory for each man. It’s nonsense to portray Bacon as a little vulnerable masochist and Lacy as a powerfully sadistic fighter pilot. They were together for ten years, on and off. That’s something.

MC There’s a device you use throughout the book, where you punctuate the end of several chapters with a brief essay on a single significant work. How and why did you develop and deploy this device?

MS There are a couple of reasons. One, if you’ve read a lot of biographies of serious artists or imaginative people, very often descriptions of their work—and their work is after all the reason the biography is ultimately being written—the descriptions of the novel, the symphony, or the ballet interrupt the narrative in a kind of gloppily glutinous way. You’re reading about something exciting in the artist’s life, maybe even his love life, and then suddenly you have to shift gears to read about the choreography of some ballet that you can’t see. And you just want to get back to the narrative. That’s unfortunate, because the ballet is actually more important than the sex life. So you’re sort of screwing things up in a fundamental way. We do discuss works of art within the text, but usually quickly, and these longer breakouts are a way to put some space between the life and the art. The device suggests that you must not reduce the art to the life or the life to the art—they can live together, but with some space, some oxygen, between them. It represents a kind of modesty about what one can and cannot finally know.

AS I teach biography- and memoir-writing at the Graduate Center of cuny, in New York, and the first class starts with “Show, don’t tell.” Convey the character through anecdotes, through other people’s observations, and make the tough decisions to keep the narrative zipping along. One reviewer wrote that there’s a slightly picaresque quality to our book, which absolutely thrills us. We love that sense that you’re in an adventure, it’s almost like an early novel. When Bacon is young and at the threshold of his life, instead of just saying “Now he’s going off to London, he’s leaving home,” we ended the chapter by saying “He set out.”

MC So what are some of your favorite biographies?

MS Biographies haven’t been very important to me, actually. Nineteenth-century novels are more the model, or that’s what I often want to take from a biography—that sense of a large, encompassing social landscape, with a flawed hero, intriguing secondary figures, and a strong narrative line. Working on Bacon was sometimes like walking into a Dickens novel. These characters! People don’t write nineteenth-century novels anymore, of course, but biographies can do something related in our world—be long, expansive, a little discursive. There’s such pleasure to be found in an immersive reading of a vital person’s life, from birth until death.

AS For me, one of the best biographies has a truly original narrative style, The Quest for Corvo [1934], in which A. J. A. Symons went on a sort of detective mission to find out about this man named Baron Corvo. But then you can also write brilliantly, as Richard Ellmann did in his Oscar Wilde [1969], where everything sparkles and is witty in the way that he describes his character. He writes in the same spirit that Wilde wrote and lived. So I look at how you can make biography not boring; you have to find a way to reveal the character by degrees. By the end of the book, what you hope is that the reader has been fascinated, loved the story, and then has a real sense of the character. And so many biographies don’t do that.

MS Biography is portrait painting. It’s not only an earnest accumulation of facts, a piece of heavy baggage, an attic, a storeroom, an archive; it’s a reflection. And that means you leave some things out, put other things in, juxtapose magically. You work with figure and ground. There can be different kinds of portraits, but the good ones come alive, in the book and on the wall.





                                                                                                                    Francis Bacon with his mother and sister Ianthe in South Africa, 1967.







                                                                                         Francis Bacon in Ostia, near Rome






The Rebirth of Francis Bacon




FLORENCE HALLETT on two new books that offer a corrective to the much mythologised early

biography of Francis Bacon, and place him at the heart of the European artistic tradition.






At some point in 1944, Kenneth Clark, director of the National Gallery and chairman of the War Artists’ Advisory Committee, walked into Francis Bacon’s South Kensington studio. The occasion was recorded by Kathleen Sutherland, whose husband Graham Sutherland was Bacon’s friend, and one of the most celebrated British artists of the time: “Interesting, yes. What extraordinary times we live in”, said Clark, before leaving with his “tightly rolled umbrella” on his arm.

It is possible that Clark had just seen Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, paintings that a few months later would announce the unknown painter Francis Bacon (1909-1992) as one of the most notorious and divisive figures of 20th century art.

As Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan put it in Revelations, their new biography of the artist, it soon became clear that “this charming man was intent upon mercilessly attacking every comforting platitude of the 20th century.” If Clark’s reaction seemed curt, more vociferous judgements would follow.

Despite appearances, it turned out that Clark had been impressed by what he saw at Bacon’s studio, telling Sutherland later that evening, “You and I may be in minority of two, but we may still be right in thinking that Francis Bacon has genius.”

It was thanks to Sutherland that in April 1945 Bacon was invited to make up the numbers in an exhibition at the Lefevre Gallery in Mayfair, celebrating two generations of British modernism. Sutherland and Henry Moore, the shining stars of Kenneth Clark’s War Artists’ Scheme, represented the new generation, each having found a distinctive visual language with which to lament the reality of war.

Frances Hodgkins and Matthew Smith were the venerable exponents of a modernist tradition rooted in the Paris of Matisse and the Fauves, and brought with them the gravitas of longevity to an exhibition intended to bring solace to a city exhausted by war.

But then there was Bacon. “Immediately to the right of the door were images so unrelievedly awful that the mind shut snap at the sight of them”, recalls the critic John Russell. Set against a sickly orange glow, Bacon’s triptych of tormented, unseeing monsters delivered a physical and psychic assault. Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion caused “total consternation”, said Russell. “We had no name for them, and no name for what we felt about them”.

Crowds gathered, and then retreated, shocked; the catalogue was reprinted three times. The exhibition ran for a month, and Francis Bacon was transformed from a nobody to one of the most talked about artists of his generation.

If Three Studies was a sudden and accomplished debut, this was no accident. As Bacon’s friend Yves Peyré, explains in his recently published book Francis Bacon: The Measure of Excess: “he himself always maintained that his work began with the famous Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion; he rarely demurred from this view and attempted to conceal everything that went before.”

“What went before” is explored in Revelations, and through extraordinarily diligent research, the authors have restored the years between 1927 and 1944, which Bacon had erased with the same efficiency that he would apply to the destruction of his early paintings.

Openly queer at a time when homosexuality was criminalised, and with a taste for violence and rough trade, secrecy would have been a matter of necessity to Bacon. Even before he was aware that he was attracted to boys and not girls, concealment and evasion would have helped him to navigate his bullying father, who disliked his son’s effeminate ways and physical frailty caused by asthma.

Eventually, it allowed an artist who had never received any formal training, and who seemed to have taken years to find his subject and his medium, to emerge with an energy and brilliance that could draw comparisons with Picasso.

Bacon’s life story was shaped in the convivial surroundings of Soho pubs and clubs, where he held forth among friends and admirers, charming and caustic by turns. In the years after the Second World War, Soho was a true bohemia, its cast of odd and raffish characters making regular appearances in Bacon’s paintings. Among them were Isabel Rawsthorne, Lucian Freud, the photographer John Deakin, and the formidable proprietor of the Colony Room, Muriel Belcher.

Bacon’s mythology was shored up with each retelling, and repeated in the biographies written after his death by those who had known him. Aged 17, Bacon had been thrown out by his bullying father who had discovered him trying on his mother’s underwear; in his late teens he had visited Berlin and Paris; he had dabbled in design; in 1944 he begun painting seriously.

To these stories, Revelations is an impressive corrective. Perhaps, suggest Sevens and Swan, Bacon left home because there was very little to keep him there: “He could purchase a train ticket at any time. But there was hardly any drama in that.” Certainly, he was not abandoned: he wanted to join his cousin Diana in London, and his mother provided him with a modest allowance.

Even so, there is no doubt that Bacon’s relationship with his father provided the template for his future taste in physically intimidating men, who took pleasure in giving him a thrashing.

In Bacon’s paintings, brutality and pain are embodied in the muted screams of monkeys and the cowering figures of dogs. They reek of barely suppressed violence, summoned perhaps by the artist’s memory of his horse trainer father and a house full of dogs.

Animals provoked his asthma, a condition that to Bacon’s father was a sign of emotional weakness. He got on better with girls and women than with his own gender, no doubt another failing in his father’s eyes. He may have been raped by a stable hand; certainly he found himself sexually attracted to his father.

For Stevens and Swan, “some volatile sexual compound – father, groom, animal, discipline – gave Francis a physical jolt that helped make him into the painter Francis Bacon.”

From London, Bacon went to Berlin, its nightclubs and cabarets havens of sexual liberation and adventure that allowed him finally the freedom to be himself. For Bacon, the boundaries between sex and violence were already blurred, and his experiences in Berlin, in the company of a depraved and sadistic sexual predator, were formative.

From Berlin, Bacon travelled alone to Paris, remaining there for a year and a half though he would later dismiss it as little more than “a visit”. Yves Peyré writes that “Bacon was deeply in love with Paris”, and his book comes into its own as the perspective of a Frenchman, reminding us that Bacon was rare among his contemporaries for being a truly European artist, who was not only admired abroad, but fully conversant with French culture.

Bacon spoke fluent French, which he learned while living in Chantilly with a French family, the Bocquentins. He had a special bond with Mme Bocquentin, and she cultivated in him an appreciation of art and culture, introducing him to the work of Picasso, and, showing him, write Stevens and Swan, “the sensual joy that could be found in life apart from sex”.

After about nine months, Bacon left Chantilly for Montparnasse, where he channelled his growing interest in Picasso and cubism not into painting, but into designing ultra-modern rugs and furniture. By the time he left Paris in 1928, write Stevens and Swan, Bacon “not only spoke the language but was a committed young designer with good connections and a promising future”.

Back in London, Bacon was fully committed to his promising career as a designer, setting up a showroom at 17 Queensberry Mews in South Kensington, where he lived with Eric Allden, “an upstanding member of the Tory establishment” and Bacon’s first long term relationship.

Fitted out in glass, chrome and elegant, simple lines, the showroom was typical of Parisian modernity, so much so that it made the opening spread in a feature in The Studio magazine, entitled “The 1930 Look in British Decoration”.

Unlike so many artists who have relied on commercial work to earn a living, Bacon had a genuine flair and and fondness for design, and pursued it seriously. Painting was a secondary occupation, and its ideas – particularly cubism – are evident in his design work, such as a painted screen dating from 1930.

By 1932, Bacon and Allden’s relationship had ended, and with it the showroom. From then on, Bacon dedicated himself to the hard graft of painting, experimenting with a multitude of contemporary styles and hustling older, wealthy men to get by.

He exhibited paintings from time to time, but rarely to acclaim, and Stevens and Swan report that his rejection by the International Surrealist Exhibition of 1936 was accompanied by the stinging enquiry: “Mr Bacon, don’t you realise a lot has happened to painting since the Impressionists?”.

Bacon destroyed so much that it is almost impossible to grasp his evolution into a mature artist, and yet the few surviving works of the 1930s, including the spectral Crucifixion of 1933, show that his central ideas were formed early on.

War of course, changed everything. Bacon’s asthma meant that he could not be called up, and yet he seems not to have wanted to avoid active service altogether, joining the Red Cross and the rescue efforts of the Chelsea ARP during the Blitz, but soon finding that his lungs were overcome by dust and debris. He left London for the country in October 1940, to emerge anew in 1944, the year in which, he said, “I began”.

That the artwork represented a landmark not just in Bacon’s own career but in British art can be surmised from the critic John Russell’s 1971 observation that "there was painting in England before the Three Studies, and painting after them, and no one... can confuse the two".

Bacon said in a 1959 letter that the figures in the painting were "intended to [be] use[d] at the base of a large Crucifixion which I may still do", suggesting they were conceived as a predella – or platform – for a larger altarpiece. It has also been suggested that the panels may have emerged as single works, and that the idea of combining them as a triptych came later. The Crucifixion itself is conspicuously absent, and there is no trace or shadow of it in the panels

The mouth of the triptych’s central figure was inspired by the nurse’s scream in Sergei Eisenstein’s Odessa Steps massacre sequence in The Battleship Potemkin.




        Francis Bacon in his Battersea Studio, 1960, photographed by Cecil Beaton






Why They Suck: Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon




Being the worst person of all time doesn’t improve your art.






One was straight, the other gay. One was a sadist, the other a masochist. One was the grandson of the great psychoanalyst, the other the namesake of the great philosopher. But they both infested and dominated the same London demi-monde, 1940s-90s. They rose together and were intermittent friends. They’re admired by the same writers, and writing about them always takes the same shape. First you gasp at the undeniable greatness, perhaps quoting David Hockney. Then you ask whether a genius must be an insane monster, or whether all the damage this person inflicted on the people around him was worth it to get these mesmerizing, transformative masterpieces. This squarely entails that the extreme wrongness of the men’s behaviour was essential for the extreme excellence of their work, but you have to not quite appear to endorse this correlation.

 These are hard questions, you say (because, for example, you’re ColmTóibín). What’s the relation of aesthetic to moral value, of the artist to the art, etc.? Then you spend the rest of your word-count luridly re-hashing the unbelievable tales of the genius abusing others or being enthusiastically abused. By the end, the reader realizes that the supreme excellence of the work has merely been asserted or taken for granted or attributed half-heartedly to some authority figure or series of awards and that all the interest is in the extremely scandalous behaviour.

The behaviour, not the art, keeps the biographies and essays coming and the auction prices astronomical. It’s strongly implied that the worse the person is, the better the art: a 20th-century trope that helped produced the myths of genius-assholes like Picasso and Pollock, Hemingway or Ginsberg. Of course he’s an alcoholic or drug addict or an abuser of women or, on a good day, just a completely irresponsible asshole. He’s a genius! (And he’s definitely a he, of whatever sort.)

Maybe you haven’t followed the Bacon/Freud situation, so now I’ll do what I appear to be condemning. Really, with both guys it’s decades of horror, but let’s dip a toe. Freud had hundreds of “lovers.” Often, throughout his life, these were teenage girls or very young women whom he cajoled into modeling for him and then just straight-up lunged at. He impregnated many of them (he was strongly opposed both to birth control and raising kids), and had as many as 40 children (eventually he painted some of his daughters naked, about as close to parenting as he ever came).

Daily Mail review of a Freud bio provides a typical vignette: “Shortly after his heartbreak over Lorna, he started having an affair with her niece, Kitty Garman, the daughter of the sculptor Jacob Epstein. A short-lived marriage to her followed, in 1948. That same year, he started bedding Anne Dunn, at that point a naive 18-year-old, after picking her up in a Soho nightclub.

Anne said: ‘I had no idea Kitty was his wife when I met him, nor did I know Lucian was a father, until one night we were having dinner and someone came up and asked him how the baby was. I was absolutely astonished.’ Lucian didn’t care. Guilt was not an emotion that either affected or restrained him. And because he considered any form of birth control to be ‘terribly squalid’, Anne ended up getting pregnant twice and aborting two of his babies.”

But Dunn stuck with him for years. Probably not because she enjoyed the sex. “One had to be very careful not to show that one wished he would stop. The very last time. I didn’t want to see him again in that way. It was horrible; he was hurting my breasts, hitting and squeezing—really painful.” As in many bits of writing on Freud, we immediately go from a barrage of that sort of stuff  (“I think he needed to dominate women”) to how all this is embodied in his great art, essential to it. “He took what he wanted. That was his strength.” What he wanted by the end was girls 50 or 60 years younger than himself.

Freud’s art is often held to be an affirmation of the human body in all its fleshy, beautiful reality. Now, I see Rembrandt that way, but Freud’s portraiture and nude figures are essentially cruel. Painters I know very much admire (as they might put it) his facture, about which I’m pretty ignorant, so I’ll suppose they’re right. That might heighten rather than ameliorate the repulsiveness, however: that someone’s moral disease is fully and intensely expressed doesn’t make it non-repulsive. Quite the reverse, and the worst thing about the Marquis de Sade might’ve been that he could really write; that’s how he made sadism compelling.

I find Lucian Freud’s art repellant, though I admit that I might be seeing it a bit through the life. But Francis Bacon’s paintings are repellant by acclamation. A review by James Cahill of a recent Bacon bio gives the usual sketch. After, as legend has it, being introduced to sex and riding crops by horse grooms in his father’s stables (which has the flavour of a lie or fantasy, I remark), “his mind seldom moved from the facts of love, death, massacre, and madness, in whatever form he could seize upon them.”

Plucking a few emblematic anecdotes from a vast wealth of degradation, Cahill recounts Bacon’s relationship with Peter Lacy. “The sadomasochism of their relationship unravelled into dangerous mutual dependency and violence, which didn’t preclude acts of rape against Bacon—and, on one occasion an attack in which Lacy hurled him from an upstairs window. When Bacon was holed up in a temporary house in Henley in 1954, close to Lacy’s house, he was visited by a local girl of thirteen [and her father]. They found Bacon sleeping on makeshift bedding, ’out of his mind with drink, pee on the floor, hadn’t changed for days.”

That turns out to be a pretty typical evening in the life of Bacon; it’s portrayed as the price of genius. But Bacon’s consistently shown seeking out such situations and eroticizing them in his abject way.

Like the tales about Freud, such stories are typically followed by a redeeming moment. The 13-year-old girl, for heaven’s sake, remembers that Bacon awoke and in a beautiful voice started discoursing about good and evil. People remember the sexual abuse that Freud dealt out to them, or the incredibly, enthusiastically degraded condition of Bacon, and then they talk about the luminous eyes, or the amazing disquisitions about T.S. Eliot. It tends to go like this: yes, he raped me, or—at his insistence—I him. Yes, he took me down into a nightmare of addiction and a bunch of our friends and lovers have committed suicide. But I really learned a lot. And those eyes!

It’s certainly more blameworthy to be the perpetrator than the victim of rape. Forced to choose, I’d say that Freud was a worse person than Bacon. But forced to choose, I’d rather look at Freud’s paintings. Perhaps all the destructive behaviour doesn’t make the art worse. But all the destructive behaviour certainly doesn’t make the art better, which is exactly what all these biographers and critics and art collectors keep implying. What the hell are they fascinated with, and why, they ought to as themselves.

We’ll not be separating these men’s art from their lives any time soon. But I still think, as when I first saw Freud’s and Bacon’s work decades ago and knew nothing about their biographies, that the art stands up: it’s repulsive all on its own.




             Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon having lunch at Wheeler’s Restaurant in Soho, London, March, 1963, photographed by John Deakin






10 top galleries — and what you can buy at them



Next Monday, shops and commercial galleries reopen.


Rachel Campbell-Johnston picks the best from round the country

— and gives you a fantasy shopping list





On-screen looking is simply not on a par with the living encounter. From next Monday our commercial galleries will be reopening. Don’t wait another month for the public museums to do the same (on May 17). Britain’s independent art spaces frequently put on top-quality shows. What’s more, being smaller and more intimate, they can offer a more intense experience than the massive blockbuster.

Better yet, if you find yourself falling in love with an artwork you won’t have to make do with the gift shop postcard.

This exhibition looks at Francis Bacon’s friendship with the photographer Peter Beard. Bacon not only captured Beard’s impossibly beautiful face in three painted triptychs, but found inspiration in his powerful images of slaughtered game. Beard, in return, photographed Bacon.

Buy Photograph of Francis Bacon at Work, 7 Reece Mews by Peter Beard, £72,000. Think your home is a bit of a lockdown mess? Take a look at Bacon’s studio and feel relieved that it hasn’t yet come to that.




                                                                  Francis Bacon at Work, 7 Reece Mews, London   PETER BEARD






Richard Feigen obituary




Foremost art dealer in old master paintings and diehard elitist

who was unafraid to offend those he saw as ‘cultural vandals’





In 1959 Richard Feigen put on Francis Bacon’s second exhibition in the United States. Bacon announced his intention to attend, but Feigen panicked and dissuaded him on learning that “I was expected to line up some young boys for him, and that I should be a bit wary lest he use a little knife he carried around to slash any earlier painting he felt like disowning”.

Although only one of 14 paintings sold, at $1,300 the most expensive, the show had a marked effect on American avant-garde painters and later it was Feigen’s justified boast that “there isn’t a major museum in the world, almost none, where I don’t see something that I was involved in”.

Feigen became one of the foremost dealers in old master paintings but he worked on a much broader canvas, handling works from the 14th century to contemporary. If a work represented the cutting edge of the time, then it was for him, whether it be by Duccio or Giotto, Bonington or Beckmann.

He was a passionate elitist, utterly unafraid to offend those he regarded as cultural vandals, whether museum authorities deaccessioning treasures, billionaires buying mass-produced contemporary investment art, or the dealers who supply them; he was ready to name and, if at all possible, shame them. Among others he excoriated were “hack political opportunists, affirmative culture activists, guardians of ‘family values’, Bible-belting fundamentalists, strategic planners, management consultants [and] box-office impresarios”.

Richard Lee Feigen was born in 1930 in Chicago, the son of Anthony Feigen, a lawyer, and his wife Shirley Bierman Feigen. His father played the violin and they encouraged his interest in art and antiques, but they were not collectors. For Feigen, however, the desire to possess art was evident from boyhood. By 12 he had outgrown the probationary phase of coins and stamps and moved on to drawings and paintings. In a late interview he revealed that he still had one of the first items he bought: a watercolour by the Regency caricaturist Isaac Cruikshank. He had raised the money for it by selling a collection of moustache cups.

After school in Chicago he took a hybrid art history and English literature course at Yale, followed by Harvard Business School. False starts in investment insurance in California, on the New York stock exchange and, very briefly, with Goldman Sachs, made him realise that such a career would bore him and he returned to Chicago to open his first gallery in 1957. He had been collecting all the while, especially the German expressionists, and his first exhibition was “Masterpieces of Twentieth-Century German Art”, from his own collection, as he had no stock.

His ambition was to make the city a serious art world centre, and for a while he represented leading local artists, notably Claes Oldenburg. He was also an early champion of others from further afield including Bacon, Jean Dubuffet, Joseph Cornell and Ray Johnson.

By 1963 his Chicago artists were more interested in making their names in New York and his own interest in other areas of the art market led to him shifting operations to a series of Manhattan galleries. He commissioned one building from Hans Hollein, a young Austrian architect who had previously designed only a small candle shop in Vienna. It opened with a Monet show, which was covered on national television. In 2019 he donated Carlo Saraceni’s altarpiece The Dormition of the Virgin to the Met, not only to mark the museum’s 150th anniversary, but to honour its present director, Max Hollein, the architect’s son.

For some years he maintained a presence in Chicago, and in 1968, together with Oldenburg, he persuaded 11 galleries to put on protest exhibitions in response to Mayor Richard Daley’s chaotic handling of the Democratic National Convention and the “police riot” against anti-Vietnam war demonstrators. He also hosted an event for Shirley Chisholm, the first woman and African-American to campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

In New York he ran a contemporary gallery in Soho for some years, while his East 69th Street headquarters continued to show 19th and 20th-century masters, but turned more to earlier schools, Italian mannerism and baroque, French neoclassicism and British landscape, notably Wilson, Bonington and Turner.

He married three times and divorced twice, firstly Sandra Canning Walker Kasper in 1966, with whom he had a daughter and son, Philippa Feigen Malkin and Richard Feigen; secondly in 1998 Margaret Langan; and thirdly in 2007 Countess Isabelle Harnoncourt, a director of the Salzburg Festival Society, who brought him three step-children, Stephanie, Alexander and Leonie Harnoncourt Wisowaty.

Feigen was as renowned for his straight-dealing and talking as for his eye, and made it a rule never to recommend anything to a museum or private client that he would not like to own himself.

He described himself as a collector in dealer’s clothing, who always extended himself “beyond what I could afford. I’ve never bought a great object for myself that I could afford.”

Richard Feigen, art dealer, was born on August 8, 1930. He died of Covid-19 on January 29, 2021, aged 90




                                                             Feigen in 1975 with a 17th-century work by Claude Lorrain, for which he paid $2,500





Francis Bacon was an elusive figure.


A new biography presents novel details of his iconoclastic existence.







Swollen, distorted, painted in bruised mauves and imprisoned in triptychs, the figures in Francis Bacon’s art are among the indelible images of the 20th century. In a new biography, Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan strive to bring into focus the elusive figure of the artist himself.

There already exist pleasurably dishy memoirs of Bacon’s prime by his inner circle. Stevens and Swan, who spent a decade researching “Francis Bacon: Revelations,” aim for a more complete portrait. Bacon himself was tight-lipped about his activities before the exhibition in 1945 of his breakthrough “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion.” He actively discouraged biographers. But Stevens and Swan are excellent investigators, presenting novel details of Bacon’s early affairs, his short-lived interior-design career and the two years he spent in Hampshire during World War II, when asthma forced his retreat from London.


The book is bejeweled with sensuous detail. We smell the Potter’s Asthma Cure in the wheezing infant Bacon’s bedroom. We glimpse “phosphorescent liquid” sprinkled on Hyde Park to divert German bomber airships away from populated zones during the Great War. We hear “the screams of men being lashed in blood-spattered cells” in the Irish prisons that young Francis trots past.

Such flourishes, which, in true Bacon style, speak “directly on the nervous system,” may well have pleased the artist. “I lived through the revolutionary Irish movement, Sinn Fein, and the wars,” he once explained, “Hiroshima, Hitler, the death camps, and daily violence that I’ve experienced all my life.” Occasionally histrionic descriptions of his life and most famous paintings are thus entirely concordant. “The most disturbing aspect of the carnage is the frenzied brilliance of the killing brush,” Stevens and Swan declare about “Three Studies for a Crucifixion” (1962). “Bacon’s painterly freedom echoes the hysterical letting-go of slaughter and blood lust.” Vivid.

Stevens and Swan suggest that Bacon’s childhood — lonely, sickly, violent, not without psychosexual drama — provided the “physical jolt” that catalyzed his art. It seems as likely that his pleasure in deviance was innate. His interest in crime, violent sex and death, all enthusiastically embraced and manifest in his work, often feel more like natural blossoms than the flowers of trauma.

Which is not to say that his life was without trauma. Parental coldness, childhood isolation, the dangers of gay life in an unsympathetic age: all must have affected Bacon. The openings of two major retrospectives were overshadowed by the deaths of lovers. But because tragic events only seemed to confirm his notions of life, one is left with the impression that he rather enjoyed a spot of devastation.

Stevens and Swan are strong on the Aeschylean patterning of Bacon’s life. The overdose of his muse George Dyer on the eve of his 1971 retrospective in Paris was, they say, a “cruel rhyme” with the death of ex-boyfriend Peter Lacy during his Tate exhibition nine years earlier — albeit with grimmer details. After securing a hotelier’s agreement to keep Dyer’s bathroom demise quiet till after the opening reception, Bacon spent the evening at the Grand Palais with Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí and President Georges Pompidou before a painting that depicted Dyer, with dark irony, “slumped over the loo” — the very tableau he’d grimly burlesqued in death. Bacon’s “art no longer seemed an exaggeration. It was the truth, imperfectly concealed by a party.” He later returned repeatedly to the hotel where George had died — a “private ritual of expiation.”

But while his life had “moments of intense melancholy and despair,” merriment went largely uncurbed.

That merriment took place in Soho, where Bacon reigned as demon king, scarfing oysters and drinking champagne night after night. His relationship with Lucian Freud, close till Freud’s sales took off, is examined in depth, as are friendships with subjects Isabel Rawsthorne, Henrietta Moraes, and Muriel Belcher — welcome reminders that his world wasn’t just a boys’ club. Memorable, too, is Valerie Beston — “Valerie from the Gallery” — who, effectively, managed Bacon for years, perhaps saving many artworks from destruction (he was notoriously brutal with his paintings).

The iconoclastic charm of the artist keeps the pages turning. Breezily, outrageously gay when it was neither fashionable nor legal, here Bacon — whether booing Princess Margaret, declaring his attraction to Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi or bragging that he’d bought the house he’d be murdered in — is truly the nihilist-satyr of legend, “a rush of night air into England’s stuffy room.”

Bacon once said that telling his life story “would take a Proust.” A tall order — though Stevens and Swan do share a Proustian eye for the social whirl and the encroachments of “time and the wrecking ball.”

As an old man, Bacon might even be said to resemble Proust’s sadomasochistic Baron de Charlus, counting off the dead in a society completely transformed in his lifetime. One of the achievements of “Revelations” is to capture this social change alongside the life of its subject. It’s a portrait of vanished worlds, of a 20th-century style of darkness now past. Our fresh horrors await new geniuses.

Charles Arrowsmith is based in New York and writes about books, films and music.  Francis Bacon: Revelations by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan. Knopf. 880pp. $60



                                                                                       “Three Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards,” 1980, by Francis Bacon






Francis Bacon Revelations by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan




The beauty of this book about the ‘asthmatic homosexual painter of nightmares’ is in the detail, from

vivid scenes of London life to Bacon brushing his teeth with Vim, but his genius remains unexplained,

says Melanie McDonagh






This comprehensive biography of Francis Bacon by two Pulitzer-winning Americans from Newsweek is, unlike any picture by Bacon, full of fascinating detail. But like his blurry screaming popes, the central figure somehow manages to get away.

Bacon was famously reticent about his early life story, presenting himself as a self-made artist who came from nowhere. But he did, and this biography is especially interesting about his early life.

Bacon was a changeling. He was the product of an English family who moved to Ireland, remote descendants of the famous Francis Bacon, and who constituted a working example of Brendan Behan’s definition of the Anglo-Irish: a Protestant on a horse.

His granny on his mother’s side, the engaging Granny Supple, was a terrific character, about to embark on her fourth marriage when she died. His mother was affectionate and had no artistic inclinations; when Bacon sent her later some of his avant garde furniture, she stuck it in her bathroom. His father was a military man with a temper, interested almost solely in horses and who was the most unlikely progenitor imaginable of an asthmatic homosexual painter of nightmares.

There was, in fact, nothing in his background to explain what Francis Bacon became, though it’s possible that his father’s grooms were his first sexual initiators. His family was gentry, Protestant, philistine. His early supporter - and, we learn here, possible lover Eric Allden observed that he could not fathom how Bacon emerged from this particular family. “I cannot see that his characteristics came from either of them.”

Bacon would later observe, “Well, I’m awfully glad I was brought up properly”. Those nice manners stood him in good stead later, as he flitted from London, to Paris, to Monte Carlo, to Tangiers, sponging off his friends and gambling to pay his tailors. His old nanny, Jessica Lightfoot, remained his companion until her death, at one point charging visitors to his studio to use the loo. Indeed the authors suggest that at one point, the dear old soul scoured the small ads in the papers for gentlemen who might pay Bacon for sexual services to keep them going, which may be taking speculation a bit far.

But what made Bacon an artist, one with an inexorable bent for horror, despair and alienation? We learn of his experiences during the Irish war of independence, when Protestant big houses were vulnerable to attack from republicans… young Francis was caught once in an IRA ambush, with his granny’s husband shepherding him across the fields, with gunmen somewhere out there in the dark.

That may have curdled his imagination: “[The fighting] confirmed for him that his inward feelings of isolation, alienation and foreboding were not an anomaly”. As for the seismic events of the twentieth century, he was too young to experience the First World War, except the dim threat of Zeppelins, and his service in the second was briefly that of ambulance driver in the Blitz (already asthmatic, he spent the night with a dog before attending military recruitment to be passed unfit).

He never had any formal artistic training, though his early supporter, the Australian aesthete, Roy de Maistre, according to one observer, “basically taught him how to lay paint on a canvas”. There were several critics who actually praised Bacon’s draughtsmanship but what’s evident is that he couldn’t draw…one benefit of his famously textural approach to painting was that he didn’t need to, especially hands or feet. Yet Wyndham Lewis observed that “of the younger painters, none actually paints so beautifully as Francis Bacon. I have seen paintings of his that remind me of Velasquez…Bacon is one of the most powerful artists in Europe today and he is perfectly in tune with his time.”

So how was that hellish imagination formed? We never find out. All we know is that Bacon was driven by a demonic vision of his own. By 1932, his cousin, Diana Watson observed that he was bent on being an artist and “his mind seldom moved from the facts of love, death, massacre and madness, in whatever form he could seize on them”.

Perhaps he never knew himself. Later, when he was resident in the Royal College of Art where he did no teaching whatever, he was invited to award prizes for students’ work. Instead he observed, “I am told that I should give three prizes but as the paintings all appear equally dull I can’t do that”.

Understandably disgruntled, a student asked why. “Because”, he answered, “they are based on someone else’s painting”. The inevitable riposte came that his recent show of screaming popes was based on Velasquez. Bacon, flustered, simply couldn’t explain himself.

But pace the title, there are lots of revelations about his formation. He was certainly influenced by a trip to Berlin in 1927 in the company of his cousin, Cecil Harcourt Smith, a man who shocked even Bacon by his sadism and deviance. But it was the months he spent in Paris, where he was adopted by Yvonne Bocquentin, a French lady delighted by his humour and gentlemanly ways, which helped make him an artist; he would spend days at galleries, returning home with Cubist sketches and he encountered works by Picasso. But his career began with interior decoration in Paris and in London he was taken up by the lesbian Madge Garland, an arbiter of style.

Bacon was always at ease with women, from his abiding friendship with his cousin, Diana Watson to  Erica Brausen, a German lesbian and an unwavering backer, who took one look at his hellish Painting 1946, and went out and drew £200 in fivers to buy it. Then there were Isabella Rawsthorne, Sonia Orwell, Henrietta Moraes and Muriel Belcher, Queen of the Colony Rooms, who kept him in champagne

But his most powerful early supporter was Herbert Read, the prescient art critic who included the young Bacon’s haunting Crucifixion 1933 – Christ as X-ray – opposite Picasso in his enormously influential book, Art Now, published the same year.

Bacon’s lovers ranged from Eric Hall, an actual Tory Alderman, to Peter Lacy, a febrile Catholic airman and pianist who, we learn, beat and raped Bacon; certainly he tipped him out of a window 15 feet above ground on one occasion (Bacon, drunk, was unscathed). That shocked even Lucian Freud.

And then there was George Dyer, a small time criminal, whose death from an overdose left Bacon bereft.

Really, the beauty of this book isn’t that it unlocks the enigma of Bacon, but is in the fabulous detail. London life at the time was way more fun than ours. There’s a comic description here of how Bacon booed Princess Margaret’s efforts to warble Let’s Do It at Lady Rothermere’s ball; the hostess, later Sonia Orwell, was smitten.

Then there was the wedding celebration he threw for his friends, Michael Wishart and Ann Dunne, which lasted four days with very little food and unlimited champagne, and concluded with a sea walk in Wivenhoe.

The authors are unfailingly clichéd in their descriptions of English life, but still, the quotes are fabulous. Consider this account by Michael Wishart of Bacon’s makeup for a night out: “He applied the basic foundation with lightning dexterity born of long practice.  He was more careful, even sparing, of the rouge. For his hair he had a selection of Kiwi boot polishes in various browns. He blended these on the back of his hand, selecting a tone appropriate for the particular evening and brushed them through his abundant hair with a shoe brush. He polished his teeth with Vim. He looked remarkably young, even before this alchemy.”

Vim? Unforgettable.

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




         Last Martini in Madrid: Bacon at Bar Cock in the days just before he died.  Courtesy of José Astiarraga, Bar Cock, Madrid.






How 20th-century artists rescued the Crucifixion




After centuries of sanitisation, modern representations

have imbued Christ’s death with its original potency





Two millennia ago, in the outer reaches of the empire, the Romans performed a routine execution of a Galilean rebel. Tortured and publicly humiliated in front of family and friends, Jesus of Nazareth was slowly asphyxiated over six hours.

The Crucifixion is the centrepiece of Christianity. But artists have long adapted the devotional image of the Cross for their own purposes. As far back as the early 5th century, woodcarvers working on a door for the Basilica of Santa Sabina in Rome crafted a Christ whose palms are impaled with nails, but who is not hung on a cross. A devotional statue in Panama dating from the 17th century made Christ not Middle Eastern, but black African. James Tissot (c. 1890) and Salvador Dali (in 1951) radically altered our sense of the scene by treating it from the divine perspective.

Yet from the mid-20th century onwards the Crucifixion became a vehicle for artists of great faith and none to get visceral and political. In contrast to the classic depictions from the Spanish Golden Age by Alonso Cano (c. 1635) and Diego Velazquez (c. 1632), these artists reclaimed the Crucifixion for what it was — a repulsive spectacle and a raw human image.

One of the most outrageous reworkings is by a Catholic — the American artist Andres Serrano, whose ‘Immersion, Piss Christ’ (1987) is a photograph of a crucifix dunked in a jar of the artist’s concentrated urine. Thinking ‘Piss Christ’ sacrilegious, believers in the United States protested — and completely missed the point. After centuries of sanitised portrayals of a galling public execution, it took Serrano to resurrect the ignominy of Golgotha.

Serrano’s piece places us, the viewers, in the position of the witnesses — Joseph of Arimathea, the Marys and the rest who watched as nails were beaten into their friend’s flesh, heard the taunts of the thief beside him, and had no idea this was not the end. ‘Piss Christ’ is a religious piece of rare power. It challenges us to see beyond the clichés of the Crucifixion and reimbues Christ’s death with its original potency.

Serrano wasn’t the first to produce a radical version of the Crucifixion. Responding to the horrors of the 20th century, artists returned to the Cross to frame their contemporary protests.

The Belarusian Jew Marc Chagall, who frequently depicted Old Testament scenes, was compelled to liken the persecution of European Jews in the 1930s to the torture of a Galilean one in the AD 30s. By substituting Christ’s crown of thorns for a white headcloth, and his loin-garment for a prayer shawl, Chagall’s ‘White Crucifixion’ (1938) emphasises Jesus’s Jewishness. The figures that surround Jesus are not his followers, but Jews fleeing pogroms.

The Crucifixion was also recast in the light of Jewish suffering by Graham Sutherland, a Catholic convert. His ‘Crucifixion’ (1946), commissioned for St Matthew’s church in Northampton, draws on photographs of the survivors of Buchenwald, Belsen and Auschwitz. It’s harrowing, showing Christ’s protruding ribs and disfigured shoulders.

Sutherland’s friend Francis Bacon, by contrast, repeatedly applied the motif in ways that seem to have little correlation with Christ’s death. In ‘Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion’ (1944), Francis Bacon removes any clear depiction of Christ at all. There are instead three monstrous figures framed in triptych. The painting suggests not redemption but the triumph of demons. For Bacon, as for many in 1944 when he painted it, Christ feels absent.

Bacon saw the Crucifixion not in theological terms but as a metaphor for humans’ capacity for cruelty. ‘As a non-believer,’ he explained, Christ’s execution ‘was just an act of Man’s behaviour to another.’ Enticed by its rawness, Bacon used the theme voraciously. At a 2008 retrospective, Tate Britain devoted an entire room to his Crucifixions.

Bacon may have changed what Crucifixion art could be, but even when he upended the tone and content, he remained influenced by orthodox portrayals. His simplest, from 1933, shows a ghoulish, skeletal, animalistic figure with a translucent body, reminiscent of those by Cano, Velazquez and Goya.

Slaughterhouses, Bacon believed, belonged to the Crucifixion. In Bacon’s ‘Three Studies for a Crucifixion’ (1962) Golgotha becomes an abattoir, and his Christ an animal carcass. The allusion is emphasised by the undulating shape of the cadaver, which recalls the twisted form and skeletal fingers of Cimabue’s Crucifix (c. 1265) in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence.

Fernando Botero also rages against a violent world, but approaches the Golgotha scene with dry humour. Turning away from the classic, beautiful depictions of Christ from the Spanish Golden Age, the Colombian applies his customary unflattering eye to ‘The Crucifixion’ (2011). Botero’s Christ is portly and undignified. Christ’s chubbiness and Botero’s smooth brushwork contrast dramatically with his crucifixion.

Like Gauguin, whose ‘Yellow Christ’ is crucified not in Jerusalem but the French countryside, Botero relocates Golgotha to Central Park. Instead of Jerusalem’s ancient walls, Manhattan skyscrapers fill the background. The painting is part of a series that compares the Way of the Cross to Colombia’s violence, of which the US has long been a root cause. Christ’s body is depicted in rust-green like the Statue of Liberty. Past the giant cross and green Christ, park-goers blithely push prams.

Twentieth-century artists may have provoked the ire of believers with their interpretations but they rescued an image made mundane by centuries of sanitisation, recapturing the original feeling of witnessing Christ’s execution.





The Brilliance in Francis Bacon’s Early Failures




A new biography of the painter sheds light on a little-known period

of his life: the time he spent working as an interior designer.






In 2013, Francis Bacon’s painting Three Studies of Lucian Freud sold for $142 million, setting the world record (since surpassed) for the most expensive painting sold at auction. His second and third highest-selling paintings, one of which was sold as recently as the summer of 2020, place him firmly in the art-market ranks of Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, and other blue-chip masters. The similarities between Bacon’s three top sellers are clear. Each piece is composed of three panels and, as in much of his work, the central figures are grotesquely distorted: bodies compressed at their joints, expanded into fleshy puddles, coerced into jumbled parts. As with the best evocative art, many of Bacon’s paintings inspire discomfiting questions. Are Freud’s hands gruesomely melting or surreally clasped? Is he one- or three-legged? Is he lounging and relaxed, or is he caged, on the verge of a violent uncoiling?

These questions arise from a central tension, not just between what we might expect a portrait to look like and Bacon’s warped rendering, but between the body and the room it inhabits. Bacon’s rooms aren’t passive settings: They close in on and clash with the bodies inside them. Freud’s body, for instance, is conscribed by a rectilinear structure built around (or extending out of) a bed’s headboard. He sits on a delicate wooden chair, its casually curved legs and cane-woven bottom reminiscent of the spare chair one might keep in a closet. The simmering tension between the familiar space and the freakish, distorted figure is a quiet but major part of the work’s allure. Baconian settings—which abound with doors, walls, windows, carpets, curtains, chairs, beds, and banisters—help stabilize the chaos and orient the gore. However—as the Bacon biographers Annalyn Swan and Mark Stevens explore in their sprawling new biography, Francis Bacon: Revelations—the carefully painted rooms of Bacon’s oeuvre were not the first that he designed.

Bacon, before most people had heard of him in the late 1920s and early ’30s, was briefly an interior designer. “A little-known fact that we discovered,” Swan explains in the 2017 BBC Documentary Bacon: A Brush With Violence, is that Bacon “was for three or four years part of a very important design and interior-decorating world.” He might even have studied—as the authors report in Revelations—in the workshops of such avant-garde designers as Evelyn Wyld, Elizabeth Eyre de Lanux, and Ivan da Silva Bruhns (the latter’s rugs are now auctioned for hundreds of thousands of dollars). Bacon was already sketching and painting, even as he was designing. But at age 18, he likely regarded a painting career as an intimidating, if intriguing, possibility—one that he lacked the formal training, connections, and overall artistic vision to fully indulge. The adjacent world of design was more accessible. “Bacon would only have to display an interest,” Swan and Stevens explain, and the design community would welcome him. And welcome him it did.

For a painter whose fascination with the grisly would eventually result in depictions of figures hacked to bits on a bed, shrieking into the void, or nailed to a mattress by a hypodermic syringe, Bacon excelled in a design style that was exceptionally sleek and clean. Born in 1909, he was in his teens and early 20s by the time postwar aesthetics took hold. The Bauhaus movement, for one, made quick work of disassembling the leafy tendrils and sweeping arabesques of the past Art Nouveau era. Organic, foliate forms were replaced with a crisper geometry. Circles, squares, and triangles found expression in cradles and tea infusers. A jointless steel chair was a triumph both material and existential—indeed, with its emphasis on seamlessness, Bauhaus took on universal and even democratic aspirations.

In addition to Bauhausian simplicity, Bacon enjoyed other modern, cubistic forms of design, as well as Art Deco trends, which used geometry a bit more ornately. These included the work of the designer Eileen Gray, whose showroom Bacon had apparently come across in 1928 while living in Paris (around the same time he studied in design workshops). Like most visitors, he was galvanized by what he saw. “Suddenly,” Swan and Stevens write of Gray’s studio, “the known world of rooms looked undone and emptied out, replaced by light, a few simple forms, and exhilarating open spaces.” This sight was one of the major aesthetic shocks Bacon experienced in Paris. Another was his first encounter with Picasso’s work, which sent Bacon reeling. “At that moment,” Bacon explained in an interview with the British art critic David Sylvester, “I thought, Well, I will try and paint too.” But paint like a master he could not. Not yet. Design like one, well—he could try. Or he could imitate.

By the next year, Bacon had opened his own design studio at 17 Queensberry Mews, London. He had sleek business cards made: “Francis Bacon,” they announced, “Modern Decoration, Furniture in Metal, Glass and Wood/Rugs and Lights.” A sign outside the studio read FRANCIS BACON, DESIGNER. According to Revelations, the space itself, a former automobile garage with lofted ceilings, offered “a beguiling mix of radiant white, gleaming steel, mirrored glass, boxy chairs, animal skins, and mysterious geometries.”

If Bacon’s glass-topped tables looked suspiciously like Gray’s (they did), his wooden bench “was an almost exact copy” of an earlier Gray design. Still, in London—considered less artistically adventurous than the booming Berlin and Paris—Bacon’s studio made a splash. The influential British critic Madge Garland (whom Bacon had befriended) glowingly covered it, praising the studio’s windows—“curtained with white rubber sheeting, that hangs in sculptural folds”—and its rugs, which she admired as “purely thought forms.” The article generated attention and brought Bacon a few commissions, one of which inspired a subsequent review, likely also written, Swan and Stevens surmise, by Garland: “It is not often that you find painters turning into decorators, but … Francis Bacon has done this with marked success.”

That “turn,” of course, never happened, although Garland would have had good reason to expect it. By that point in 1934, Bacon had experienced a massive humiliation in his still-fragile painting career: He had put together the first solo exhibition of his paintings, which he had worked on concurrently with his designs; the show was sparsely attended and censured in the press for expressing more of the artist’s angst than his painterly skill. And yet, maybe confounding to Garland, it was the design world that Bacon mysteriously abandoned. Perhaps he felt he had pushed against design’s limits. A shapely rug or chair can take on only so much nuance (or expression of internal rage). Perhaps he sensed that he needed to test the constraints of paint, not so that he might conform to those constraints, but so that he might learn to exploit them most expressively

Later in life, as Bacon accrued success with his shock-inducing paintings, he began to carefully reconstruct his past. Those decorating years? “He never mentioned” them, Bacon’s friend and biographer Michael Peppiatt explains in A Brush With Violence. “Decoration was one of the foulest words in his vocabulary after that.” Swan and Stevens back this up, writing that Bacon “went to great lengths in later life to conceal his early years … especially his life as a designer.” Why? No one is sure. Perhaps Bacon did not fail spectacularly enough as a designer. For a man whose difficult upbringing only enhanced his seemingly lifelong drive toward masochism and self-mythologizing, the most repulsive thing about his design years might have been their mediocrity. The contemporary artist Damien Hirst, a fellow record-setter, who owns one of Bacon’s earliest works, claims in A Brush With Violence that you can feel Bacon in these years “almost egging himself on to be confident enough to paint,” perhaps in the same way that Willem de Kooning and Andy Warhol used their commercial-art experiences to help inform their eventual mastery. The difference is that those artists readily admitted to their history. Bacon, perhaps preferring to seem preternaturally fully formed, did not.

Yet the design years’ influence is huge. Take Bacon’s painting of Freud. Not only does the immaculately painted room feel eerily emptied out (think of Gray’s “exhilarating open spaces”), but its clean geometric lines are direct echoes of the design styles with which Bacon once engaged. Bacon is, in fact, at his most profound when objects and bodies feel like rooms unto themselves—when his faces show us geometric panoramas of their profiles, reveal to us the torn hemispheric circles of skin and the curved sinew beneath them. In certain portraits, a viewer can practically descend into a subject’s eye socket as though down a spiral staircase. Recall Bacon’s studio and its half-circle glass tabletop, or the sculptural folds of its rubber curtains—are they not expressed in the famously bulbous tips of his figures’ heads, in the pleated, sculptural curves of the umbrella of death? It’s no surprise, then, to read in Revelations that one of Bacon’s painting tools was “a T-square used in his designer days, which remained in his studio for the rest of his life.” Caught in a design aesthetic that sought to efface the grisly, Bacon wanted to indulge it, and he would succeed in doing so. What he did try to efface was the role design played along the way.

SOPHIE MADELINE DESS is a critic and writer based in New York.




           An outtake from The Studio photo shoot that Bacon sent to his mother.





New ‘Revelations’ in the Life of Francis Bacon,

a Master of Darkness and Distortion






The ball was given by a Lady Rothermere, but it was Princess Margaret everyone would remember, in typical, regrettable form. She had gotten hold of a microphone and was belting out Cole Porter, passionately off-key, and trying to dance (“wriggling,” according to one observer). The crowd responded with dutiful enthusiasm — all except one man, who began to loudly boo, until Margaret fled, near tears.

“It was that dreadful man, Francis Bacon,” the writer Caroline Blackwood recalled one guest saying. “He calls himself a painter but he does the most frightful paintings. I just don’t understand how a creature like him was allowed to get in here. It’s really quite disgraceful.”

Bacon was serene. “Her singing was really too awful,” he later said. “Someone had to stop her. I don’t think people should perform if they can’t do it properly.”

It’s a neat encapsulation of the artist and the man: his fearlessness and indifference to outrage; the glint of cruelty and, always, the earnest invocation of standards. His own led him to slash and destroy his paintings, feed them to the incinerator at the local dump, line them up facing the wall like bad children. Above all, this anecdote indicates the electric quality of his presence; everything he did was memorable — his utterances, his parties. Where Bacon went, a story followed.

It’s a neat encapsulation of the artist and the man: his fearlessness and indifference to outrage; the glint of cruelty and, always, the earnest invocation of standards. His own led him to slash and destroy his paintings, feed them to the incinerator at the local dump, line them up facing the wall like bad children. Above all, this anecdote indicates the electric quality of his presence; everything he did was memorable — his utterances, his parties. Where Bacon went, a story followed.

He died in 1992. his life spanned the century. “The first modern painter of international caliber that the British have produced,” the art historian John Richardson called him. He seemed to explode out of nowhere from the rubble of postwar Britain — an untaught, untamed figure, bearing paintings of flayed flesh and distorted mouths, with an aura of dark ceremony, the scent of incense and the abattoir.

This is the Bacon we know — creature of Stygian charm in dandy’s garb, whose own face was flayed by lovers, who flung him out of windows in the beatings he sought. His influences were Nietzsche and Aeschylus; his mode, “exhilarated despair.”

“A deep-end girl,” he called himself, not one “minnying along the sidewalk of life.”

In their new book, “Francis Bacon: Revelations,” Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, awarded the Pulitzer Prize for their 2004 biography of Willem de Kooning, argue that Bacon discouraged investigations into his life because he still harbored “one big secret.”

I sat up in my chair, too. What remains to be known? “Bacon was exhibitionistically frank about the traumatic adolescent events that would define his role as an artist as well as a lover,” according to Richardson. There exists a shelf of excellent, gossipy accounts of his life, many by his friends, full of Bacon’s stories about his childhood, its isolation and grim thrills.

He suffered terribly from asthma and was kept apart from other children, sent to school very late and regarded as freakish by his father, whose sole interest in life was fox hunting (a practice Oscar Wilde called “the unspeakable chasing the uneatable”). There are various accounts of the young Bacon being raped by the stable grooms, or submitting to thrashings ordered by his father. When caught wearing his mother’s underwear, he was sent away to Berlin, with the first of the sexual monsters who would later become a fixation — an older cousin who raped him repeatedly. Later, there was deep love — many loves, in fact — characterized by longevity, friendship and the ritualistic violence that was the motor for his inspiration.

What remains to tell? “It was Bacon’s secret that he was not just a radical master of the 20th-century stage who exulted in the dark arts,” Stevens and Swan write. “He was simultaneously an Englishman suffused with longing for the ordinary patterns of joy and solace denied him as a child and young man.” It’s Bacon’s kindness and decency the authors take pains to evoke — his beautiful manners, his generosity. He paid the hospital bills of his friends. He was kind to old ladies.

I deflated along with you. What else do Bacon’s relationships, however outré, reveal but wild longing? Hadn’t he laid out those very connections for us? Does the fact that he was interested in abjection, on and off the canvas, preclude him from writing affectionate letters to his mother?

The authors, so frank on de Kooning’s private life, turn prim and almost anthropological when it comes to Bacon — and not even on the rough stuff. I began to hear the sentences in David Attenborough’s voice. On a friend of Bacon’s: “He had the further advantage, in the eyes of some homosexuals, of being remarkably well endowed.” (That fastidious “some”!) On Bacon’s tumultuous relationship with his great love, Peter Lacy: “Sexual violence was not healthy, of course, but ‘healthy’ was not the point for Bacon and Lacy, two homosexuals who grew up in difficult closeted homes.”

Happily, this leviathan of a book (just shy of 900 pages), contains at least a half dozen more profitable arguments. It is the most comprehensive and detailed account of the life, and one that topples central pillars of the Bacon myth.

Bacon cultivated the notion that he’d wandered into painting after a gloriously dissipated youth. In fact, he got his start in design, to his later embarrassment. He would label art he despised as “decoration.” Nor was he as untaught as he claimed; he took classes and learned a great deal from his painter friends. He was talented at seeking out mentors and, above all, a network of protective, powerful women, often lesbians, who opened doors for him in the crucial early years of his career. (As raffish as he was known to be, Bacon lived with his childhood nanny long into adulthood. She slept on the kitchen table and stayed on, even after she went blind.)

Few can parry like Bacon — and he was at his cagiest about his work, speaking abstractly of the importance of “chance” and “accident.” I completed “Revelations” with so many questions intact, about the politics of the man, the real nature of his relationship with religion — this artist who, when asked why he obsessively painted popes, responded that he merely wanted to use purple paint.

Bacon could be viciously self-critical (he later disavowed those popes). Critics love pointing out that he never did learn how to paint hands and had to rely on all kinds of splendid improvisations.

“Revelations” makes use of one splendid improvisation of its own. At the end of each chapter, there is a close reading of one painting. On “Head 1” — a brutal, exhilarating image; my pulse quickens to think about it: “A taut, tasseled line pulls upon the ear, as a schoolteacher might draw back the ear of a misbehaving student, and the exquisite tension of the line seems to release the face from the head, which then no longer appears to be an altogether human face.” Instead of embedding such sections into the life, dully hammering in connections, the work is cordoned off by a little white space. The space is just a line or two, but it makes an argument against automatically using the art to read the life or the other way around. In a book of such ambition and scope, it is finally — and fittingly, for an artist so private about his work — the modesty of this claim, of what can be known, that is its most moving achievement.

Francis Bacon: Revelations
 by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan. Illustrated. 861 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $60






                                                                                                       Francis Bacon, Head I, 1948






The dichotomies behind painter Francis Bacon’s work revealed




“...a definitive and compelling account of Bacon’s life, one which goes a long way towards

explaining why his art is so explosive and controversial... ”






ART critic Jonathan Jones asked a blunt question when he saw, in 2015, the exhibition Bacon and the Masters. At the Sainsbury Centre, University of East Anglia, Francis Bacon’s paintings were juxtaposed with works by Picasso, Velazquez and other greats. Jones demanded to know what Bacon had got to offer compared with Matisse and Bernini. I was shocked to read his eviscerating review, in the same way Jones had been when he witnessed the pairings, saying that he could ‘never take Bacon seriously again’.

Since then I have seen works by Francis Bacon, at the Crawford Gallery, Cork in the show Naked Truth: the Nude in Irish Art. One of them, Study for Portrait on Folding Bed depicts Francis Bacon’s lover, Peter Lacy. The painting looked quite impressive in its surroundings but I still had a niggling memory of Jones’s assertion that he could no longer bear to look at Bacon’s art, regarding him as an immoral, morbid imposter of a poseur.

Five years after Jones’s review it is interesting to consider Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan’s Francis Bacon: Revelations. The husband and wife team from New York portray Bacon’s life and work as an epitome of the twentieth century. They quote the cultural thinker John Berger when he said that ‘the personal drama of an artist reflects, within half a century, the crisis of an entire civilisation’. The biography is published as a companion piece for the exhibition Francis Bacon: Man and Beast which should have opened on 30th January 2021 at the Royal Academy, London. The postponement will give aficionados sufficient time to read and digest Stevens and Swan’s comprehensive account, one that is based on wide-ranging sources including substantial new materials, hundreds of interviews and a dedicated probing of the archives.

Of 850 pages the writers deploy over 700 of evidence and analysis appended by 150 of notes. In addition the type font is the tiniest, I imagine, permitted by law. All this amounts to a mind-bogglingly large number of words. The impressive looking tome, which took a decade to complete, benefits from some glossy colour plates as well as black and white illustrations and photographs. Its authors, experienced critics and writers, won a Pulitzer Prize for their earlier work on Willem de Kooning and so expectations for the couple’s second joint venture into biography run high.

Stevens and Swan do not share the views that Jonathan Jones voiced after his experience at the Sainsbury Centre. They do not regard Francis Bacon as a ‘con artist’. They seem more like a pair of compassionate, but firm, nannies. Bacon would probably have felt comfortable with them since he was so very fond of his own nanny, Jessie Lightfoot. This redoubtable woman not only cared for Francis and his siblings when they were children but became the artist’s companion in the years before her death in 1951.

Although Nanny hailed from impoverishment in Cornwall and knew her place, Major Bacon’s family behaved as if they were rich. They had aspirations, if not much money. Then the Major, Eddy, married the moneyed Winnie and they were able to live at Cannycourt, near Kilcullen, Co. Kildare. His second son, Francis, later derided his father calling him a ‘failed horse trainer’. But in 1909, when Francis was born, the family enjoyed the privileges of hunting, shooting and fishing and living a life that was more like that of landed gentry in the eighteenth rather than the twentieth century. Anglo-Irish mores were imbued to such an extent that Bacon, according to his sister Ianthe, professed to be glad that he had been brought up properly. He was in later years always, if he wished to, able to draw on, and display, perfect manners.

There was tension between the Major and Francis. As head of the house, Eddy took responsibility for administering drugs, including morphine, that the child needed for his asthma, but the father regarded his second born as a weakling. He never appreciated his artistic talents and regarded him with at best bemusement and at worst disgust. How could it be that he had emitted from his loins an aesthete, a wearer of hand-made shirts from Jermyn Street, a ‘sodomite’ and a successful artist? As Francis matured he and his mother and maternal grandmother formed a unit excluding his blustering, stern and awkward father.

The structure of Francis Bacon: Revelations is quite witty. Stevens and Swan name the first section ‘I’ and it is here that they cover the formative years of man and artist. Secondly they offer ‘Iconoclast’ and then finish up with ‘Icon’. Within the triptych of titles lies their central point. It is that the ambiguity of attitudes towards Bacon’s personality, the ‘I’, was an enduring dichotomy between abhorrence and rejection vying against adoration and respect.

Stevens and Swan show how these extreme emotions surrounded Francis Bacon throughout his life. They were first apparent to him in his childhood as he weighed his father’s cruelty against the intimacy that he shared with his nanny and his mother. He hated the countryside associated with riding but he was excited by the violence of fox hunting and the sexual attentions of some of his father’s grooms. Later he even admitted to fancying his stiff-collared, thick-necked, erect-postured paterfamilias. Let us hope that Eddy was blissfully unaware of this attraction.

When Bacon’s art emerged into the public eye it was met with similar oppositional reactions. Neither critics nor public could decide what to make of it, not realising, perhaps, that its conception occurred during those early years of Big House ambience with dogs, horses and bleeding carcasses brought home as trophies. The sights and smells emanating from the stable yard and the game room inspired the monstrous images that the canvasses depict.

There are many other biographies of Francis Bacon, some written by friends or acquaintances, others by more objective writers and, of course, there are dozens of books, gallery catalogues and articles discussing his art. None of these can be dismissed as boring because of the sensationalist nature of his work as well as his life.

But Stevens and Swan’s research exposes more. One example is the interview that Annalyn Swan conducted with Barry Joule in 2017. Joule, a friend and handyman, drove Bacon to the airport to catch his last flight: to Madrid where he spent his final days. Joule told Swan that he was to dispose of piles of materials culled from the atelier, what Joule called ‘the final clear-out’. Bacon’s studio, held in Dublin City Gallery – The Hugh Lane, provides one of the most fascinating Bacon resources for art students and culture vultures. But the studio had been sanitised or self-curated by Bacon before it was documented and preserved.

More salaciously Stevens and Swan offer an alternative assessment of Bacon’s relationship with one of his lovers, Peter Lacy. Previously presented merely as violent and destructive their affair is thoroughly explored and detailed in the biography. These revelations are the ones hitting the headlines and, one presumes, bringing in the sales.

There is no need to look further than Jonathan Jones for a summation of Bacon’s work. Only four years after his visit to East Anglia Jones was in London looking at Couplings at the Gagosian Grosvenor Hill Gallery. Using the word ‘sublime’ Jones compares paintings with work by Picasso and Michelangelo. Three months later he was in Paris at the Pompidou Centre attending Bacon en toutes lettres and nominating Bacon for the pantheon of European art, mentioning Velazquez in the same breath and revelling in the ‘great’ painting Two Figures. Jones does not know what he thinks but he is passionate about it either way. Stevens and Swan on the other hand, give thousands of telling details thus providing a definitive and compelling account of Bacon’s life, one which goes a long way towards explaining why his art is so explosive and controversial.





                                                                                                                         Francis Bacon: a divisive figure in the world of art. Pic: Michael Ward







A new biography gives us Francis Bacon in full







The received wisdom about artist Francis Bacon’s life goes: He painted like a maniac in his chaotic studio every day, drank like a maniac in London’s seedy Soho neighborhood every night.

There’s an element of truth in that. But it doesn’t take into account Bacon’s surprisingly well-to-do family background, his extensive travels in Europe and Africa, and his odd streak of social conservatism. (“I’m awfully glad I was brought up properly and I learned proper table manners,” he later told his sister — who herself wisecracked, “Not that he always used them.”)

Bacon’s friend Daniel Farson filled in some of the gaps in his aptly titled 1993 memoir, “The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon.” But Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, Pulitzer Prize winners for their biography De Kooning: An American Master, have given us a definitive life of Bacon in their hefty new Francis Bacon: Revelations.

Stevens and Swan furnish an exhaustive account, painting by painting, exhibition by exhibition, of how Bacon’s wild innovations in figurative art countered the mid-20th-century fashions for both abstract expressionism and pop art. They have great fun, too, as they chronicle Bacon’s wit, charm, extravagance, and cruelty, including some shocking abuses of friends, family, and art-world colleagues. Bacon enjoyed abuse, too, at the hands of his rough-trade boyfriends.

Bacon was born in Dublin in 1909 to a prosperous Anglo-Irish family. As a child he was “exposed to extraordinary wealth and luxury” in the homes of relatives and friends, but chronic asthma kept him mostly homebound. Danger of another kind came from IRA targeting of Anglo-Irish homes. (“The dark and moody atmosphere of the time pervaded Bacon’s early adolescence,” Stevens and Swan write.)

Bacon figured out early on that he, as he put it, “wasn’t normal,” and by the time he was 16, he set off to London, with his mother and grandmother helping him out financially. In London he pursued older men: “He wanted his lovers to seem heterosexual and, ideally, be handsome and powerful,” the authors write. “Not surprisingly, Bacon was catnip for the closeted.”

One of these men (“a real ultra-sadistic sadist”) whisked him off to Weimar Berlin in 1927. Later lovers and friends were more kindly mentors, guiding Bacon as he explored both his sexual and intellectual appetites.

After a false start as an interior designer, Bacon turned to painting, despite having no training or unusual knack for drawing. Unsuccessful at first, in part because “he did not know what his art should look like,” he kept himself going financially as “a gentleman’s companion.”

Eventually, of course, he grew surer of himself. “A thing has to arrive at a stage of deformity,” he declared, “before I can find it beautiful.” Older artists, including Australian painter Roy de Maistre and English artist Graham Sutherland, encouraged him. The critics weren’t so kind.

Then World War Two intervened. With the Blitz, the London art scene shut down. Bacon volunteered as an ambulance driver, but the flame-and-dust-choked city quickly made his asthma debilitating. Retreating to rural Hampshire, he had time to bring the key elements of his art together. By 1945, he was finding his signature style and becoming a name to reckon with.

Heavy drinking, compulsive gambling, and those dubious boyfriends made an anarchy of his life. But under gallery deadlines, he could concentrate and produce — though exhibits were frequently threatened or delayed by his nonchalant destruction of paintings that didn’t satisfy him.

The legendary bedlam of his studio, strewn with “dog-eared books, yellowing newsprint, torn images, beat-up boxes, empty cans,” was integral to his artmaking. “He rubbed dust from the studio into his paint to create texture and modulate tone, as if the studio itself were a partner in his efforts,” the authors write. “The mess became a kind of mulch, nourishing his imagination.”

As that passage suggests, Stevens and Swan are vivid scene setters. They’re also shrewd evaluators of the people in Bacon’s life, including painter Lucian Freud and Bacon’s doomed lovers Peter Lacy and George Dyer. They supply good context for Bacon’s career, noting how unusual Bacon’s commitment to the figure was at a time when abstract art was all the rage, especially in the US.

Figurative art in Bacon’s hands, of course, wasn’t a polite affair. His reinvention of the portrait and his novel uses for large-scale triptychs were simultaneously a response to the horrors of the mid-20th century and an expression of his own instinctively held truths.

Bacon saw the human body as a source for “rage and despair over the fraudulent constructs of civilized life,” the authors write. Yet his work, they add, also highlighted “a tigerish, paradoxical, and sometimes comic joy to be found in tearing off masks, shattering norms, and breaking constraints.” Bacon had no use for highfalutin aesthetic theories. “What I’ve always wanted to do,” he plainly stated, “is to make things that are very formal yet coming to bits.”

As for the man, Stevens and Swan give full due to his mean streak, acknowledging he could be “an exquisite needler, especially when drinking, with a preternatural instinct for where the tender parts lay.” He was a spendthrift gambler, constantly begging for cash from friends and art dealers. When international success started the money rolling in, however, he was wildly generous with it. He even started giving his friends investment tips, a development that prompts the authors to quip, “It must have been an out-of-body experience to receive financial advice from Francis Bacon.”

Occasionally his bad behavior with friends and intimates led to a complete severance of ties. But repeatedly those who knew him testify to qualities of character that kept them coming back to him.

“Francis Bacon: Revelations” does justice to the contradictions of both the man and the art.

FRANCIS BACON: Revelations By Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan  Knopf, 864 pages, $50

Novelist Michael Upchurch (“Passive Intruder”) is the former Seattle Times book critic.





Bad Boy Bacon




Francis Bacon’s emergence onto the London social scene—

including the time he humiliated Princess Margaret—was as controversial as his paintings





In the spring of 1949, the stylish wife of the press lord Esmond Cecil Harmsworth, second Viscount Rothermere, gave a sumptuous ball that conceded nothing to the austerity of postwar London. The men came in white-tie; the women wore the family jewels; the Queen Mother was there. So was the royal of the moment, Princess Margaret, who smoked cigarettes and palled around with friends the tabloids called the “Smarties.” The ball promised to end with a flourish when the princess, giddy with champagne and urged on by the Smarties, took the mike from Noël Coward. “All the guests who had been waltzing under the vast chandeliers instantly stopped dancing,” said one party-goer. “They stood like Buckingham Palace sentries called to attention in order to watch the royal performance.”

The princess began to sing, wobbling off-key. She could not deliver quite the right slink despite some wriggling. But the fawning guests nonetheless “shouted and they roared, and they asked for more.” The pleased princess was just settling into “Let’s Do It” when there welled up from the belly of the crowd a ghastly hiss, a jeer, “a prolonged and thunderous booing.” The band sawed to a stop. The princess reddened and rushed from the room, with several flustered ladies-in-waiting following.

It was that appalling Francis Bacon, some guests muttered, standing with the no-less-appalling Lucian Freud. Some dismissed Bacon as a drunk—and he was, indeed, drunk. Others, said Freud, became “extraordinarily angry.” But there were a few who found the artist’s music-hall boos thrilling—a rush of night air into England’s stuffy room.

One who was especially thrilled was Caroline Blackwood, a debutante of the year (and soon to be Freud’s second wife). Blackwood—the daughter of a marriage between two of Anglo-Ireland’s great families, the Blackwoods and the Guinnesses—was a golden-haired “Alice-in-Wonderland” beauty, as her third husband, the poet Robert Lowell, described her.

But Blackwood already had a well-developed rebellious streak, and she detested the debutante season that had been thrust upon her, with all of its attendant balls. She was enthralled with Bacon’s thumbing of the nose:

“Who did that?” I asked the nearest white-tied and black-tailed man who happened to be standing next to me. His face was already red but rage made it look apoplectic. “It was that dreadful man, Francis Bacon,” he said. “He calls himself a painter but he does the most frightful paintings. I just don’t understand how a creature like him was allowed to get in here. It’s really quite disgraceful.”

Bacon had actually been invited, as it turned out, not by Lady Rothermere herself but by Freud, who was part of her circle. Lady Rothermere, who would later marry Ian Fleming and, as Ann Fleming, continue as one of the reigning hostesses of London, liked to season the parties she threw at Warwick House, the Rothermeres’ London mansion, with writers and artists. Politicians often had no conversation apart from politics, she found, and the wellborn could be dull as dust.

Lady Rothermere found Bacon’s behavior shocking but also delightfully wicked. “She had the money, the style and the energy to brighten the drabness that had descended on London, and set about doing so,” wrote Mark Amory, longtime literary editor of The Spectator. And a bad boy or two was always useful: a good party generated gossip. Although he was already known to the London art world, Bacon, at this party, began to break into the larger English conversation of the postwar period. He was not just a figurative painter—he was a figure.

Excerpted from Francis Bacon: Revelations by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan © 2021





                  A 1972 self-portrait. “He was not just a figurative painter,” write Francis Bacon’s biographers. “He was a figure.”





Artist of Excess



The man who painted his century’s nightmare






The story goes that in 1963, cat burglar George Dyer fell through a skylight and crash-landed in Francis Bacon’s studio in South Kensington, London. Awakened by the disturbance, Bacon rushed into the studio and said that the intruder must have sex with him, or else he’d call the police. Thus began a seven-year relationship between Dyer, an East Ender and “nimble ‘second-story man,’” and Bacon, who was already considered Britain’s most important living painter, and who would become an international celebrity, known as much for his persona as for his paintings.

Dyer’s family and Bacon’s friend and fellow artist Lucian Freud disputed the account, yet the narrative is true to the spirit of a love affair that included Dyer’s theft of Bacon’s paintings, his arson of Bacon’s studio, and his unsuccessful attempt to frame Bacon for a petty crime. On the day that Bacon’s 1971 retrospective had its private viewing at the Grand Palais in Paris—a show that included Three Figures in a Room, a triptych of portrayals of Dyer, one of which depicts him slouched on a toilet—Dyer died of an overdose of alcohol and barbiturates in a bathroom at the Hôtel des Saints Pères. President Georges Pompidou bought the triptych for the French state.

Dyer’s body was discovered in the morning, but Bacon went to his opening without revealing the news to anyone but his closest friends. A photograph taken that evening at a dinner held in Bacon’s honor at the glittering Le Train Bleu restaurant shows him standing to receive the applause of his admirers. Bacon had reached the highest echelon of success. Meanwhile, his lover’s corpse was still in the hotel bathroom; at Bacon’s request, the hotel didn’t call the authorities until the next day.

Over the years, in his grief, Bacon returned to the hotel and slept in the suite where Dyer met his end. But according to Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan’s new book, Francis Bacon: Revelations, Dyer was not even the love of Bacon’s life. That distinction fell to Peter Lacy, a handsome ex-pilot, alcoholic, and sadist, who once threw Bacon out a second-story window. (Coincidentally, Lacy died of acute pancreatitis in Tangier the same day that Bacon’s Tate retrospective opened in London in 1962.) “The relationship with Lacy was long, desperate, and sharply lit, with tragic overtones,” Stevens and Swan write. “The one with George was more often absurdist: loving, bumbling, melancholy.”

Although Bacon publicly ridiculed the concept of love, it appears in Stevens and Swan’s biography as one pressure among many that shaped the artist and, in turn, his work. Their book is an intellectual history of an unschooled painter, a family history that goes back several gilded generations, a cultural history of the 20th century, a financial accounting of a highborn gambler, a guide to midcentury Soho drinking clubs, a description of an evolving artistic oeuvre, and a re-created diary (Bacon did not keep one) of lowbrow fun with art luminaries, socialites, and thugs.

Bacon’s personality and his art were a mingling of contradictions. He was an atheist who depicted the Crucifixion and made the pope his subject. A 1959 essay by critic Robert Melville suggested that Bacon’s paintings were the outcome of a struggle between abstract and figurative art that expressed “the existential struggle of humanity to survive in a cruelly abstract world.” His paintings were often grotesque—meaty, distorted, screaming—but were displayed in elaborate gold frames.

His work, like his sexual relationships, was haunted and violent, exploring the interplay of the powerful and the powerless. Yet he thought of himself as an optimist who was always expecting that something marvelous was about to happen.

Describing Bacon on the floor of the Monte Carlo casino playing roulette, a beloved and enduring vice, Stevens and Swan write, “Bacon loved to win. He also loved to lose, especially everything.” Indeed, he did much to excess—eating oysters, drinking champagne, traveling abroad to sunnier climes, destroying paintings he was not pleased with—in his attempts to create a concentrated experience.

Such a life lent itself to mythmaking. Stevens and Swan document how his public persona was made, by the media and by Bacon himself. In an illuminating vignette, James Thrall Soby, a trustee at the Museum of Modern Art, mailed a list of questions for Bacon in preparation for a short book he intended to write about the artist: “What led him to become a painter? What were his main influences?” Under each question was space for a 200- or 300-word response. Bacon’s art dealers, knowing that he did not like to discuss his past, took him to a “long, wine-soaked meal” and made notes of his answers to Soby’s questions. One note read, “He made many references to his father which I think it wiser to leave out.” Some questions Bacon seemed unable to answer, and several of his responses were misleading. (Bacon said that he didn’t paint until he was 30; in reality, he started experimenting with visual art in his late teens.) Soby decided against writing the book.

There were some times in his life that Bacon never spoke about publicly—visits to Germany and France for a cultural education in the 1920s, and a couple of years during World War II when he lived in a rural cottage near Petersfield, where the asthmatic painter escaped the clouds of dust kicked up by Nazi air raids on London. Bacon, who portrayed himself as unschooled and socially exuberant, may not have wanted to highlight his having attended drawing classes in Paris or the years he lived in seclusion with his childhood nanny far from the dangers of the Blitz. Stevens and Swan evoke these periods using other sources, including interviews with people who had known Bacon or his confidants.

One of the pleasures of comprehensive biographies like this one is seeing familiar set pieces nestled in rich context. At a 1949 ball in London thrown by Lady Rothermere, Princess Margaret performed a few Cole Porter songs. “She could not deliver quite the right slink despite some wriggling,” write Stevens and Swan. While the rest of the guests applauded, Bacon booed her. “The band sawed to a stop. The princess reddened and rushed from the room, with several flustered ladies-in-waiting following.” Bacon later said of the incident, “I don’t think people should perform if they can’t do it properly.”

Stevens and Swan write that “proper form was no longer obvious midway through the century, not after the butcher’s bill from two wars, and [Bacon] took a demonic delight in the upended performance and the torn-away mask.” He yearned for an exhilarating and difficult freedom.

A witticism often attributed to Bacon is, “champagne for my real friends and real pain for my sham friends.” In this biography, the quotation is situated in a confrontation between Bacon and painter John Minton. Bacon buys a bottle of champagne, pours it over Minton’s head, and massages it into his hair. “Champagne for my sham friends and real pain for my real friends,” he says

A subtle but apt transference of words: For Bacon, pain was meaningful, and thus a gift.

Francis Bacon: Revelations by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan; Knopf, 896 pp., $60




          Bacon (right) and George Dyer in 1965. Their stormy relationship endured until Dyer’s death in 1971. (Courtesy of the publisher)






The face of an angel



 Beyond the myth of Francis Bacon






Francis Bacon was crossing the Channel from England to France in 1929 when he met a man called Eric Allden. Bacon was nineteen, Allden forty-two. “He told me he was starting a shop in London for ultra-modern furniture and was going to Paris to purchase samples”, Allden wrote in his diary. “His name was Francis Bacon and he had big childish pale blue eyes.” Allden, whose name is virtually absent from previous accounts of the artist’s life, was a diplomat and a member of the Tory establishment. He became Bacon’s first serious lover and mentor.

Allden’s diary is one of many new discoveries contained in Revelations, the first major biography of Bacon since Michael Peppiatt’s Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an enigma in 1996. It is all the more potent for belonging to a phase of Bacon’s life – the young man before he was an artist – that he later tried to erase from the record. Bacon’s life has long been a kind of myth, structured around signposts – he was whipped as an adolescent by the grooms of his horse-trainer father; he never drew; he showed no emotion when his lover, George Dyer, died in a hotel in Paris in 1971. Now, over 700 lucid and engrossing pages, Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan retrace and distil this myth, adding facets to a figure whose celebrity became, in his lifetime, a carapace and remained as a death mask.

Much of the early account is speculative – the young Bacon emerges in tantalizing semi-focus. Bacon was cagey about his early life, in particular the long years of unsuccess that preceded Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion in 1944. But the authors alight on the facts that survive – Bacon’s aloofness as a boy with severe asthma in a horse-riding family, his lack of formal education (he attended Dean Close School in Cheltenham for a year and a half – claiming later to have run away), the shyness that slowly transformed into social flair. They also evoke the taut atmosphere of the Anglo-Irish society in which Bacon grew up – at once stiflingly respectable and shot through with “simmering violence and foreboding”, as houses were burned and prominent families attacked.

Bacon’s father, an army major, is sketched as a remote and irascible figure – a man of hunting and horses, and a defective product of his parochial world. None of the photographs reproduced in the book includes him. But interviews conducted by Stevens with Bacon’s sister Ianthe Knott in 2008 (the year before her death) provide glimpses of the family dynamic. Knott remembered their mother saying, “I wish Francis would get married and settle down”. The word homosexual was never uttered – possibly didn’t exist for them. Even Ianthe, who moved to South Africa, was unaware of her brother’s sexuality until a trip to England in 1970, when her husband informed her of the fact.

The teenage Bacon’s main companions in Anglo-Irish society were girls – his cousin Diana Watson, for instance, and his tennis partner Doreen Mills Molony. One companion, Doreen Prior-Wandesforde, “played the piano, and because Bacon liked it, she used to jazz up the hymns for him”. Assisted perhaps by his vivacious grandmother and these friends, he developed a social facility – impeccably mannered, adroitly conversational. “He often used to say, ‘Well, I’m awfully glad I was brought up properly and I learned proper table manners’”, Ianthe said. “Not that he always used them, but that’s another thing.”

The authors tread carefully around the different versions of the story that Bacon was initiated into sex by his father’s grooms: “What was certain was that some volatile sexual compound – father, groom, animal, discipline – gave Francis a physical jolt that helped make him into the painter Francis Bacon”. It is clear enough, too, that some kind of sexual awakening took place during his trip to Berlin in the spring of 1927 in the company of his cousin, Cecil Harcourt-Smith. But the details are irretrievable. Bacon claimed later that his parents had “sold” him to Harcourt-Smith, when really the Bacons had helped pay for the trip.

Bacon’s subsequent sojourn in Paris is another chapter of his life that he later excised. This includes the beguiling story of his friendship with Yvonne Bocquentin, a married woman of the haute bourgeoisie who took him under her wing, inviting him to stay for nine months at her house in Chantilly. Bacon became determined, during this time, to establish himself as a furniture and textiles designer (and also to speak French fluently). Bocquentin’s daughter recalls how Bacon and her mother used to retreat to the drawing room, often bursting into laughter together. Bacon’s round face and “big enormous eyes” reminded Anne-Marie Bocquentin of an angel. She remembers that he took drawing lessons in Paris (something he later denied) and brought home Cubist-style sketches. It was around this time that Bacon discovered Picasso, probably on the walls of the Galerie Rosenberg and in the pages of Cahiers d’Art.

But by 1932 “Bacon was swept up in a solitary dream of art”. Diana Watson, whom he met regularly at the Lyons tea shop in South Kensington, noted in her diary: “He never spoke of doing anything else”. The encouragement of an older painter, Roy De Maistre, was a vital catalyst. Watson’s observations suggest that Bacon’s imagination, if not his artistic confidence, had matured into something close to its defining form: “His mind seldom moved from the facts of love, death, massacre and madness, in whatever form he could seize upon them”.

Another key player in Bacon’s early life was Eric Hall, a wealthy married alderman in early middle age, “the kind of man invited to serve on boards”, who came to replace Allden as a lover and father-figure to Bacon well into the 1940s. The authors note that Hall “proved willing to risk everything – his political career, his marriage, his family, and his fortune – for the young artist”, and the corrosive effects on his family of his long affair with Bacon are deftly touched on.

The early 1930s were a moment of brief success – Bacon was included in the first exhibition at the edgy new Mayor Gallery in April 1933, and its Art Now show of October 1933, accompanying Herbert Read’s landmark book of the same title, in which Bacon’s “Crucifixion” of that year was printed opposite Picasso’s “Female Bather with Raised Arms” (1929). But then came a long downturn. His more lurid, violent works failed to find favour, and remained a covert enterprise. In early 1935, Watson recalled a visit to his studio where she saw “a bucket in the middle of the room, filled with wet, gleaming colour. Crimson was everywhere. He was stirring the slimy mass. Monstrous shapes on the canvas”.

These monstrous shapes finally sprang into public view with Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, shown at the Lefevre Gallery in April 1945 – three Aeschylean Furies screaming and writhing against a backdrop of lurid orange. Bacon later professed that “I began” with this work. Hall purchased the triptych before the show opened. Even as he rose to recognition, however, and despite Hall’s financial and emotional backing, Bacon increasingly lived “an almost feral life” – without money or a fixed abode.

Much of what follows, as we enter the main act of Bacon’s life, is familiar – the multicoloured settings and personae, the green-walled otherworld of the Colony Room Club (presided over by Muriel Belcher), the loyalty – gravitating finally into hostility – of friends such as Lucian Freud and Graham Sutherland. And yet the authors give the tale a fresh momentum, a feeling of life as it happened, rather than the chiaroscuro Life that became the foundation of Bacon’s persona and the mirror image of his art.

The women closest to Bacon emerge particularly clearly – among them Erica Brausen, his first dealer (a German émigré and lesbian whose “air of ‘difference” appealed to him), Isabel Rawsthorne and Sonia Orwell. When he moved to London in the summer of 1929, he brought his childhood nanny, Jessie Lightfoot, from Ireland. Nanny Lightfoot lived with him, or close by, until her death in 1951. She is evoked as a kind of Greek tragic nurse – ministering to Bacon’s needs and presiding over his gambling parties, where she charged visitors to use the loo. In a rare moment of speculative caprice, the authors imagine her poring over classified advertisements, helping him to seek out wealthy men who wanted a little something on the side (“Well, Francis, look here…”).

The oft-repeated gem that Muriel Belcher greeted Bacon as “Daughter” when he walked into the Colony is enhanced by a new coda (supplied by Bacon’s Paris friends Eddy Batache and Reinhard Hassert). In 1979, shortly before Muriel’s death, Bacon visited her regularly in a nursing home in Hampstead, where she was sharing a room with “a rather starchy, old-fashioned lady”. At each visit, Muriel called out “Hello, daughter!”, prompting the lady in the next bed to ask: “Are you a woman?” Bacon thought about it. “Sometimes”, he replied.

Bacon’s intelligence, charm, acerbity, nihilism and restlessness resonate throughout these pages and find harsh expression in his love affairs. After the two Erics came Peter Lacy – an outwardly charming, if louche, former pilot who played the piano (semi-professionally) and loved Fats Waller. Lacy was an alcoholic who had struggled since adolescence with “thwarted” desires. Part of his appeal was that he cared little or nothing for art, often telling Bacon that he should get a regular job. The sadomasochism of their relationship unravelled into dangerous mutual dependency and violence, which didn’t preclude acts of rape against Bacon – and, on one occasion, an attack in which Lacy hurled him from an upstairs window. For years, the pair struggled to live either together or apart. When Bacon was holed up in a temporary studio in Henley in 1954, close to Lacy’s house, he was visited by a local girl of thirteen – “a devout Catholic whose family was friendly with [the painter] John Piper’s”, accompanied by her father and Piper. They found Bacon sleeping on makeshift bedding, “out of his mind with drink, pee on the floor, hadn’t changed for days”. The girl recalled, however, that Bacon had “a beautiful voice” and rallied miraculously, engaging in a long conversation with the two other men about good and evil.

Lacy died on the day of Bacon’s private view at the Tate Gallery in 1962. Bacon, fascinated as he was by chance and its capacity to spell out a formula of fate, must have been grimly alive to the coincidence of triumph and tragedy – which would be repeated when George Dyer died on the eve of his 1971 exhibition at the Grand Palais, Paris.

Much of the book’s power is in inducing us to see again, from a new angle, what has previously appeared familiar. “The relationship with Lacy was long, desperate, and sharply lit, with tragic overtones”, the authors conclude. “The one with George [Dyer] was more often absurdist: loving, bumbling, melancholy.” In the end, however, Dyer, a small-time criminal from the East End, “developed the desolate anger of a man who has realized his dreams and found them wanting”. In his graphic account of the events leading up to his discovery of Dyer dead from an overdose of barbiturates on the toilet at the Hôtel des Saints-Père, Terry Danziger Miles, the “driver” from the Marlborough gallery and a close friend, gives the episode a new tragicomic realism: having argued with Dyer the night before, who was “drunk and incoherent with an Arab rent boy”, Bacon spent the night in Miles’s room (the boy’s feet, he said, had caused his own room to smell). It was Miles, together with Valerie Beston, Bacon’s great confidant and support at the Marlborough, who found Dyer the next morning.

Like the Aeschylean tragedy that Bacon loved, the biography deals in two kinds of revelation – lightning flashes of information, and a more gradual realization that the facts as they exist are more complex than they perhaps seemed. Over the years of his growing success, Bacon cultivated what the authors call “a public mask for a mass audience”. A desire to live up to a certain version of himself was reflected in his work. He liked to return to the same big themes. At the prospect of his 1962 Tate retrospective, he created Three Studies for a Crucifixion – a harrowing triptych of strung-up meat and sycophants in suits, to match his career-launching Furies of 1944. The work may have been prompted by long conversations with the Tate director John Rothenstein, a devout Catholic for whom great questions surrounding the decline of religious art in a secular world were irresistible. The triptych was produced in a two-week agony of heavy drinking – at points during the painting of it, Bacon could hardly stand. As Rothenstein gazed in horror and amazement at the completed work, Bacon told him: “You know, of course, where all this comes from – it’s inspired by you”.

This and numerous other paintings receive eloquent analyses – sometimes in the form of stand-alone chapter epilogues. Certain key works are omitted, including the Triptych of 1967 which was inspired by T. S. Eliot’s Sweeney Agonistes. But whether dealing with “masterpieces” or more marginal creations, the authors display an eye for what might easily be overlooked – the small yet potent detail, such as the reaper’s scythe of the bull’s horn in Bacon’s final painting. One of the strongest passages describes the “windtorn and furiously alive” grass of “Landscape” (1978), the first of a sequence of ten unpeopled landscapes that Bacon painted towards the end of his life.

Revelations is not an art historian’s encomium, however, any more than it is a hagiography. The authors are candid about the second-rate quality of some of Bacon’s work, particularly in later years when he ceased to edit his output so voraciously. His portrait, completed in 1957, of the French cabaret singer Suzy Solidor, probably a commission, is “uninspired”. They are sceptical as to the merits of the highly polished “late style” of the 1980s, although they point out that this style engendered an air of detachment – a postmodern distance – that served as a powerful foil for the viscerality of earlier work.

Out of the glancing observations and countless episodes that make up a life, a shifting picture evolves. Bacon’s solicitude for others was in stark contrast to his savage disregard for himself: even after breaking his skull in a drunken fall, he refused to go to hospital. On another occasion, he fell on some stairs and half “popped out” his eye – he simply pushed it back in. He had a powerful sense of propriety, and beneath it, a deep-seated conscience that ran contrary to his wayward and sometimes cruel behaviour. He was wracked with guilt over abandoning Erica Brausen for Marlborough Fine Art (when Brausen became ill in the late 1980s, he put £100,000 in her account for medical expenses). He disapproved of Lucian Freud’s continual womanizing, especially where women in established relationships were involved. And he always held himself responsible for George Dyer’s death.

Bacon’s globetrotting gives the book much of its light and shade. In the 1940s and 50s, he lived a vagabond existence even as he became internationally successful. Money didn’t always follow in the wake of acclaim – and when it did, he often gambled it away. Monte Carlo was a favourite destination. In Tangier in the 1950s, he chatted freely with William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg about art – more freely than with most. “He said so much of it is nothing, it’s decoration, it’s not painting,” recalled Burroughs, “and as to what painting actually is, his views were hard to understand but very interesting to hear.”

One of the many marvels of Revelations is just how present and immediate Bacon is made to seem (in contrast to William Feaver’s monumental biography of Freud, in which the subject grows ever more remote and repellent). Even as he ebbs away, we see and hear him vividly. The writer Richard Shone observed at a dinner following the funeral of Rodrigo Moynihan in 1990: “F.B. in black zipper jacket; tawny to orange hair; those intense, staring eyes and two deeply furrowed lines between the eyebrows”. By the end of the meal, he added, Bacon was “far gone, but with a clutch on the conversation around him that was both impressive and pitiable”.

At the end, Bacon spoke often of going to Spain. “He wanted to die on the road south”, Stevens and Swan write in the closing pages, “in search of love and surprise.” The dispassionate account of Bacon’s death, in a private hospital in Madrid, finds a strange, compendious counterpoint in Max Porter’s The Death of Francis Bacon – a dramatic monologue in verse, arranged into seven “pictures” with titles and dimensions.

Porter’s style is wryly arcane, like the work of a difficult Modernist. A vision of the photographer John Deakin as a monstrous taxi driver, the horror of a riding accident, a brooding contemplation of “shits who will write a god-awful hack-tosh-hagiography of me after I’m gone” – all well up and dispel again. Criticisms of Bacon are internalized as a sort of diabolical self-slandering, perhaps too severe to be convincing (“I am ever so sick of myself”, he confesses, amid floating allusions to his market value). Visions of the hospital – the glimpsed profile and admonitions of Sister Mercedes (Intenta descansar) – sink into the artist’s fitful imagination.

There are moments of glittering, imagistic power here as Porter imagines the disintegration of Bacon’s life and mind. What Revelations leaves us with powerfully is Bacon’s mercurial, electric character and a palpable sense of his body: his fluid gait, his “flutey” voice, and a face ever more asymmetrical as time progress.

James Cahill is a writer and Research Fellow at King’s College London. His first novel, Tiepolo Blue,will be published next spring




                                                                                                            Two Studies for Self-Portrait by Francis Bacon, 1977









   20th Century Evening Sale



    Live Auction | March 23 01:00 | 19586 | Lot 22





   FRANCIS BACON (1909-1992)


    Sand Dune


      signed, titled and dated ‘Sand Dune 1981 Francis Bacon’ (on the reverse)
      oil, pastel, dust and dry transfer lettering on canvas
      78 x 58 1/8in. (198 x 147.5cm.)

      Executed in 1981





      £4,000,000– 6,000,000




      Price Realised GBP 5,182,500





        Marlborough International Fine Art, Vaduz.
        Marlborough Gallery Inc., New York.
        Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1983.



        M. Leiris, Francis Bacon: Full Face and in Profile, Oxford 1983, p. 270, no. 136 (illustrated in colour, unpaged).
        H. Davies and S. Yard, Francis Bacon, New York 1986, no. 94 (illustrated in colour, p. 97).
        M. Leiris, Francis Bacon, Barcelona 1987, p. 128, no. 133 (illustrated in colour, p. 110)
        E. van Alphen, Francis Bacon and the Loss of Self, London 1992, p. 207, no. 75 (illustrated in colour, p. 132).
        A. Sinclair, Francis Bacon: His Life and Violent Times, New York 1993, p. 278.
       C. Domino, Francis Bacon: ’Taking Reality by Surprise’, London 1997, p. 74.
        Francis Bacon in Dublin, exh. cat., Dublin, Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, 2000, p. 15.
        D. Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, London 2000, p. 168, no. 134 (illustrated in colour, p. 178).
        V. Todoli (ed.), Francis Bacon: Caged, Uncaged, exh. cat., Porto, Fundação de Serralves, 2003, p. 245.
        L. Trucchi, Francis Bacon, Rome 2005, pp. 56 and 63, no. 14 (illustrated in colour, p. 60).
       G. Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, London 2005, pp. xiii, 23 and 122, no. 86.
       A. M. Wieland, Francis Bacon, Munich 2009, p. 124 (illustrated in colour, p. 29).
       Francis Bacon: Late Paintings, exh. cat., New York, Gagosian Gallery, 2015, p. 73 (illustrated in colour, p. 72; installation view with the artist illustrated, p. 91).
       M. Harrison and R. Daniels (eds.), Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné Volume I, London 2016, p. 19.
       M. Harrison and R. Daniels (eds.), Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné Volume IV 1971–92, London 2016, p. 1226, no. 81–04 (illustrated in colour, p. 1227).



       New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Acquisition Priorities: Aspects of Postwar Painting in Europe, 1983, no. 32 (illustrated, p. 45).
       London, Tate Gallery, Francis Bacon, 1985-1986, p. 238, no. 111 (illustrated in colour, p. 210).
       Washington D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Francis Bacon, 1989-1990. This exhibition later travelled to Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and New York, Museum of Modern Art.
       Venice, Museo Correr, Francis Bacon: Figurabile, 1993, pp. 78 and 128, no. 27 (illustrated in colour, p. 80).
       Saint-Paul-de-Vence, Fondation Maeght, Bacon-Freud: Expressions, 1995, pp. 96 and 205, no. 26 (illustrated in colour, p. 97).
       Munich, Haus der Kunst, Francis Bacon, 1996-1997, p. 204, no. 75 (illustrated in colour, p. 205).
       Paris, Centre Pompidou, Bacon. En toutes lettres, 2019-2020, pp. 96 and 238 (illustrated in colour, p. 97). This exhibition later travelled to Houston, Museum of Fine Arts.



Lot Essay

Held in the same private collection for nearly four decades, Sand Dune is a rare masterwork from Francis Bacon’s distinguished body of landscape paintings. Executed in 1981, during one of his most extraordinary creative periods, it is the first of two works to take the sand dune as its subject: the second, dating from 1983, resides in the Fondation Beyeler. With an outstanding exhibition history—ranging from Bacon’s landmark Tate retrospective in 1985, to his acclaimed survey at the Centre Georges Pompidou last year—it captures the visionary artistic language that came to define his spectacular final decade. Angular geometries, saturated planes of colour, inscrutable fragments of text and ethereal textures morph into a surreal mise-en-scène. A crystalline ocean horizon glimmers on the distance; in the centre, a blaze of grass erupts like a burning bush, infused with the same visceral charge as his depictions of human flesh. Alluring and enigmatic, it captures Bacon’s fundamental ambition at the height of his powers: to strip away the wild painterly excesses of his youth, leaving in their place a raw, distilled trace of reality.

Bacon’s landscape paintings punctuate his practice like jewels. Among their select number are some of his greatest achievements, including the early masterpiece Study of Figure in a Landscape (1952, (Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.) and the immortal Landscape Near Malabata, Tangier (1963). Sand Dune takes its place within a period of renewed emphasis on this subject matter, which began in 1978 and continued for the next decade. While the majority of Bacon’s early landscapes had featured figures, these later offerings were largely devoid of human presence. Instead, they infused their natural subjects with anthropomorphic qualities, treating grass, sand and sea with the same intensity as Bacon had formerly lavished upon human hair and skin. The present work shares a number of features in common with the remarkable 1979 work Jet of Water, which similarly sets up a tension between the billowing chaos of nature and the surreal, industrial framework that surrounds it. Like the angular ‘space frames’ that once housed Bacon’s writhing nudes and screaming Popes, the strange, clinical armature of pipes and shelves seems to contain the carnal explosion at the centre of the painting—a bid, as the artist once put it, to ‘trap this living fact alive’.

Several commentators have spoken of Bacon’s landscapes as extensions of his portraits. In his discussion of the present work, David Sylvester identifies ‘a metamorphosis of dune and blown sand into some feathery or furry creature’ (D. Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, London 2000, p. 168). Elsewhere, he compares the dunes to ‘parts of unidentifiable giant bodies slowly moving in their sleep’ (D. Sylvester, ‘Bacon’s Course’, in Francis Bacon: Figurabile, exh. cat., Museo Correr, Venice 1993, p. 78). Bacon himself rejected such interpretations, claiming that his sand dunes were not conscious ciphers for the human form but simply memories of a trip to Brittany: a suggestion supported by a postcard and photograph excavated from his studio. Yet for an artist who likened his own visual imagination to a ‘grinding machine’—where source material morphed and mutated at will—realism and metaphor were never far apart. As the critic John Russell recounted, ‘The great painter for him was the one who paints the grass as Velázquez paints the hair. Hair and head, grass and earth must be moved in the same movement’ (J. Russell, quoted in Bacon – Freud: Expressions, exh. cat., Fondation Maeght, Saint-Paul-de-Vence 1995, p. 96).

One such artist, for Bacon, was Edgar Degas, whose use of pastels he had long admired. While many of his early painterly techniques had drawn inspiration from the medium, during the 1980s he began to make explicit use of pastel in his own canvases. Its ethereal, granular textures came to play an important role in his increasingly stripped-back aesthetic, operating in stark contrast to the thick, viscous swathes of impasto that defined his 1960s portraits. In the present work, its combination with dust seems to conjure the very qualities of sand itself, imbuing the painting with a heightened material charge. Martin Harrison draws a comparison between the painting and Degas’ own coastal studies of the 1890s, which—he writes—‘are evocative of the contours of the human form’ (M. Harrison, Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné, Vol. IV, London 2016, p. 1270). Jean-Louis Prat even goes so far as to suggest that Bacon must surely have been familiar with Degas’ 1892 work Rocky Coast, which—executed on top of an image of a female nude—remains ‘strangely endowed with voluptuous forms’ (J-L. Prat, Bacon – Freud: Expressionsibid.).

Sand Dune also points to another key source of inspiration for Bacon during this period: the works of T. S. Eliot. Having long devoured both classic and modern literature, the artist looked increasingly to the rigours of poetry during his final decade, seeking to capture what he described as ‘the sensation without the boredom of its conveyance’. Bacon greatly admired Eliot’s The Waste Land: a work whose imagery chimes with many of the artist’s late landscapes, and whose title is explicitly echoed in the 1982 canvas A Piece of Waste Land. Several lines are particularly evocative in relation to Sand Dune: perhaps Eliot’s question ‘what branches grow out of this stony rubbish?’ rang in Bacon’s ears as he transposed his coastal view to a setting resembling an industrial scrap yard. Eliot’s ‘heap of broken images, where the sun beats’, moreover, seems to speak to the work’s metamorphic, quasi-Surrealist tenor, where the landscape shifts and mutates beneath a stark, clinical glare. The line, in turn, evokes an earlier precedent—Salvador Dalí’s La persistance de la mémoire (1931)—whose dreamlike juxtaposition of manmade and natural worlds gives rise to a similar feeling of desolation.

Bacon’s dialogue with literature during this period may also be seen to account for his increased use of transfer lettering, or Letraset. Beginning in the early 1970s, these semi-legible letters spilled across his paintings in various formations, recalling fragments ripped from the pages of a book. Their appearance in Sand Dune, strewn like a discarded letter and tinged with splashes of blood-red paint, seems to transport the work to the realm of dark fiction, infusing it with psychological tension. At the same time, the industrial, newsprint-like quality of the lettering evokes a range of art-historical comparisons—from the Synthetic Cubist collages of Pablo Picasso, to the works of David Hockney, Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. The latter set of references offers striking context for Bacon’s late canvases: notably, Sand Dune marks one of his first uses of spray paint, offering a fleeting nod to the quotidian materials and subjects harnessed by Pop and Neo-Expressionism. Ultimately, however, the Letraset fragments remain oblique in their narrative, forever obscured amid the sand.

Despite their elusive semantic properties, Bacon’s late works nonetheless aspired to a new sense of structural clarity, shedding the chaotic surfaces of the artist’s youth and seeking—as he put it—to ‘abbreviate to intensity’. ‘You’re more conscious of the fact that nine-tenths of everything is inessential’, he explained, ‘... few things that matter become so much more concentrated and can be summed up with so much less’ (F. Bacon, quoted in Francis Bacon, exh. cat. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 2009, p. 237). This conviction is eloquently borne out in Sand Dune, where—against the work’s central flurry of motion—geometric order reigns supreme. Bacon’s smooth planes of colour draw parallels with the colour fields of Mark Rothko and other Abstract Expressionists: a comparison frequently proposed in relation to the artist’s late works, though one that he himself fervently rejected. The blocks of white scaffolding, meanwhile—with their clean lines and rigid angles—conjure a near-Minimalist sense of simplicity and elegance, loosely recalling the architectural purity of Donald Judd’s ‘stacks’. It is worth recalling that Bacon had started life as a Bauhaus-inspired furniture designer in the 1920s, producing sleek, elegant pieces whose forms are momentarily invoked here.

In more than one way, ultimately, does Sand Dune come full circle. Another formative ghost lingers upon its glimmering horizon line: the beach scenes that Picasso painted at Dinard and Cannes between 1927 and 1932. It was these works that first inspired Bacon to devote his life to art, and would remain a guiding force throughout his oeuvre. Having first encountered them in Paris, the young artist was struck by their raw, visceral intensity and surreal, organic forms—properties that are still very much alive in the present work. The previous decade, Bacon had used the beach as a setting for his grand Triptych 1974-1977—a poignant memorial to his ill-fated lover George Dyer—in which the figure melds organically with the sandIn Sand Dune, the artist goes one stage further, dissolving the human form altogether in an abstract blur of dust. It is reminder of the primal substance from which we are all made, and to which we must all ultimately return—as Eliot put it, ‘In my beginning is my end’. In this, Sand Dune transcends its status as a landscape: it remains, in the manner of Bacon’s finest works, a powerful portrait of the human condition.










                                                                Francis Bacon discussing the installation of his retrospective with curator Richard Francis, Tate Gallery, London, 1985.






Francis Bacon: Revelations, by Mark Stevens & Annalyn Swan




This is a pacy tale, but there is an odd sense of distance from Bacon that feels like disapproval






Born to an Anglo-Irish family in 1909, Francis Bacon’s life touched 10 decades, neatly spanning the century. He was sharp-tongued – often carelessly so when drunk, which was often. As a young man, his sexuality blossomed between trips to Berlin at the acme of its Weimar-era decadence, and amid the fatalistic lust of Blitz-shattered London

As a pretty youth, with rouged lips and powdered cheeks, he maintained mutually advantageous relationships with understanding older men who bankrolled his adventures first as a precocious interior designer and then as an artist. As an older man – still powdered, but with his quiff now darkened with boot polish and his teeth scrubbed with Vim – he happily accepted the reciprocal role, generously supporting a series of much younger lovers.

Between youth and age came Bacon’s two great romances: first with jazz pianist Peter Lacy, then with George Dyer, born to an East End family with gangland connections, unlettered but never underdressed. Each died horribly, overdosed on drink and drugs nine years apart, on the eve of major exhibitions of Bacon’s paintings.

Those paintings reeked with 20th-century horror, with claustrophobic isolation. At his best, Bacon painted sheeny smears of flesh as pinky-blue pearlescent as exposed bowel, furiously grappling male bodies and portrait heads caught in a blur of movement as if watched through the bottom of a glass.

Paintings never came easily to him. He took perverse delight in destroying work on which he had laboured for months. He slashed and smashed far more than he showed. His final creative gesture was to load piles of stuff into a young friend’s car with the instruction to destroy everything.

Bacon’s is quite a story, but it is not an untold one, from celebrated volumes of interviews to John Maybury’s impeccably warped film portrait Love is the Devil.

What stories, then, remain to be told in the 700 pages of Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan’s Revelations? Many, as it turns out. This husband-and-wife team have been thorough: Bacon’s childhood and the peculiarities of his background are lovingly chronicled, as is his little-known early career as a furniture designer.

Early in their tale, Stevens and Swan take pains to demonstrate the important role played by various women in his life, among them the spirited Nanny Lightfoot, who nursed Bacon in childhood and lived with him in London until the end of her life.

There was also the influential journalist Madge Garland, who championed Bacon during his design career; his first proper dealer Erica Brausen; and his friend Isabel Rawsthorne, an artist whose own career has been entirely eclipsed by association.

But, while it is not short of gossip, Revelations falls short on its titular promise: if anything, it punctures some of Bacon’s most notorious episodes. Unlike their subject, Stevens and Swan prefer not to let a good story get in the way of truth, suggesting that well-known tales such as the artist hiring an Alsatian dog to inflame his asthma so as to avoid being conscripted for active service had been sexed up (or even fabricated).

While the tale is pacy, there is an odd sense of distance from Bacon – a formal froideur – that almost feels like disapproval. Perhaps the authors fear, had their subject still been alive, the sentiment would have been mutual.

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





                                                               Francis Bacon in a Paris gallery in 1987. Revelations falls short on its titular promise






Gloriously bad company




Do we really need another biography about Francis Bacon?

The answer is emphatically yes, says Christopher Bray






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”.

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.

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.)

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?

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.




                                                                      Francis Bacon photographed by Francis Giacobetti








Wild things: the beasts of Francis Bacon



Whether taking its cue from the Sphinx of Giza or the

photographs of Eadweard Muybridge, Francis Bacon’s

work reveals an endless fascination with animals –

and the bestial side of human nature






Somewhere in a cave in the north of Spain there is a prehistoric painting that appears to move. This uncanny phenomenon was described by Francis Bacon in a recorded conversation with his friend, the photographer and environmentalist Peter Beard: Bacon asserts that this image is ‘the most marvellous shorthand of movement that’s ever been made’. The Futurists tried to better it, Bacon says, and so did Duchamp, but no modern artist has surpassed the cave painter’s ability.

Bacon didn’t tell his friend where exactly these pictures are – ‘not Altamira, I can’t remember which of the caves’ – and the images themselves are partial or indistinct, ‘for example, a group of figures and with arrows, one doesn’t know whether they’re going shooting at animals or at another tribe of people coming towards them which aren’t represented’. In fact it is difficult to identify what, precisely, Bacon was talking about – perhaps it is the vagueness of his description which makes it so evocative. It’s possible that he was thinking of the Levantine cave art of eastern Spain, whose hundreds of caves, decorated over thousands of years, are distinctive for their representation of human figures, sometimes in large groups, often depicted in animation – hunting, fighting, and even, at El Cogul, dancing.

When I think of cave art, I rarely think of the human image. Handprints, maybe. But the most famous European works are the horses, bison, and big cats of Lascaux and Altamira. The Levantine figures are unusual not only for their mobility but also because of the way they merge the human with the non-human world. There are hunters and a beekeeper. There are images of encounters between humans and goats, spiders, boar, and deer. The animals, too, are often painted in motion. It is thought that the paint was applied using feathers – parts of a bird’s body, moved skilfully, to depict moving bodies.

‘Francis Bacon: Man and Beast’, an exhibition due to open at the Royal Academy when Covid-19 restrictions are eased, examines Bacon’s fascination with movement. The paintings that will be shown are action shots. There are images of distorted meat and contorting flesh. There are screaming jaws and convulsing beasts with two backs: it is rarely possible to distinguish between a painting of torture and of sex. Perhaps there was little in the distinction for Bacon, who was compelled by the sexuality of violence and excited by the violence of sex – he was involved in a long-term sadomasochistic relationship with Peter Lacy, a former RAF pilot. That relationship, one way or another, is visible in several of the images due to go on show at the RA. Bacon was famously enigmatic about the meanings or origins of his pictures, but he is often quoted as describing the effect of a successful painting as an experience of force or violence – ‘to return the onlooker to life more violently’ – the painting’s power as an aggressive physical movement. One could say that this is an odd way to think about pictures, given that painting is, in some respect, antithetical to motion. To paint is to produce stills out of a moving world. Why, then, was this artist fascinated with violent movement, and what did it have to do with animal nature?

For Bacon, the way a man moved was the cruel proof of his bestiality: ‘animal movement and human movement are continually linked in my imagery of human movement’. That link is clearly and painfully articulated in two works that will be shown at the RA, both drawing on Bacon’s knowledge of Eadweard Muybridge’s frame-byframe studies of animals and humans in motion (Fig. 2). In the early 1950s Bacon used Muybridge as a source for his portraits of dogs. The animals appear lonely, ghostly, blurred, ambling through surreal caged or receded landscapes. One Dog painting of 1952 stands on a red ground, lifted out of what looks like a desert, with a palm tree and small cars far away in the background (Fig. 3). His head is lowered aggressively, massive balls blurred between his legs, and his facial features are smeared to confusion. Only the bright red tongue lolls vividly.

Bacon’s dog portraits have a strong affinity with another Muybridge picture he made a decade later. For Muybridge, Infantile paralysis: child walking on hands and feet was an examination of quadrupedal motion, and Bacon’s use of the source image in Paralytic Child Walking on All Fours ( from Muybridge) is more or less literal, though the small changes he makes to the figure are telling (Fig. 4). The boy’s profile is clearly visible in some of Muybridge’s images, in others he faces the camera, his mouth a little open with the appearance of a smile. Bacon’s boy seems to be facing the viewer but his face has been blanked out with a rosette of paint so that the image is indistinct. Darker patches suggest eye sockets and a muzzle. The boy stands on four legs, leaning forwards, his facial features once again smeared to confusion. There is a hint of a hanging tongue.

There is something very discomforting about the analogy Bacon is painting into being, which responds to an ancient stereotype that aligns unconventional human bodies with those of non-human beasts. But that’s only part of the story. When I look at the picture, what discomforts me is also my own way of seeing. There is no refuge – for me, as a viewer – in a face-to-face gaze. The human face is unusually expressive among animals; in portraits, naturally enough, faces draw the eye. Bacon’s removal of the boy’s face forces the viewer to look at the body and to see it as the picture’s true subject and the greater part of a human form. Where Muybridge studies movement by taking images, frame by frame, Bacon’s study creates an impression of animal movement, not only through the physical effect of the smudged brushstrokes, but also by painting out what is distinctly human about his subject.

Where Paralytic Child Walking on All Fours asserts an affinity across species, several of Bacon’s most celebrated works contain those affinities in a single frame. Studies of chimpanzees and baboons, pointed teeth bared in gruesome screams, are present in the faces of his screaming human or humanoid heads – the Heads painted from the late 1940s omit parts of the human face to reveal the frayed meat and joints of an animal form. Jaws, canines, bones, tendons. These are hybrid creatures – neither fully human nor animal of any species. They recall Bacon’s hero or nemesis, Picasso, who was differently fascinated with painting animals. Picasso’s large canvas Woman with a Dog (1953) portrays his former lover locked in a violent, sexualised embrace with a creature with bared claws and sharp teeth. The image is a depiction of frantic movement, arrested. The dog’s open jaws are caught in that painful howl that Bacon gave to popes and chimpanzees and made his own.

The comparison between Bacon’s animal paintings and those of Picasso exposes the omissions from Bacon’s corpus. Picasso created a sculpture of a magnificent, milky nanny goat as well as a painting of a snarling dog. He drew Minotaurs and nightmarish animals but also doves and garlands of flowers. Beside Picasso’s version of the natural world, we see how Bacon did not know how to see, or did not care to show, that birth is equally as natural as death, that nurturing insists as well as violence, that there is chlorophyll as well as blood in the universe, that sadism doesn’t always attend sexiness. In this, Bacon’s paintings are not only the product of a rare sensibility, but also the products of a wider narrative of science and the natural world – they are the ‘nature, red in tooth and claw’ articulation of the world view of a particular tribe of white male Europeans in the 19th and 20th centuries. In some ways, these paintings seem quite naive now – a touch adolescent: their view of what it is to be an animal feels stiffly traditional in the 21st century, as scientists and ecologists acquire insights about the vitality of interdependence and the critical role that symbiosis has played in the story of life. Since Bacon’s death in 1992 it has become increasingly apparent that the interpretation of ‘survival of the fittest’, wherein the most fit is always the most aggressive, has not only been a damaging credo for modern humans, it is at best a partial truth, at worst incorrect.

But Bacon’s animals have other stories to tell. He visited the statue of the Sphinx at Giza in 1951, and returned repeatedly to its half-human, half-lion image in paintings over the following decades. In 1979, working on a new sphinx painting (Fig. 5), he found that the creature was assuming the features of his friend, Muriel Belcher, who had recently died, though its thick neck and masculine form also had a suggestion of masculinity, as does his Oedipus and the Sphinx after Ingres, painted four years later. Bacon’s sphinxes were intersex as well as interspecies. There is an anecdote, related in Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan’s new biography of Bacon, about the period of Belcher’s illness. Bacon regularly visited her in hospital, and Belcher consistently greeted him as her daughter. Eventually, a woman in a neighbouring bed on the ward asked Bacon whether he was, against appearance, a woman. ‘Sometimes,’ he replied.

Muriel-Sphinx’s forearms are welded to narrow rigid blocks, much as the forepaws of the Sphinx at Giza rise out of a megalithic foundation. The blocks in Bacon’s painting are lengthened so that the straightened arms appear to be painfully stuck or strapped down. It is striking, in fact, how many of his human-animal paintings include technological or mechanical apparatus, and that often these machines are not merely architecture, ground or background, but continuous with the body. They are images of an inhumane mechanised system in which the living animal is merely an embedded component. Within this system, no creature’s movement can be determined by joints and muscles, much less by free will, but only by the pre-set functions of the machinery. Sometimes these machines are overtly torturous – Second Version of Triptych, 1944 (Fig. 1), painted in 1988 but explicitly situated in the past, shows wormlike biomorphic forms, pink and naked with exposed ribs and grinning teeth, screaming on tables and a pointed tripod stand. The reference to 1944 is to Bacon’s initial triptych, a sister piece, but seeing that date and looking at that painting, it is hard not to think of the instrumentalised torture and industrialised slaughter of the Holocaust and the final months of the Second World War. Again, though, the images are too enigmatic for a straight interpretation. Perhaps Bacon’s hybrid forms – intersex, interspecies, both body and machine – look forward. They make sense, in the Anthropocene, as rigid distinctions between race, gender, or species, and even between life and non-life, are coming under pressure. In this world, the mobile animal body is not simply threatened by working machinery, but involved in a much more complex entanglement with mechanical apparatus. ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ by the ecological theorist Donna Haraway states the case clearly: ‘By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs.’

If Bacon wanted his pictures to move, he could of course have made films. One of the last works to go on show at the Serpentine Galleries early in 2020, before London was shut down by a microscopic virus, was Patrick Staff’s On Venus. Inside the darkened gallery space Staff installed the corroded apparatus of a broken system. Disconnected pipes leaked acids into steel barrels, a dissociative incantatory soundtrack gave a sense of going back to something ancient. Staff made etchings relating to a confabulated newspaper story that imprisoned child-murderer Ian Huntley had requested medication and surgery so that he could transition to become a woman. There was also a video work presenting found footage of animal slaughter. Positioning these works together, the installation exposed alignments between unsanctioned bodies, human and nonhuman – the toxic myths about non-binary lives; the toxic processes of factory meat and skin farming; the pipework literally leaking toxic liquids. As an encapsulation of the global circulation, repression, and mass slaughter of living bodies, it’s a marvellous shorthand of movement on an industrial scale. And it sharply recalls Bacon’s paintings, the video work especially.

On Venus, the titular film, begins with a reel of interactions between humans and animals. At first, the footage of the video is suggestively disturbing – children dip small fishing nets into a bucket of water, lifting out bloated froggy creatures, and then plop their static forms back; animal handlers nudge their charges with sticks and shouts. The violence of these interactions rises and continues to rise – the animals are beaten and broken, harnessed, locked up, pursued – until, eventually, we come into the abattoir. Live cattle are queued in a narrow corridor, there is a quick death, and the carcasses skinned. Bloodied chickens are suspended by the feet, twitching. A snake’s skin is scissored off in a single unzipping movement.

It’s the movements these animals make that recall the brutal sexualised movements of Bacon’s paintings: spasms and convulsions. Bacon’s animal works understand the world to which On Venus bears witness – a world in which human and non-human forms bear the violence of their societies’ confusions about animality and humanity, suffering and sex. Bacon made many images which contained amorphous and ambiguous figures – characteristically, he discovers more than one gender, species, or individual, in a single bodily form. His images of animals look back to the cave paintings of farming and hunting, and they look forward, to the threatened hybrid lives of the Anthropocene.


Daisy Hildyard is the author of Hunters in the Snow (Vintage) and The Second Body (Fitzcarraldo Editions).

‘Francis Bacon: Man and Beast’ at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, has been postponed; new dates are to be announced.

‘Wild Life: Francis Bacon and Peter Beard’ (until 8 May) is online and will open at Ordovas, London, when restrictions allow.





               Paralytic Child Walking on All Fours (from Muybridge), 1961,

          Francis Bacon, oil on canvas, 198×142cm. Kunstmuseum den Haag





This Is Big:



The Seattle Art Museum Just Received Masterworks

from Rothko and Bacon and Mitchell and Krasner and

de Kooning and Kline and Still and Giacometti






This Is Big: The Seattle Art Museum Just Received Masterworks from Rothko and Bacon and Mitchell and Krasner and de Kooning and Kline and Still and Giacometti.

Last week, Seattle Art Museum announced that they were ready to receive a big-ass gift: 19 excellent 20th-century abstract expressionist and European masterworks from the Lang Collection. The works are courtesy of the Friday Foundation, an organization dedicated to the philanthropic legacy of the late, prolific, Seattle-area collectors Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis.

This big-ass gift also comes with $10.5 million in dedicated funds to support SAM’s post-war and contemporary art conservation programs, purchase technical conservation equipment, and maintain the works. The Friday Foundation previously gave $4 million to SAM: $2 million for COVID-19 relief and $2 million for a contemporary art acquisition fund, primarily for young artists and artists of colour.

This is no exaggeration—we now, all of the sudden, have one of the best public collections of New York School painting,” said SAM CEO and director Amada Cruz during a recent phone interview. We also have three extraordinary examples of two very important post-war European artists. If you want to teach kids what the New York School was all about, you can come to SAM and see it in this collection.”

Collectively, the works have an estimated value of $400 million and include abstract expressionist giants like Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, and Franz Kline, as well as acclaimed British artist Francis Bacon and Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti. Notably, the gift also includes three crucial works from three crucial female artists of the era: Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner, and Joan Mitchell.

The Langs were longtime supporters and board members of the SAM; that relationship made the museum an instinctive choice as the main recipient of their collection (six additional works from the Langs arsenal were donated to the Yale University Art Gallery). Pablo Schugurensky, a representative for the Friday Foundation, recently told me that these 19 artworks represent the best, the core, the heart of their collection.

The Langs were intentional in collecting art, he said, listening to friends and dealers but ultimately making independent decisions about what they liked. They lived with these paintings and sculptures; everything they owned was up on the wall or on display. And in a similar spirit, this donation is intended for the public good—these babies need to be seen.


From post-war Europe to post-COVID America

Viewing these paintings and sculptures in a pandemic that has claimed the lives of over 500,000 Americans and 2.55 million worldwide makes them resonate differently. The isolation, angst, and sombreness experienced by these artists reacting to the destruction of World War II mirrors the isolation, angst, and sombreness we’re experiencing right now. And while we haven’t quite reached the end” of this anguish, there’s something in Rothko’s bleak colourfields and Mitchell’s frenetic, caustic brushstrokes that feel like a balm on an open wound.

Cruz also thinks there’s a through-line between the post-war moment these artists were creating in and now. She believes many of the pieces will speak to a population that’s (hopefully) on the other side of the pandemic and eager to really experience art in person.

One of the works that I keep thinking about is the Giacometti sculpture, because it is a lone figure. It’s very much a reaction to the horrors of World War II,” said Cruz. To me, that figure is very much reflective of this particular moment, this extreme isolation we’ve all been in—the sense of loneliness and existential angst. I really think that piece is so much of this moment, even though it’s such an old piece.”

Giacometti’s sculpture, the tall, attenuated Femme de Venise II” is lonesome and powerful. The slightly abstract figure cast in bronze is craggy and earthen in colour, seemingly more cave-dripping than woman. The subject is rooted to her pedestal, with no distinction made between where she ends and the base begins. Femme de Venise II” was exhibited with ten other similar silhouettes for the French Pavilion in the 28th Venice Biennale in 1956 and is the artist’s first work to enter the SAM’s collection.

Cruz also highlighted Lee Krasner’s Night Watch” and the two Francis Bacon works as being standouts in a group of standouts. ‘Night Watch’ is one of those paintings that you are not going to really be able to appreciate it until you get in front of it—in terms of the scale, the hand of the artist’s brushwork, you will be able to see the eyes that are looking at you all over the place,” she said.

The 1960 painting references Rembrandt’s monumental painting from 1642, depicting a militia in action. Krasner’s interpretation gobbles up all the bodies and soft light in the original piece, reducing the figures down to their eyes, painting them in creamy neutral tones. It plays on the literal title of the piece, but also adds a level of paranoia to the scene. The work speaks to the heightened state of political surveillance of the time. It’s a feeling that easily translates to today, especially as everything around us monitors our bodies for signs of coronavirus.

I think at a visceral level, it’ll communicate a lot to people coming out of COVID,” said Cruz.

Both Cruz and Schugurensky emphasized the importance of seeing these works IRL. The museum plans to share the art with the public this fall (fingers crossed) in a comprehensive show called Frisson: The Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis Collection. The exhibition will include photomurals showing the artworks’ original context within the Lang home. SAM will also release a 200-page catalogue of scholarly essays about the collection.

Take a gander through all the donated works here. Hopefully we can come together and look at these tremendous works in-person, on the other side of this pandemic. I’ll see you there.





                    Francis Bacon’s Portrait of Man with Glasses I” is an absolute mood.






The Man in the Animal




While he explored the pleasures of the flesh, Bacon’s art plumbed the terrors of the soul.






 In the spring of 1949, the press baron Viscount Rothermere gave a ball that defied Britain’s postwar decline. The men wore white tie, the women their family jewels. The Queen Mother was there, and so was the royal of the moment, Princess Margaret. Late that night, the princess, giddy with Champagne, took the mic from Noël Coward and delivered her party trick. Her Royal Highness began to sing, off-key and out of time. The revelers loyally cheered and called for more.

Margaret was just beginning to mutilate “Let’s Do It” when a “prolonged and thunderous booing” emerged from the crowd. The band stopped, and the princess reddened and rushed from the room. “Who did that?” Lady Caroline Blackwood asked the man at her side. “It was that dreadful man, Francis Bacon,” he fumed. “He calls himself a painter but he does the most frightful paintings.”

More than a decade before the end of the “Lady Chatterley” ban and The Beatles’s first LP, the iconoclasm of Francis Bacon announced a new era in British life. By his death in Madrid in 1992, Bacon was a social and artistic icon, his battered face the image of painterly tradition. Openly gay, he was the king of Soho, a nocturnal drinker and cruiser, his motto “Champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends.” By day, alone in his studio, he was the exposer of torn flesh and gaping mouths, of the secret shames and spiritual collapse that, in the postwar decades when French thinkers ruled in concert with French painters, made him the only truly English existentialist.

With “Revelations,” Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan enter a biographical field as crowded as the Colony Room on a Friday night. Almost all the revelations are already revealed: the Baconian literature includes testimonies from Bacon’s critical patron David Sylvester; his fellow artist and slummer Lucian Freud; his drinking friend Dan Farson; and his assistant Michael Peppiatt. Mr. Stevens and Ms. Swan might, like Bacon’s friends, share a tendency to confuse the man with the art—like Oscar Wilde, Bacon was his own best work—but they bring a sober eye and an organizing mind to Bacon’s “gilded gutter life.” As in their acclaimed “de Kooning,” the authors frame their subject and his work as a portrait of the age.

The English existentialist was, naturally enough, Irish. Born in 1909 to a sclerotic, fox-hunting soldier and an errant industrial heiress, the sensitive and asthmatic Francis was raised in as a minority within a minority, the Anglo-Irish gentry that would dissolve amid terrorism and the birth of the Irish Free State in 1922. He later spoke of how he desired the father who despised him for his asthmatic fear of horses; his sexual initiation came from the grooms in the stifling dust of the stables.

Erratically educated, Bacon “wasn’t the slightest bit interested in art” until 1930. In 1926, at 17, he moved to London and lived with his nanny, Jessie Lightfoot. He worked in a women’s clothing shop, discovered the gay life of Soho, and cultivated the support of wealthy older men. In 1927, a friend of his father took him to Berlin, showed him the cabarets, introduced him to Bauhaus design and German expressionist paintings, then violently assaulted him.

“In Berlin,” the authors write, “the young Bacon had a glimpse of what artists can do—and men can become.” In Paris, the young Bacon caught the end of an earlier decadence, the decaying Romanticism of Baudelaire and the ectoplasmic chills of the spiritualist cabinet. He was also initiated into a “second innocence” by discovering Picasso, whose revival of ancient forms Bacon described as the “neo-paganism” predicted by Nietzsche: the physical body returned to a world in which the heavenly father was dead.

Returning to London, Bacon launched himself as a modernist designer while sleeping with and stealing from a succession of wealthy, well-bred Englishmen. He gave his mother some of his designs; she put them in her bathroom, where no one would see them. Almost entirely “self-taught and untouched,” Bacon turned to painting. A critic mocked his first publicly exhibited portrait as “a tiny piece of red mouse-cheese on the end of a stick for head,” and he was judged “insufficiently surreal” to be included in London’s International Surrealist Exhibition of 1936. He and Nanny Lightfoot survived by holding illegal roulette parties.

Bacon’s great-grandfather had been wounded at Waterloo, his father had fought in the Boer War. His asthma kept him from emulating his manly forebears. He drove an ambulance in the Blitz: He would remember the smell of blood, fire and gas, and bodies in what he described, with the laconic style of his class, as “an appalling state.” The pall of fine dust from the bombed buildings made it impossible to breathe. Invalided to the countryside, in 1944 he created his first masterpiece, “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion.”

If the three monstrous animal forms in his godless triptych derive from Picasso, their characters are from the Furies in Aeschylus’ “Oresteia” and the fury within Bacon. In the central panel, traditionally given to Jesus, a figure resembling a plucked turkey snarls, Mr. Stevens and Ms. Swan write, “like the disagreeable relative at a family reunion.” The figure in the left panel is hunched or crushed so that its buttocks are on its shoulders. The jaws of the catlike, predatory form on the right panel are spread in a silent howl. The background is orange, like a bomb flash, the space almost empty as though dispossessed.

The war made Bacon. The revelatory evils of Nazism, the bombing and the newsreels of the death camps all forced the public to acknowledge the horror and the moral vacuum from which it had emerged. The critics, too, realized that Bacon had “found the animal in the man and the man in the animal.” A magpie for quotations and influence, Bacon liked to quote Aeschylus: “The reek of human blood smiles out at me.”

From then on, Bacon was famous and rich, unless he had lost at the tables. The authors excel at illustrating his formation—Bacon destroyed almost all his early work—his manipulation of his image and value, and his helpless gambling in the power games of love. He believed in beauty and tragedy, and he got and gave both. His long romances with violent lovers like Peter Lacy, the alcoholic ex-RAF pilot who beat him savagely, and George Dyer, the petty thief who died by suicide in a hotel bathroom in 1971 on the eve of Bacon’s retrospective at the Grand Palais, were tormented and cruel.

But this was who Bacon was, and who he was determined to be. He took a knife to a bad painting as though shrugging off a bad bet or the night of “rough trade” that sent him to the doctor to have his face stitched back together before he set to work. The paintings that emerged from the suffering and destruction are the spiritual testament of a Wilde man in an age when hope in humanity had been exposed as a cruel and gory joke. Bacon had the Regency gentleman’s contempt for public opinion, but his figures are alone and abused, shamed and exposed, their faces broken by the slash of the brush. The hand that held it was tremulous with fear, desire and drink, and that was his signature. His talent was protean. Had he been trained, he would have been a better draftsman, with the technical skill to integrate his figures and their backgrounds. But he would have been a worse painter.

Bacon’s students at the Royal College of Art, where he taught in the 1950s, noticed that he was “strangely apparitional, like those X-rays and ectoplasmic photographic effects he would sometimes talk about.” While the account of his life by Dan Farson took us into the clubs and dives, and that of Michael Peppiatt into the agony of Bacon’s painting process, Mr. Stevens and Ms. Swan place him squirming squarely in a gilded frame of contextual detail. There are Baconian flourishes of high color, too, as when Bacon, never too picky about welcoming working-class “strangers of the night” into the “careful disarray” of his rooms, is distressed to catch “daytime strangers,” workmen renovating his studio, “putting their dirty hands on his dirty magazines on his dirty floor.”

“What touches me?” a swayingly drunk Bacon told a French interviewer in his mangled French. “Beauty, above all male. . . . Art returns you to life with a stronger sensation of it.”

—Mr. Green is deputy U.S. editor of the Spectator of London










Open in a Scream





BY COLM TÓIBÍN  |  LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS  |  VOL. 43  |  NO. 5  |  4 MARCH 2021  


The period in Francis Bacon’s life between 1933 and 1944 remains a mystery. We know who he was seeing and where he was living. We know what he painted: in 1933, when he was 23, his Crucifixion that looks like an X-ray; eleven years later, the contortions of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. But what was going on in his mind is a matter for speculation. In October 1940, his asthma exacerbated by the dust from the bombing, he left London and moved to a cottage in Hampshire, in a village called Steep, where he lived for two years. Andrew Sinclair, in Francis Bacon: His Life and Violent Times (1993), includes a few sentences on his stay. Daniel Farson, in The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon (also 1993), gives it a passing reference. Michael Peppiatt, in Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma (2008), gives the year of Bacon’s departure for the cottage as 1942, adding: ‘The enforced idleness, free of wartime anxieties and the distractions of London, served as a catalyst to his real ambitions. The unfulfilled artist in Bacon, who was now in his early thirties, returned with a vengeance, forcing him to think in terms of the images he wanted to paint.’

In their new biography, which is nearly as long as the other three put together, Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan devote nine pages to the time Bacon spent outside London. Like previous biographers, they are hampered by lack of evidence, so they have to improvise. ‘Silence can be a great surprise,’ they write. ‘Day after day of silence. No ordinary city sounds in Steep, but also no thump-thump-thump of anti-aircraft guns. No clattering crash of a nearby explosion. No wailing chorus of sirens, no choking clouds of dust, no corpses pulled from the rubble.’ And not much information on what Francis Bacon was doing.

It’s possible that he was idling. The four paintings that survive from these two years were all ‘revisited before being abandoned’. Bacon must have read, but the only volume that can be named is W.B. Stanford’s Aeschylus in His Style: A Study in Language and Personality. There are no diaries, no letters, no memoirs, scant references to this period in interviews. And yet, within a year of leaving the village, Bacon painted, as though out of the blue, the astonishing triptych that made his reputation. Something must have been going on.

‘The critical moments in an artist’s life,’ the new biographers write,

 which rarely occur in public, usually consist of internal reckonings. Often, a period of soul-racking pressure – of loss and failure – yields a clearer view of art and, possibly, a transformation of spirits. Bacon hardly ever spoke of Steep ... His silence was eloquent ... It was likely that during the two years in Steep the ‘shambly’ Bacon took stock, recasting himself as the powerful figure the world has come to know.

 On the other hand, it’s just as likely that nothing at all happened. Bacon was not actually alone. He was accompanied, as always, by his old nanny, Jessie Lightfoot. His lover Eric Hall, who was funding him, visited from time to time, and Bacon sometimes went to London, where his studio still was. The idea that two years in isolation or the sense of hitting bottom can be used to explain a shift in an artist’s work is one way of filling a gap that could also be filled by suggesting that some things happen on their own, or step by step, or are inevitable. Instinct, something hidden becoming clear, one mark opening the path to another, a bright idea one morning: all these could easily be what stirred the imagination to make something new. Who can say?

 It’s easy to see why Stevens and Swan want to claim a time of relative solitude as what made a difference to Bacon. They don’t deny his interest in the night, his chaos, his consumption of vast amounts of alcohol, his delight in sex, his gambling, his rudeness. But they are also determined to stress his loyalty to his mother and sisters, to friends, as well as his decency, his charm, his intelligence and, in his early life, his quietness and uncertainty. They want to rescue him from his reputation as an alarming queer by showing him to be melancholy, haunted, as solitary as he was social, with many close friendships and a few intense, complex relationships with lovers. And an artist who was exacting and ambitious and uncompromising. Perhaps the most affecting sentence in this book is the last: ‘In the morning, work.’

Francis Bacon was born in Dublin in 1909. His father, who had been in the army and dealt in horses, was irascible. He took a dim view of his second son. ‘Like many fathers of the time, the Major tried to punish, shame and force the weakness out of his sickly second son.’ Later, Bacon enjoyed telling stories about the ghastliness of his upbringing, announcing that ‘the Major ordered the grooms to give him a thrashing’ or that a maid, whenever her boyfriend called, would ‘march Francis into a cupboard and, indifferent to his screams, shut him in the darkness for long periods’. This experience, he thought, ‘made him’. His father, he said, ‘didn’t love me and I didn’t love him either ... It was very ambiguous though, because I was sexually attracted to him.’ Bacon ‘sometimes suggested he was raped, as if the grooms had stood him up against the coarse barn door’.

Bacon’s upbringing was certainly far from ideal – he received only a rudimentary formal education – but it may be that the stories he told about it in later years were a way of amusing himself and others. They also give biographers an excuse for connecting the childhood to the work. Sinclair reports that Caroline Blackwood was told ‘by a homosexual friend of Bacon’s that he had admitted to being systematically and viciously horsewhipped by the Irish grooms in front of the father he feared and loved’. Peppiatt, who uses the same source, writes: ‘If indeed his father, to whom he was sexually drawn, ordered and witnessed the floggings carried out by the grooms, themselves a source of erotic excitement, then the complexity of emotion – of pain, thrill and humiliation – is sufficiently extreme to make any later violence, in life or on the canvas, almost too easy to explain.’ Stevens and Swan are not to be outdone: ‘What was certain was that some volatile sexual compound – father, groom, animal, discipline – gave Francis a physical jolt that helped make him into the painter Francis Bacon.’

Bacon left home when he was sixteen. ‘Did his father suddenly banish him for trying on his mother’s silky underthings?’ Stevens and Swan ask. ‘That was a story Bacon later told, and he had a taste for women’s undergarments.’ Peppiatt even has a date for the event, the summer of 1926, and has Bacon being caught by his father ‘admiring himself in front of the mirror’. Stevens and Swan are less credulous about Bacon’s claim that his parents had ‘sold’ him to an older man, Cecil Harcourt-Smith, who took him to Berlin. But he did visit Berlin with Harcourt-Smith in the spring of 1927. He was excited by the city itself but not by German art: ‘It always had too much of a story to tell,’ he said. In Paris and Chantilly, however, where he spent the next year and a half, he saw paintings that would stay with him. Picasso’s work, he said, left him ‘stunned’, and there was Poussin’s Massacre of the Innocents, with its mother vainly trying to protect her son from one of King Herod’s soldiers, her mouth ‘torn open in a scream’.

Bacon said little about his time in and around Paris, but it allowed him to learn the language and make useful connections. At the end of 1928 he moved to London, where he grew close to a number of older, cultivated gay men who often paid for him, supplementing the allowance he received from his mother. Eric Allden, who gets only passing mentions in the other biographies, emerges in Stevens and Swan’s book as an important early friend with an important private income. He and Bacon, and, it seems, Bacon’s old nanny, moved in together in October 1929. Stevens and Swan have made judicious use of Allden’s diaries to show that the two men spent their time in galleries and the theatre rather than bars and nightclubs. Bacon took Allden to see ‘certain pictures in the Tate Gallery’, including Stanley Spencer’s Christ Carrying the Cross and The Resurrection, Cookham. In his early twenties, Bacon was working sporadically as an interior designer but also drawing and painting, according to Allden, ‘in his own peculiar modern style’. His earliest surviving works, which Allden bought, have traces of Cubism, de Chirico and Léger. In 1930, he and Allden took a trip to Germany to see the Passion Play at Oberammergau; he was impressed by the moment when the cross was lifted at twilight.

At this stage Bacon took his work as a designer more seriously than his painting, and he opened a showroom in South Kensington to display his rugs and furniture. Rab Butler, then a young MP, and his wife, Sydney Courtauld, Samuel Courtauld’s daughter, commissioned him to design their dining room. Interior design led to a growing circle of acquaintance, including with the Australian painter Roy de Maistre. In his memoir, Patrick White remembers de Maistre as ‘a snob’ who ‘enjoyed a princess’:

In Eccleston Street, in the de Maistre studio-salon, I met other more or less important people, among them Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, Francis Bacon, as well as Douglas Cooper ... I got to know Francis when he designed some furniture for my Eccleston Street flat. I like to remember his beautiful pansy-shaped face, sometimes with too much lipstick on it ... In those days Francis was living at the end of Ebury Street ... He had an old nanny who used to go out shoplifting whenever they were hard up and as lover there was an alderman.

The alderman was Eric Hall, who became another of Bacon’s financial supporters.

One of the best sources for Bacon’s thinking in these years is the diary of his cousin Diana Watson, who saw him regularly in London. ‘At tea,’ she wrote, Bacon ‘said he could not get away from the Crucifixion idea – that he never really wanted to do anything else’. She referred to it as his ‘frightful Crucifixion complex’. His only training as an artist seems to have come in the form of advice from de Maistre, who, Bacon later said, ‘taught him how to lay paint on canvas. Not how to paint paint, but how to actually control the paint [on] the canvas.’ None of his works from 1931 or 1932 survives – but then, in 1933, he painted his Crucifixion, with the Christ figure as chalky spectre against a dark cross. It caught the attention of the critic Herbert Read, who reproduced it in Art Now: An Introduction to the Theory of Modern Painting and Sculpture, published that year, alongside Picasso’s Female Bather with Raised Arms. (The reproduction ‘made such an impression on me and so many others of my generation’, John Richardson later wrote.) The painting was shown in a Mayfair gallery, where it was bought by Michael Sadler, whose collection included work by Kandinsky, Rouault and Modigliani. Bacon’s next ambitious work was called Wound for a Crucifixion. John Russell described it as being ‘set in a hospital ward ... On a sculptor’s armature was a large section of human flesh: a specimen wound.’ It didn’t sell, so Bacon took it home and destroyed it, something he would continue to do throughout his life. This time, he regretted the loss: ‘I may never be able to get it again.’

Before returning to London from his village retreat, Bacon made his preparations. In 1943, he wrote to Graham Sutherland, one of the most famous English artists of the moment:

I have been meaning to write to you for ages to know how you and Kathleen are. If you are ever in London now will you both come and have some dinner with me one night ... I still know one or two places where the food is not too bad. I hope you are working a lot. I must tell you how much I like some of your paintings in the National Gallery.

Sutherland introduced Bacon to collectors and galleries and other painters, even persuading Kenneth Clark, director of the National Gallery, to visit Bacon’s studio. (‘Interesting, yes,’ Clark said. ‘What extraordinary times we live in.’) In 1945, Ben Nicholson pulled out of a planned six-artist show and Sutherland proposed that Bacon, who was quite unknown, should replace him: ‘I should really prefer Francis Bacon for whose work you know I have a really profound admiration ... his recent things, while being quite uncompromising, have a grandeur and brilliance which is rarely seen in English art.’ After much prevarication, Bacon agreed to send Figure in a Landscape and Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, which attracted great attention. He exhibited two more paintings the following year, with one critic noting his ‘staggering virtuosity’. Yet none of the major institutions would buy the work that was offered to them. ‘The problem,’ Stevens and Swan conclude, ‘was probably the figure’s disturbing mouth.’ Bacon was dismissive of what his colleagues were producing. ‘The thing I was very shocked by,’ he wrote to Sutherland after one group show, ‘was the boring lack of reality, the lack of immediacy which we have so often talked about. I think it is also why so many Picassos are beginning to look so jaded now. It is the terrible decoration we are all contaminated by.’

Bacon began to throw money around, losing heavily at roulette. In 1947, negotiating the price of a painting, he wrote that it was ‘not a quarter of what it has cost me with gambling etc’. He went to Monte Carlo, for the casino rather than the society: he made no effort to meet grand people in the area such as Somerset Maugham, Picasso or Matisse. Bacon’s new fame and his energetic enjoyment of postwar freedom meant that he had less time for Eric Hall, the Tory councillor, who wasn’t interested in Soho pubs or edgy artists and hangers-on. Bacon had established himself in places such as the French House and the Colony Room, and he became close to Lucian Freud, thirteen years his junior. Freud bought work from Bacon, including Two Figures (1953), a depiction of two naked men on a bed passionately engaged in sex, which Freud kept opposite his own bed, generally refusing to lend it out to retrospectives. Caroline Blackwood said that when she was married to Freud in the early 1950s they ‘had lunch or dinner with Bacon almost every day’. One mutual friend found Bacon and Freud intolerable together. They were annoyingly superior, like young lovers who believe they alone knew the secret.’

Bacon and Freud both had brief affairs with the painter Michael Wishart, who watched Bacon putting on his make-up before going out. ‘Seated on the edge of his bath,’ Wishart wrote,

I enjoyed watching Francis make up his face. 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 these on the back of his hand, selecting a tone appropriate for the particular evening, and brushed them through his abundant hair with a shoe brush. He polished his teeth with Vim. He looked remarkably young even before the alchemy.

Make-up firmly in place, Bacon went about Soho each evening insulting people and using obscene words. Stevens and Swan want to emphasise, though, that he did other things too. They write about his visiting an elderly friend of his nanny’s once a week, and remark that he was always ‘a perfect gentleman to his mother and sisters’. One of the women whose portrait Bacon painted many times was Isabel Rawsthorne, who described him as someone who ‘assiduously looked after his friends and consistently helped them exhibit’.

Late in 1949, Bacon exhibited Head VI, his version of Velásquez’s Portrait of Innocent X. The reviews managed to express both revulsion and excitement, and Wyndham Lewis made serious claims:

Of the younger painters, none actually paints so beautifully as Francis Bacon ... I must not attempt to describe these amazing pictures – the shouting creatures in glass cases, these dissolving ganglia the size of a small fist in which one can always discern the shouting mouth, the wild distended eye ... Bacon is one of the most powerful artists in Europe today and he is perfectly in tune with his time.

But he was just as famous for staying out all night and saying whatever he pleased. At a party given by Viscount Rothermere and his wife in the spring of 1949, Princess Margaret took the microphone from Noël Coward and tried to sing ‘Let’s Do It’, only to be greeted by ‘a prolonged and thunderous booing’ from one of the guests. Caroline Blackwood, ‘enthralled’ by the interruption, asked the man next to her who had caused it. ‘It was that dreadful man, Francis Bacon,’ the man said. ‘He calls himself a painter but he does the most frightful paintings. I just don’t understand how a creature like him was allowed to get in here. It’s really quite disgraceful.’

The following year Bacon gave his own party at his studio, to celebrate Michael Wishart’s marriage to his friend Anne Dunn. The party went on for two days and was, John Richardson reports,

slightly presided over by the nanny, the blind nanny, who would be in the rocking-chair at the back of the studio ... My mother had a house around the corner so I used to come and go at the party. I would stay for eight hours, then go home and collapse and sleep it off and then rejoin the party.

In his memoirs, Wishart wrote: ‘After five nights of non-stop celebrations, we left, exhausted, for Paris.’

As all this was going on, Bacon had turned the paintings he had been working on against the wall. They included his first pope paintings, a group that culminated in Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1953), one of the best pictures he ever made. Some of its impact comes from the stark figure, both enthroned and corralled, with his rich purple tunic and silky white skirt and sleeves. This is the pope: by rights, he should be smug-looking, or at least mildly disfigured by power. But he is letting out a scream that is both anguished and snarling; he is an animal coming towards you. The real power of the painting, though, comes from the way it is painted: the skirt a set of almost random brush strokes, the figure oddly embedded in the curtain that might be supposed to hang behind him. The curtain is indicated by a set of vertical lines that make no effort to disguise themselves as anything other than paint, and the lines fan out at the bottom of the canvas in a display of pure painterly style. Praising the work of Matthew Smith, Bacon spoke of Smith’s ‘complete interlocking of image and paint’, that ‘the brushstroke creates the form and does not merely fill it in.’

In the early 1950s Bacon had no fixed address. And he was broke. He was living what Stevens and Swan call ‘an almost feral life’ when he met Peter Lacy. Lacy was handsome, six years younger than Bacon and played the piano in nightclubs. He ‘had no interest in the literary or art world,’ Stevens and Swan write. ‘He did not conceal his dislike for Bacon’s paintings. In fact, his indifference constituted for Bacon part of Lacy’s standoffish appeal.’ They fought a great deal – Lacy ‘wanted to have me chained to the wall’, Bacon told Michael Peppiatt – but Stevens and Swan call the relationship ‘the most important in each man’s life’. Hilariously, they write: ‘Sexual violence was not healthy, of course, but “healthy” was not the point for Bacon and Lacy, two homosexuals who grew up in difficult closeted homes.’

Bacon spent a great deal of time with Lacy in Tangier and the South of France, where they met a number of writers. Allen Ginsberg described Bacon as ‘a great English painter ... who looks like an overgrown seventeen-year-old schoolboy ... wears sneakers and tight dungarees and black silk shirts ... like[s] to be whipped and paints mad gorillas in grey hotel rooms drest in evening dress with deathly black umbrellas’. We have many versions of the rows between Bacon and Lacy, some of them from Bacon himself, but it’s harder to find evidence for the parts of their private lives that might have been easy, relaxed, casual and unferal. Lacy died in May 1962, the day of the private view of Bacon’s first big retrospective at the Tate. Aftewards, Bacon painted a small triptych called Study for Three Heads, with two images of Lacy on either side of a self-portrait. He also made a large-scale portrait.

In one of his greatest paintings, Landscape near Malabata, Tangier (1963), he recorded the place he associated with Lacy. It is a landscape alive with brushwork that looks as though it has suffered radiation, or a fierce storm. As with many of the figure paintings, there is no hinterland or context. It is as if the painting were a glass case and the land inside a specimen. Nonetheless, it is clearly a landscape: there is grass, or scrub, and a tree, and yellow sand. Above the horizon there is a black sky, though sharp light illuminates the landscape itself. At the very centre of the painting black paint rises like a flapping, swirling creature with another amorphous daub below it. ‘What they surely represent,’ the catalogue raisonné notes, ‘is the spirit of the dead Lacy.’ ‘People say you forget about death but you don’t,’ Bacon said. ‘Time doesn’t heal. But you concentrate on something which was an obsession, and what you would have put into your obsession with the physical act you put into your work.’

Since Bacon was known for his tangled personal life, his gambling, his drinking and the chaos of his studio, with the stories of his sexual habits and ghastly Irish childhood in circulation, something needed to be done to explain that his paintings were not just garish expressions of his own neuroses. David Sylvester and Michel Leiris, who both wrote perceptively about his work, emerged as friends and champions. As early as 1951, Sylvester asserted that Bacon was ‘the major English artist of his time’. He soon had access to Bacon’s studio and saw paintings before anyone else did. In 1953, he bought Study for a Portrait on the spot, selling it later to one of Bacon’s dealers. Sylvester was practised at making eloquent, high-toned, oracular statements and, spurred on by John Berger’s contrary judgments, applied this skill to Bacon: ‘In these claustrophobic curtained settings, there loom up before us beings whose shadowy, ambiguous, unexpected presence takes command of any setting they survey, making real beings seem like shadows. They are as appalling as they are compelling, for these are creatures faced with their tragic destiny.’

Sylvester recorded nine interviews with Bacon between 1962 and 1986, in which Bacon appears as serious-minded and scrupulously intelligent. (‘Sylvester was always very good at making me feel that what I was saying was interesting,’ Max Porter has Bacon muse in his new short book, The Death of Francis Bacon, which imagines the artist’s mind as he lies dying in a clinic in Madrid in April 1992.) Interviews with Francis Bacon is at its most absorbing when Sylvester’s questions are longer than Bacon’s answers, but there are occasions when Bacon’s crankiness and his high ambition outdo the questioner. ‘I would loathe my paintings to look like chancy abstract expressionist paintings,’ he responded to one suggestion of Sylvester’s, ‘although I don’t use highly disciplined methods of constructing it. I think the only thing is that my paint looks immediate.’

Neither of the tutelary spirits of the Abstract Expressionist movement, Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, had any interest in Bacon, and the lack of interest went both ways. When the Whitechapel Gallery put on a Jackson Pollock show in 1959 and the Tate staged its New American Painting a few months later, Bacon was curious only to meet Willem de Kooning, though he found him ‘unforthcoming’. On his first trip to New York, almost a decade later, Bacon was introduced to Pollock’s nephew and said: ‘You mean, she’s the niece of the old lace maker?’ He had no respect for Larry Rivers either: ‘She’s simply not a deep-end girl like myself, dear, she’s minnying along the sidewalk of life.’ Nor did he care much for British abstract painting. Having spent time in St Ives, he wrote: ‘This is a stronghold of really dreary abstract stuff, and they are all fanatical about it. I can’t tell you how bad it all is.’

In the early 1960s, Bacon hung out with many posh people and a few nasty pieces of work – but no one much in between. Cecil Beaton thought he was ‘one of the most interesting, refreshing and utterly beguiling people. He is wise and effervescent and an inspired conversationalist.’ Ann Fleming reported on a dinner with Bacon in August 1959, when it turned out that he was supposed to be on a date with ‘a Ted at Piccadilly Circus’. She suggested that Bacon bring this Ted along, but was ‘warned by Cecil that he was known to be equipped with bicycle chains and razor blades and though worshipped by masochistic Francis was a danger to normal mortals’. A decade later, when Bacon bought a house in Limehouse, he said: ‘I have bought the house in which I shall be murdered.’

There are different accounts of how Bacon met George Dyer late in 1963. One is that Dyer, a rather good-looking cat burglar from the East End of London, fell through Bacon’s skylight like a gift from heaven, and that Bacon threatened to call the police if Dyer didn’t have sex with him. They are more likely to have met in a bar or a club. According to Freud, Bacon was pleased when Dyer, unlike other such visitors to his quarters, didn’t steal anything from him but presented him with ‘an enormous gold watch which he’d stolen the night before’. He began to paint Dyer soon after their first meeting. ‘Bacon never tired of looking at him,’ Stevens and Swan write.

He was beautifully but also naturally formed. His muscles were not gym-made but came from years of manual work, and perhaps some schoolboy boxing. Since Bacon could not always find George when he wanted him to model, he commissioned John Deakin to take some photographs of George stripped to his [under]pants, which revealed his musculature. George found the pictures embarrassing, a bit like dirty postcards.

Bacon became a creature of habit during his years with Dyer. He often had breakfast with Freud before spending the morning at work in the studio. He went into Soho for lunch. He liked to have sex in the afternoon. In the evening he went gambling. His paintings were beginning to make a lot of money. Stevens and Swan are alert to the problem of what to do about gay relationships that are known to be difficult, even tragic, such as Bacon’s with Lacy and Dyer. They quote a letter from Dyer to Bacon, written from Scotland, where he had gone to dry out in October 1965:

I try so hard not to think of you, as it makes me unhappy not to be with you. I do hope you can stay away from Soho just for me, as it always seems to lead to disaster, perhaps more me than you. It is rather cold here at the moment, but I suppose this is to be expected. Well my dear Francis, I do hope you are happy and well. Write soon and thank you very much for ringing me. All my love. As Oscar Wilde said, please believe me. Yours, George.

The relationship gradually deteriorated, partly because Dyer had nothing to do except wait for Bacon to come drinking with him – partly because, Stevens and Swan suggest, he had ‘lost his self-respect when he gave up his profession as a burglar’. Freud told William Feaver, his biographer: ‘It was awfully tragic, really. Francis stopped fancying him and George was in love with him. Francis got him these marvellous – horrible – grand flats, but [George] wanted to be with him.’

Bacon’s painting was being taken more and more seriously by other artists, including Alberto Giacometti, whom he called ‘the most marvellous of human beings’. They spent time together in 1965, when Giacometti had a retrospective at the Tate. ‘Giacometti’s gift to Bacon was Michel Leiris,’ Stevens and Swan write. ‘Bacon and Leiris were natural soulmates – had either believed in the soul.’ As a friend of Leiris, Bacon was brought into the inner sanctum of the intellectual life of Paris. After Leiris published an essay about his work, Bacon responded (in French): ‘Michel, I do not know how to thank you, it is the first time that someone has explained what I intend to do, even when I fail to do it. And also, thank you for having said that I am not an expressionist.’ Leiris wrote about the stark, pitiless artificiality with which Bacon surrounded his figures. Bacon ‘usually stands the object to be painted in harsh, steady electric light or, occasionally, in clear sunlight unmitigated by anything reminiscent of the weather, so that all is exposed, as it were, to a midday glare’. He alluded to the clash between two systems in Bacon’s work: ‘a more or less marked distortion of the figures, combined with a fairly naturalistic treatment of their surroundings’. He suggested that the canvases were not just finished objects to be gazed at, like most paintings, but forms of action. ‘Bacon’s essential aim is not so much to produce a picture that will be an object worth looking at, as to use the canvas as a theatre of operations for the assertion of certain realities.’

In 1971, Bacon had a retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris, with 134 works on display. He went early to oversee the installation, staying with Dyer at the Hôtel des Saints-Pères. Georges Pompidou, then president, was to open the show; his wife was to give a party. Friends and family had travelled to Paris. The evening of the formal opening would include a press view, a state opening, a large private view, a dinner and a party hosted by Leiris and Sonia Orwell. The night before, since he had had a row with Dyer, Bacon stayed somewhere else. In the morning, Dyer was discovered sitting on the toilet. He was dead, having taken an overdose. Bacon’s friends spoke to the hotel manager. ‘Would it be possible, they asked,’ as Stevens and Swan paraphrase it,

to postpone George’s death until the following morning? His death would otherwise dominate news of the opening. The manager, like any good hotelier, was discreet ... Yes, George could wait until the morning after the formal opening. The manager went upstairs to lock the room where George sat on the loo.

There was an odd moment as Bacon and the president toured the exhibition. Pompidou ‘made a show of stopping’ in front of one particular triptych, Three Figures in a Room, recently bought by the French state. The left panel showed George Dyer, sitting on a toilet.

Over the next year or so, Bacon returned regularly to the hotel where Dyer had died, staying in the room where it happened. ‘Bacon, always a poor sleeper,’ Stevens and Swan write, ‘left himself open, during this private ritual of expiation, to the night thoughts most people would do anything to avoid, enclosing himself in the ghostly room with only the vague hotel sounds to keep him company.’ After Dyer’s death, he made four large triptychs, one of which confronts the actual death, with panels of Dyer vomiting into the sink and sitting on the toilet bowl. ‘The central panel,’ Stevens and Swan write, ‘depicts the moment of death, with a batlike shadow flaring out from George’s body.’ Leiris refers to these shadows in Bacon’s work as ‘an oblique intensification ... a shadow taking the eminently material form of a pool or blot that seems to have been secreted by the figure, which thereby acquires greater weight’.

The shadow here is more explicit than that, however. It is more than a blob, closer to a bat or a bird of some sort. It suggests life seeping out of the body and becoming a black shape with wings. Rather than serving the dynamic needs of the picture, the black shape serves to illustrate something. For once, Bacon’s fastidiousness, his restraint, had failed him. As Stevens and Swan rightly point out, Bacon ‘usually gleefully declares that dead means dead, as in meat on the floor’. This strange and uncharacteristic ‘melodramatic spook’, this ‘batlike shadow’, is therefore ‘one of the strangest – and possibly bravest – moments in Bacon’s art’.

In 1975, Bacon had a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Two hundred thousand people came to see it. Although the critic for the New York Times declared that Bacon had ‘certainly left no discernable trace on American painting’, Andy Warhol, who was at the opening, confessed that he was influenced by Bacon’s use of background colour. Leiris refers to ‘large areas [of Bacon’s canvases] treated with apparent indifference (backgrounds in flat tints)’. Bacon had mocked his own work over lunch with friends in Rome in 1973. ‘His paintings came to him relatively easily, he said, now that he rolled on the backgrounds in acrylic like any idiot. All that was necessary was to add “his gestural images, some of them from Eadweard Muybridge, some culled from medical books on plastic surgery”.’

The background in an earlier Bacon work such as Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, a rich, garish orange, is startling for its blatant artificiality, its fearless brilliance. The problem with such effects is that they are hard to repeat. He copied that colour a great deal until it could seem like a formula, and it rarely appears in his work after 1986. But in large-scale work from the 1960s and 1970s, Bacon often manages to make it look as though the background colour came to him once more as a surprise. The flat yellow in Double Portrait of Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach (1964), for example, or the flat black in Triptych (1972), have freshness and sternness. In other work Bacon concentrates on the complex figure and doesn’t seem to bother much about the background.

‘Painting has nothing to do with colouring surfaces,’ Bacon said. ‘When I feel that I have to some extent formed the image,’ he told Sylvester, ‘I put the background in to see how it’s going to work and then I go on with the image itself.’ When Sylvester asked if he ever had to change the original colour of the ground, he replied: ‘I generally stay with the ground because it is extremely difficult to change it when you are using unprimed canvas.’ Bacon disliked the word ‘unconscious’, preferring the term ‘nervous system’, but it is nonetheless possible to look at these flat colours applied (‘putting the background in’) so quickly and easily as an interesting aspect of his unconscious, suggesting a pure and sleek imagination that took sensual pleasure in colour and texture, in brightness, purity and luminosity.

There were, however, paintings in which the application of the background seemed just to repeat a pattern, to be striking for its own sake. ‘Having a plain-coloured background and putting the subject matter as such on it, is, one can really say, a recipe for illustration,’ Freud told Martin Gayford. ‘Of course, the best things, when Francis worked on the whole canvas and livened it up, are very different. But when he simply put, as he did later more and more and more frequently, something onto the ... canvas without it relating in any way, well of course the result was illustration.’ Bacon, in turn, had views on Freud’s work: ‘far too expressionist for my liking’, he said of Freud’s show at the Hayward Gallery in 1974. Freud claimed that when his work began selling, ‘Francis became bitter and bitchy’. In 1991, less than a year before Bacon’s death, he was at a restaurant with a friend when they saw Freud across the room. ‘Freud had a tray,’ the friend recalled, ‘and was moving in our direction. Francis said: “Don’t move. Let him come here.” Freud went right past us and went to the opposite end of the restaurant. Francis said: “That’s the way things are.”’

Bacon was often kind and considerate, as Stevens and Swan show, but there were moments when his inner bitch demanded to be noticed. In 1977 he visited the exhibition of a close friend, Denis Wirth-Miller, and, according to Wirth-Miller’s biographer,

began to rock back and forth. The guests waited respectfully to hear his opinion. Bacon stopped rocking on his heels and started laughing. For the next ten minutes, he went around the exhibition, stopping to laugh, gesticulate and insult various works – even though he was acutely familiar with the psychological crisis his friend had endured in relation to his work. Wirth-Miller’s friends and neighbours looked on in shock.

If some of the late triptychs display tiredness, or barely escape self-parody, this never happened to the portraits, especially the smaller ones, and especially the self-portraits, which only became more intense and touching. Leiris describes the subjects losing ‘their bone structure to become strange fluxes and whorls of matter in fusion’. ‘As a portraitist,’ Gilles Deleuze wrote,

Bacon is a painter of heads, not faces, and there is a great difference between the two. The face is a structured, spatial organisation that conceals the head, whereas the head is dependent upon the body, even if it is the point of the body in culmination ... Bacon thus pursues a very peculiar project as a portrait painter: to dismantle the face, to rediscover the head or make it emerge from beneath the face.

It mattered that Bacon mostly painted people to whom he was close. During the last years of his life, one of his main subjects was John Edwards, whom he met in the Colony Room in 1976. ‘Francis fell for John in a minute,’ a friend of Edwards’s said. ‘He was breathtakingly handsome ... exuded strength. He was very reliable, like a rock. Very strong.’ The first paintings where Edwards is named as the subject were done in 1980, and they remained close; Edwards inherited Bacon’s estate. But there were other subjects too, including José Capelo, a businessman living in South Kensington whom Bacon met in 1987, when Capelo was 31. Capelo remained a discreet presence, referred to only as Bacon’s ‘young Spanish friend’ by Peppiatt and ‘his Spanish banker’ by Sinclair. Farson describes him, again without naming him, in a photograph which Bacon showed him: ‘one of those Spaniards with tawny-coloured hair and blue eyes ... the Nietzsche of the football team’. During the first nine months of 1990, Bacon embarked on at least eight substantial trips across the Channel, usually with Capelo, who took a sabbatical from his work to spend more time with Bacon. When Capelo sometimes insisted on paying a restaurant bill, ‘it was,’ Stevens and Swan write, ‘a novel experience for Bacon, who had hardly let a dinner bill escape his hands for decades.’

In Madrid, Bacon found a venue that he made into his headquarters. This was Bar Cock, near Gran Vía. ‘The cocktails were smart, the bar mirrored, the lighting dusky,’ Stevens and Swan write. ‘Green leather banquettes and red leather club chairs – brass studs and wooden arms – provided a clubby familiarity. The art world liked it.’ Bacon and Capelo would arrive at 8.30 or 9, just the two of them. The owner came to know them. At their favourite table, or at the bar, they would have three dry martinis. Then at 10.30 or 11, they would go and have dinner.

‘Sometimes,’ the owner said, ‘he’d order champagne for them both. He’d come Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. Two or three times a week. Not on Friday or Saturday. And never after dinner.’ Bacon usually wore ‘white linen with a closed shirt’, she said. He was ‘very much of a gentleman’.

Francis Bacon: Revelations by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan William Collins, 889pp, £30





Bacon’s Shadow






Colm Tóibín writes that the shadow in the central panel of Bacon’s Triptych May-June 1973, a memorial to the death of George Dyer, ‘suggests life seeping out of the body and becoming a black shape with wings. Rather than serving the dynamic needs of the picture, the black shape serves to illustrate something’ (LRB, 4 March). 

Bacon hated illustration, though his friend and rival Lucian Freud accused him of it.

It is likely that the shadow is nothing more – or less – than the shadow of death, which in the picture is seeping into rather than out of Dyer’s figure.

In his recent book Modernists and Mavericks: Bacon, Freud, Hockney and the London Painters, Martin Gayford retells the painter John Wonnacott’s story of walking with Bacon one day in ‘a strong sun’, when he suddenly noticed another man’s shadow.

Bacon asked: ‘Do you see the way that eats into the figure, like a disease?’

Michael Kuczynski   New Orleans




           A ‘shadow’ in the central panel of Triptych May-June 1973





Bacon’s Shadow






Michael Kuczynski is correct in stating that Francis Bacon hated illustration, and criticises Colm Tóibín’s reading of Triptych May-June 1973  accordingly (Letters, 1 April). Yet Kuczynski repeats the error in his own interpretation: ‘It is likely that the shadow is nothing more – or less – than the shadow of death.’ For Bacon, it was not ‘the shadow of death’ and not necessarily a shadow as such: rather it was a non-illustrational (non-referential) form from the subconscious, referring to nothing but its own nebulousness. It has ‘a life of its own’, as Bacon remarked to David Sylvester:

What has never yet been analysed is why this particular way of painting is more poignant than illustration. I suppose because it has a life completely of its own. It lives on its own, like the image one’s trying to trap; it lives on its own, and therefore transfers the essence of the image more poignantly. So that the artist may be able to open up or rather, should I say, unlock the valves of feeling and therefore return the onlooker to life more violently.


Alexander Verney-Elliott 

London WC1





Peyré’s Bacon




ACC published a new introductory work into Francis Bacon.






ACC have produced an introductory collection of Bacon’s paintings which will doubtlessly be welcome to the bookshelves of budding connoisseurs of 20th-century art. This is an attractive book for newcomers to Bacon’s paintings who are drawn to the rich and violent dance of his thick paint, his distorted and confined figures immersed in fields of cheerful colour and open space. Plenty of well-chosen images from the body of work dip into the catalogue of Bacon’s astonishing oeuvre.

Poet Yves Peyré’s opening chapters are elegantly written reminiscences which provide fresh insight into the layered character of Bacon, who Peyré acknowledges was on his best behaviour around him thanks to his affection for their mutual friend Michel Leiris, who Bacon adored. The essays introduce a gentler, kinder version of the artist, who Peyré remembers as a sophisticated and generous friend, and as a courteous partner in the unkind business of art. They provide a friendly introduction to the man. Although Peyré recognizes that the Bacon of this gentlemanly book is the same man who “invites us to laugh like Nietzsche in the face of the excess of living,” and “scrutinizes pain to know more about it,” this is not his focus – he is more interested in poetic interpretations of the work, and sets aside the darker details of the artist’s life and moves on to interpreting the art.

This is not the Bacon we know from memoirs scribed by his literary drinking friends – collections of fragmented and gossipy scenes plucked from his life dominate their stories, almost equalling the art for violent imagery and excess, like the Dionysian dramas of Daniel Farson’s A Gilded Gutter Life, a lurid page-turner which offered tales of sordid scenes from seamy Soho, describing how Bacon shared real pain with his sham friends, and champagne with his real friends, his sordid and indulgent sex life, the beating violence and cruelty of his youth, the proletarian criminality of his East End lover, George Dyer.

Bacon was a clear and keen observer of sordid sensation, telling sharp painted tales of sensual violence and shocking disruption, erotic, and medical and existential, and Peyré pays homage to the viscera of the works, rather than dissecting the record of the man. And while he lets the autumn leaves of biographical narrative lie thinly over Bacon’s memory, his thoughtful analysis of the paintings is strong. Sometimes his wordsmithing produces intriguing poetic language – “He frustrates the least of his habits. Each presence that is placed on the canvas is a hymn to emergence. Francis Bacon never hesitates to slip into the nights of novelty, he draws from it the supremacy of burning.”

The book is a lyrical introduction, leaving plenty of questions unanswered that will surely lead new Bacon initiates to further exploration. Bacon makes pop-psychologists of us all, and it is refreshing to read a book about him that finds sensual literary pleasure in the work itself rather than exploiting sleazy tales about its maker. Like Bacon, Peyré straddles the fearful space between abstraction and representation with love and loathing.

Yves Peyré – Francis Bacon or The Measure of Excess, ACC Art Books



                                                                                    Francis Bacon, Three Studies of George Dyer, 1966. Courtesy of Sotheby’s










New book documents extraordinary life of Francis Bacon






MARGARET THATCHER described him as “that man who paints those dreadful pictures”. She preferred landscapes and portraits.

Landscapes weren’t Francis Bacon’s sort of thing; he certainly did portraits — but not the sort Mrs Thatcher would have been partial to. Grotesque, sometimes cruelly funny and often moving, the portraits were characterised by visceral, unsettling images. Today, despite Mrs Thatcher’s verdict, Dublin-born Bacon is regarded as one of the giants of world contemporary art.

Francis Bacon: Revelations by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan is the first comprehensive biography of the seminal artist in 25 years. Published last month, this impressively researched book explores Bacon’s early years in Ireland, from his birth in Dublin, to his time in Co. Laois and Co. Kildare.

The biography then segues to England, and Bacon’s path to becoming one of the major figures in the art world. In London he lived a bohemian lifestyle, concealing many important aspects of his past. He described himself as an asthmatic child in Ireland with foxhunting parents and a tyrannical father, but he was also rescued by a series of formidable women.

In England he continued to live with his nanny Jessica Lightfoot, a major presence in his life. Bacon was born in Lower Baggot Street, Dublin and christened in St Patrick’s Church of Ireland near Cannycourt, Co. Kildare. His parents weren’t Irish-born but did belong to the Anglo-Irish aristocracy

According to Revelations he was “part of an English ruling class that was both privileged and alienated, set between two worlds and shadowed by each”. Bacon grew up in an era that the Anglo-Irish termed “the bad times” when a gathering revolution was fomenting. The Bacons and their class lived amidst an oppressed and resentful Irish Catholic population.

Revelations describes how this turbulent period had an indelible effect on the young Bacon. On one occasion a relative, an RIC inspector called Kerry Supple, was driving young Francis home across the Bog of Allen. “The IRA had dug a pit in the road to ambush automobiles. Supple and Francis leapt out of the car and set off across the fields in the darkness, all the while surrounded by cries and flashing lights.

“Supple led Francis to the nearest big house, where they were questioned at gunpoint before being allowed inside. Bacon, in retrospect, relished the experience. The ‘bad times’ would, of course, have stimulated the imagination of almost any boy approaching adolescence.”

Bacon would say that his paintings strove to portray "the brutality of fact". That philosophy probably had its seeds in a troubled Ireland, and a troubled social class. By 1923, Bacon’s father was fearful of the future. The Bacon family accordingly moved to England, settling in Gloucestershire.

Tellingly, the young Francis asked if he could stay behind and continue living in Kildare with his granny. This was denied him and at the age of 16 he left Ireland forever. Francis Bacon never had a settled sense of place — a driving force in much of his imagery.



In 1944, now living in London, Bacon won notoriety with Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion.Bacon’s art focused on the human form; favourite subjects included crucifixions and portraits of popes — even though he was an avowed atheist and totally amoral. He would work until about midday, when he ventured out for his first glass of champagne — he was undoubtedly a borderline alcoholic.

Bacon’s stomping ground was Soho, particularly the Colony Club. He had a magnetic personality — he was scintillating company, clever, witty, as well as generous, tender and thoughtful. But he could be petulant — and very rude. He was invited to parties, dinners, functions. He even rubbed up against royalty.

In the book, there is a revisiting of the incident when Bacon booed Princess Margaret. “Francis Bacon upstaged Princess Margaret at a white-tie ball just as she began to warble the Cole Porter song Let’s Do It, booing her to the wings as if she were a music-hall extra.” He later explained: “I don’t think people should perform if they can’t do it properly.”



According to Revelations, Bacon detested the word ‘gay’. He was happier with ‘homosexual’, and aware of his sexual orientation from an early age in Ireland. Although his father had ordered stable hands to whip the young Francis for failing to take to foxhunting, the young boy ended up having sex with one of the grooms. He was also once caught wearing his mother’s underwear.

But Bacon never hid his homosexuality, even at a time and in a place where it might have been prudent to do so. His long-term friend Lucian Freud called him the bravest person he’d ever met.

Bacon was a man who pursued life’s excesses from drink and drugs to promiscuity while desperately longing for affectionate love and companionship. He came close to this with Peter Lacy, born in England, but who, like Bacon, had Irish roots. Lacy was raised in a strict Catholic household.

The biographers write: “Lacy has usually been assigned a devilish supporting role in Bacon’s life, described as a dashing fighter pilot during the Battle of Britain and a sexual monster in the bedroom. “In fact, Lacy was never a fighter pilot, and he passionately loved Bacon.

“He became violent when he drank, but Bacon also intentionally provoked him, finding the eruption of his demon-riddled soul inexpressibly moving.” The authors have forensically researched Lacy’s life and his relationship with Bacon. They spoke to Lacy’s nephews Gerald Towell and Father David Lacy, a Catholic priest in England.

Both are aghast at the way Lacy has been portrayed over the years. Bacon and Lacy certainly had a violent relationship, but friends and family of both men attest to the affection and love the two men had for each other.

The book also offers fresh insights into the artist’s other lovers, many of whom Bacon depicted as tormented and twisting figures in masterpieces that captured the pain and loneliness of human existence. The authors draw the book to a close by placing Bacon’s legacy in context.

“Bacon gave the twentieth century one of its representative figures. “It was not necessary to call Bacon the equal of Rembrandt who gave the seventeenth century such a figure to know that with his death the century was losing one of its defining pieces.

“His creation of his dramatic persona - flamboyant, unafraid, free - extended the impact of another inventive Anglo-Irish dandy, Oscar Wilde, who died as the twentieth century began. “The society that could not tolerate Wilde was the same society into which Bacon was born, but Bacon lived to see the position of homosexuals transformed.

“He bridged worlds. He gave body to change.”



Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, a husband-and-wife partnership, won the 2005 Pulitzer for Biography for De Kooning: An American Master, a study of the Dutch-American artist Willem de Kooning

Francis Bacon: Revelations. Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan. Published on January 21, 2021. William Collins £30 ISBN 978-0-00-729

The publication of the book was originally designed to coincide with the major new exhibition of Francis Bacon’s paintings, spanning his 50-year career, at the Royal Academy from 30 January – 18 April 2021. This has now been postponed, with its reinstatement to be announced.




                                                                                         Francis Bacon by André Morain, Paris






A playfully pretentious reimagining of Bacon’s final days







 In April 1992, the painter Francis Bacon took ill while holidaying in Spain. He died in a Madrid hospital, alone, except for the ministrations of a hospice nun, Sister Mercedes. This event is the backdrop of Max Porter’s The Death of Francis Bacon, a wildly experimental attempt to capture — at the moment of his death — the essential force of a legendary artist who has long fascinated the author.

Bacon — with his viscera, art and punk-rock biographical arc — is the sort of artist that inspires fascination, obsession and tribute. In a 2016 essay for The Paris Review, Porter describes the sublime experience of seeing Francis Bacon’s Triptych, which depicted Bacon’s lover, George Dyer, dying of a drug overdose on the toilet. The lineage between Bacon and Porter is clearly drawn — both artists with surreal bents, an eye for the scabrous underbelly of polite society and a record of transcendent works exploring sorrow. Porter’s first book, Grief is a Thing with Feathers, was brilliant. The second, Lanny, was beyond triumphant — one of those works that show other artists what is possible.

So The Death of Francis Bacon is, on paper, an exhilarating prospect: one of England’s great artists being eulogised by arguably England’s greatest modern writer. On the page it’s a confounding text, closer in execution to a magic-eye puzzle than an experimental novel.

Equal parts art criticism, biography and internet message board fan-fiction, the book is simultaneously a deeply moving sketch of a mind unravelling at death’s door and a borderline insensible bit of emulation. At about 6000 words, it’s something between a short story and a long, messy poem. It is, according to the publisher, Porter’s attempt to “write as painting”. Chapters are presented as staccato explosions of description — “written pictures”. The first is titled “Preparatory Sketch, non-existent, pencil on paper, 6 x 4 in”.

So, prose as picture, and an attempt to bottle the final lightning fizzing through Bacon’s mind. A stream-of-consciousness cavalcade of regret and desire; a dead man raging for want: of vitality, fame, champagne, a nice dinner, a blow job, an end to pain. He is haunted on his deathbed by the unkind words of critics (won’t we all be though) and full of scorn for his fans, including, it seems, Porter – “one of these shits who will write a god-awful hack-tosh-hagiography of me after I’m gone.”

Porter is having a lend at himself here, and there’s a great deal of very smart, playful narrative chicanery at work. At one point he jumps in with a thesis statement: “It’s an attempt to express my feelings about a painter I have had a long and unfashionable obsession with.” Again, this could be Bacon talking about Pablo Picasso, or Diego Velázquez, both artists who obsessed him at some point. Or it could be Porter, knocking down the fourth wall. The author goes easy on structural restrictions, in favour of zorbing happily down a mountain of Baconian imagery

Each “written picture” features the sort of imagery Bacon sweated over: greasy meat, screaming mouths, warped religious iconography. Bacon’s works often featured reclining figures writhing in tortured, half-undone reality — Porter gives us the same here in the portraits of Bacon and Sister Mercedes.

This is visionary writing, albeit niche. The ideal reader sits at the centre of a vanishingly small Venn diagram; come armed with a decent knowledge of Bacon’s work and biography, and a strong tolerance for poeticism. The target audience is, near as I can tell, Max Porter. As Porter/Bacon remarks to the subjects of one of his paintings, “This is going to upset you, exhilarate me and interest scholars.”

Indulgent, yes, but in the way of a dense dessert; this is one to linger over and enjoy slowly. Porter’s prose is still a magic trick that distracts you with one hand while the other reaches into your chest to defibrillate the jaded little heart of the literary reader.

Nobody writes like this. It is great writing. Whether it is good writing will depend very much on your tastes. For the lay reader willing to invest a few passes, it’s solid intellectual treat. For a certain kind of train-spotting art lover, this will be the greatest book you read in years.

Liam Pieper’s most recent novel, Sweetness and Light, is published by Hamish Hamilton.

The Death Of Francis Bacon, Max Porter, Faber & Faber, $14.99






Francis Bacon’s studio adds €40m to big picture of Hugh Lane gallery







The Hugh Lane gallery has valued its Francis Bacon studio and archive at €40 million and its entire collection at more than €200 million. The valuations are included in tender documents published last week by Dublin city council, its owner, which is seeking a new insurer. The valuations were carried out by James O’Halloran, managing director of Adam’s, and Barbara Dawson, the gallery’s director.

The gallery, which is closed due to Covid-19 restrictions, has told prospective insurance companies that its collection has been valued at €201.6 million, with the core collection of 2,100 artworks valued at €156 million. It has 29 artworks valued at more than €1 million each.

It is also seeking insurance cover for the paintings it shares with the National Gallery in London, known as the Sir Hugh Lane bequest. This collection, including paintings by Monet, Renoir, Degas and Manet, are separately valued at €160.3 million.

This valuation was provided by the London gallery. The 39 artworks rotate between London and Dublin as part of an agreement reached after Lane, an art dealer who died on board the Lusitania in 1915, left a codicil to his will. This reversed an earlier decision to leave the collection to the National Gallery but was invalid as it was not witnessed.

The Francis Bacon studio was donated to the Hugh Lane gallery in 1998 by the artist’s heir, John Edwards, and the executor of his estate, Brian Clarke. The studio’s contents were uprooted from London and recreated exactly in Dublin under the supervision of conservators and archaeologists. Even the dust was catalogued. It opened to the public in 2001. It is valued at €20 million, while a Bacon archive of artworks is valued at the same amount.

The tender documents note there have been no insurance claims by the gallery in the past five years. It outlines security features at the Parnell Square museum including CCTV, security tagging, a 24-hour security guard, perimeter alarm, trained handlers for moving artworks and environmental monitoring to ensure works are not damaged. It says some of its works are stored off-site, including in City Hall.




                                                                      Francis Bacon’s studio was uprooted from London and recreated exactly






In Focus: The animalistic artworks of Francis Bacon




Martin Gayford considers the importance of snarling creatures,

human and otherwise, in the art of Francis Bacon.






Although the late Francis Bacon was a brilliant conversationalist, almost as gifted with words as he was with a paintbrush, he was deeply reluctant to expound on one point: what his own pictures were all about. His favourite explanation boiled down to… nothing, that they illustrated no story, symbolised no idea, encoded no deeper significance.

Not surprisingly, platoons of art historians have endeavoured to discover the hidden meaning of Bacons. An important exhibition at the Royal Academy (RA), ‘Francis Bacon: Man and Beast’, will try a novel line: that the artist’s work was very much concerned with animals. (Its opening is postponed until lockdown measures are lifted — the website at the Royal Academy will post the latest updates.)

Although the fact has not often been noted, Bacon was a remarkable animal painter, what the French call an animalier. There are extraordinary pictures by him of chimpanzees, baboons, owls and dogs, the latter reduced to a feral, snarling blur in one masterpiece, Man with Dog (1953), in which the owner at the other end of the lead is reduced to amorphous, sinister shadow. It is hard to say which of the two is more threatening.

The curator of the RA show, Michael Peppiatt, argues that the painter not only superbly conveyed the ferocious otherness of these beasts, but that his work was deeply concerned with the animality of people.

In his catalogue essay, he quotes a conversation he once had with Bacon after they had both witnessed a scene of violence on a Soho street. The thugs they had seen kicking a victim were behaving like animals, Bacon observed, then went on: ‘We are all animals if you care to think about it. It’s just that some people are more aware of the fact than others. I think I’ve been very aware of it ever since I was a child.’

This ties the subject of Bacon and animals to another area about which, although not completely silent, the artist was reticent: his early life. However, there is a brand-new biography of the artist, Francis Bacon: Revelations by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan (William Collins, £30), which adds to our knowledge of the earlier decades of childhood and youth. Bacon (1909–92) grew up in the lost world of the Anglo-Irish Ascendency, where habits and attitudes had changed little from Georgian times. In later life, he was prone to dismiss his father, Major A. E. M. Bacon (retired), as a ‘horse trainer’ — and a failed one at that. That, as was a good deal of what Bacon said, was exaggerated for effect, but contained an essential truth: ‘Eddy’ Bacon was an almost man.

He was related, but not quite closely enough, to great wealth and position; he nearly, but not quite, inherited the Earldom of Oxford. His career in the army was inglorious and — having married a wife with some money — Bacon Snr moved to Ireland, where country houses were cheaper, hoping to make a niche for himself in the worlds of racing and hunting. The environment in which Francis grew up, the authors suggest, would have had a powerfully ‘animal’ atmosphere. ‘The horse and dogs, the paddocks and the stables,’ were the major’s domain.

His second son, Francis, was literally allergic to it all, horses, dogs and the rest. Years later, in 1939, he made quite sure he failed his army medical by hiring an Alsatian from Harrods the night before and sleeping with it so that he turned up for examination red-eyed and wheezing. Caroline Blackwood, briefly married to Lucian Freud and Bacon’s friend in the 1950s, recalled his reaction whenever she broached the subject of this ‘unlikely and horsey Irish upbringing’: ‘He started to tug at the collar of his shirt as if he were trying to loosen some kind of noose which he found asphyxiating.’

It seems his father, his asthma, his sexuality and the milieu of racing, hunting and Irish setters were all inextricably linked in Bacon’s psyche with the origins of his art. As far as he was concerned, the irascible, disappointed Major Bacon perhaps exuded what he once confessed to Lucian Freud he found most exciting: ‘an atmosphere of menace’. Certainly, he confessed to having sexual feelings for his father, who — he claimed to Blackwood and others — ordered him to be thrashed by his grooms (although whether or not this latter memory was actually a fantasy is hard to say).

Even horsey odours had a complicated effect on him: ‘I don’t like the smell of horse dung, but I find it sexually alluring, like urine. It’s very real, it is very virile.’

Animals, animality and that sense of menace became hallmarks of his art. Among Bacon’s more unexpected incarnations was that of an intrepid traveller in the African bush. He is, of course, better known for his exploration of the pubs and drinking clubs of Soho, but, surprisingly, he loved Africa. Indeed, after two visits, in 1951 and 1952, he even considered moving there. There were family connections; his mother had moved to South Africa and his two sisters lived in what was then called Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.

As much as his female relations, however, it was the dry landscape of endless savannah that attracted him. And, more than the terrain itself, he was excited by what lived in it: ‘I felt and memorised,’ the artist remembered, ‘the excitement of seeing animals move through the long grass.’

That is how many of Bacon’s human subjects appear to be: lurking, ready to pounce. Part of the attraction of brutal individuals, such as his acquaintances the Kray brothers, he told Mr Peppiatt, lay in the openness with which they revealed their instincts, ‘for violence, for power, for excitement, for whatever it is’.

Bacon went on: ‘Animals themselves are fascinating because they are of course much less inhibited in their behaviour, and if you watch them you can see exactly what they’re like.’ Essentially, he believed, all of us — even those whose instincts are more ‘veiled’ — are the same. In the words of his fellow painter Freud, we are ‘animals dressed up’. The job of the artist, Bacon often mused, was like a hunter, to ‘trap’ something wild and fleeting, ‘this transient thing’.

In an interview from 1958, Bacon expanded on this thought: ‘All artists are lovers, they’re lovers of life, they want to see how they can set the trap so that life will come over more vividly and more violently.’

His father may have been a noted pursuer of foxes in Edwardian Ireland, but his younger son turned out to be a formidable hunter of bigger game: masterpieces that would stun the viewer and immortalise their maker.

One of many paradoxes of Bacon’s life and career was that he, the weakling — effeminate, asthmatic, homosexual, artistic — turned out by far the most vigorous and one of the longest-lived of the litter. His two healthier brothers died young, whereas Francis, although he did not emerge fully from his chrysalis until he was in his mid thirties, became an artist and personality of charismatic force.

Quite recently, his very last painting was rediscovered: Study of a Bull (1991). It is a monochrome painting picture related to another subject that obsessed him, as it did Picasso and Goya: the bull fight. This animal — powerful, dangerous, virile and doomed — was perhaps a metaphorical self-portrait.

Dates for the exhibition ‘Francis Bacon: Man and Beast’ at the Royal Academy, Burlington House, London W1, will be announced when lockdown restrictions lift. Booking will be essential.





                                                                                                                          Study for Bullfight No. 1, 1969.






                                               Martin Gayford



Francis Bacon: king of the self-made myth




He was a renowned fabulist as well as a great painter, and Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan

painstakingly sort fact from fiction in their latest biography






In 1953, Francis Bacon’s friends Lucian Freud and Caroline Blackwood were concerned about the painter’s health. His liver was in bad shape, he drank inordinately, his lover had recently thrown him out of a first-floor window in the course of a drunken row, he was taking too many amphetamines and his heart was ‘in tatters’, ‘not a ventricle working’. His doctor had warned if he took one more drink, he informed them over dinner at Wheeler’s restaurant in Soho, he might drop dead on the spot. Then, in ‘an ebullient mood’, the artist ordered champagne.

Of course, Bacon (1909-92) didn’t expire on the spot. Instead, he lived, painted, drank and argued for another four decades. The anecdote is typical of Bacon in its high-spirited posturing on the edge of the abyss, and also in the way it makes one wonder about the facts related. Was Bacon’s doctor really that concerned?

One difficulty for this new biography, and all writing on Bacon, is disentangling the truth of his (always vividly and brilliantly expressed) self-made myth. He was a charismatic talker, and a good deal of the time he didn’t spend at his easel was passed in dialogue with friends, fellow artists, strangers he met in the pub and anyone who took his fancy. And, like all good conversationalists, he was prone to improve mundane events to make them more interesting. Another problem is that virtually everything he said has disappeared, leaving only a few hazy memories.

Frank Auerbach has recalled how he ‘liked making statements, formulating dogma, laying down rules; of course they changed all the time’. It would be fascinating to read a transcript of these colloquies, a little wild and drunken as Auerbach described them. But in common with almost all of Bacon’s words, they vanished into the air, leaving mainly formal interviews, in which Bacon tried to avoid being pinned down, and the occasional letter. So writing his biography poses problems.

On the other hand, what a subject it is: an almost mythic tale, beginning in a Georgian house in Edwardian Ireland, a stultifyingly philistine, hunting, shooting and racing household, in which Francis was the rejected weakling of the litter.

His father was an irascible ex-army officer, for whom Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan’s favourite adjective is ‘simmering’. Francis even managed to be allergic to dogs and horses. Whether Major Bacon actually instructed his grooms to thrash his unsatisfactory son and ordered him out of the house at the age of 16 when he caught him dressed in his mother’s underwear — or if Bacon just felt these things ought to have happened —we will never know.

From this point, virtually uneducated, and without any discernible aims, Bacon managed to transform himself into one of the towering figures of 20th-century art, not just in Britain but internationally. This took some time, as well as economies with the facts. His career, Bacon told the critic David Sylvester, was strangely ‘delayed’. He was in his mid-thirties before he really began to establish himself as a painter. One of the achievements of this biography is to have filled in a great deal of detail, especially about Bacon’s childhood and life before his surprisingly late emergence.

The authors have, for example, discovered a hitherto unknown lover — Eric Allden, ‘an upstanding member of the Tory establishment with some years in government service’. He met the 20-year-old Bacon, then a would-be furniture designer, while crossing the Channel and was taken by his ‘big childish pale blue eyes’. For the first half of his life, he seems to have been searching for a substitute mother and father, more suitable and affectionate than his actual parents. That would explain Bacon’s passionate attachment to his childhood nanny, Jessie Lightfoot, who came to live with him in London, sometimes sleeping on the kitchen table, and whose death in 1951 seems to have affected him at least as deeply as any other loss he suffered.

This is by no means the first biography of Bacon. He fended off such publications during his lifetime, but a spate appeared soon after his death, and more contributions have come along since (including from me). Some of the others, written by people who knew and drank with Bacon, have a stronger sense of that unique personality, described by the painter R.B. Kitaj as ‘a stunning creature, a kind of mutant’, who moreover sought to stun his audience (both with words and paint, one might add).

Revelations is, however, by some way the most thorough and painstaking version of Bacon’s life to date. It adds a great deal of detail and corrects numerous misconceptions. The writing is always elegant and the works are sensitively described. Yet... Bacon often spoke of his attempt to ‘trap’ his subject, so as to capture the sense of its vitality ‘more vividly’. Here that doesn’t always happen; on the contrary, like one of the blurred figures in his paintings, Bacon seems to be in the process of escaping.

Francis Bacon: Revelations — Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan — William Collins, pp. 800, £30




                             Francis Bacon in his studio in London, 1966, photographed by Mario Dondero.






Francis Bacon: Revelations


 —  a landmark biography




From designing rugs in Paris to painting visions of human suffering …


the origins of some of the 20th century’s most iconic artworks






Francis Bacon didn’t just create some of the most unforgettable images of the human figure in 20th-century painting. He created “Francis Bacon”, a legendary persona: big beast of the London art world, wild man and bon vivant, whose raw painterly gift – he is one of only three British artists to be given two retrospectives at the Tate Gallery in their lifetime – was matched by his appetite for champagne, gambling and rough sex with East End crooks. His death in 1992 triggered a run of tell-all biographies, including first-hand accounts by his friends. What further revelations, you wonder, can there be?

Most of the surprises in this landmark new biography of Bacon, the first for 25 years, concern his early life and career, which turn out to have been – at least outwardly – embarrassingly conventional. Born in Dublin in 1909 to Anglo-Irish gentry, Bacon grew up in a series of big country houses, with dashes to England during the Irish revolutionary period. He was severely asthmatic. One of his childhood memories was being shut into a dark cupboard by a housemaid for long periods; he said that the feeling of asphyxiation resembled an asthma attack. He also remembered the entire family hiding in their locked rooms at night, in dread of a visit from the IRA. Suffocation, confinement, a sense of terror – the foundations of Francis Bacon, man and artist, were being laid.

He had a gift for free-form queening in an era when having gay sex was still a criminal offence. The teenaged Francis once turned up to a fancy-dress party as a flapper, wearing a beaded dress and an Eton crop; as an adult he was partial to pancake foundation and red lipstick. His fox-hunting father preferred his other two sons, both of whom died young (Bacon later claimed that his father ordered his grooms to whip him). At 17 he escaped to London, where he managed to get by on an allowance from his mother, which he supplemented through petty theft and by picking up wealthy older men. He read Nietzsche, though he liked to say that he’d never opened a book in his youth. In spite of protracted stays in Berlin and Paris he denied that he’d ever had any art classes, either: he would present himself as a fatherless child, a feral rent boy, an untutored genius with a paintbrush. Wherever he went his nanny went too, remaining his live-in companion until he was in his 40s.

But the embarrassing part is that Bacon was, in his early 20s, an interior designer. Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan have dug deep and uncovered all sorts of excruciating details about Bacon’s time in Paris and afterwards. Unlike so many artists of the period – among them his later hero, Picasso – he didn’t haunt Montparnasse. “As the painters in Montparnasse remade modern art,” we’re told, “he began to design rugs and chairs.” Not just any old rugs and chairs: Royal Wilton rugs with trendy abstract motifs; seats like unfolded paper clips complementing tubular steel tables that had pink legs and glass tops, as a magazine review boasted, “half frosted and half clear”. And room screens painted with guitar-shaped silhouettes, cocktail shelves, art deco seagulls, calfskin pouffes. Though he was “stunned” by Picasso’s Cent Designs (100 Drawings) in Paris in 1927, his initial response was to go and create more Wilton atrocities.

But then, in the 1930s, just as Europe was entering the long shadow of fascism, Bacon – untrained would-be painter, rejected son – discovered the Crucifixion. There’s a sense, as Stevens and Swan suggest, that “almost all of Bacon’s subsequent art could be regarded as part of a broader Crucifixion-like scene in which the central event was rarely presented while all around and to every side – in innumerable smaller scenes, like Stations of the Cross – pictures emerged that were related to the central theme”. He wasn’t looking for the Christian cross, but for one stripped of religious belief, a wider symbol of a suffering self and a damaged world.

Bacon came across Picasso’s studies of the 16th-century German painter Matthias Grunewald graphic Isenheim Altarpiece  in 1933. Their bold distortions showed him how to reconcile modernism with his own determination, at a time when art insisted on abstraction, to focus on the human figure. Bacon’s figures are, as he said of Picasso’s, “extraordinary formal inventions”, not quite like anything that had come before. He destroyed almost all his youthful work, but a black-and-white 1933 Bacon Crucifixion survives, with a tiny head topping a ghostly splayed figure, like nailed-down ectoplasm. His breakthrough painting, produced in his mid-30s, was Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944), a triptych of grotesque crying creatures, surrounded by scraps of Edwardian furniture, eerily aglow in a burnt orange light. They are clearly influenced by Picasso’s biomorphs, but with a quality of darkness and a feverish melancholy all of their own.

Bacon was peculiarly modern in his fascination with X-rays, photographs, film, and other technological ways of testing the human surface. Sometimes, however, he looked forwards by looking backwards. Though he lacked formal training, his vision was shaped by the example of certain old masters: what Stevens and Swan call Rembrandt’s “meaty and mysterious” brush, Velázquez’s pomp and splendour. He showed his appreciation of these models by butchering them. His filleting of Velázquez’s Portrait of Innocent Xand contemporary photographs of the bespectacled Pius XII, gave 20th-century art some of its most iconic images. He would paint these Holy Fathers over and over, their mouths levered open in a scream borrowed from a still in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 movie Battleship Potemkin; robed in purple and cut into ribbons, surrounded by carcasses, enclosed by the geometry of vanishing rooms.

There is rage and despair in this work, but there’s humour, too. Stephen Spender said that Bacon’s painting often has “the quality of an immensely tragic joke”. It’s theatrical and unapologetically exhibitionist. Bacon takes pleasure in exposing the truths we usually like to ignore: the perishability of the gorgeously dressed body, the emptiness of secular and religious authority, all the bogus certainties of civilised life. His popes, tarted up, tortured and surrounded by heavy gold frames, are, Stevens and Swann note with a twinkle, “the old masters in drag”.

The triptych form was both Bacon’s homage to an older tradition and his response to the cubist challenge of depicting different spatial and temporal perspectives simultaneously. He made it his own, just as the entrapping walls and boxes in his pictures, and the curved space that implies a stage or sacrificial arena, are enduringly part of his dramatic idiom. Size was important to Bacon simply because a larger canvas has a bigger impact on the nervous system. Yet his vast three-acters proved, for the best part of his career, to be unsellable. His paintings didn’t fit into the typical dimensions of the English house, but he went on working on a grand scale all the same.

Bacon’s emotional and erotic life didn’t fit into a conventional domestic space either. Having grown up in the stately homes of Ireland he flitted, in middle age, from room to makeshift room. His last studio-cum-bedsit, around the corner from Harrods, was famous for its squalor. He liked to gamble in Monte Carlo, to have sadomasochistic sex in Soho, and to order magnums of Bollinger in any place. He was terrible at meeting deadlines because he was so often drunk, broke, or in a state of sexual crisis. Two of his long-term lovers died of substance abuse, each on the eve of one of his major exhibitions.

The world finally caught up with Bacon’s airless psychic landscape, his flayed bodies and mutilated fathers. In the decades following the second world war, his personal drama and Nietzschean bleakness came to reflect the nihilism afflicting western civilisation. Once Bacon became fashionable (and expensive) it became fashionable, in turn, to dismiss his work as Grand Guignol, but he always insisted that he was simply portraying the reality of the conditions that had shaped him: “the revolutionary Irish movement, Sinn Féin, and the wars, Hiroshima, Hitler, the death camps, and daily violence that I’ve experienced all my life”. The power of this meticulously researched and utterly compelling biography lies not just in the confidence with which it demonstrates the truth of that statement, but in its quieter revelations. Bacon’s asthma eventually led to his death by heart attack at the age of 82. Yet this lifelong asthmatic, we learn, had sometimes mixed dust into his paint. It’s as if he was making certain, all along, that beneath the “Francis Bacon” persona he and his art would remain of a piece.

Francis Bacon: Revelations is published by William Collins (£30).




                       Bacon with his lover John Edwards in Soho, London





Book of the week: Francis Bacon Revelations




Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan ‘analyse what lay beneath the mask’

of one of Britain’s most written-about painters






Francis Bacon is “quite possibly the single most written about artist that Britain has produced”, said Rachel Campbell-Johnston in The Times. Since his death in 1992, numerous biographies and memoirs have appeared, most focused on his exploits in the “sleazy demi-monde of Soho in London”. We know all about the all-night drinking sessions, and the often-repeated anecdotes: the time he booed Princess Margaret’s cabaret singing; the time he offered Ronnie Kray a painting, to which the gangster replied: “I wouldn’t have one of those fucking things.”

Less well-known is the complex, elusive, often anguished character who concealed himself behind his public persona. In their “thunking” new biography, Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan “analyse what lay beneath the mask”. The result is a work that, though extremely long and based on “mountains of research”, also achieves a rare “sense of intimacy”.

Bacon was born in Dublin, in 1909, into a “semi-grand Anglo-Irish family”, said Christian House in the FT. His parents viewed their asthmatic, weedy-voiced son as “the runt of the litter”; Bacon, for his part, detested his father. His early years as an artist included spells in Berlin and Paris, during which he discovered the European modernists, and passed an “improbable period as an interior designer, arranging rugs and calfskin pouffes”.

The War changed his fortunes. Spared service on health grounds, he spent it painting in Hampshire. His pictures from this time – of “screaming popes, tormented businessmen and crucifixions” – suddenly had an “awful relevance”, and catapulted him to fame.

While this biography is a compelling portrait of Bacon the artist, it is most triumphant in its handling of his love life, said Rachel Cooke in The Observer. As a young man, Bacon went for “semi-paternal, establishment types” who could pay off his gambling debts. But from the 1950s on, his boyfriends became ever more disreputable: they included Peter Lacy, a former RAF officer who “beat and raped him”; a petty burglar named George Dyer; and, in Tangier, a “legless Moroccan who pushed himself along on a board with wheels”.

Stevens and Swan provide convincing explanations for these relationships, suggesting they were expressions of a taste for “deformity” that also manifested itself in his art, said Michael Prodger in The Sunday Times. Theirs is a work that “brings the carousing, the paintings and the public and private lives together to form a convincing and often touching whole”. 




                   Francis Bacon in 1978 photographed by Dmitri Kasterine






RICHARD FEIGEN (1930—2021)






Richard Feigen, whose astute and often prescient eye for underestimated art old and new made him one of the most influential dealers of the postwar era, has died at age ninety from Covid-19. Best known as a purveyor of Old Masters and for his acclaimed personal collection of early Italian paintings, Feigen shaped hundreds of institutional and private holdings over five decades while also organizing the first US exhibitions for Francis Bacon and Joseph Beuys and debut solo shows for John Baldessari and Ray Johnson.

Born in Chicago in 1930, Feigen began collecting from an early age, making his first acquisition—a watercolor by Isaac Cruikshank, father of cartoonist George—at age eleven. After studying English and art at Yale University and attending Harvard Business School, Feigen sold his stock exchange seat to start a contemporary art gallery in Chicago in 1957, and five years later expanded to New York, where he was one of the first gallerists to open up shop in SoHo. He maintained a roster that included Joseph Cornell, Jean Dubuffet, Jasper Johns, Bridget Riley, and James Rosenquist, and threw himself in liberal causes, hosting events for presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm and curating artist responses to the turbulent Democratic National Convention of 1968. (He was notably quoted in Radical Chic, Tom Wolfe’s 1970 essay on political posturing among New York’s white elite.)

Feigen’s shift in the ’70s and ’80s toward the undervalued category of Old Masters—a then-fusty market he helped jump-start, exhibiting the paintings in a two-story row house on the Upper East Side he had revamped by Hans Hollein—was owed as much to personal attachment as mercenary acumen; the mostly self-taught dealer kept the works he loved most for himself, filling his uptown home with the company of Fra Angelica, Orazio Gentileschi, Guercino, and Lorenzo Monaco (his holdings were shown in their entirety at Yale in 2010). Feigen had begun to lighten his renowned collection to help fund his retirement, auctioning ten works through Christie’s in 2019.He remained active in later life, running galleries in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and London (David Zwirner took over his building at 34 East Sixty-Ninth Street in 2017).

In recent years, Feigen often criticized what he perceived to be increasing commercialism in museums and the growing lack of connoisseurship behind art’s institutions and markets. In 2009, during an oral history for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, he was asked what he hoped his legacy would be. “Taste,” he replied. “Not prescience or anything like that. But just taste.”




                                                                           Richard Feigen





On Francis Bacon









The 1959 Francis Bacon exhibition was popular with Chicago artists like George Cohen, Leon Golub, Seymour Rosofsky, and Cosmo Campoli, though not particularly with the collectors. Bacon’s work had been exhibited only once before in the United States, in a small exhibition at Durlacher Brothers in New York in 1953.

I had never met Bacon, but on trips to London I accumulated 14 of his best works, dating from 1948 to 1956. I told Bacon’s dealer, Erica Brausen of the Hanover Gallery in London, about the exhibition. She phoned me and said that Bacon wanted to attend the opening. I thought that was a great idea.

A bit later, however, I was told that Bacon was eagerly anticipating his Chicago visit, that I was expected to line up some young boys for him, and that I should be a bit wary lest he use a little knife he carried around to slash any earlier painting he felt like disowning.

Whether any of this was true or not, I panicked. There were already three Bacons in Chicago, including one of his masterpieces, Figure With Meat, 1954, in the Art Institute, and I didn’t want any of them slashed. As for the young boys, I had not, nor have I still, reached that level of sophistication.

As the weeks passed before the opening, I was getting less and less sleep. In the end I managed, how diplomatically I was never sure, to have Brausen discourage Bacon from coming. The Bacon exhibition was a magnificent Grand Guignol of trapped, choking, screaming men and beasts.

The artists returned again and again to see it. But of the 14 paintings, and despite the fact that they were priced from $900 to $1,300, only one was sold, Study for Portrait VI, 1953, for $1,300.





Devoted to booze, betting, boys... and his nanny!


His paintings could be terrifying and he had a taste for rough sex.


But Francis Bacon was also kind, shy, loyal and an artistic genius




Francis Bacon: Revelations tells the story of the British artists colourful life






London, 1949. A sumptuous white-tie ball. Princess Margaret was among the glittering guests. Giddy with champagne in the small hours, the princess grabbed the microphone from Noël Coward. The partygoers stopped dancing. The princess started singing, loudly, warbling off-key. The guests clapped and clamoured for an encore

Just as she was settling in to Let’s Do It, a ghastly hiss, a jeer, a prolonged and thunderous booing welled up from the belly of the crowd. The princess went red and rushed out of the room, followed by her flustered lady-in-waiting. Who was it who had dared to boo Princess Margaret off the stage?

It was the 40-year-old Francis Bacon, or that dreadful man, Francis Bacon, as some guests muttered: that drunken artist, standing next to his similarly appalling friend Lucian Freud. He calls himself a painter,’ remarked one old gent, ’but he does the most frightful paintings. I don’t understand how a creature like him was allowed to get in here. It’s really quite disgraceful.’

A small handful of younger guests, according to Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, the American authors of this magnificent new biography of Bacon, found his boos thrilling: A rush of night air into England’s stuffy room.’ That’s what Bacon was. From the moment he first put paint to canvas, the untrained (and almost uneducated — he only went to school for two years of his teens) Bacon had an innate urge to mount an assault on convention

Through his terrifying triptychs of crucified flesh, his screaming Popes, his grimacing businessmen in cages and so on, his own scream emerged from deep within the physical body as a welling up of rage and despair over the fraudulent constructs of civilised life’.

Though his paintings were shockingly raw and violent — one New York art critic remarked that there was so much flayed human flesh that he should have worn a butcher’s apron rather than black tie to the private view — Bacon comes across as a kind, shy man, keen on rough sex but very fond of his male lovers and devoted to his nanny, Nanny Lightfoot, who lived with the family in Ireland during his childhood and continued to look after Francis in London until her death in 1950, when he was 41 and she was 80.

Nanny Lightfoot almost deserves a biography in her own right. A bespectacled Cornish lady with pinned-up braids, she came to the rescue of wheezy, nervous little Francis whose tyrannical, homophobic Anglo-Irish father, Captain Bacon, thought him pathetic. Nanny would later become Bacon’s partner in crime, acting as doorman/bouncer at his illegal London gambling evenings, and the two of them could sometimes be found poring over small ads together, both in search of a little something on the side’.

Oddly enough, Francis fancied his father. He was always sexually attracted to opposites: older posh men, or cockney criminals. He had his first experiences with the grooms in his father’s stables and for ever after found the smell of horse dung arousing. He was, say these authors, catnip to the closeted’.

An upright cousin of his father’s, Cecil Harcourt-Smith, who was a closet ultra-sadistic sadist’, took Bacon on a dissolute trip to Berlin in 1927, where his eyes were opened to the intoxicating contrast between opulence and squalor. From then on, he sought out the low dives of Soho, putting rouge on his cheeks for long nights of drinking and sex. His first two long-term lovers were rich, older men, both called Eric, who supported him financially.

It’s fascinating to watch his agonisingly slow rise to celebrity. He started off not as a painter but as a modernist furniture designer. His first private art show was a disaster, his paintings described as exotic monstrosities’. He destroyed all the unsold ones.

With his choirboy looks, he became known as the baby-faced canvas-slasher’, as he had already destroyed 700 of his own works by 1939. When war broke out in 1939, the asthmatic Bacon failed his physical’ with the military board. Instead, he holed up in a cottage in Hampshire (with Nanny) and painting became an obsession. He was inspired by Nietzsche’s view that it’s all meaningless so you might as well be extraordinary’.

In 1945, his deeply disturbing Three Studies For Figures At The Base Of A Crucifixion shocked the contemporary art scene and made everything before it seem bland and safe by comparison. Graham Sutherland spotted Bacon’s genius and recommended him to the tastemakers’.

Bacon carried on being short of money for years, writing begging letters to his rich friends and gambling away anything he did earn. Like his friend Lucian Freud, he got a kick out of losing all his money: it swept away the fog of hope’. He played the tables at Monte Carlo, accompanied by Nanny, and gambled in the low dives of Tangiers, where he frequently visited the third love of his life, an ex-fighter pilot called Peter Lacy, with whom the sex was at its roughest; Bacon would emerge bruised and resort to amphetamines after a rough night’. It wasn’t until he was taken on in the 1950s by Marlborough Fine Art, the prestigious art gallery in Old Bond Street — founded by two Austrian-Jewish emigrés Frank Lloyd and Harry Fischer, who knew how to nurture, hype and market him — that Bacon became world-famous and mobs crowded outside museums on his opening nights

On one of those events, in Paris in 1971, his Cockney lover George Dyer died on the loo in their Paris hotel, having taken an overdose of drugs. Earlier in the day, Bacon had found him in their hotel room with an Arab boy whose feet stank. Bacon quietly asked the hotel manager if he could postpone’ George’s death to the next day, as the red carpet evening was about to begin at the Grand Palais, with a Guard of Honour. The hotel manager obliged. Bacon managed to get through the evening in a heartbroken state.

George, like so many of Bacon’s lovers, comes across as rather sweet: an inept thief’ with a ginger crew-cut and a stammer, he lost his self-esteem when he gave up his profession as a burglar. He even took elocution lessons to get rid of his Cockney accent. Their love affair started (rumour had it) when George had tried burgling Bacon, but Bacon heard the noise and caught him red-handed. He said they must have sex there and then, otherwise he would report him to the police

They became a devoted couple, and Bacon painted this short, muscly man 20 times all through the 1960s. But George drank, started ripping up Bacon’s art and once set fire to the studio. Light-filled people sometimes best capture darkness,’ the authors of this wide-ranging and thoughtful book surmise.

In spite of all the nocturnal roughness, Bacon was light-filled in his daily life, relishing the company of old friends to shore up the deep well of loneliness’ inside him that had been there since his childhood. And he could depict love. Lucian Freud kept one of his paintings, Two Figures, above his bed for more than half a century, and was so possessive of it that he refused to lend it for a retrospective. That work may be, the authors write, one of the most sensitive, even tender, depictions of the animal in man to be found in 20th-century art.’

Deep into his 70s, Bacon still dressed like a dandy. Right up to the time of his death in Madrid, aged 82, he was being rejuvenated by a much younger Spanish boyfriend. A painter of darkness, he remained a desperate optimist’.

In his life as well as his art, his urge, as he himself said, was always to say the truth even if it hurts’.








Bringing Home the Bacon




The most fearless man, instrument of brutal grace and violent beauty,

a delicate masochist and a strong but light-spoken man.






Francis Bacon is back.

He fills the post-modern time, fits the post-truth age. Like a Nietzschean superman, he welcomed and transcended the amoral void, where ethics are a personal choice. In his extraordinary paintings he examined what might lie concealed in the spiritual emptiness of a godless world, and from the darkness and fear born of nihilism his textured creations emerged and populated flat and vacant canvas spaces. His audience enjoyed solid pleasure when he dragged shocking imagery into the human world, brutally full of sound and fury, perhaps signifying nothing, but recording sublime experiences of horror. Plastered, Bacon asked Melvyn Bragg, “What horror could I make to compete with what goes on every single day… except I have tried to make images of it, I have tried to recreate it and make not the horror, but I’ve tried to make images of realism. After all, between birth and death it’s always been the same thing. It is the violence of life, they’re images of sensation. After all, what is life but sensation, what we feel, what happens. We’re born and we die, and that’s it. There’s nothing else.” This was Edmund Burke’s sublime made manifest. The paintings were a bullring record of sensual pleasure in erotic violence, where sadism and masochism crashed headlong into art, born of Bacon’s heightened world where nihilism put on a brutal frock and makeup.

Burke once wrote, “No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear. For fear being an apprehension of pain or death, it operates in a manner that resembles actual pain. Whatever therefore is terrible, with regard to sight, is sublime too, whether this cause of terror be endued with greatness of dimensions or not; for it is impossible to look on anything as trifling, or contemptible, that may be dangerous.” This was surely Bacon’s foundation, for he was a connoisseur of dangerous things, collecting distorted photographs as sources for his paintings and stripping their terrible imagery to the essentials of fear in motion for the sake of provoking a reaction. Bacon told Bragg, “I do believe that today one could say modern man wants a sensation really without the boredom of its conveyance. Cut down the conveyance as far as possible so you just give over the sensation.”

Bacon is a gay hero in a time when homosexuality is becoming accepted. He was already an art star in 1985 when Bragg famously interviewed him for The South Bank Show, starting with a film of the two men thoughtfully examining slide projections of his paintings, then drunkenly chatting in a restaurant over carafes of red wine, then talking chance in Bacon’s favorite casino, forever sealing his layered image as a great painter, as a charming and nihilistic drunk, and as a gay man, the denizen of the hidden streets of sleazy Soho where he was the savage queen of the Colony Room drinking club, paid to rule this licentious roost by its owner Muriel Belcher who satisfied his legendary thirst for booze on condition that he kept the place packed with his bohemian friends.

In the interview, which aired on national television, the confident, rich and successful Bacon told Bragg “I like men,” with a frank and open smile, and with these three words he helped free homosexuals from the sordid dangers of a shadow world of private clubs, police raids and toilet trading. But he wasn’t a champion of an intersectional cause. He hated the word ‘gay’ and thrived among the horrors of the liminal life between respectability and the underworld and loved the bitchy dramas and dirty characters of shadow life. This was the man whose list of long-term lovers included the pilot Peter Lacy who once threw him through a window and left him bruised and battered after violent consensual sex, and the tragic and suicidal crook George Dyer who Bacon enabled in his alcoholism and addiction, and perished alone and miserable on the toilet of their Paris hotel room, drunken, abandoned and wrecked, as Bacon celebrated his retrospective. Bacon memorialized Dyer with a triptych depicting his sordid death.

Even so, Bacon’s declaration was a revelation to young people in the 1980’s, when AIDS was called “the gay plague,” and fear was sweeping through the largely clandestine homosexual community. Even though gay sex was no longer a crime in Britain after 1967, in American states sodomy was a felony punished by imprisonment and hard labor and was still illegal in some states until the 2000’s. Bacon’s friend and rival Lucian Freud said Bacon was the most fearless man he had ever met. He wasn’t wrong. Declarations of homosexuality were dangerous for public figures in the eighties, when countless gay men were dying from the plague of AIDS. Hearing an outspokenly gay man speak shamelessly and publicly was as unlikely as seeing a dancing butterfly. Other popular culture figures now famous as gay icons had backed away from public declarations of being homosexual. Although transvestite David Bowie had been notorious for his open bisexuality in the 1970’s, he was also deeply embedded in playing the character of Ziggy Stardust, and appearing on film with shaved eyebrows and yellow goat eyes as an androgynous alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth – the erotic adventures of this cracked actor were easily dismissed as the scandalous sexual escapades of an extravagant narcissist and very weird method extremist. In 1976, Bowie told a journalist that he had lied about being bisexual. By the eighties he played down his earlier promiscuity and in 1992 he married his second wife, the supermodel Iman, who bore his daughter Lexi. Elton John had told the music press he was bisexual in 1976, but married Renate Blauel in 1983 in a disastrously short-lived union. He came out in 1992. Freddy Mercury never came out, and only admitted that he had AIDS in 1991 as he lay dying from it. Even flamboyantly gay Boy George claimed he was bisexual in 1983 and came out in 1992.

Bacon was born to the declining British aristocracy and had the affected mannerisms of his class. He traveled in the socialite circles of the elite but symbolized the louche bohemia of the Soho scene – a posh visitor who came to the decadent netherworld by gay necessity and became a permanent resident by choice. He was an extraordinarily brilliant and prominent painter. Simultaneously the instrument of brutal grace and violent beauty, a delicate masochist and a strong but light-spoken man, Bacon was contradictory and ambiguous, and his frank comments were the unrestrained words of liberation for a new cohort of young artists. Bacon flung open the door to sublime horror for them all and gave a smiling welcome to their visits to amorality. A heart attack killed him in 1992, but now his soul is dancing for a new generation.





                                                   Francis Bacon, Study for a Head, 1952






How Francis Bacon shunned the traditions of British art




A new book, Francis Bacon: Revelations, shows the painter as he tried to recapture the

intensity of wartime when the world turned mundane.






How great was the work of Francis Bacon? That’s the only question that matters, and it’s still a hard one to answer. Thirty years after his death, he hovers so large over British visual culture – such a vivid, garrulous, flamboyant, theatrical figure – that it is difficult to assess what he actually did, day after day, in the studio.

This large, generous book contains it all: the childhood whippings by his father’s servants, the adolescent flight to interwar Berlin and Paris, the thieving, the cat burgling adventures, the overnight fame, the gangsters, beatings, the postwar Tangier dives and the long-lost nights of Soho in its bohemian prime; the wild, hilarious, bitchy lunches at Wheeler’s – all those oysters, all that champagne – and, of course, the dramatic self-destruction of his two great loves, Peter Lacy and George Dyer, one by whisky and one by drugs. Too much!

Too much, because the story can elbow aside the achievement of the paintings. It’s a jagged, jump-cut biopic spangled with glitter and squalor that dares you to look away. Sex. Death. Glamour. Gossip, gossip, gossip. With all this noise, how can we plant our feet, focus and look levelly at the actual, you know, paintings?

Judgement is not exactly facilitated by Bacon’s own frequently dismissive accounts of his work. We also know he destroyed a huge quantity of paintings for being not good enough. None of that is definitive. Bacon was a posh, self-deprecating man. And since Cézanne, the act of ripping and stamping on satisfactory work has become a complacent signifier of artistic sincerity.

Similarly, we should be alert to a highly intelligent painter’s sense of irony. But Bacon chipped away at his own reputation often enough, almost like a tic, to make one wonder about his private thoughts, particularly as his prices soared. As this book relates, he told friends in Rome, for instance, that his paintings “came to him relatively easily… now that he rolled on the backgrounds in acrylic like any idiot”. Then all he needed to do was to add his “gestural images”, culled from photographs and medical books.

Cards on the table. It would be idiotic to deny the greatness of Bacon’s most famous wartime and immediate postwar images – the howling lost spirits below the Crucifixion, the umbrella-shadowed bloodied face grinding its teeth below sides of beef, the genuinely terrifying Head paintings and the earliest of the screaming, imprisoned, nailed-down Popes.

Other artists responded to postwar London by emphasising its dinginess, slathering on greys and olive greens, apparently in an attempt to paint boredom. The work of the kitchen-sinkers and social realists was, in fairness, a cry of pain from an exhausted country. But now it merely looks exhausted. Then there were the mincing neo-Romantics, ageing surrealists and, of course, Graham Sutherland, a safe answer to Picasso who nevertheless deserves a rethink these days, but was then thought a titanic figure.

Against all of them, with no money and no critical opinion behind him, Bacon shunned all British art tradition and directly confronted the horror of the age, a time of political monsters and imminent nuclear annihilation. The detail of his response comes from his own experience of sadism, and its claustrophobia; from the loneliness of a gay Anglo-Irish outsider. Still, it took considerable courage and makes most of the rest of the painting of the late 1940s and early 1950s look pallid, and beside the point.

This is an artist who, after a long period of self-doubt, watching others and thinking very hard, suddenly produces extraordinary work. He is the British painter who, from the beginning, barely seemed British at all. Bacon, who always acknowledged the influence of Picasso (as well as Velázquez, Van Gogh and Ingres), and who worked in both Paris and London, still feels the most continental of his contemporaries. He could be funny and very wounding about the English tradition. The painter to whom he was closest, Lucian Freud, was also a poor fit as a native artist. (Their mutual influence, rivalry and occasional antagonism would be well served by a big Bacon/Freud show before too long. Not all the obvious ideas are bad ones.)

Bacon had a strange blank spot about Matisse, whom he thought too decorative. He disliked abstractionism and had a gloriously contemptuous attitude toward the strutting gods of American abstract expressionism (Jackson Pollock was “the old lacemaker”).

In his best painting there is a seriousness, almost a literalness, rarely found in modern British art. Grey Gowrie, hailing his 1985 Tate retrospective, called him “the greatest painter in the world and the best this country has produced since Turner”. Many would agree. And yet, let’s be honest, Bacon could be a terrible painter, too.

The tropes of the later paintings become repetitive and increasingly irritating – all those endless skewed cage-lines, the framing surfaces, the arty touches of aerosol, the faces distorted in almost exactly the same way. He produced some extraordinary portraits. But often it looks as if Bacon simply jammed his thumb into a phiz and twisted, producing a predictable distortion. Even the celebrated triptych of his lover, George Dyer, overdosing on the toilet, however intensely felt, seems too cartoonishly shocking, too attitude-striking, to be the work of a great artist.

At this point, one can reasonably return to the biography because it begins to answer the conundrum. For Bacon, like so many, the Second World War was when he lived, thought and made most intensely. A fire warden during the Blitz, he saw unspeakable things; waiting for Hitler, he had his monsters ready-made. The imminence of death was a tremendous inciter – and out of this came his miracle.

But how do you keep the intensity going when the world turns mundane? As a gay man with a sado-masochistic streak, Bacon found ways of living, shall we say, on intimate terms with imminent disaster. Did this not keep him alive as an artist? He needed the dangerous cruising, and the gambling adventures and even the beatings, to give him the necessary edge.

So, the famous stories aren’t irrelevant. Giving a grand reception for your new exhibition in the heart of Paris, laughing and gossiping with politicians and grandees while your lover is lying dead in your hotel room – and then experiencing a crushing guilt for years afterwards. What’s more calculated to remind you that you are alive, but not for long? In the apparent chaos of his studio, with its snowdrifts of photographs and press cuttings, and the fluff and filth that made its way into the paint, Bacon could fix the mayhem of his outside life in a way that made sense.

But not forever. The problem was that this art relied on a painterly rhetoric that, because it was claustrophobic and deliberately inward, could not constantly replenish itself with the fresh and unexpected world outside. Endless little boxes. Endless torn photographs. Colour that seems to suck the breath out of your body. Much of his later work is simply predictable – as Freud noted dryly, yet another “great” triptych.

Now I am in danger of making Bacon sound a little grim. In fact, as memoirist friends like Michael Peppiatt and Daniel Farson show, he was a charismatic, entertaining man, bubbling with brilliant conversation and acts of kindness. Reading about him must be fun.

The authors of this monster biography (more than 700 pages of text), who won a Pulitzer Prize for their biography of Willem de Kooning, do at times bring out Bacon’s winning character, wit and mischief. However, being American critics, they sometimes struggle with milieux that may be more familiar to British writers. There are some passages of solemn explanation which become wooden. But their virtue is they are great completists and cross-checkers, which means they debunk some of the stories and give us a full explanation of who was who.

They are particularly strong on the early years, misted by Bacon-derived myths. It would be hard to imagine a more sensitive portrayal of the early “companions” and sponsors of the 1930s, such as Eric Allden, the former intelligence officer and devout Roman Catholic, or Eric Hall, the married Tory alderman who fell utterly in love with the young artist. Later, Bacon implied that his pre-war life had been a picaresque story of sponging off silly old fools and blundering naively into the art world, as if he were some kind of Irish Jean Genet. In fact, as this book shows, it was a much more interesting and conscious period of searching, working as a respected interior designer, reading and learning which Bacon lived off for decades.

Does this book deserve its bold subtitle “Revelations”? Not really. We have known all the shocking stuff for a long time already. This is a work of real scholarship and seriousness. But London’s bohemia has many fine historians already, people who were there at the time and remember the rhythm and timbre of Francis Bacon in full flow. I don’t suppose those who know their Daniel Farson and Michael Peppiatt will be surprised by anything here. And if that seems a tad ungracious for such a heavy, serious and well-meant book, I can only reply by reassuring Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan that, duckies, Muriel Belcher, the chatelaine of Bacon’s favoured drinking den, the Colony Room Club, would have been ruder by far.

Francis Bacon: Revelations Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan William Collins, 880pp, £30





                                                                                                                                    Francis Bacon Self Portrait 1970






Bacon made a monkey of us







It’s usually a pleasure to have your portrait done by a painter friend, but not so if your friend was the brutal figurative Francis Bacon.

According to a new book, Francis Bacon: Revelations, his chums, Robert and Lisa Sainsbury, both received this dubious honour.

Fortunately, Robert was not displeased when his picture turned into the 1955 painting called Chimpanzee.

The works went on to torment their children and it is reported that an admirer saw their son in front of one piece.

“What a terrific portrait of your father,” they said. “Yes,” the younger Sainsbury agreed, “but it’s my mother.”




                                          The 1955 painting called Chimpanzee.





Critical thinking



Trapping the beast




Francis Bacon’s distorted, visceral figures expose humanity’s animal nature






At the start of 2020, Penguin launched its latest reprint of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The cover is a self-portrait by Francis Bacon, painted in 1976, when the artist was 67 years old. It is one of a series of introspective works he created in the mid-1970s (two shown here from 1972 and 1973, left) after the tragic death of his lover George Dyer. The characteristic roundness of Bacon’s head is warped by grief. The face is divided. One half is highly coloured and clearly delineated with a mask-like stability—a public face. The other is monochrome, half obliterated by a lens-like ellipse, hidden from scrutiny. Back in 1973, Penguin had chosen Bacon’s desolate Man in Blue V (1954) as the cover for Arthur Koestler’s Gulag novel Darkness at Noon. Bacon has long been the go-to cover boy for the 20th-century’s bleakest moments—and its most unsparing self-reckonings.

But what precisely Bacon revealed to us—the scope and nature of his achievement—has been argued over ever since his first significant exhibition in 1945. For some, his distorted figures expose humanity’s animal nature in a godless world. They understand him as a violent seeker after truth. For others, he was, in the words of art critic Adrian Searle, “an entirely mannered and theatrical painter… a pasticheur, a mimic,” best at rendering male feet, doorknobs, teeth and toilet-ware.

Francis Bacon: Revelations by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan is published to coincide with a major new exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art. (The exhibition was due to open at the end of January, but has been postponed due to the pandemic.) Both offer new opportunities to consider Bacon and his legacy, nearly 30 years after his death in 1992. The book is a lively read. It follows every twist and turn of Bacon’s long and sometimes lurid life, gathering perspectives from friends, fellow artists and family as well as offering an adroit marshalling of new research. The revelations of the title are incremental rather than explosive but they do allow the reader to put the riotous days of the infamous gilded-gutter life in the context of years of uncertain self-questioning. It also covers his tenacious interests in philosophy and literature, enduring friendships with both men and women, as well as a commitment to painting that lasted to the end.

The exhibition “Francis Bacon: Man and Beast,” curated by Michael Peppiatt, takes a more focused approach. Peppiatt, a writer and friend of Bacon, unfolds a chronological story exploring Bacon’s fascination with animals. He claims the artist’s central goal was to “trap the fact” of our animal nature through painting. For Bacon, even truth itself is pictured as an animal. He once said to the critic David Sylvester: “I think that the very great artists were not trying to express themselves. They were trying to trap the fact because, after all, artists are obsessed by life and by certain things that obsess them that they want to record. And they’ve tried to find systems and construct the cages in which these things can be caught.” It is these various systems that Bacon spent his lifetime constructing: the deep litter of photographic images or reproductions of paintings he surrounded himself with in his studio; the compositional devices; the handling of paint; the gilt frames and triptych formats; the diagrammatic cages in which he placed his subjects, human or animal. Even the baroque extremity of his love life, with its bruising sadomasochism, was a type of experiment in pursuit of revelation.

The connection with animals can be traced to Bacon’s childhood. Born in 1909 into a wealthy Anglo-Irish family, he was a sickly, asthmatic boy. As Stevens and Swan evoke vividly, while the Bacon household observed the elaborate social proprieties of the Edwardian era, they also lived close to a community of horses, dogs, chickens, geese and cows. Fox hunting was the primary pastime. Bacon’s father, Major Eddy Bacon, was unimpressed with a son who could not ride to hounds and liked dressing in his mother’s underwear. He ordered the stable lads to give young Francis a humiliating thrashing, then sent the boy to Berlin with a family friend. That man first raped him in their hotel room, and then introduced him to the raw, sensual pleasures of the Weimar capital. At this time Bacon was reading Nietzsche. It also might have been in Berlin that he first saw Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, with its iconic image of a woman screaming, her glasses broken, blood pouring from her eye.

Moving to Paris, Bacon found lodgings near Chantilly with the bourgeois Bocquentin family. Madame Bocquentin took the teenager to museums and art galleries, including the nearby Musée Condé, where he first saw Poussin’s Massacre of the Innocents (1625-1632)—its central figure a mother screaming in the face of inhumane cruelty. Stevens and Swan suggest it might have been in Paris that Bacon first saw the work of Picasso and became aware of the surrealists. They note that Bacon’s gathering preoccupation with images of screaming mouths and animals dead and living was reflected in the surrealist art magazine Documents, launched by philosopher Georges Bataille in 1929, which Bacon might have known. A screaming mouth suggests a reversion to a prelinguistic state of emotion and sensation; it is the ground zero of sentience shared by man and beast. This was also the era of ranting dictators. The scream unites hunter and hunted; the pitiless and the pitiable.

Darwin and Nietzsche (“Error has turned animals into men; might truth be capable of turning man into an animal again?”) had reversed the conventional hierarchies of man and beast. Bacon wasn’t the only one to notice this. The Russian painter Chaïm Soutine’s visceral still lifes evoke the fleshy reality of animal death with as much impact as a crucifixion scene. Bacon had read Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” published in 1920, an apocalyptic vision of the world after the First World War, with the poem’s “rough beast”—“A shape with lion body and the head of a man”—slouching towards Bethlehem.

The artist’s namesake Sir Francis Bacon threw down the gauntlet in 1597: “They that deny a God destroy man’s nobility; for certainly man is of kin to the beasts by his body; and, if he be not of kin to God by his spirit, he is a base and ignoble creature.” Even as the avowedly atheist painter tried out a career in furniture design, Bacon’s imagination was stirred by the idea of beastly kinship.

It was Picasso who determined Bacon’s destiny. In his last interview, Bacon described him as “the father figure, who gave me the wish to paint.” He describes how, in 1929, he saw The Kiss (1929) and one of his Bathers paintings from the 1920s, which thrillingly reinvented the human figure. Bacon said: “Picasso was the first person to produce figurative paintings which overturned the rules of appearance; he suggested appearance without using the usual codes, without respecting the representational truth of form, but using a breath of irrationality instead, to make representation stronger and more direct; so that form could pass directly from the eye to the stomach without going through the brain. Picasso opened the door to all these systems.”

The spectral hanging figures in Bacon’s Crucifixion (1933) come directly from Picasso—though its visual ambiguity, inspired by X-ray imagery, was entirely original. This was the first work by Bacon to cause a stir. Exhibited at the Mayor Gallery in London, art historian Herbert Read included it in his book Art Now, opposite Picasso’s Female Bather with Raised Arms (1929). Bacon’s canvas showed how powerfully we can be stirred by paint to feel for even a partially figured person or creature. The work marked a dedication to figuration that Bacon never renounced.

The anguished creatures who bloomed across his next groundbreaking work were startlingly different. Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) was exhibited in war-battered London in April 1945 when—as Stevens and Swan comment—“the death camps flickered across the news reels.” The critic John Russell noted at the time that its figures seemed “equipped to probe, bite, and suck, but their functioning in other respects was mysterious. Ears and mouths they had, but at least two of them were sightless. One was unpleasantly bandaged.” The blood orange backgrounds to these furies offer a visual shock. Bacon often quoted the phrase “the reek of human blood smiles out at me” from the Oresteia. For him it exemplified Aeschylus’ brutal approach to tragedy, in contrast with the elegance of Sophocles.

If these disturbing images confounded and indeed revolted critics, they were also recognised as something wholly new. When writers were competing to define Bacon’s achievement after his death, the Independent’s art critic Tom Lubbock wrote that the artist was “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 kind of creatures in the world which weren’t there before.”

The terrifying Painting 1946 (left) followed, with its vision of a gorilla/businessman half hidden beneath a protective umbrella, squeezed against the crucified carcass of a cow, his teeth gleaming. The scene is set within a decorous space graced with tasselled window blinds and a carpet. The businessman offers legs of lamb on a geometrically pure round table. Like so many of Bacon’s figures, he is effectively caged. So much for the redemptive Lamb of God.

Through the 1940s and 1950s, Bacon continued to expand his cast of creatures. He drew the primates at London Zoo and pored over Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs of animals and humans. The Royal Academy will show some from the series of unnerving heads Bacon painted in the period leading up to his first solo exhibition in 1949. Head I (1948) shows an animal skull struggling out from the head of a man. Head IV (1949), otherwise called Man with a Monkey, depicts a curtained oblique transaction between man and chimpanzee. Are they one creature or two?

The sixth in the series, painted in 1949, was the first of Bacon’s paintings inspired by Diego Velázquez’s famous portrait of Pope Innocent X. Here Bacon took on simultaneously the power of the Catholic Church and the authority of the Old Masters. Velázquez had exposed the frail cruelty of the aged pontiff. Bacon stripped the figure further: the Pope is in a bare cage, the gilt throne reduced to phantom scraps of paint, his mouth screaming. The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze would later say of these indeterminate, unstable, faceless heads that “instead of formal correspondences, what Bacon’s painting constitutes is a zone of the indiscernible, of the undecidable, between man and animal.”

There was exhilaration as well as despair in these violent acts of reimagination. One of his greatest works is the 1953 painting Two Figures, an image of homosexual passion so frank that it had to be hidden from view. Based on Muybridge’s homoerotic photographs of wrestling men, the picture is also indebted to Bacon’s observation of animal movement. But there are also the female nudes—of Henrietta Moraes, for instance—which, while far from the classical ideal, highlight bruised flesh to emphasise the still lovable mortal substance of our bodies. And while Triptych—Studies of the Human Body (1970) in one way offers simian parodies of female locomotion, in another it is a celebration of our animal gifts.

In the 1950s, Bacon visited his mother and sisters in Southern Africa, where they had emigrated, and was inspired by the wild animals moving freely in their native habitat. In 1967, he met the photographer and eco-warrior Peter Beard, whose work documented the devastation wrought on Africa’s fauna and flora by colonisation. (This spring Ordovas Gallery in London is planning to open “Wild Life: Francis Bacon and Peter Beard.”) Beyond a shared love of African game animals, they had a desire to “open the valves of sensation” of European audiences to such destruction. A series of interviews with Bacon taped by Beard in 1972 focused on the idea of the “triggering image,” and especially on a series of 49 aerial images Beard took of dead elephants in Tsavo National Park. For both, the question was how such images could confront truth without sentimentality. Triptych (1976), the culmination of a series of Bacon’s paintings of Beard, includes a dead elephant foetus.

The same confrontation with truth is on display in three depictions of bullfighting Bacon painted in 1969, all taut with eroticism and violence. Knowingly entering the arena after Goya and Picasso, Bacon’s paintings highlight the lonely confrontation of man and beast, in their intimate dance of death, both partners fearful, savage and graceful. For the first time in the UK, the Royal Academy will also show Study for a Bull, painted a year before his death in 1992. An almost monochrome composition constructed of oil, aerosol paint and dust on bare canvas, the bull appears like an apparition through a white screen. It recalls a 1932 painting by Roy de Meistre of Bacon’s first artist’s studio—its door opening from a dark space onto a bare floor already beginning to fill with pictures. Study for a Bull is Bacon’s “farewell to the ring,” as the authors put it, and as such is unusually poignant.

Emma Crichton-Miller is a freelance arts writer










Wild Life: Francis Bacon and Peter Beard







An exciting new exhibition dedicated to the work of Peter Beard is online at Ordovas in London.

Wild Life: Francis Bacon and Peter Beard explores the friendship between Francis Bacon (1909–1992) and Peter Beard, his long-time friend and muse. Despite working on different sides of the world, the two artists shared deeply similar personal and creative passions. Intended as a celebration of Beard’s life, the exhibition features works from the period of the two artists’ friendship shown side by side for the first time, along with unseen materials from Beard’s archives including letters and photographs gifted to Bacon, and, most importantly, Beard’s diaries, which served as the genesis for his art.

Francis Bacon and Peter Beard first met in 1967. Beard recalled, ‘I was at one of his openings at the Marlborough Gallery in London where he was standing in some kind of reception line and I simply said, “Hi — Peter Beard.” He said, “I know who you are.” It was my very great luck that he had just bought The End of the Game and connected with the doomed pachyderms.‘ The two became close friends and admirers of each other’s work and served as one another’s subjects on many occasions over the years.

Francis Bacon liked to paint portraits of his sitters from photographs, and he was particularly drawn to sitters with good bone structure; happily, Peter Beard was able to provide both. Bacon painted nine major portraits of Beard and myriad others inspired by his face. From time to time, Beard sent Bacon photographs of himself to work from and to add to what Beard called Bacon’s ‘compost’ (the thousands of images piled on Bacon’s studio floor). The source image for Two Studies for Portrait, painted by Bacon in 1976 and on display for the first time since 1977, is thought to have been one such gift from Beard to Bacon. The two seemingly sequential images of Beard’s chiselled features illuminated against a stark black backdrop are reminiscent of a contact sheet, similar to those incorporated in many of Beard’s own works. Painted in Paris, the portraits mark a moment in which Bacon began to increasingly merge his own features with those of his sitters, in some cases going so far as to label paintings of Beard as ‘self-portraits.’ In Bacon’s portraits of Beard we begin to see the artist emerge from a period of mourning following the 1971 death of his lover, George Dyer, and once again embrace the joy of painting as he attempts to capture his friend’s true image, or his ’emanation’ as Bacon called it.

Bacon and Beard corresponded regularly, and often spoke of their shared views on the bestial nature of man. Indeed, it was conversations between the two artists that fueled Beard’s desire to fully document the effects of human intervention on the African elephant population. The exhibition includes correspondence between the two artists, as well as other archival materials, including a selection of Beard’s diaries, which will be publicly displayed for the first time.

In 1977, The End of the Game was updated and republished to include contributions from leading scientists of the day, and Beard’s images from the new edition were exhibited at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York to great critical acclaim. A number of important rare works that have not been seen since the ICP exhibition will be on display, highlighting the two artists’ shared concerns about conservation. Upon Bacon’s death in 1992, many hundreds of Peter Beard’s images were found in the former’s ‘compost.’ These included Beard’s celebrated series of aerial photographs of dead elephant carcasses that formed the basis of the last chapter of the 1977 edition of The End of the Game, which had Bacon’s input. Bacon instinctively recognized the important of Peter Beard’s visceral documentation and artworks, along with his nuanced and sensitive understanding of the modern condition in relation to the animal self, and his efforts to raise awareness of the devastating effects of human intervention on wildlife, and his unique and powerful artistic vision, will continue to inspire and stimulate generations to come.

The exhibition will run from 25 January until 8 May 2021. Ahead of the physical exhibition, Wild Life will be online from 25 January 2021 with a presentation of unpublished companion materials. It will open to the public as soon as it is permissible in accordance with UK government guidelines. The accompanying catalogue will include essay contributions by Martin Harrison and Sophie Pretorius.






                                                                          Francis Bacon and Peter Beard during ‘The Dead Elephant Interviews,’ 1970s






Francis Bacon’s love affair with France




Limited to only 206 copies, ‘Francis Bacon: Francophile’ is an

attractive book sure to be snapped up by Baconophiles






Francis Bacon: Francophile is the first book dedicated to photographs of Bacon taken in France. Bacon first visited Paris in 1926, then again in 1927, to learn French and become acquainted with French culture. The book is edited and introduced by Majid Boustany, founder of the Francis Bacon MB Art Foundation, Monaco. Boustany sets Bacon’s contacts and esteem for French life and culture in context. Eddy Batache (with Reinhard Hassert, good friends of Bacon’s in Paris) writes about Bacon’s everyday responses to Paris and French cuisine and wine, so important to the artist. Yves Peyré writes about Bacon’s reading in French.

The photographs range from casual holiday snapshots to appearances at vernissages up to formal portrait photographs by professional photographers. The first photographs are by Bacon’s cousin Diana Watson, with whom he travelled to Paris in 1932. There are few photos until 1971, when the selection becomes richer with Bacon’s Grand Palais retrospective. The photographs of 26 October 1971 are a psychological profile of Bacon as he greets friends and dignitaries at the opening, all the time knowing that his lover was lying dead in a hotel bathroom. The private views for exhibitions in commercial galleries were big social events, with crowds pressed up against Bacon in order to get signatures.

There are many photographs taken by Batache and Hassert, not only at Bacon’s Paris flat in the Marais, but in visits to other parts of France. Seeing Bacon in chateaux gardens or wine cellars makes a change from the usual studio and museum settings. Visitors noted that Bacon kept his Paris studio apartment much cleaner than his London studio, not least because he slept and lived in a single room. We see Bacon posing on the street or seemingly caught unawares, wearing a glossy black overcoat. Some of the cultural luminaries of the period are seen with him, including Miró, Masson, Hayter and others. Michel Leiris was a personal friend and one of the writers whose general works and essays on Bacon himself Bacon most valued.

The edition is limited to 206 copies, each sold with a loose photographic print by André Ostier enclosed. It is available only from the Foundation, Francophile is an attractive book sure to be snapped up by Baconophiles. ©




                                                     André Ostier – Francis Bacon at Café de Flore, Paris, April 1982






Monumental portrait of the art of being Francis Bacon







According to his cousin and close friend Diana Watson, the mind of artist Francis Bacon "seldom moved from the facts of love, death, massacre and madness".

Now, decades on from Bacon’s death in 1992, Pulitzer-prize winning critics Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan not only explore Bacon’s preoccupation with those powerful themes in their authoritative and fascinating biography, but offer us a chronological and in-depth account of his background, life and times.

Like all great biographies, the figure centre stage is seen in the context of the zeitgeist. In this instance, family wealth, social mores, politics and sexuality colour, inform and determine Bacon’s Irish upbringing, his time in Berlin, Paris and London and how he, with little or no formal education or training, turned from designer to artist.

In his later years, Bacon had the distinction of being recognised as one the most important painters of the 20th century, famed for his crucifixions, his pope paintings, his men in suits, his many portraits and self portraits, his shocking colour palette and his fleshy figures and the despair and hopelessness with which he imbued his work. His pictures could never be called pretty and many celebrate what Bacon himself called "the beauty of blood".

He was given important retrospectives in London, Paris and New York and offered numerous honours (all of which he turned down). Many of the top artists and writers of his day admired and respected him and he counted several of them among his close friends, including painters Graham Sutherland and Lucian Freud. Given his background and the way he lived his life, it’s almost incredible that he succeeded to such an extent.

Born in Ireland in 1909, he was one of five children of an English military family, who socialised with the Anglo Irish. He was a sickly child, an asthmatic who had virtually no schooling — a tutor for a while when he was 13; a year in a London school when he was 16 — and no formal training in art.

In his ear