Francis Bacon News
























The late Francis Bacon, called the greatest British painter since Turner, denied that the monsters mutilations

of his canvases were a lament on the human predicament and claimed that we were nothing but meat.


But Bacon did put his passion in his work, as the author finds in retracing his friendship with the artist.









WHEN the painter Francis Bacon died, last year, I recalled his having said, in a conversation of some ten years before, that he was frightened of death, very frightened. This had struck me, because he had so often stated that death was simply the starkest fact of life, a fact that reduced us all to meat, and had stated it with it with a hardness that made me think he would find any emotional response to death, such as fear, meaninglessly personal and sentimental. Bacon’s most common reaction to saying, as he often did, that he would die soon was a shrug and a dry laugh. Perhaps he had been trying to shrug off what was too personal for him to admit, or even to bear.

In London, I heard of his death over the radio, BBC World Service. This unexpected news startled me, and, his sudden death death all at once shifting my perceptions of him, I was left feeling confused about his painting and his life. To try to sort out my confusion, I looked at reproductions of his paintings in catalogues of his great shows in Europe and America. It occurred to me for the first time that in the same way he had denied, over and over,  that death had any personal meaning to him  he had denied that there was in his paintings the meaning that made him one of the most highly acclaimed living artists in the world, and he had denied this meaning in favor of what he called, over and over, the brutality of fact.

What he most strongly denied, in conversations, in interviews, and, I think, even to himself, was that his paintings portrayed the horrors of the postwar world. He denied, that is, the validity of what of what most people went to his paintings for: to see, in the screaming popes, the violently mauled bodies, the figures isolated in vast spaces, images of the age in which they lived. To portray the horror of the world was to him to be illustrational, and he insisted that his work was not illustrational.

Perhaps he denied the illustrational element in his work repeatedly because he was so often criticized for it, especially by Americans. Reactions to his last major retrospective in Americaat the Hirshhorn, in 1989, and then at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, in 1990were mixed. As the art historian Linda Nochlin has said to me, there were as many who found the work too confessional, too narrative as there were those who, like her, impressed by it.

Again and again, in the now classic interviews done by his friend and illuminator the art critic David Sylvester, published by Thames and Hudson in several editions, from 1975 to 1993, Bacon denied anything illustrational in his work. When, in a passage of the interviews often cited by Bacon’s critics, David Sylvester asked Bacon why he put a red armband with a swastika on the arm of a violently mutilated figure in his 1965 “Crucifixion,” Bacon replied that he merely wanted the break the continuity of the arm and add the color red for formal reasonsan insistence on form over content which is surely among the most disingenuous such claims ever made.

He wanted, instead of the illustrational, the brutal fact. What was that? Whatever it was, it was something close to what Picasso had done. Bacon didnt like the work of any living painter (including himself) except Picasso. Contrasting Picasso with Matisse, he said to Sylvester, There is very little realism in Matisse. I think its the reason I have always been so much more interested in Picasso because Matisse never had thewhat can one say?the brutality of fact which Picasso had.

Looking at paintings after his death and seeing in them the contradiction Id been only half aware of when he was alive, I realized that in the twenty-five years I knew him, I had always seen him as if he was standing before one of his paintings. From the time I was first introduced to him, I saw him primarily as a famous artist, so there was, I began to understand after he died, something illustrational in my view of him.  I saw in him the same impulse toward the brutality of fact that I saw in his work a brutality of fact that was for Bacon very different from what is was for Picasso. For Bacon, the fact at its most brutal was that we are nothing but meat, and he repeated this often. It was as if he were trying to make this belief into an everyday matter; and, when angry, he could intimidate one into agreeing with him. But, angry as he might become in the profession of this belief, his anger was roused not only by what he saw as ones stupidity at not accepting the obvious but, I think, by Bacons frustration at being reduced to insisting so passionately on the obvious: Of course were nothing but meat. It is a wonder the obviousness didnt flatten him out totally. At times, it almost did. But it didnt.  He had the moral strengthinspired, perhaps, by his horror of the obviousness of what he saw as the human condition to work on it and make something of it, as if this most blatant obviousness that we are utterly meaningless were his canvas.

In the years since his death, the more I have seen Bacon’s paintings as a personal struggle the less illustrational they have become. In a recently published biography of Bacon, there is a sentence that gets right to the center of the issue of illustration in his work The biography is The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, by the British writer Daniel Farson; it was published by Century in England earlier this year, and will be published in the United States in March by Pantheon. Though the sentence is not elaborated upon, it says a lot: Francis told me how much he disliked the wiled brutalism of Kieefermeaning the German artist Anselm Kiefer. This implies that brutalism, to be genuine, must not be willed The problem of Bacon’s work is all in his wanting to convey the brutality of fact without the conveyance appearing to be willed.

Bacon said to Sylvester: You seeyou dont know how the hopelessness in ones working will make one just take paint and just do almost anything to to get out of the formula of making a kind of illustrative imageI mean, I just wipe it all over with a rag or use a brush or rub it with something or anything or throw turpentine and paint and everything else onto the thing to try to break the willed articulation of the image, so the image will grow, as it were, spontaneously and within its own structure. Afterwards, your sense of what you want comes into pay, so that you begin to work on the hazard that has been left to you on the canvas. And out of all that, possibly, a more organic image arises than if it were a willed image.

Perhaps Bacon’s success was that he could will something into being in  his paintings that went deeper than will, to convey brutality. Perhaps his genius  as a painter lies in his power to  to will his work to be will-less.

Trying to get me perspective clear on Bacon clear after his death, I  talked to or wrote letters to friends who knew him to ask them what they thought. The artist R. B. Kitaj wrote back: Balthus and Bacon have been my two favorite postwar painters. We all have bees in our bonnet and one of Bacon’s most boring phobias was was this business about illustration.... God knows Ive got my own obsessions but I always found Bacon amazingly bland and formalist and orthodox on this question of illustration. The great Immoralist himself, perhaps the apotheosis of unorthodox, nihilist surrealism in paintingI never expected to be bored by him.... One expected to get maligned by him (as all London painters who new him well attest), but not bored. Sicker (to whom Bacon owed a few debts) said that all art was illustration and only illustration. And I like that saying because its funny and original and because its sort of true. Even a splash of paint illustrates something about the painter-splasher, something about his mind and spirit, and is a little less accidental than Bacon pretended.... A painting is an autonomous thing and it sure as hell isnt, any more than a person is unencumbered. No man is an island and neither is a/his painting, so, of course youre right David, about Bacon’s swastika armband, etc....

For me, Bacon was not a great painter like Matisse and Picasso. His was a narrower talent, and he seems to have refused to draw, but from my perspective he was the best, most original and engaging painter around by the time he died.... I cherish unusual paintings and, boy oh boy, are they rare and hard to achieve! Bacon kept doing them ... Of course its all a matter of taste, so I dont wish to argue Bacon with those who are turned off by him, including brilliant friends of mine.... But I do think he sang the song of himself. His pictures are every bit as elegant as the high American abstraction, but he engaged his urbane nihilism to ones own neurotic unease and achieved a psychological bloody pitch which almost always held my attention.

A little later, at a dinner party in London, I heard David Sylvester say, borrowing a notion from Jasper Johns, that he wondered if Yeats, great a poet as he was, failed to be among the greatest because he lacked helplessness. The Greek poet Nikos Stangos, who was present, suggested that Yates was limited  because he was, however subtle, rhetorical his poetry was constrained by its complicated intentions. It occurred to me that the same might be said of the work of Francis Bacon, but with an essential difference: he himself, aware of the constraint of illustration and wanting eschew it, tried, with even more than will, with driving passion, to go beyond it and give his work helplessness.

And therefore, on the personal level, his gambling. And therefore his being drawn to helplessly alcoholic people, especially women, such as his friend and model Isabel Rawsthorne, the widow of the composers Constant Lambert and Alan Rawsthorne; and his friend Sonia Orwell, the widow of George Orwell.

And therefore, since he was impelled to what was most helpless, his being drawn most of all to tragedy. There was a need in Bacon for what he called real tragedy. Tragedy, as vast as the vastest night falling, occurs beyond ones controlling it and makes one entirely helpless. Tragedy would give the greatest authenticity to his work. Although he denied that he had any intention of trying to create a tragic art, the obviousness of his intention belies his denial. He sometimes, when drunk, shouted out that he wanted real tragedy,” and some time he even seemed to be trying to will tragedy on himself.

Another friend of Bacon’s I talked to about him was the British poet Stephen Spender, who had known Bacon well, and who had also been thinking a lot about him since his death. He said  he thought Bacon imagined tragedy to be sensation, the greatest possible sensation. And tragedys fulfilment is death. Bacon insisted that his lover, George Dyer, had committed suicide, and he insisted in this as the great tragedy of his life, but it is nit at all certain that Gorge Dyer did commit suicide. However many brandies and sleeping pills he took before his death, he most likely died in the same way hopeless alcoholics and drug addicts do, ultimately. When  Dyer demanded to go to the great 1971 exhibition of Bacon’s work at the Grand Palais, n Paris, Bacon, concerned, assigned a guardian to him to mind him, but Dyer found himself alone, wandering from bar to bar all day, drinking brandies and taking pills, and in his hotel room took just enough more in alcohol and sleeping pills to die. With the exhibition and  the ceremonies set up, Bacon attended, and not for an instant did he let on that this was not the happiest day of his lifeso John Russell wrote in the added chapter of the 1993 edition of his 1971 monograph, Francis Bacon.

To see the artists work in personal terms must surely be one of the objects of a biography of the artist, and Daniel Farson’s is only the first of many biographies of Bacon that have already appeared or will appear soon. Though David Sylvester is preparing what will be, essentially, a book of criticism, it will include important personal accounts of Bacon in relation to his work. Andrew Sinclairs Francis Bacon, His Life and Violent Times” has been published by Sinclair-Stevenson in England and will be published by Crown this fall in the United States. Michael Peppiatt, who wrote an extensive entry in the catalogue of a Bacon retrospective early this year in Lugano Switzerland, is also working on a biography, as is the British novelist Paul Bailey. And it was recently announced that Bacon’s friend and model Henrietta Moraes is writing a memoir in part about him. In England, newspaper  articles seem to appear every week announcing yet another biography.

Bacon talked so openly about himself that anyone who knew him could put together a version of his life as an artist simply by remembering what he said. Though the two are not separate entities, Ill leave his private life for laterfor Bacon to reveal, himself, in conversations that I was part of over many years and that I recorded in my journalsand stick for now to his artistic development, and the luck, as he called it, that made him a painter.

HE had to be lucky to become a painter, because he had no formal schooling to be one, and therefore had to make his way without the support system usually available to students at an art school. Because he was a weak boy suffering from asthma (which finally killed him), and because his parents continually moved  their family back and forth between England and Ireland, he had almost no formal schooling at all. He never got on with his father, a horse trainer, or his mother, who had inherited some money from her industrial family, and he left home at sixteen.

What decided him to be a painter was seeing, as a teen-ager in Paris in 1927, an exhibition of Picasso’s works at the Galerie Paul Rosenberg. He started doing drawings and watercolors, and lived in Paris for over a year, earning money partly as an interior decorator and furniture designer. When he moved to London to love, he set up a studio in which he exhibited his furniture, rugs, and watercolors. Presently, he met the Australian painter Roy de Maistre, fifteen years older and a Catholic convert, one of whose paintings was what Farson calls a sado-masochistic” Crucifixion (it is now owned by the Leicestershire Museum, in England), and de Maistre became Bacon’s lover and mentor. Bacon started his first oil paintings. In 1930, he and de Maistre held an exhibition of their works in Bacon’s studio, a converted garage in South Kensington, and they were then asked by a new dealer, Freddie Mayor, to exhibit in a group show in his gallery. In 1933, the influential art critic Herbert Read reproduced own Crucifixion” (beside a Picasso Bather” in his book Art Now,” and the painting was bought by a well-known collector of contemporary art, Sir Michael Sadler. Bacon and de Maistre also appeared in a second group show at the Mayor Gallery  one that included paintings by Picasso, Masson, Ernst, Arp and Klee, and carvings by Henry Moore.

After what seemed a promising start, Bacon held in 1934 an exhibition of his own work in the basement of a friends house, which he called the Transition Gallery, but this was not a success, and Bacon destroyed most of his work,. Though he and de Maistre remained friends, they grew apart. Bacon went through a period of doing little work, of gambling, petty theft, and living off other people. One of the people who supported him financially was an Englishman, Eric Hall. Rich and interested in his work, Eric Hall had as early as 1929 bought a rug from Bacon and had been following his career since then. In 1937, he invited Bacon to exhibit in a show of young British artists that hed organised at Thomas Agnew and Sons, a London gallery. That show included several of Bacon’s paintings, along with works by de Maistre, Graham Sutherland, Victor Pasmore, Robert Medley, Ivon Hitchens, Ceri Richards, Julian Trevelyan, and John Pipera whole generation of British artists.

Eric Hall became Bacon’s lover, and he bought Bacon’s first great work, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion,” completed in 1944 and shown at the Lefevre Gallery, in London, just a month before the end of the war in Europe. Bacon was thirty-five. The painting shocked: a triptych of three monstrous gray figures with long necks, the right-hand one without eyes but with a large mouth wide open and with its one peg leg stuck into what looks like a bed of nails; the middle-one, apparently perched on the broken tripod base of a pedestal table, with a white rag hanging over a gaping mouth; the left-hand one, with tiny, flipper-like arms, wrapped, it appears, in a trailing blanket and positioned on a metal frameall three occupying violently orange space. Eric Hall gave the painting to the Tate Gallery, in London. By 1948, Bacon’s standing was high enough for Alfred Barr to buy a work, Painting 1946,” for the Museum of Modern Art, in New York. In 1954, Bacon with Lucian Freud and Ben Nicholson represented Great Britain at the Venice Biennale. One-man exhibitions in Paris, Turin, Milan, and Rome followed over the next four years, and in 1958 he signed a contract with Marlborough Fine Art, London. In 1962, the Tate Gallery put on his first major retrospective, and almost every year after that there was an important exhibition in a world cultural capital. Bacon was considered one the greatest postwar paintersequal to, if very different from, Balthus, Dubuffet, Giacometti, and (though some American critics would dispute the claim) de Kooning and Newman.

In light of Bacon’s stature as an artist, it is not surprising that there are so many biographies being written about him, or that Farson’s “The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon made the London Sunday Times best-seller list. Written from a personal point of viewFarson was a friend of Bacon’s for forty yearsthe book is not altogether accurate about the facts of Bacon’s life, and some of those inaccuracies can, I suppose, lead to a misreading of Bacon as a person, if not as an artist. But, finally, mistakes about Bacon in this biography do not seem to matter, nor does the workmanlike, journalistic writing, if the object of the book is to be a lively homage, made convincing by the consistency with which Farson tries to see Bacon honestly and in the round.

On the other hand, Andrew  Sinclairs “Francis Bacon, His Life and Violent Times” has nothing of the character of Bacon in it. Sinclair, who met Bacon but did not know him, was not writing a memoir, as Farson was in part, but a biography based on disinterested research, and as it is evident that few of the people closest to Bacon spoke to him, his information must have been gathered largely from secondary sources. The accounts of the Boer War, in which Bacon’s father participated as a captain; of life in Berlin in the twenties, when Bacon was there for a while; of London during the Seconds World War, when Bacon worked in the Civil Defence rescue serviceall these harden about the center and do not allow any real life in. Attempts to give a sense of the artists persona life lead Sinclair to such uninspired passages as this description of Bacon’s reaction to the death of Dyer: Although Bacon lived on for twenty years, the wound from this self-murder never healed. It bled inside him; it could not be staunched.

It is a very strange experience to read a biographygood or bad or in betweenof someone youve known. It makes you wonder if you really had a friendship, and, if so, what it consisted of. My personal reaction to the Farson and Sinclair books was a renewal of the confusion about Francis Bacon which I felt  upon his death. I spoke again to  Stephen Spender about this confusion. It was, in fact, Spender who, in the autumn of 1966, when we were travelling together by train from London to Paris, had introduced me to Bacon and Dyer, sitting right across the aisle from us. And in speaking to Spender I found that whatever critical thinking about Bacon’s work had preoccupied me gave way to thoughts about him as a friend and what I remembered of him as a friend.

I MET Stephen Spender in London, where I had gone from Boston, to live. He asked me, a few months after I arrived, if Id go to the South of France with him to help plant trees in the garden of his and his wife Natashas house was there. We had precise instructions from Natasha about where and how the row of cypresses should be planted Stephen thought we could spend a couple of day s in Paris on the way. One the train, we ran into Francis and George, who were going to Paris for the opening of a show of Franciss paintings at the Galerie Maeght, and Francis invited us to the show.

At the opening, standing about Bacon and George Dyer, Isabel Rawsthornewho, laughing a wide, red laugh, was tearing open congratulatory telegrams and reading them and then letting them drop to the floorand Sonia Orwell, all of them very drunk. Steepen and I joined them, excited, but did not get drunk.

George took my hand and led me around the exhibition to tell me, in nasal Cockney, which pictures were of him, and to ask if I recognized him. One was of him, very mutilated, sitting on a toilet. He put his arm around me and was affectionate. He wore a suit, and a tie knotted so tightly that that his sharp-edged collar cut into his neck, and his face and carefully combed-back hair seemed to form a wedge. He had a large, square jaw and a large nose and thin lips.

Stephen and I had lunch in a restaurant with Francis and George and Sonia the next day. As we were leaving the restaurant, Stephen suddenly asked Francis and George if theyd like to come to the South of France, too. Immediately, they said they would. On the way back to the hotel, Stephen said, Francis and George are always fighting. Maybe it was a bad idea to invite them to the South of France.

He and I left the next day, after seeing the great Picasso show in the Grand Palais. In the Spenders’ garden, I dug many holes, according to Natashas plan, and planted the trees. And a day or two later Francis and George arrived. They did not stay with us in the Spender house but in a hotel in the village of Maussane. We met them there in the evening for dinner, in a wooden-panelled dining room that was chilly, so the steam from the tureen of potage we had ordered rose up in a dense cloud when it was brought in. Francis talked about the Picasso show, which he had also seen. He said I cant admire the man enough. I said, You couldnt have painted your pictures  without him, could you? He looked at me as if amazed, and pressed his lower lip against his upper so his chin wrinkled, and his eyes went a little out of focus, and it occurred to me that I had stated something so obvious that  Franciss only possible reaction to it was amazement. Every other living artist he denigrated: Henry Moores drawings were knitting, Graham Sutherlands portraits were no more than Time magazine covers.

The next day, Stephen drove Francis and George and me to Aix-en-Provence, to see, in a museum, a small self-portrait thought, then, to be by Rembrandt, which Francis particularly liked, because of what he described as the almost self-conscious use of paint to create the features, so that the use of the paint was as important as what it was used to portray. During that conversation, I began trying to see Franciss paintings in what he saidit was, I thought, a little insight though him to into his work. Then, on the way back to Maussane, we came upon the site of an accident in which a van had smashed into a tree, and all about the road, fallen from the van, were dead, bloody pigs. Francis asked Stephen to stop the car so he could look, and I imagined I had another insight to go with the first, for I saw the bloody pigs on the wide gray road in terms of thick paint.

At dinner that night, in the dining room of the hotel where Francis and George were staying, they both got very drunk. George simply looked around. Francis focused with a frown on what Stephen and I were saying, as if waiting for a reason to be angry. As far as I knew, he and George hadnt fought while they were in Maussane. I cant recall who started talking about Christianity perhaps it was Francis, when he said, repeatedly, that Macbeth” showed that Shakespeare was not Christian. When Stephen said, “Well, I think Im Christian, at least in believing we must help one another, it was as though he had become responsible for all the worst aspects of Christianity. Francis leaned in closer and asked, What, practically, do you do to help others? Stephen said he did very littlenothing, reallyand he certainly wouldnt give everything he had to the poor, but felt he should. Francis said, aggressively, that this was rubbish, rubbish, and he got very angry, more angry than the circumstances in any way justified, repeating again and again, “Rubbish. Stephen went silent, as did I, and I thought I saw behind Francis the depth of his hard darkness.

When we got back to St. Jerome, the Spender house, Stephen, sensing in my silence that Id been upset by Francis, said, You must consider the darkness of Francis just part of life, in the same way the Vietnam War and all forms of viciousness are just a part of life, and not the whole. There is a side to Francis which obviously makes him love to see trees and landscapes and have friendships, and, too, to love, as he loves George. Youve seen this about him here in Provence.


Back in London, I saw Sonia Orwell. She said Francis and George were fighting a lot. They’d been together since 1964, not a very long time. George didn’t live with Francis they couldn’t possibly live together. George had a flat of his own, across the Thames in Battersea.

Nikos Stangos and I were then living in Battersea, too, in a block of flats called Overstrand Mansions, where, Francis told us when he first came to dinner, some months after I’d seen him in France, he himself had lived some years before.  He came back regularly after, and that is how I really began to know him. But he never brought George.

Then, in September, 1970, the newspapers were filled with the story that cannabis had been discovered in Francis’s flat by the police. Francis, who declared he didn’t smoke, because of the asthma that he’d suffered from all his life and that had kept him out of the military during the Second World War, accused George of planting it and alerting the police. There was a court case, in which the police had to admit that information about the presence of the drug had come from George. Francis was acquitted.

Shortly after, I was on the bus one afternoon crossing the Chelsea Bridge in the rain, and I saw, from the upper-deck window, George, out in the rain, walking along the pedestrian way of the bridge. The Thames was dark gray beyond him. His hands were in the pockets of a raincoat, but his head was bare, and water was running off it. That was the last I saw him.

His death, in Paris, came in October of 1971, barely thirty-six hours before Francis’s exhibition opened at the Grand Palais.

That December, Nikos and I were invited to a Boxing Day party in the evening. Sonia and Francis were there. Francis left early, but Sonia stayed on and got very drunk, so I thought I should take her home. In the taxi she babbled, in a strident, accusing way, about how violently unhappy Francis was, with George dead only six weeks. You don’t understandnone of you understandwhat depression is. You wont help. You don’t know how to help. I could kill, kill, kill, kill you all for your lack of sensitivity. Francis is suffering. Do any of you care? Do any of you ring him up? Fuck all if you do.”

The next time I saw him, I mentioned George’s death to Francis, and, laughing a little bit from the side of his mouth, he shrugged one shoulder.

Nikos had become poetry and artbook editor at Penguin Books in 1967, and as a consequence had got to know a lot of artists. Among them were young artists our age, such as Michael Craig-Martin and Jan Hashey One Sunday at tea at Michael and Jan’s, Michael showed us his latest work: little stories,” as he called them, written on file cards, one sentence to a card, and all the stories had to do with the different ways he saw himself and how he thought others saw him. The work was about self-consciousness.

Michael said he worried a great deal about art, what art meant. After tea, Nikos and I  went to Sonia’s. She had invited us to a birthday party for Francis. I sat next to Francis, and on his other side was David Sylvester. I asked Francis if he ever worried about art, in the way Michael did “No,” he said, and laughed. “I just paint. I paint out of instinct. That’s all.” “Then you’re very lucky others like your work,” David said. “That’s it,” Francis said. “I’m very lucky. People, for some reason, buy my work. If they didn’t, I suppose I’d have to make my living  in another way.”  I said I’m sure people buy or, if they cant buy it, are drawn to your work because you do paint out of instinct. Perhaps it’s just fashionable for them to be drawn now,” Francis said. I said, “No, that not true, And you know it isn’t true. He said, “You’re right. I do know. Of course I know. If I stop to wonder why I paint, I say I paint out of instinct.”

David looked very thoughtful. He sat away from the table, his large body a little slumped forward, his hands n his knees. Slightly wall-eyed, he stared at the table as he thought, and he finally asked Francis, very slowly,  “How does luck come into your work?

Francis said  “If anything works for me in my paintings, I feel it is nothing I’ve made myself but something luck has given me.”

David asked, “Is there any way of preparing for that luck before you start working?”

 “It comes by chance,” Francis said. It wouldn’t come by will power. Bit it’s impossible to talk about this.”

This excited me, and I immediately asked, Because its a mystery?”

Francis jerked around to me, his eyes wide. He said flatly, I don’t think one can explain it.”

I knew that I was trying to push Francis into saying something that I wanted him to say but which I also knew he disdained, as he disdained all sorts of mysticism.

Nikos said to me, “Do you know what you’re saying?”

I took the risk and asked Francis, “Do you ever think that if one knew enough one might be able to explain the mystery? And if one could explain would the mystery go and the work be destroyed?”

Francis pursed his lips. He could sometimes appear to be parodying the expression of deep thought. He said, “Are you asking me if I ever think I could destroy my work by knowing too much about what makes it?”

“More than that: I wonder, have you ever wanted to explain what makes a painting work even though you knew the explanation would destroy it?”

Francis said, “I can’t want that, because I know I never would be able to explain.” He laughed.

Nikos and I continued to have dinner with Francis from time to time, in our small flat in Battersea or, more often, out in a restaurant where he always paid the bill. At some of these dinners in restaurants were as many as ten or twelve people, and I met at them a few of Francis’s closest friends, including Dickie Chopping and Denis Wirth-Miller, both artists. Francis was always as attentive to the waiters as to the people at the table, and whenever a waiter put another bottle of wine on the table Francis handed him a pound note. I once saw him put a pound note in a bread basket that was being passed around by people at the table. Nikos and I would drive Francis home, to his studio flat in Reece Mews, in South Kensington, and wait for him to open his narrow door among the wide doors of the garages in the mews and climb his steep flight of stairs, often stumbling and falling to his knees as he went up.

And we saw him at parties. At one party, after being introduced to Lee Penrose, the American photographer who turned from fashion to photographing the horrors of concentration camps before giving up her career, he came to where Nikos and I were standing with Stephen and Natasha Spender and said, laughing dryly, You mean, that’s the Lee Miller whose photograph was taken by Man Ray? I would have thought her beauty would remain, but nothing of it has, has it?”  We also laughed, too intimidated by Francis to stand up to him.

He had arrived drunk, and he was almost incomprehensible when he spoke. After Nikos had left our group, Francis saidin reference to what, I didn’t know, but I wondered if he was thinking of GeorgeIn every relationship there’s always a cherished and a cherisher. Always a cherished and a cherisher. I said, I wonder if that’s true. In my caseor, rather, Nikos and my caseI don’t know.” Oh, yes,” Francis said. Oh, yes.  And don’t deny being cherished.  Don’t deny it. Take it. Let yourself be cherished. You’re the cherished one. And don’t deny yourself being cherished.” Natasha said, But you don’t understand. David is the cherisher.” Francis lurched away with a jerk of his whole body, a if someone had suddenly called him. Then he left us and staggered from person to person.

Natasha left Stephen and me to talk to others, and Francis staggered back to us. Stephen asked him if he was working on something new, and Francis, loosely nodding his head, said, Yes, I’m doing paintings of two bodies locked together.” He lost his balance whenever he paused in his talk, but each time he regained it he repeated, Locked together, two bodies.” I said, Then they’ll be love paintings. He leaned toward me and almost fell onto me, his wine splashing from his glass Yes,” he said, yes”. Then he stumbled backward, his head up, and there suddenly came to his face a look of such terror that I laughed. I then realized he was about to fall backward, but before I could reach out to grab him he regained his balance and turned toward the wall with his back against it. He mistook a door for the wall, however, and when he leaned against the slightly open door it gave way. Again, he righted himself just as I rushed over to him to stop him from falling. He said, leaning against the solid wall, I want tragedy.”

Francis would accept invitations to partiesdrinks or dinner partiesand then appear or not. As Suzi Gablik, the American writer on contemporary art, said, expecting nothing from him was a condition of ones friendship with Francis. In the second half of the seventies, Suzi, living in London, gave a lot of parties and always invited Francis, and he almost always showed up. At one party, I found him standing by himself, and I went to speak with him. He was wearing tight gray trousers, a black turtleneck pullover, and another turtleneck pullover on top this, but white. I imagined his body as having very thin legs and a round bulging belly The sleeves of both pullovers were pushed up, showing his powerful forearms and red hands.

I knew it was risky, but I tried to start a conversation by saying that the writer Jean Rhys had told me she had flashes of religion. Does she, now?” Francis asked. Drunk myself, I asked him if he ever did. He laughed. Never. Never never never never never never. I wanted to know what he was vulnerable to, and I asked him if he had any addiction. He didn’t have any, he said. I said mine was sleep. Sleep?” he said. Really?” How much do you sleep?” I asked. He said, I get up every morning at seven o’clock.” I wish I could do that,” I said. He asked me, But don’t you like consciousness, David? I love conscious life. I love being conscious.” He slurred his words, but he didn’t laugh.

Most people left the party, and Francis said to me, Lets go to dinner you, Nikos, Suzi, me, well go to dinner.”

At the restaurant, Nikos said, reading the menu, They have grilled gray mullet. That’s what I’ll have.” Francis said, That’s what I’ll have, too. Grilled grey mullet. I love that. I’m a simple person. Aren’t I a simple person? Arn’t I, Suzi?” Suzi smiled and reached across the table and squeezed one of his hands. Nikos asked him, What do you mean by simple? He answered, I’m direct and I’m obvious. I’ve had an appalling life. I’ve had a very unhappy life. I don’t think about it.  There it is. That’s simple.”

Suzi asked, You’ve never been happy?”

Once or twice,” he said. When I was young, in moments of ecstasy. Now I’m too old I don’t think about it, about happiness. There are many things I don’t think about. I’ve done horrible things in my life, horrible. There they are. I don’t think about them. I’m too old.”

His dyed hair, with, it appeared, a hair cream to make it smooth and keep it starkly in place, was combed against his head, with some stiff strands carefully arranged down over his forehead. He said, I’ve had a horrible life, a tragic life.” He picked up a small pickle from a white plate and ate it, picked up another one, a larger one, ate it, picked up another and put this in his mouth, and, as if the taste had only now occurred to him, he said, These pickles are horribly sour.” He didn’t laugh, but everyone else did. He said, I’m a very simple person who’s had an appalling and tragic life.”

Nikos asked, Whats been so appalling? You’ve never been seriously ill, you’ve never had to worry about money.”

Francis said, You’re right. I was pretty when I was young. Old men liked me. One old man, an old GreekI even remember his namefell in love with me, gave me some money, and I used it to paint. I lived off old men. I always had a clear idea of what I wanted to do. I wanted to be exceptional. I wanted to do exceptional work. I just took money. I was an old whore. I still am. An older whore. A lucky old whore.”

A strange sensation passed through me. I sat back, and tears came to my eyes.

The waiter put a gray mullet in front of Francis, and he asked, Whats this?” Your grilled gray mullet,” Nikos said. I hate this,” Francis said, I can’t it eat. I couldn’t get a forkful down my throat.” Nikos asked Francis, What makes your life tragic, then?”

Ive been in love, and love is tragic.”

Love can make you happy,” Nikos asserted.

Francis said, I was in love with someone who killed himself. That made our love tragic.”

For a while, Francis seemed not to drink at all. When again at Suzi’sthis time at a dinner party given by her for Sonia, Francis, Nikos and me Francis, who didn’t say much all evening, kept putting his hand over his glass when Suzi was about to pour wine into it. He looked sad, I thoughtthat is, polite and attentive but making efforts to be so.

We talked about people becoming dependent on others, and Francis said, George became dependent on me. If he hadn’t, he’d probably be alive now. He was a thief, an inept thief, always getting caught, when I met him. He’d probably be in jail and alive now if he hadn’t met me. But he did, he drank himself into a mad state and, because of me, killed himself.”

Sonia said, aggressively, He didn’t ill himself. I read you the medical report, in English. He didn’t kill himself.”

 He did,” Francis said. He killed himself.”

Nikos became an editorial director at the publisher Thames and Hudson, and one of the first projects he worked on was the Bacon interview by David Sylvester. We saw a lot of Francis, and got to know something of Francis’s world, the center of which was a drinking club, the Colony Room, which he called Muriel’s, because it was run by Muriel Belcher, a close friend. Up a flight of old stairs, the walls painted dark green where the plaster hadn’t fallen off, we went into a small room with a filthy gray carpet, dirty pale-green walls, empty bottles under the chairs, and on the floor a large tin tub filled with ice and bottles. The first time we went there, a mirrored door at the other end of the room opened, and in came a  man with loosely curled hair, spectacles, and a black-and-gold scarf about his neck. He was supporting an old woman in a lank gray dress. The man helped the woman to a stool at the end of the bar, near the entrance, and Francis introduced Nikos and me to her, Muriel and the man, Ian Board. Muriel’s hair was thin and pulled tight over her skull so her scalp showed. Her face was long, wrinkled, slack; her mouth was always open, and her teeth made me think of her skull. Her gums were bleeding, and she held a handkerchief to her mouth. She didn’t look at us so much as tilt her head up and throw an approximate glance at us. Francis said, Isn’t she beautiful?” We said yes. He ordered champagne from the barman, whom he introduced to us. His name was David. Then Francis introduced us to the pianist, a young, handsome man named Felicity; Francis ordered a brandy-and-soda for Felicity from David. Francis, Muriel, Ian, Nikos, and I talked about sex. Francis said I hate sex in the morning.”  “ When do you like it?” I asked. He said, Between three and four in the afternoon, with sunlight blazing through the windows.” I said I like it any time.” Muriel tapped me across the cheek with the back of her twisted hand and said You old cunt.” Ian said to me, You should come in often, darling.”

When we asked Francis to our flat for a meal, we also asked Stephen Spender. As if he had all the time in the world, Francis always arrived before Stephen. In the living room, I would ask him to sit, but he would say, No, I’ll stand. I like being uncomfortable.”

One night. at our small, oval dining table, in a bedroom, Stephen asked Francis, How old are you? Francis said, I was born October 28, 1909, so I’m sixty-eight.” And I was born February 28, 1909,” Stephen said. So I’m six months older than you,” Francis said. Six months younger,” Stephen said. Francis looked puzzled. Oh, yes,” he said. And you were in Berlin when I was there. I wonder why we didn’t meet.” You probably went to different places,” Francis said. I used to be in the clubs all the time.” So was I,” Stephen said. Then we were probably in the same club at the same time,” Francis said.

How did you get to Berlin?” I asked Francis.

Francis seemed to like being asked questions about himself. Oh,” he said, my father found me wearing my mother’s underclothes, and to put me right he sent me to a friend like him, a horse trainer. This was in Ireland. I left home to go with my fathers friend, who took me to Berlin. He was very rich and we stayed in a grand hotel. That was the first time I had sex with anyone. From there, I went to Paris. My mother sent me three pounds a week. I never really went back to Ireland.

When Francis invited Nikos and me out, it was usually with Stephen. Sometime in the late seventies, he invited us  to meet his new friend, Bill. We hadn’t known he’d had a friend since George. Bill was an electrician. Sonia said a telephone engineer. He was a broad, very masculine man who wanted to become a policeman in New York and who was intelligent enough to know that he really only wanted to satisfy a fantasy he has about New York cops. His life, it seemed,  was devoted to satisfying his sexual fantasies. He’d been all over the United States and Canada, too, and he could tell you where the best bars were, where the men liked one thing or another. He said that, because of the way he looked, every time he went into a queer bar in America the bouncer would say to him, You do realise, sir, that this is a club for homosexuals?” He loved asking policemen on the street for the way to bars and clubs that, he said, smiling, they of course knew were queer. Bills smile was wide and clean and very bright white.

After dinner at Langan’s Brasserie, for which Francis insisted on paying, we all got into a taxi to go to a club in Leicester Square called Adam’s. The taxi stopped and started, stopped and started in the Friday late-night traffic in the West End. Stephen was frowning. Once we got to Leicester Square, Stephen said he though he’d go homeit was still early enough to catch the tube.

Adam’s was a large, crowded club with golden chandeliers and gold-framed mirrors, and it was very dark and so smoky you could hardly see, Francis, Bill, Nikos, and I stood by the bar. Francis kept giving Bill twenty-pound notes to buy bottles of champagne. We talked a lot about sex. Bill said he liked to be fucked, fist-fucked, and he also liked, from time to time, G.B.H. Nikos asked, Whats that?”  Grievous bodily harm,”  Bill said, and smiled his smile. And you’ve had it?”  Francis asked him. Only a couple of times,” Bill said. Real welts and weals?” Francis asked. Oh, yes,” Bill answered. I enjoy it, but it has to be done by someone you like. And there’s always the danger that they wont be able to stop when you want them to.” Well,” Francis said, I like a bit of G.B.H. now and then. I had a friendhe finally killed himselfwho had a collection of whips he kept at my place A while ago, I took someone there who said he was interested in whips, and I showed him the collection.” Francis laughed. Well, I undressed and got on my fish-net stockings” Black?” Nikos asked. Of course black, stupid,” Francis said. And he started to beat me. But he got carried away. He wouldn’t stop. I’m a total coward. In nothing but my black fish-net stockings, I ran out into Reece Mews.” He laughed loudly.

A tall, blond young man came up to us and asked, Who are you all? You all look so interesting, so glum.” Not even Francis spoke to him He asked Nikos and me, Do you two live together?” Why do you think that?” I asked. I can tell,” he said. A friend behind him said, Come on, lets go, they look creepy.”

We were in the club until three-thirty. Nikos and I went only when Francis said he’d go. Bill remained with a fellow who looked like a Greek priest.

Outside Francis said, Bill and I spent four days together and discovered we were incompatible, because we both like the same thing. But we’ve remained friends.”

I ran around the square trying to get a taxi, but none would stop for me, though their lights were lit. Francis, who hadn’t moved, put out his hand, and a limousine, not a taxi, stopped in front of him. A young man rolled down the window and said, You look like three cold gentlemen. Ill drive you wherever you want to go.” Francis got in beside him, Nikos and I in the back. Now, what have you been doing up at this hour when all honest people are in bed?” the driver asked.  Francis said, with that short, shrugging laugh he had, Not being honest.” He asked the driver his name. George,” the driver said. And what’s your name?” Francis.” Is that Mr. Francis?” Mr., Mrs., Misshowever you like it,” Francis said. The driver left Nikos and me off first.

Just a year or so later, Francis said he had a new friend he wanted us to meet. His name was John, and he ran a pub in the East End of London. On a Sunday morning, Nikos and I drove Francis there. John Edwards had black curly hair and wore a smart gray-flannel suit. Nikos and I were in jeans. We had drinks in the saloon, where young men were playing pool. John’s boyfriend was among them. A pretty, blond young man with pimples along his jaw, he couldn’t go more than a mile from the pub, John said, as he’d been convicted of a crime and was awaiting sentencing. After some drinks, we all went off to another pub, which closed while we were there, but we stayed on behind the locked doors, and met a number of middle-aged Cockney queens and their boyfriends. They and John and his boyfriend and Francis and Nikos and I, about twelve of us, went out for a late lunch in a Chinese restaurant. One bleached-blond queen said to Francis, So you paint pictures do you, Francis? Excuse my ignorance, but what kind of pictures do you paint?” This was all in East End Cockney. Francis said, Well, it’s difficult to say.” Like, do you paint landscapes or people?” Sometimes landscapes, sometimes people.” Do you paint pictures of dogs, Francis?” someone else asked. I like pictures of dogs myself.” I used to paint dogs years ago. I don’t anymore.” What do you do with your paintings, then? Do you show them along the fence in the park in Bayswater? I seen paintings, on a Sunday, all along the railings.” Francis, laughing, said, I haven’t come to that yet. I might soon.” John said, His paintings are fucking awful. He can’t even draw as good as that Piss-casso, and fucking awful he was, too.” Right,” Francis said. I can’t.”

In the car, riding back through the West End, Francis said, I feel an idiot among them. I feel they know so much more than I do.”

What?” Nikos asked. I don’t know,” Francis said.


Shortly after Sonia Orwell’s death, in 1980, Francis invited me to lunch, to talk about her. He asked me to his mews flat for noon. I’d never been in it before. He showed me his studio, with a narrow path through banks of  rags and rubbish, and a number of small, blank canvases, which, he said, the Marlborough Gallery had sent him. You see,” he said, small paintings sell better than big ones.”

We drank two or three of what I believe he called Dead Dogs, sitting at a bare table at the end of the long narrow-bed sitting room. Bare bulbs hung from the ceiling on long wires. Though an electric fire was on, there was a chill. I asked, Do you think, as I do, that Sonia was a totally pessimistic person?”

Francis said, Totally, totally pessimistic. You see, I am at least optimistic in the moment.”

And, I said, optimistic in your creating, because to create is to be optimistic. But Sonia did not believe she could create anything. At least, that’s what I imagine.”

He put his large, red hand to his chin and said, As much as one can be right in anything one imagines, I think you’re right.”

Everytime thereafter when Stephen, Nikos, and I went out to dinner with Francis, John was with him. Francis’s relationship with John appeared to be the most lasting of his life. And they seemed never to fight. One evening, as Stephen, Nikos, and I crossed the cobblestones of Reece Mews to Francis’s flat, Francis leaned out the window above the garage and waved at us, and he was waiting for us, smiling, at the top of the steep stairs. He seemed very happy. Then he sais John was supposed to come but was drunk, and Francis laughed at this, the laughter implying that of course John was drunk. In the bedroom end of his flat was an oval bed covered with a multicolored spread, and next to the bed was a bookcase piled with books.

After three bottles of champagne, we all went to a nearby Italian restaurant in a cellar for dinner. Stephen mentioned that he had been going to the doctor for tests, though he was in perfect health, really. Blinking a lot, he said Somehow I’m not frightened of death. I think I was brought up to be frightened of it but to consider it as something that would inevitably come and that must not be made a fuss over. I suppose I don’t think myself important enough to make a fuss about dying.”

This is when I heard Francis say, I’m frightened of death. I’m very frightened of it.” He laughed.  Of course, I may die tomorrow.”

I asked Francis, Why are you frightened of dying?”

Because I love life,” he answered. I love it.”

So do I,” Stephen said.

David doesn’t,” Nikos said.

Francis said to me, Life’s all we’ve got, and we can’t want to lose it.”

A waiter came to Francis and whispered in his ear, then left. It’s John,” Francis said to us. He’s out in the street, drunk. I’d better go get him.” He left, and in a little while came back with John, who did not appear to be very drunk.

With John, the talk changed. We talked about how sorry we were that he didn’t get the fancier pub he’d been negotiating for. He didn’t seem to mind, and said, It don’t matter.” Then he took out a photograph of himself and his boyfriend, who had been allowed out of prison on a three-day pass. John wanted to give the photograph to Francis, and asked Nikos, sitting next to him, if Nikos could spell out the dedication, so that he, John, could write it, as he couldn’t spell words but he could write letters. Using Stephen’s pen, John wrote FOR MY FRANCIS WITH MY LOVE JOHN. ”

After John gave Francis the photograph he leaned across the table and said, I want to tell you something,” and Francis leaned forward so John could whisper in his ear Suddenly, Francis sat back and said in a loud and angry voice, That’s ridiculous, I’m not going to listen to it. That you want to kill yourself is ridiculous. I’m not going to listen.” John smiled. He held a hand over the table, and Francis clasped it. John said, I love you.” Francis said, And I love you, and because I do I’m not going to hear you talk such nonsense.” Still holding Francis’s hand, John turned to us and said, I love Francis. I love my friend in prison, and I love Francis, though, you now, my love for Francis is non-sexual, and maybe that means I love him even more than my friend in prison.”



Francis had never attacked me, but one evening, when he and John and Stephen were having dinner at Nikos’s and my flat, I felt he objected to everything I said and was about to attack me. This made me say some stupid things. John seemed completely unaware that Francis was aggressive toward me, and, was, himself, loving, in the gentle way he had. Perhaps it was only because of John that Francis didn’t let got at me.

Instead, Francis got angry at Nikos, when Nikos said he was against experiments on animals. Francis, who obviously thought this sentimental, said, Of course they’re going to experiment on animals. Of course.”  It’s just as horrible as if they were experimenting on babies,” Nikos said. Francis answered, Well, yes, of course it is, and of course there’s no reason why they shouldn’t experiment on babies instead of animals, but they won’t.”




A month or so later, Francis invited Nikos and me, this time without Stephen, to a restaurant. We waited an hour for him and he didn’t appear. I wondered if that was a signal from him that our friendship was suddenly over.

But in 1985 we received invitations to the opening of the grand retrospective of Francis’s work at the Tate Gallery. There were long tables covered with white cloths, and waiters standing behind the tables serving champagne, and cooks serving from whole salmons. Going from room to room to look at the paintings, I as taken especially by the strange work done in the seventies and early eighties of sand dunes and jets of water in empty rooms, which were, I told myself, the least illustrational of his paintings. Returning to where the party was cantered, I saw John. He was as excited as if the party were being given for him. He was wearing a beautiful suit. He told me he was very angry. One of Francis’s old cronies from the Colony Room had, on this most important occasion, asked Francis for fifty pounds. John had insisted Francis not give the money. John said to me, I was having a nice time until that happened. Francis has given him hundreds of pounds, more than hundreds, and he never pays it back. If you borrow, you pay back. Fuck it.”

Francis’s friend Dickie Chopping came up to us and said, Francis is going around to look at his pictures. Why don’t you join us?” We followed Francis from picture to pictureStudy for Portrait of Van Gogh II,” Lying Figure with Hypodermic Syringe,” Crucifixion 1965”and, standing for a moment before each one, he would laugh and say, Isn’t it loathsome? I loathe it. I really loathe it.”

He was very gracious to everyone.

I left the group to look at the paintings again, by myself, wondering what Francis meant when he said he loathed them. I stopped before the great Triptych May-June 1973, the one depicting the death of George Dyer in the hotel in Paris. In the left-hand panel, George is doubled up on the toilet; in the right one, he is vomiting into a washbasin; and in the central one he is half dissolved in blackness that pours out through an open doorway. The triptych was, from a certain point of view, as graphic an illustration as anyone might have wanted of a vision of an age of horror which Francis denied his work was about. I could understand someone wondering if it mattered which people Francis painted, as his vision so overwhelmed the face that the face belonged more to Francis’s vision than to the sitter, though the sitters were, as far as I knew, always close friend. Perhaps instinct” had become for Francis another form of illustration. But, then, as I studied the triptych of George, what struck me, and what I would never have thought of, because such an idea would have seemed as irrelevant to Francis’s works as to, say Henry Moore’s, was how deeply, how essentially, how personally, how heartbreakingly this triptych had to do with Francis himself, Francis reacting to the death of someone he loved.

And to go from this triptych to the 1973 Self Portrait”which has Francis almost hugging the kind of washbasin over which George, vomiting, died, and one of Francis’s hands reaching into the basin and the other hand placed on his head, and the feature of his face contorted in griefwas a shock. I realized for the first time that what Francis put into his paintings at their bestand the triptych was, I knew, a masterpiecewas, as the most brutal fact,  simply himself. And to go from the portraits of George, with whom he had a tortured sexual relationship, to thee almost sentimental portraits of John, with whom, as David Sylvester has said, he had a strange but calm father-son relationship, was to see just how deeply personal Francis was in his work.

No doubt I am now, after his death, interpolating somewhat this reaction to his paintings of George and John back into a time when Francis was very much alive. But I know I did have the reaction I described while I stood before the paintings. This, however, became flat and faded out when I returned to Francis, and I realized that it was he himself who made it impossible for me to see his paintings in the personal way I now see them, as if Id felt that Francis would have loathed, and just by his overwhelming presence have stopped, my seeing in them his own, exposed heart.

Francis’s death did not, for me, depersonalize his work but made it more personal. And this, I think, is happening for others who knew him only in his work. Linda Nochlin has told me that one of the most interesting reactions to the Bacon retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1990 was among the younger, postmodernist critics: they were drawn to the paintings not in spite of their being confessional but because but because they were confessional because of what the work aid about sex and history and belief from Bacon’s particular point of view. However good or bad the biographies written by Daniel Farson and Andrew Sinclair, they both sent me back to the paintings, to look at them withwhat can I say?tenderness.




When, after the show, Francis invited Nikos and me to dinner at the White Tower, a Greek restaurant, I wondered if he’d show up, and was reluctant to go. But he did come, with John. He didn’t drink muchone glass of wine, which he didn’t finishand was sober when he condemned painters he knew, calling the painters, all men, she”. John’s reaction was simply to smile a little, completely without irony, and change the subject, as if he didn’t understand and weren’t interested in what Francis was condemning. But then Francis, Nikos, and I got onto those big subjects that Francis seemed to love to talk about. We talked about what he called the great sea” that is in everyone and that most people are unaware of. When I asked him if he believed there was any way one could make oneself aware of it, his eyes went out of focus, and Nikos said quickly, I think Francis would say being aware of it is a matter of luck,” and Francis said, Yes, luck.” John sat back and patiently let us talk. I realized I would never have a friendship with Francis that would go deeper than such rather depersonalized talk.

After a pause in our conversation, John told us he had a new house, a big house in the country, with outbuildings and two acres of farmland, where he now lived with his boyfriend. They’d been together, John said, for fourteen years, and they had made love every day, sometimes twice a day, except when his friend was in prison. I’m real horny,” John said. He said he’d decided to live in the country because if they continued to live in London they’d end up killing themselves with drink or get some terrible sexually transmitted disease. About the house, he said, Of course, Francis helped me.” Then he said he had had one of the outbuildings done up into a cottage for Francis to stay in when he visited. Francis raised his shoulders and let them drop and laughed and said, I loathe the country.” John said, The cottage has got a nice view.” I loathe views,” Francis said. They both laughed, John very amused by Francis. Before we separated, John invited Nikos and me to his house in the country for Easter Sunday lunch.




The house was in Suffolk. It was a brick house, and its outbuildings were behind a brick wall, in very flat green countryside over which the wind blew hard. There were about twenty cars parked in a field outside the brick wall. Within the gate we saw no one, and the place looked deserted It was only when we approached the house that I saw, through a window, Francis smiling at a table, talking to someone and smiling.

About sixty people were in the house, most of them John’s family and friends from the East End, and some of them queens. I met Johns mother and father, a retired publican, and the rest of the family. They were all friendly and talkative, and called me Dave. Whenever you want to come to my house in Portugal, Dave, you let me know,” one of John’s brothers said. I said I’d like that.

I wandered about the house, which was furnished with oversized Victorian-Italian-Renaissance pieces. The mantels of the fireplaces in the downstairs pubic rooms were elaborate. On the walls were many framed reproductions of  Francis’s paintings, among them paintings of John. In one room, Johns boyfriend, sunk in an armchair he seemed never to get out of, was smoking pot.

In yet another room, I found Nikos listening to Ian, the man who ran the Colony Room, shouting at Denis Wirth-Miller, You’re a fake. A total fake. You’re a terrible painter. The only person who would ever buy one of your paintings is the Queen Mother.” Denis, who, at around seventy, looked like a withered boy, just smiled. His friend Dickie Chopping was standing in the room, too, but turned away. I stood by Nikos and listened. And Ian continued to shout at Denis, Francis, wavering as he walked, his lips pressed together and his eyes staring, came into the room, and he, too, stood and listened, with his head lowered, looking like a priest listening to a confession. When Ian paused he raised his head and said calmly, It’s absolutely true, Denis is a fake. That’s what he is, a genuine fake.” Denis went on smiling, his teeth showing. I left.

I went to look at the outbuildings, one of them the cottage done up for Francis. The interior of another, long outbuilding had been converted into a snooker room with a huge snooker table and a fringed, green lamp hanging low over it. At one end of the room were floor-to-ceiling mirrors and a bar, and over a beam of what must have once been a barn roof dangled a pair of boxing gloves. Some men were playing snooker.

Going back to the main house to find Nikos, I met him coming out. He said, You shouldn’t have left. In a strange way, those men were showing affection for one another.”

By the time we got back to the snooker room, Francis was there. He came to me, when Nikos left to watch the snooker players, as if he had had, for a long while, something he wanted to tell me, and he’d decided to tell me now. I thought I saw anger in his eyes. I was standing against a wall, and he was in front of me, leaning toward me. Then the door opened and in came a group of East End friends of John’s, and Francis jerked around to look at them and said, I loathe parties. I simply loathe them.” John was there, among his friends, and came to us. Francis, holding out both his hands to him, said, with a wide smile, What a lovely party, John. Such a lovely party.” Eventually Mikos and I had to leave. When we said goodbye to John and Francis, Francis said he’d walk us out to the car. Outside the brick wall, in a field, we stood in the wind talking about John.

Nikos said, He’s very special.”

He’s very special,” Francis said.

He is,” I said.

He can’t read or write,” Francis said, but, you know, there really is something very special about him. You see, John is an innocent.”

At the car, Nikos and I turned back to wave to Francis, still standing in the field. He was wearing a suit and tie. His thin dyed hair was blown by the wind. He smiled and waved. The green field behind him was flat and gave way to equally flat green-gray countryside.






                                                                          Bacon (right) with is lover George Dyer in 1965.


        When Dyer died, Bacon insisted that he had committed suicide and that this was the greatest tragedy in his life.







Review: Francis Bacon. Venice












Francis Bacon’s death in 1992 has provoked a number of publications and exhibitions of varying merit. The most impressive was David Sylvester’s exhibition at the Musco Correr in Venice (closed 10th October), mounted as part of this year’s Biennale. It was small but choice, and Sylvester, with his characteristically spare hanging  one work per wall  amply demonstrated that Bacon is an artist of classical roots, his triptychs the equal of any renaissance altar-piece in terms of their poise and equilibrium, their remoteness and elevation, their scale and their finish and not least there thematic grandeur.

The exhibition opened back to front with three triptychs of the late years vying for attention with a black and white marble floor, an ornately carved frieze and a cluster of chandeliers. If there was a weak point in the exhibition it was this opening sequence. The richness of Bacon’s paintings and frames appeared excessive in this opulent but colourless setting, and problems of reflection in the glass, evident throughout the show, here proved insurmountable. These late triptychs are eloquent statements of Bacon’s continuing energy in later life, but they appear rather rhetorical alongside the triptychs of the early 70s. The primal energy and rawness of the earlier works has been replaced by a certain ironic distance, a cleanliness and a clinicalness which diffuse their impact. They are grandes machines.

From this hall, with its embarrassing richesse, the visitor mounted to the upper floor where the rest of the exhibition was housed. Resisting the temptation to include more than one papal scream, Sylvester hung the first room with works of a domestic scale, mostly in black or grisaille and depicting heads or fragments of them, which showed clear debts to Picasso, particularly to the screaming and weeping figures of the Guernica period. (Bacon’s debt to Picasso was tellingly communicated by Herbert Read as early as 1933 in Art Now when he reproduced Bacon’s Crucifixion of 1933, alongside Picasso’s Bathers of 1929). A number of these paintings also showed an affinity with artists such as Jean Fautrier, as David Mellor points out in his excellent essay in the confusingly designed catalogue, and even to Jean Dubuffet. Fautrier’s Large tragic head, its features obliterated to express pain and despair, and Dubuffet’s strident portraits of friends and women of the late 40s and early 50s convey alternative expressions of anguish and horror, while in America Willem de Kooning’s series of women evoke a similar sense of violence and violation. Such community of themes in the post-war period merits further investigation for, as Mellor points out, Bacon’s reputation as a unique artist of singular vision, without influences or peers, can no longer be maintained. Far from his reputation suffering at the hands of historians such as Mellor, who have begun to look into the influences on Bacon’s work, it will be enhanced by our understanding of how he was able to appropriate, assimilate and transform the images of other twentieth-century artists to achieve his own powerful ends.

Among the artists whom Mellor discusses as having had a bearing on Bacon’s work are Hogarth, G.F. Watts, W.R. Sickert, James Pryde, Roy de Maistre, Graham Sutherland and Naum Gabo. Velázquez is, of course, another, but one artist appears to be especially pertinent to an understanding of Bacon and that is Ingres. This is particularly evident in Bacon’s use of compressed and confined spaces  one thinks for example of the 1863 portrait of Mme Moitessier with its fattening mirror; his taste for luxuriant colour  paralleled in, for example, Odalisque and slave or even the earlier portrait of Mme Moitesserie with its rich, red background;  his love of contoured postures and distorted anatomies  of which Ingres’s Turkish bath is a paradigm; his evident enjoyment in painting flesh; his emphasis on simple, unitary compositions  here one might recall the three paintings of the Riviere family and compare them with, say, Triptych August 1972; and finally, but not least important, his desire to paint subjects relating to the Classics. Ingres’s Oedipus and the Sphinx, to which Bacon paid homage in his own painting of 1983 (not in the exhibition), must surely have made an  impact on Bacon at an earlier period, not only for its conjunction of a nude with a being half-human half-beast, but for the seemingly distanced and dispassionate atmosphere evoked by the painting. What comes across clearly in this exhibition is that however 'hot' the subject of a painting by Bacon, and however expressive the paint surface, his pared down environments and his insistence on hiding the canvas behind a sheet of glass reduces the temperature, smoothes out the impasto and distances the viewer from an active participation in the events before him. Thus the death of George Dyer is perceived as no more horrific than a portrait, and although a sense of grief is evoked it is without sentiment. Through the simplicity of his compositions, the concentration of forms, the sometimes restricted range of tones and the physical barrier of the glass, Bacon prohibits the viewer from entering the drama and renders the action remote and enobled. Horror and violence are  are aggrandised and exalted to an heroic level, beyond the worldly, in the manner of a history painting, and although Bacon’s violence has been much commented on, it is, however, mitigated by the sensuousness of the paint handling, the contrast between between thick impasto, suggesting viscera, and smooth sweeping brushstrokes of thinned paint, representing a fleshy perfection. The poses of some of Bacon’s protagonists  for example the reclining nude in the centre panel of Three Studies for a Crucifixion (1962) recall Ingres’s odalisques while others others suggest variations on academic nudes, although rudely exposed, can be as seductive as many a nineteenth-century painting. Bacon is a painter of the grand manner.

Throughout the exhibition, less obvious affinities with a number of twentieth-century artists came to mind. The solitary nature of many of Bacon’s figures recalls the isolation of Edward Hopper’s characters; the background of the left and right panels of Triptych 1974 called to mind the Ocean Park paintings of Richard Diebenkorn, while the right panel of Three studies of a crucifixion (1962) suggested a possible link to Marcel Duchamp’s Nude descending a staircase and related paintings. The curious combination of David Hockney, Paul Nash and Giorgio de Chirico was summoned up by Sand dune (1981) and Jet of water (1988; Fig.56) in the last room, while Mark Rothko was invoked  not only by the nineteenth-century sense of elevated heroism found in many of Bacon’s works but also by the use of sombre colours of extraordinary depth in paintings such as  Triptych May June 1973 and even Second version of Triptych 1944 (1988). It is no coincidence that both Bacon and Rothko painted 'mythological' images during the Second World War. While Bacon continued to develop a figurative idiom, Rothko pursued 'tragic and timeless' subject matter in an abstract manner. Essentially, however, they were both painters of the human condition.

In general the exhibition was hung chronologically, the occasional painting  surfacing out of order sometimes to telling effect, as with the Portrait of Michel Leiris (1976; Fig.57) juxtaposed with two two versions of Study for portrait (1955) and Three studies of the human head (1953), where the portrait of Leiris acts as a marker for Bacon’s later development and refinement and, rather extraordinary, evokes the special contortions and volumes of some of the sculptures of Naum Gabo. Indeed the excavation of the body and and the sculptural rendering of its interior in, for example, the middle panel of the Triptych inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus (1981), suggests that Gabo may have been more than passing interest. Considering Bacon’s interest in modernist design in the 30s this may not be altogether surprising. While Picasso is often cited as the origin of  Bacon’s contorted faces, Gabo’s interest in space needs to be taken into account. There is a great deal of work to be done on the overlap between the figurative work of Bacon and contemporary abstract painting and sculpture.

A less successful chronological interruption was the inclusion of Figure in a landscape (1945) among paintings from the  fifties. Although its surface texture has some similarities to works of this decade its subject is more diffuse and its tone considerably brighter. Sylvester indicates in the catalogue that the source for this picture was a snapshot of Bacon’s lover, Eric Hall, dozing on a chair in Hyde Park, but the conjunction of an arm with what appears to be a chair back or railing, the dark area immediately beside the figure - not to mention the machine gun (for which, possibly substitute umbrella)  suggests Manet’s Balcony as a further source.

The hanging of this exhibition allowed for concentration on individual works and close comparisons between no more than three works at a time. In his division of the long gallery into chapels, Sylvester recreated the sense of containment found within Bacon’s painting, allowing for an intensification of experience. The concision of the show unequivocally demonstrated Bacon’s status as one of the great British artists of this century, an artist capable of working grand themes on a grand scale. A  larger show might have dissipated this impression for it cannot be denied that Bacon’s work is uneven in quality. A glance at the catalogue for the exhibition held earlier this year at Lugano proves the point. Bacon found a successful formula but he was at his greatest when he rose above the formulaic.

Bacon’s first major exposure outside Britain was at the 1954 Venice Biennale when he shared the British Pavilion with Ben Nicholson and Lucian Freud. Nicholson was granted senior status and given the greatest number of rooms, but Bacon was allocated the large first room, much to Nicholson’s annoyance, because the British Council felt that Bacon’s work, seen first, would make a greater impact. Although neither Bacon nor Freud had the success of Nicholson that year, in 1993 Bacon has stolen the show.






Three rashers of Bacon and a Freud egg












Usually, when an artist dies his reputation and his prices plummet. This is not  the case with Francis Bacon, who is regarded with increasing awe, partly due to the brilliant staging of the important exhibition in Venice by David Sylvester, and also through the skilful promotion of the Marlborough Gallery. We are used to Bacon on a grand scale, but this reveals him as the master of the smaller canvas which requires a fiercer concentration.

Entering the gallery, I had the uncanny though pleasant sensation of joining a party filled with friends, most of whom are dead. The first head made me start, for it was instantly recognisable as Peter Lacy, a former Battle of Britain pilot who ended up playing the piano in Dean's Bar in Tangier and died on the night of Bacon’s first exhibition at The Tate, as if the Fates were punishing the artist for his triumph.

Then there is Muriel Belcher, who ran the Colony Room Club, birthplace of the so-called School of London, though the Colony Room Mob would be more apt; George Dyer, Bacon’s companion, who committed suicide on the eve of the historic exhibition in Paris; and Henrietta Moraes, who is still alive and kicking.

Cunningly, the Marlborough includes a display case of photographs by John Deakin, whom Bacon commissioned, with the explanation that he was unable to work from live models because most people were shocked by the results.

Moraes remembers how Deakin posed her nude in such erotic positions that she was surprised, though agreeable if that was what Bacon wanted. ‘Throw yourself back and abandon yourself,’ Deakin told her. But when Bacon saw the results, he said they were useless and told Deakin to start again. A few days later, in a seedy afternoon drinking club, Moraes was aghast to find Deakin flogging the first erotic prints to sailors for ten shillings each. ‘I was really furious. Then I thought it so funny. But, I ask you, only ten bob!’ Though Deakin’s photographs are considerable in their own right, and extremely moving in their tattered condition, Bacon used them merely as a ‘kick- start’ for his memory, which was phenomenal even when hung over.

The main sitter in this powerful show — which is attracting many young people, despite the fact that students are alleged to find Bacon old-fashioned — is Lucian Freud. Freud was once Bacon’s closest friend and before they fell out, Bacon painted 25 portraits of Freud, who returned the compliment with a small masterpiece on copper which was stolen in Berlin a few years ago and never recovered.

I mention Freud in order to urge you to visit his exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery before it closes this evening and moves on to New York. It is the upstairs room which is so shattering that people leave in a happy state of shock: the fine portrait of his mother — even Freud shows a twinge of tenderness here  and the larger-than-life bulk of the egg-shaped performance artist Leigh Bowery, whose naked backside seems to edge out of the frame. This is Freud’s fulfilment at the age of 70, painting with a new audacity as if he is fighting against time. 

Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud; what of the third musketeer and former friend, Graham Sutherland? Once he was considered the finest painter of them all, but when he died Lord Goodman had the foresight to sense that the painter’s market value would collapse and urged his widow, Kathy, to sell all she had immediately.

 Grief-stricken, she was glad to do so, and was able to spend the rest of her life in the luxury of the Connaught Hotel, from where she sent me a heartbreaking postcard: All was only possible with G S, and I did have a good innings, but sick of everything now and don’t care if I live or die.


What went wrong for an artist whose brilliant etchings in the tradition of Samuel Palmer were so admired; whose Pembrokeshire landscapes haunt the memory; and whose portraits of Somerset Maugham and the vandalised Churchill portrait were known to the entire nation? 

The answer is tragically simple: he went out of fashion, eclipsed by the grandeur of Bacon, who gained the international acclaim denied to Sutherland except in Italy.

Now, Bernard Jacobson makes amends with his new show which covers the range of Sutherland’s life from the magnificent etching Pastoral, 1930, to his final oils in the late Seventies, when he returned to the Welsh landscape and found himself again.

His early work, such as Welsh Landscape, 1936, was rarely surpassed, but the exhibition’s importance is in the chance to re-assess the work in between, such as La Fontaine, 1964, and realise how good it is. Sutherland excelled in colour and shapes, and his relationship with nature was the opposite to Bacon’s, to whom the only appealing landscape was the desert. Yet I learned recently it was Bacon who talked about painting thorns and was irritated when Sutherland did so first, making tree trunks and gorse on a sea-wall his trademarks.

The two men were close, yet opposed: Bacon, an atheist and homosexual who rejected the Order of Merit which Sutherland treasured, with the excuse, ‘Such honours cordon one off, and they’re so ageing!"

The Sutherlands were two of the most charming people I have known, and I arranged a reconciliation with Bacon in Jules Bar, in Jermyn Street, for they refused to meet him on his own stamping ground of Soho. After a moment’s embarrassment, they fell on each other like dogs united with a long lost master, and when Bacon invited them to dinner at his favourite restaurant, Wheelers, Kathy looked apprehensive, but Graham did not hesitate. 

As they sat down, I sensed that Bacon’s mood had changed, and flinched when Sutherland leant forward with a smile- ‘I’ve been doing some portraits recently. I wonder what you think of them?

Very nice,’ said Bacon. If you like the covers of Time magazine.’ 

The Sutherlands got up and left, and Graham never saw the monster again, but Kathy did meet him by chance in the hall of the Connaught and whispered, G always said you were the best, or so Bacon told me. Afterwards, appalled by her betrayal, she asked to be escorted to the lift whenever she saw Bacon, in case he spoke to her. 

Was Bacon the better? Art should not be turned into a horse race, and the artists are so different that the comparison is absurd; yet it must be admitted that Sutherland painted too much, while Bacon destroyed everything that failed and limited his range to his own advantage. Conversely, Sutherland was a fine draughtsman, and Bacon could not draw at all. 

Above all, Sutherland possessed a romantic quality that Bacon and Freud could not and would not attempt. This approach remains unfashionable, but the tide may turn. This new exhibition gives him a recognition which is long overdue, with all the pictures for sale, ranging from £2,500 for a print to £200,000 for an oil, evidence that the old master is back in demand once more.


Francis Bacon, Small Portrait Studies, Marlborough Fine Art, Albemarle Street, London W1. Open Monday-Friday 10am-5.30pm, Saturday 10am-12.30pm. Until December 3. Admission free Lucian Freud, Whitechapel Art Gallery, Whitechapel High Street, London E1. Closes today, 11am-5pm. Admission £3.50.

Graham Sutherland, Bernard Jacobson Gallery, Clifford Street, London W1. Open Monday-Friday 10am-6pm, Saturday 10am-4pm. Until December 9. Admission free




                                                                                ALTERED IMAGES: Three Studies Of Henrietta Moraes, by Francis Bacon, 1969










Samuel Beckett and Francis Bacon












Bacon and Beckett, born in Ireland within three years of each other (1909 and 1906 respectively), both first lived in Paris in 1928, establishing life-long connections with the French culture and art world that have made them bilingual artists in every sense of the term. Neither of them claims affiliation with any "school," either formal or informal. They are undeniable originals who, though steeped in the artistic heritage of their past, and admired by both their contemporaries and younger artists, claim neither masters nor disciples. In spite of their willingly isolated aesthetics, however, Bacon and Beckett are very much men of their era who render vivid, accurate portraits of contemporary humanity with paintbrush and pen. They share similar attitudes towards the work of the modern artist; a common concern with attempting to render the stark reality of the human presence in a world where no transcendent values are available to endow that presence with stability, meaning, or even form; and a surprising number of analogous stylistic techniques and images.


Although beloved (if often misunderstood) by intellectuals, both Bacon and Beckett view artistic creation as primarily an irrational process, an outpouring of the artist’s emotion into paint and words. Bacon claims to rely upon chance discoveries that emerge from within him in the execution of his paintings:


I’m sure chance comes about for each person in different ways. I know in my own case, suddenly I’ll be painting something and I’ll think, 'Oh, God, this is awful,' and I just use the brush in any way, thinking about nothing, and then suddenly it may or may not reverse and an image emerges from which I can get hold.1


Similarly, in his early essay on Proust, Beckett wrote that "the work of art (...) [is] neither created nor chosen, but discovered, uncovered, excavated, pre-existing within the artist, a law of his nature."Neither artist, however, allows his faith in spontaneity of emotion and the dictation of the irrational to dominate his expression so completely that it becomes little more than a surrealistic exercise in automatism. Both mould their unorganized raw materials into carefully controlled and compelling structures.


Bacon, who regards most abstract art as mere interior decoration,3 has revived a tradition of human figuration in painting that was widely believed to have been exhausted, dead, and buried when he seriously began his career as a painter in the mid-1940s. (See fig. 1.) He rejects, however, any anecdotal, or what he calls "illustrational," aims for his painting, pointing out that the development of photography has relieved painters of their former function as reporters or recorders of external reality.4 The invention of cinema has been said to have had a similar liberating effect upon the aesthetics of theater, and Beckett is one of the few dramatists to have understood thoroughly the implications of this development and to attempt to create a totally new dramatic form freed from the constraints of traditional 'realistic,' or reportorial, representation. Both artists are 'realistic' on another level, however, in their attempts to go beyond surface appearances and traditionally accepted imagery and forms to express the essence of how it feels to be a human being in Western Europe in the twentieth century. Bacon’s close friend, Michel Leiris, defines Bacon’s realism in words that could apply equally well to Beckett’s artistic goals:


his ultimate aim seems to be to express life (the life we live and feel, the being in flux that each one of us is) and to produce work endowed with that presence which is its own peculiar life, directly perceived without any intervening haze of mental distance? an authentic realist but an enemy of the anecdotal which, even when serious, never penetrates below the surface foam of reality.5


While Beckett was well known for his refusal to comment upon his works, maintaining that they speak for themselves and that he had said in them everything that (and more than) he had to say, Bacon seems to have been a willing and tireless interviewee. Bacon’s statements about his work, however, when not limited to explanations of his methods of painting, usually consist of Beckett-like protestations that he has indeed nothing to say:


I don’t know what I mean (...) I never could explain any of my work. I leave that for others.

I can’t really talk about my painting (...) I haven’t got any morals to preach (...) I just work as closely to my nerves as I can, and as I’m bound up closely in my world today, perhaps it does reflect savage tensions and vacuous spaces.6 (...) I’ve nothing to say about 'the human situation.'7


Bacon’s and Beckett’s works are expressions of immediate perceptions, valid only in and of themselves, with no other justification than the fact of their existence, or, as Beckett once defined the only possible remaining goal for artists in our time, in words that will be familiar to most, if not all, of you: "The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express."8


The obligation to express felt by both Bacon and Beckett comes into constant conflict with the lack of certainty about what can be left to express in a world subject in every domain to Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty, or indeterminacy. In writing of Bacon’s importance as a painter, Leiris defines the "ultimate function" of art: "to save us from disaster by creating, alongside the everyday world, another realm, fashioned according to the requirements of the human spirit and in keeping with an inner order which, by its very nature, is in sharp contrast to the unbelievable muddle of the reality around us."9 In one of his rare interviews, Beckett spoke of this same tension between "the mess," or the "buzzing confusion," around us and the formal demands of art, concluding: "To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now."10


The struggle to express a nonexistent content, to create order where none is possible, leads inevitably to an acceptance of the ultimate failure of artists, of the hopelessness of their task. Bacon calls painting an activity "where you play to lose,"11 and admits that he was attracted to portraiture because of its very impossibility: "You simply can’t bring off a portrait today."12 This reasoning is very similar to Beckett’s Unnamable’s desperate compulsion to write himself, to tell himself, to name himself, which "ends" with these words: "where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on."13


Both Bacon and Beckett have chosen a remarkably similar subject matter for their 'impossible' works, as if they were convinced that none other is possible for today’s artist: that of the living reality of human beings, unadorned portraits of the human presence. More often than not, these figures are presented alone, and they are frequently situated in a room. Most of them do not seem to be undergoing any specific, identifiable crisis, yet in their stark solitude they all seem beset by what Henry Geldzahler has identified (in Bacon’s work) as "a haunting series of circumstances, dire and non-specific."14 (See fig. 2.)


These figures seem to be reaching out to us from the canvas, from the stage, from the pages of a book, for help in defining their existence, their reality, their identity, but even as they do so they, and we, are painfully aware of the inexorable effects of time upon their disintegrating bodies, of their inability to ground themselves in space in a manner that would permit them to be perceived by us, by the artist, or even by themselves. They are often located off-center on the canvas or stage, often presented as mere fragments of human bodies, often seem to be inextricably connected to the space in which they exist, and are almost always shown caught up in a movement that robs them of any clear image of themselves or of their place in the world around them. Bacon and Beckett know that it is no longer possible to reproduce the stable, rationally organized images and stories of earlier eras. As Bacon admits, "The great images of the past are precise in ways that are no longer either possible or 'actual.'"15 And Beckett, speaking of classical art, states, "This is clear. This does not allow the mystery to invade us. With classical art, all is settled (...), but for us who are neither Greek nor Jansenist there is not such clarity."16


Just as contemporary physicists admit the impossibility of simultaneously measuring both the position and the speed of a particle, Bacon and Beckett realize that in today’s world it is impossible to represent both a being’s position in space and the movement, flux, and change to which every being in space is subject. And both seem to have opted for the latter: they attempt to depict the passage of time and its effects upon beings who can never know stability or rest. But paradoxically, both Bacon and Beckett must, and do, accept the constraints of the static, fixed forms they have chosen for such expression: paint dries on canvas, words are printed once and for all on pages, and even in the theater, where mobility is somewhat more possible, Beckett developed a dramatic esthetic that relied more and more on either stationary visual images or highly controlled movement. The result of this conflict between content (the flux) and form (the fixity) is not only a great tension in the works of both men, but also a remarkably powerful rendition of the instability and even invisibility of the contemporary human being in highly visible works of art. For, as Beckett once wrote, "the object that becomes invisible before your eyes is, so to speak, the brightest and best."17


In a 1966 interview with David Sylvester, Bacon characterized the challenge of portrait painting as "the most taxing of all forms of painting" at the present time, due to the fact that "we no longer accept the unitary and unambiguous and closely structured view of human personality which portrait-painting traditionally involves (...); we see human beings as flawed, self-contradictory, subject to the fugitive and the contingent."18 In his portraits, Bacon depicts the fragmentation of human beings by isolating heads (as in the series of six heads, 1948-49), painting headless, and/or legless, torsos (e.g. "Study of the Human Body," 1982; "Study of the Human Body from a Drawing by Ingres," 1982), or simply leaving empty black spaces where one would normally expect to see painted flesh (e.g. "Triptych," August, 1972). Beckett, too, often fragments his characters. He isolates the human head, for example, in Play? where three heads protrude from urns, and in That Time? where an old white face floats above a darkened stage. Not I presents merely a faintly-lit mouth on an otherwise dark stage. Beckett buries Winnie up to her neck in Act Two of Happy Days. (The legless woman with the umbrella in the center panel of Bacon’s 1970 "Studies of the Human Body" calls to mind the image of Winnie raising her umbrella in Beckett’s play.)


Bacon portrays an accelerated time as it acts upon the human body to decompose and destroy it. His bodies are not only fragmented, but also often seem to be dissolving into powdery streaks of pigment (e.g. "Portrait of Michel Leiris," 1976; "Self-Portrait," 1973) or liquefying into pools of paint that spill out onto the canvas (e.g. "Triptych," "March," 1974; "Triptych," 1976). Sometimes they are reduced to bloody carcasses of meat (e.g. "Three Studies for a Crucifixion," 1962; "Crucifixion," 1965). As Bacon once said, "death is the shadow of life, and (...) the more one is obsessed by life, the more one is obsessed by death."19 Bacon’s figures, from the very moment of their creation, seem overcome by the inevitable process of decay inherent in life itself and, like Beckett’s characters, lack the certainty of being that would permit them to appear whole. Vladimir characterizes the predicament of life in Waiting for Godot as "Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave-digger puts on the forceps."20


While both Bacon and Beckett express doubts in their art as to the possibility of separating life from the disintegration and death attendant upon it, Bacon, unlike Beckett, views death as a finality: "Death is the only absolute that we know in this life. Death is the one absolute certainty. Artists know they can’t defeat it (...) There’s no life in death ? (...) when you’re dead, you’re dead. It’s only the consciousness of death in life, that gives it power."21 Beckett was not so sure of this finality, and would have been more likely to recast Bacon’s words as "it’s only the (possible) lack of consciousness of self in death that robs it of its appeal." As his character Victor, in his early play, Eleutheria, says: "If I were dead I would not know that I am dead. That’s the only thing I have against death. That is freedom: to see oneself dead."22


If Bacon and Beckett strip away human flesh, limbs, features, and attributes as a way of portraying the workings of death-in-life, they do so also in an attempt to pare down the human creature to its bare essentials, to try to reach the ultimate, if unattainable, core of what a human being actually is. These two goals are not as contradictory as they might at first appear. One of the great preoccupations not only of contemporary physicians, philosophers, and scientists, but also of the "person-in-the-street," is the definition of life: When is a person dead? How many, and which, of a human being’s organs and life functions can be destroyed before he or she ceases to be alive? What happens to the integrity of the individual when the body becomes the repository of blood and organs that once belonged to others? Or when one is kept alive only by machines? And, to approach the same question from the other end of the spectrum, when does life begin? With the unfertilized egg? At the moment of conception? When the fetus is viable? And what exactly does "viable" mean? Bacon’s and Beckett’s stark, fragmented, dismembered, partial portraits of an undefinable, yet unmistakably real, and present, humanity might well be read as artistic explorations of these critical, and thus far insoluble, contemporary dilemmas.





1"Remarks from an Interview with Peter Beard," ed. Henry Geldzahler, in Francis Bacon: Recent Paintings 1968-74 (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1975), pp. 16-17.


2Proust (New York: Grove, 1957), p. 64.


3. "Remarks from an Interview with Peter Beard," p. 18.


4. Michel Leiris, Francis Bacon: Full Face and in Profile, trans. John Weightman (New York: Rizzoli, 1983), p. 25.


5. Ibidem, p. 41.


6. "Remarks from an Interview with Peter Beard," p. 16.


7. As quoted in Henry Geldzahler, p. 11.


8. "Three Dialogues," in Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment (London: John Calder), 1983, p. 139.


9. Ibidem, p. 13.


10Interview by Tom Driver, "Beckett by the Madeleine," in Columbia University Forum, 4 (Summer 1961), 21, 23.


11. John Russell, Francis Bacon (New York: OUP, 1979), p. 39; this is my translation of the French "on joue perdant."


12. As quoted in Russell, p. 105.


13The Unnamable in Three Novels: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable (New York: Grove, 1965), p. 414.


14. Ibidem, p. 6.


15. As quoted in Russell, p. 23.


16. Driver, p. 23.


17. "Dream of Fair to Middling Women," in Disjecta, p. 414.


18. As quoted in Russell, p. 80; Russell is paraphrasing Bacon here.


19. As quoted in Lorenza Trucchi, "Dix paragraphes pour Francis Bacon," L’Arc, 73 (n.d.), 11, my translation.


20. Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot (New York: Grove, 1954), p. 58.


21. "Remarks from an Interview with Peter Beard," p. 15.


22. Unpublished manuscript, ca. 1947, p. 116, my translation.










Francis Bacon, His Life and Violent Times

by Andrew Sinclair (Sinclair-Stevenson, £20)








THE DUBLIN-born painter, Francis Bacon, died in 1992 after a long life during which this self-taught artist had become internationally recognized as supreme in his field. In this biography, Andrew Sinclair describes him as a lightning rod struck by two World Wars, and Bacon’s fame stems from his unique ability to capture in searing images the violence of man in the 20th century. He might well have endorsed the view of another artist, Roy de Maistre, who was his mentor and lover and who declared: “it is often necessary to give the spectator an ugly left uppercut.”

Even so, to sub-title the hook His Life and Violent Times” is less than wholly apt. For, while Sinclair is forthright about Bacon’s gay and bohemian lifestyle, there is a detailed emphasis on the painting not hinted at in the subtitle. Although Sinclair’s analysis here is sometimes repetitive, this area is, of course, vitally important in its own right.

But it also reflects Bacon’s life. For, if the paintings which first established him brought out the impact on him of 20th century history (“the age of Auschwitz with, Stalin, Hiroshima, Bangladesh as John Rothenstein defined it when acclaiming Bacon’s insights into society), his work subsequently placed emphasis on gay sex and on the men in his life, including George Dyer and John Edwards who became his modes as well as his lovers.

Since Sinclair attributes Clouzot’s film Le Mystère Rivassa to Chabrol, he is not always to be relied on. Yet ne does provide a fascinating chronicle of a remarkable life, and one which reveals the extent to which Bacon chose to exist in gay circles, be it in Fitzrovia, Soho or Tangier. Although Sinclair was for a while a neighbour of Bacon’s, the impression is of a distant view of a complex man, one as notable for his generosity as for his need to dominate. The evidence is that lie could be wonderful company, but one is not left with the feeling that he was likeable.

Given the anguish expressed in his work, the book’s tone is inevitably sombre. But that’s balanced by much amusing detail, such as the lesbian proprietor’s dosing time to the gay customers in her drinking club (Back to your lovely cottages). Even more memorable is the story of how Bacon first encountered his lover-to-be. George Dyer. The latter entered Bacon’s bedroom as a burglar and was immediately challenged by Bacon in these terms: “Take all your clothes off and get into bed with me. Then you can have all you want.” Is this story apocryphal? Who knows? Who cares?






Portrait of a Portraitist

Of a Century’s Horrors







The images created by Francis Bacon are shocking ones, visceral, contorted, often horrific: Human beings metamorphosing into demonic birds and dogs, their bodies twisted unmercifully into grimaces of pain. Shrieking popes imprisoned in golden cages, unleashing primal screams upon a world incapable of hearing. Copulating men writhing on a bed, their fat, pink limbs melting together in a desperate, meaty embrace. Ragged, butchered carcasses dangling from a ceiling, leaking blood onto a ghoulish man in a suit.

In such images can be read the horrors of our century: the devastation of two world wars, the crimes of Hitler and Stalin, the terrors of the atom bomb, the dislocations of a world shorn of its illusions. As Bacon once observed, his ambition was to paint "the History of Europe in my lifetime." "I think of myself," he said, "as a kind of pulverizing machine into which everything I look at and feel is fed."

In Francis Bacon: His Life and Violent Times, the writer and social historian Andrew Sinclair attempts both to chronicle the painter’s life and to situate his work within a historical context. Though the volume relies heavily at times on earlier books (including David Sylvester’s fascinating Interviews With Francis Bacon and John Russell’s Francis Bacon), it also draws upon the author’s own talks with the painter, and it succeeds in giving the reader a vivid sense of both Bacon’s maturation as a painter and the ways in which his work was shaped by his times.

Although Bacon was born to a wealthy Irish family — he was a collateral descendant of his namesake, the famous Elizabethan philosopher - his childhood was rootless and fearful, indelibly shaped by the Zeppelin bombings of London in World War I and the countryside atrocities of the Irish civil war. Mr. Sinclair argues that the blackouts, which shrouded daily life in ominous, murky shadows, informed Bacon’s portraits in which "distorted figures would emerge from a fearful night, as sudden and grotesque as the strangers glimpsed in the dim streets" of wartime London. Similar parallels can be drawn between the lynched bodies the young Bacon saw during the Irish rebellion and his later preoccupation with the idea of crucifixion, and the image of butchered meat.

Bacon’s willful flouting of authority  mirrored in his fierce deconstructionist portraits of popes, dictators and businessmen  also had roots in his childhood. According to Mr. Sinclair, it was a reaction to the religious authorities, both Protestant and Catholic, who seemed to have condemned Ireland to bloodshed, and to Bacon’s censorious father, who regarded him as a weak, asthmatic sissy and who banished him from the house at the age of 16.

With an allowance of £3 a week, the young Bacon began a peripatetic life in London, moving from one rented room to another, until a distant relative took him on a trip to Berlin.

There, in the waning days of the Weimar Republic, Bacon was introduced to a sexually licentious life style, and to the work of artists who would indelibly shape his own vision. From Edvard Munch and the German Expressionists, Mr. Sinclair notes, Bacon would learn about the iconography of emotional violence; from Otto Dix, Christian Schad and other practitioners of New Objectivity, he would learn the value of precision and detachment.

Paris, the next stop on Bacon’s youthful odyssey, provided another set of influences: Picasso and his Cubist reassemblings of the human body, and the Surrealists, with their emphasis on instinct and the unconscious. It was also in Paris that Bacon came to appreciate the cinematic genius of Eisenstein and Bunuel, and to value the art of photography (he would base many of his later paintings on Eadweard Muybridge’s action shots of animals and people in motion).

Although Bacon began painting in London in the early 1930’s under the mentorship of Roy de Maistre, who was also his lover, he did not come into his own until the death of his father in 1940. Liberated from the inhibiting memory of his harsh, judgmental progenitor and galvanized by the bloody events of World War II, Bacon embarked on the ferocious paintings — including Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a CrucifixionPainting 1946 and a series of frightening Heads — that would begin to earn him a reputation as one of Britain’s foremost painters.

Throughout this book, Mr. Sinclair doggedly traces the autobiographical impulse in Bacon’s work. He does a nimble job of explicating the many influences on his work, from Goya and Velazquez to Aeschylus and T. S. Eliot, and he also provides an ample supply of colourful anecdotes illustrating the painter’s raucous, bohemian life. We are told about Bacon’s taste for raffish, lower-class lovers, his penchant for gambling and his almost complete disregard for money.

Along the way, a lot of adjectives are offered up to describe Bacon: generous, chameleon-like, waspish, passionate and reckless. We’re also told that he was a dandy, an existentialist and a nihilist. None of these words, however, really conjures up a full picture of the man; as far as this volume is concerned, Bacon, who died in 1992 at the age of 82, remains a slippery, mercurial figure, eluding capture in the biographer’s cage. It is in evoking Bacon’s tumultuous times and tracing the conjunctions between the painter’s work and world that Mr. Sinclair is most convincing. Indeed, he makes a powerful case in these pages for regarding Bacon as a representative artist of the violent and disordered modern age.

Francis Bacon His Life and Violent Times by Andrew Sinclair. Illustrated. 354 pages. Crown Publishers. 







Grocer’s daughter on side of Bacon







ONE of the most controversial attacks attributed to Lady Thatcher may never have been made by the then Prime Minister. It now transpires that her supposed denunciation of Francis Bacon was probably invented by the painter to gain notoriety. Her apparent disdain for modern art excited a terrible rumpus, and Mrs Thatcher was branded as a Philistine thereafter.

Visiting the Tate in the early 1980s she is said to have asked the directors who they considered our greatest living artist. In line with received opinion, they said Bacon. Mrs T is supposed to have retorted: Not that dreadful man who paints those horrible pictures.

The reputed remark, recorded for the first time in a 1985 Spectator article by art critic Daniel Farson, was never corroborated. Farson only heard the remark from Bacon himself, so decided to check it for next month's publication of the paperback of his life of Bacon, The Gilded Gutter. He saw the former PM at this summer’s Spectator party so, feeling bold, introduced himself and cross-examined her. I have absolutely no recollection whatsoever of ever making such a remark,

Lady T told him. I am a great admirer of his work, but as with any artist there will always be some works which are preferable to others. Lady Thatcher proceeded to treat Farson to a dissertation on modern art: When they showed it to me, I couldn’t see anything in it at all. The next time, I began to understand. Farson says her approach to appreciating art appeared to be: See, see, see. Learn, learn, learn.

Some, though, suggest that Lady T is being revisionist. Sir Alan Bowness, Tate director at the time, admits he does not recall the Bacon attack, but says: It has a ring of truth. I wouldn’t be surprised if she had said something similar.
















     At the time of his death in April 1992, Francis Bacon was widely considered the greatest British painter of the century. He was a grand master in the style of Rembrandt and Velazquez, with a style and subject matter entirely his own. He declared that he painted for himself and that it was the act of painting, not what happened to the canvases thereafter, that drove him on. What happened to many canvases was that they were sold for large amounts of money, but Bacon (who had known real poverty in his time) remained uncorrupted by wealth, for he was one of the last Bohemians.

     A familiar figure in the pubs, drinking clubs and restaurants of London’s Soho and Fitzrovia, he was an importunate host who almost always insisted upon paying for everyone, peeling off banknotes from the fat rolls of them he customarily carried in his pockets. He drank vast amounts of champagne and was a profligate gambler. Flamboyantly homosexual, with a taste for rough trade, he would tell people that his lover and model George Dyer had entered his life through a bedroom window, intent upon burglary.

     In spite of the appalling images he produced in his paintings — figures, often mutilated, eviscerated or deformed, portrayed in bleak, mute isolation, or raging against the world and what it had done to them — Bacon proclaimed that he was an "optimist." At one moment he would say that he was painting "the history of Europe in my lifetime," at another furiously deny that his work was in any way illustrational. Any biography of Bacon needs to explore these contradictions and the apparent gulf between the man who was such amusing company and the artist who produced the bleakest and most disturbing paintings of our age.

        Novelist and social historian Andrew Sinclair, as he freely admits, is no art critic; neither, unfortunately, is he much of a biographer. He defines his job as "to explain the interaction between an individual and his times," but all too often he is so busy colouring in the background that Bacon simply disappears from view. Much of the social history he provides is irrelevant and seems little more than padding: the overall impression left by this book is of someone diligently leafing through files of newspaper clippings and the indexes of biographies of the period in search of Bacon, Francis. In spite of such endeavours, Sinclair’s actual quarry seems to elude him, except in the brief Endpiece, which provides a summary more succinct and valuable than anything that has gone before.

     Bacon had said that he did not want a biography written about him while he was still alive. Consequently, as soon as he died, the race was on, with several writers, who had been circling impatiently at the starting line, galloping off into the distance. In England, Sinclair passed the finishing post almost neck and neck with Daniel Farson, whose The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, an unashamedly personal memoir, provides an altogether livelier and more evocative account of its subject.

     Sinclair’s biography shows every sign of haste, both in the writing and editing, with the frequent repetition of information and numerous inelegancies of style. For example, of Bacon’s famous Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, first exhibited in April 1945, Sinclair writes: "It seemed to howl against the massacre of the twenty million dead and more in the conflict, just as the nation was about to celebrate a victory that seemed to be justice." Strenuous attempts at fine writing frequently go awry, as in the nonsensical assertion that: "There was more wit on one hair of Bacon’s paintbrush than in all the saliva on {Brian} Howard’s loose tongue." Occasionally one realizes that Sinclair cannot really mean what he has written. "So radical, disruptive, seminal and real were Bacon’s paintings," he states at one point, "that he would achieve what the Auden Communist group of the ’thirties dreamed of: an exhibition of pictures in Moscow, seen there as revolutionary protests against religious authority and the destruction of humankind." Just what sort of pictures Auden and his friends dreamed of exhibiting in Moscow is not explained: their own?

Many chapters bear portentous or simply meaningless titles. Chapter 8, The Blood of an Englishman, is prefaced by a quote from King Lear and opens: "Like the wise Edgar pretending to play the Fool — Fie, Foh, and Fum — Bacon was to smell the blood of two of his beloved British men within ten years of their deaths." Is Sinclair suggesting that Edgar prophecies the deaths of his father and Lear — the words he uses, after all, are those of a ravening, cannibalistic giant — and, if so, how does this relate to Bacon? If Sinclair means that Bacon in some way predicted the deaths of Dyer and his predecessor Peter Lacy, he does not say so. If he does not mean this, then what is the burden of this sentence? As with rather too much of his overwritten book, the answer would appear to be: sound and fury, signifying nothing.






His Life and Violent Times





354 PP, 62 ILLUS. ISBN 1-856 19310-1





In Conversation




PHAIDON £9.95 

192 PP, 33 ILLUS. IS6N 0-7148-2983-8





FRANCIS BACON did not want his life to be explored biographically, and although he opened himself up to numerous interviewers, he never gave anyone the kind of coherent account of his span — especially his early years — that would allow a biographer to fashion a fully-rounded portrait of him. Nor was his mature life that remarkable, for a dully repetitive round of boozing and failed relationships does not make for particularly interesting reading, and it points up once again the discrepancy between art and life, the fact that, say, a great painter can fashion masterpieces while enjoying (or suffering) a rather dreary and uninspiring existence.


Sadly, Andrew Sinclair’s book is a very ignorant, silly and badly-written affair. Because of the paucity of factual information the first third of the biography is almost entirely given over to contextual Polyfilla, and when the author does have more facts to deal with he marshals them with little sense of coherence or artistic insight; on more than one occasion he reminds us that he is a writer and not a painter, but this should not have prevented him from exercising some basic art-historical skills. As a result, the grasp of Bacon’s artistic context is amateurish, the projection of the painter’s creative growth is non-existent — Sinclair seems unable to apprehend the various stylistic phases in Bacon’s work — and too often his gushing over the artist’s supposed historical status works against his need to argue for that position, and thus convince us of it. So we still await an adequate Bacon biography, although this book points up the enormous fact-gathering pitfalls that await anyone who bravely tackles that task.


Michel Archimbaud’s transcription of various conversations with Bacon usefully and intelligently complements David Sylvester’s earlier series of interviews with the painter; as such it is self-recommending.







Fancy a nice slice of Bacon?










FRANCIS Bacon’s portrait of Vincent Van Gogh, one of my great heroes,” goes on special showing this weekend at Southport’s Atkinson Gallery, where is can be seen until March 19.


Bacon (above), who died of a heart attack in 1992, was widely acknowledged as the greatest British artist of the century.


* Meanwhile, good news for the Atkinson, which has now been registered as a gallery of national standing.











Raw slice of artist Bacon’s life





FRANCIS Bacon, the Dublin-born artist of genius, died in Madrid in April, 1992, and almost exactly a year later came a biography which aroused much controversy, mainly because it was written by one of his close friends.

Not that friendship, as such, ever rated very high on Bacon’s list of priorities. “I’ve always thought of friendship as where two people tear each other apart  that way you learn something from each other, he once wrote.

The book, The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, by Daniel Farson, is now out in paperback (Vintage £6.99). While not pretending to be the definitive “life”, it nevertheless makes for compulsive reading. It was back in 1951 when a 23-year-old Farson first met Bacon in Soho. The artist was by then in his late 40s  but it was the beginning of a long-running friendship.

Bacon’s early life in Co Kildare, where his father owned a stud farm, is sketched in detail. After London he drifted to Berlin, indulging in a sexual freedom which fortified his instinct to flout convention of practically any hue.

Farson’s incidental and anecdotal style makes the book more of a personal memoir than an autobiography in the strict sense of the term. But it is also an approach which makes for high readability. The author suggests that Bacon’s unabashed homosexuality was a crucible in his artistic make-up. If he’s been straight, he would not have been so daring, commented one of his friends.

Yet Bacon’s savage sense of nihilism was at times almost frightening I have never had any love in the whole of my life, and what’s more I don’t want any. Al I do is cast my rod in the sewers of despair and see what I come up with, he once wrote.

Tragedy and a sense of indulgent despair haunted much of Bacon’s life, as well as his work, and to the end he indulged what might be termed low life to a near manic degree. Former British Arts Minister David Mellor provided one of the best reviews of a book which describes the life and turbulent times of a man widely regarded as one of the century’s greatest artists.

He wrote: This book will shock some people a lot and almost everybody a bit. It deals, I suspect, with people and events far removed from the common experience of most of those who will read it  a fact that few, as they will stagger through all the drink, all the gay sex, and some of the bloody and violent deaths, will regret.





                       Francis Bacon  never thought highly of friendship





Artists of despair



The smell of death’ has dominated the creative outlook of our tormented age





Why is The Scream so powerful an image? It has a prophetic quality; with the embryonic figure and the red sky. Edvard Munch foresaw the horror of the 20th century. He painted several versions of the picture; the version stolen from the National Art Museum in Oslo last Saturday was painted in 1893. Munch said of it “I sensed a scream passing through nature. A hundred years later, it is natural to read into Munchs work a prophecy of the wars, famines, revolutions, genocides and nuclear weapons, which have made our century a hell on earth for billions of people.

This sense of horror runs through 20th-century culture. The most powerful of British painters of the century has probably been Francis Bacon. In 1985, Global Asset Management sponsored the great retrospective exhibition of his work at the Tate Gallery. Our family copy of the catalogue is inscribed, in a way that may intrigue future bibliophiles, “For Annundata, with love Francis Bacon”. Our youngest daughter, Annundata, was six years old at the time. It is remarkable how often the image of a scream appears in Bacons work, going back to some of his earliest major paintings.

Among other instances, the scream appears in two of Bacon’s three studies of Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, of 1944, in most of the Heads, painted in 1949, in several of the Studies after Velázquezs Portrait of Pope Innocent X, which were painted in the early 1950s, and in his terrifying image of a Chimpanzee, 1955. In her introduction to the catalogue. Dawn Ades quotes Francis Bacon as saying: “Thereve been extraordinary photographs which have been done of animals just being taken up before they were slaughtered; and the smell of death. We don’t know, of course, but it appears by these photographs that they’re so aware of what is going to happen to them, they do everything to attempt to escape.

In many of Bacon’s paintings, the possibility of escape is ruled out The Pope is usually contained in a type of rectangular box reminiscent of the security glass box in which Eichmann was held during his trial in Israel although these paintings are a decade earlier than that trial. The chimpanzee is portrayed in a cage, but also in one of these defining boxes.

The awareness of the horror that is going to happen gives the work of both Edvard Munch and Francis Bacon its emotional impact.

The dominant 20th-century artist of the world was Pablo Picasso. His work from the early years of die century is characterised by melancholy but his later work is full of pain, anger and haired. If one thinks of great 19th-century paintings. the most memorable images, from Constable to the Impressionists, are of the beauty of nature; they are essentially joyful and peaceful, if one thinks of our century, or of Munchs work, which foreshadowed it, die dominant images are those of “the smell of death.

There is something terrible about all the great cultural heroes of this century. In the earlier ages of human history, most of the strongest cultural influences have been positive. They have held out hope and reinforced the idea of human virtue, at least as a potential of our nature. Of course the conquerors were different, and have always been fearsome.

Four men might be regarded as the outstanding world geniuses of our century. One can define a world genius as someone who alters the culture of the world as a whole, a philosopher like Aristotle, a poet like Shakespeare, an evangelist like St Paul, a scientist like Newton. The four strongest claimants to this rank in our century have been Lenin, Freud, Picasso and Einstein. I am not trying to play the game of making a list these four stand out because they could not possibly be a world history of our century.

The four divide naturally into groups of three and one: Lenin, Freud and Picasso display their negative qualities quite openly. Whatever their genius, they would all have been regarded by earlier centuries as dark and sinister forces; there is destruction in them. Einstein was by the same standards a man of tight, open to love and the spirit, a scientist a scholar, a man who loved peace. Yet it was Einstein and the physicists who left mankind the most dangerous potentiality of all, the nuclear power which at least theoretically permits the human race to commit suicide. Later science has developed other possible methods of species suicide.

Each of the other three left a powerful negative legacy. Lenins doctrine was that the pursuit of total political power overruled any considerations of personal morality. Admit that principle, adopt the Leninist party system, and you admit the crimes of Stalin and Mao, and also those of Hitler. Political power becomes inhuman if it is not controlled by civil and moral law. Lenin dehumanised the politics of the 20th century.

Freud dehumanised the concept of human nature. It has gradually become apparent that Freud, for all his powers as a mythmaker was a charlatan as a scientist a quack as a doctor, an ignoramus as a philosopher, a bully as a colleague—a humbug of genius, but a humbug all the same. His negative legacy was the belief that the primary driving energy of human psychology is sexual libido.

This implies that every human achievement from Moses to Mozart has been a pale diversion of energy intended for genital activity. What is interesting about this myth is not whether it is true, but how so absurd a theory came to be so widely accepted. Of course, loyal Freudians will say that the master never taught this, but when one reads his correspondence with Jung it seems clear that he did; the two men broke their association on the issue of whether all psychic energy belongs to the sexual libido. Jung thought not.

Picasso also had a negative message. Kenneth Clark once said something to the effect that Picasso was unquestionably the greatest painter of the century, but that he doubled whether enduring art could be based on hatred. This recognised that Clarks concept of civilisation — the long history’ of human beings creating beauty and order, was the polar opposite of Picasso’s destruction of the image and search for disorder. Yet Picasso, like Francis Bacon, is a mirror of our times. Disorder, fear, the smell of death have been central 20th-century experiences. One does not even have to go to artists of the modern school to find that The most enduring classical English novelist of the century may prove to be Evelyn Waugh. His horror of contemporary life is as strong as Francis Bacon’s. Their ideologies and their techniques are quite different, but their view of the world is substantially the same.

The culture in which we live is still that shaped by the early 20th century. The people who created it are dead and their message was framed a long time ago. Francis Bacons particular vision developed in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. Lenin, Freud, Picasso and Einstein had all made their most powerful original contributions before the end of-the First World War in 1918; that is now more than 75 years ago. The characteristic ideologies of our age, Marxism Leninism, Freudian psychoanalysis and modernism are dying. Even modem science, though all-powerful in creating technologies and changing lives, has no dominant genius, no Einstein, no Newton.

In the 1990s, there is indeed no world genius. There are good and serious writers, artists and composers; there are excellent scientists; there are even good politicians, although they may be hard to find; there are inspiring holy men and women, like the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa. But the voice of the world genius is not to be heard, not even that of dark genius, like those which dominated the imagination of the early 20th century. It is the twilight of the prophets.

Perhaps somewhere there is an embryonic voice which foretells the 21st century, as in the early 1890s The Scream foretold the ours. We should listen for it. An ideology which is now so old as to be virtually pre-scientific, a culture which contains so much that is dark and antihuman, and a modernism invented by our great-grandparents when they were young provide a weird backdrop for the approach of a new millennium. Perhaps the 20th century has cauterised the human imagination. As it has unfolded, our century has re-echoed Munchs “scream passing through nature and silenced many voices of peace and hope.





Unleashing a Human Cry



FRANCIS BACON: His Life and Violent Times,

By Andrew Sinclair (Crown $30; 354 pp)



By Daniel Farson (Pantheon $25; 293 pp)





After dinner in private houses, Princess Margaret likes to sing Cole Porter. As sister of the most powerful monarch in the world, she can generally hold guests captive to her lack of ability. One night, though, at a fancy ball given by Ann, Lady Rothermere (later Mrs. Ian Fleming), the princess began the familiar lyrics of "Let’s Do It," when the cheering of Queen Elizabeths subjects was drowned out by the sound of booing rumbling like thunder from the back of the ballroom. Unaccustomed to criticism, the princess abandoned the microphone, the band stopped playing, and Lady Rothermeres guests asked what happened.

 "It was that dreadful Francis Bacon," a man said to Lady Caroline Lowell. "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."

Inarguably the most original 20th-Century British artist, a creature like Francis Bacon gave a new twist to horror. His work has been equated with the pain and suffering of the 20th Century. These are paintings of writhing, corpulent wrestlers, blood-soaked Crucifixions and caged, screaming popes: "slimy, slithering, pure blind images," in the words of novelist and art historian Anita Brookner. As recently as 1989, one of the artist’s paintings brought a bid of $6.2 million dollars at Sotheby’s in New York, and they are found in great collections worldwide.

 But Bacon’s real fascination judging from two books that have appeared since he died at the age of 82 in 1992, is in the accumulation of Jacobean antics that colored the artist’s life. Bacon was openly gay — part gnome, part mischief-maker - "taking no part in society’s rituals, observing none of the canons or taboos," according to Andrew Sinclair, a British novelist and social historian, in "Francis Bacon His Life and Violent Times," the first complete biography. This has been augmented by "The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon," a thoroughly entertaining memoir by Daniel Farson, a British art critic and friend of the subject.

He was born in 1909 in Dublin to Edward Bacon, a major in the British army who was a collateral relation of the Elizabeth philosopher, his namesake, and Christine Winifred Firth, whose family owned one of the largest Georgian houses in the center of the Irish capital. Shunted between relatives during outbreaks of the Irish Civil War, an asthmatic who turned purple the first time he rode with the hunt, his disruptive upbringing consisted of private tutorials with a priest and a truncated year of boarding school. A gambler and alcoholic who unsuccessfully operated a racing stable outside of Dublin, Edward Bacon was, "a complete bastard," according to his famous son, a sissy who was encouraged by his mother to dress up in her clothes. Francis was introduced to sex by stable grooms who worked for his father. In turn, as punishment he was routinely horsewhipped by the same stable grooms in front of his father. At 16, he was finally expelled from this twisted setting when caught dressed only in his mother’s underwear, but he never forgot the pain of his childhood. "Surely there’s nothing worse," he said, according to Sinclair, "than a dusty saddle appearing in the hall."

When Bacon arrived in London in 1925, as Sullivan observed, his "violent upbringing curiously prepared him for life in the jungles of large cities." Relying on published material and one interview with the subject, Sullivan’s many observations attempt to integrate the "homosexual milieu" with the subject. Slightly more than 25 years after Oscar Wilde was convicted on charges of gross indecency, homosexuality was still a punishable criminal act in Great Britain, and open gays, by virtue of their lawlessness, often lived alongside criminals. Entering this Faustian world, the young artist supplemented an allowance of 3 pounds per week from his mother with proceeds from theft, gambling and prostitution. "One is always helped when one is young," he said airily, according to Sinclair, "I was what you call pretty. I had no trouble getting around and getting money."

In 1933, Bacon exhibited a startling painting of a bloody Crucifixion at a gallery in London. It was an immediate success, illustrated in Art Now, an influential journal. With no formal training, his art was nurtured in the great museums and galleries of Berlin and Paris on a junket to Europe with a "sporting uncle." Like many artists at this time, his first influence was Pablo Picasso, but a viewing of Nicolas Poussins "The Massacre of Innocence," led the artist to realize he too could capture "the human cry" in paint. Although his avowed influences were also Francisco Goya and Diego de Velazquez, it was the Expressionism of Edvard Munch and Vincent van Gogh that gave his early work its raw power.

Bacon’s patrons were inducted into a mysterious world of decadence. Farson knew this world as a firsthand participant, and he brings refreshing immediacy to the subject. The artist lived with his elderly nanny, an eccentric Victorian who slept on the kitchen table during the day. She startled visitors by calling out for capital punishment for the Duchess of Windsor. For the crime of stealing the King of England she wanted to see her drawn and quartered in a public gibbet in Marble Arch. At night, "Nan" doubled as a hat check girl in an illegal gambling den in the artist’s paint-spattered studio under a pair of enormous crystal chandeliers. Dressed in black leather jacket and boots, the artist appeared to his gaming guests with liquid make-up caked to his beard and Kiwi boot black in his hair, sometimes only in a set of elaborate garters supporting black fishnet stockings. "I am looking for a cruel father," he admitted matter-of-factly, according to Sinclair.

Both authors make the connection between the release of new power in his art and the death of his father in 1940. This was first seen in a 1945 exhibition at the Lefevre Gallery, of "Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion." With the horrors of Nagasaki and Dachau resting uneasily on people’s minds, according to art critic John Russell, people looking at the painting were "brought up short by images so unbelievably awful that the mind shut with a snap at the sight of them."

The Expressionism of his youth was eventually supplanted by a more sophisticated neo-mannerism during the 1950s. Using Velazquezs portraits of Pope Innocent X as a springboard, Bacon turned out exquisitely styled paintings of purple screaming popes trapped in golden cages. Though he had been taught by Catholic priests, the artist refused to have his work linked to anti-religious sentiment, and resisted other obvious interpretations. They were personal, he said, as were his images of twisted wrestlers, which it was interesting to learn came directly from a 19th-Century photograph by Eadweard Muybridge he discovered in the Victoria & Albert Museum. Of the wrestlers, Sinclair presents a flimsy argument that Bacon, "saw images of aggressive homosexuality and used them to produced paintings that mocked the moral code and subverted the criminal law of the time."

Bacon saw himself as a grand artiste, a divinely inspired purist with links to the Renaissance, reacting to forces beyond the petty concerns of day-to-day living. Trying to force him into a mold as a moral guardian for a gay movement, as Sinclair does, is irritating and wrong-headed. Far better it would seem to merely take Farsons unjudgmental position, and join in the celebration of the high-spirited mischief-maker always thumbing his nose at convention, whose searing honesty and standards of perfection were sometimes painful for the recipient to bear.

"Someone had to stop her," the artist explained candidly to Lady Lowell after he took the unheard of step of booing a member of the royal family in a private home and stopped Princess Margaret cold. "Her singing was really too awful. If you are going to do something, you shouldn’t do it as badly as that."





Bacon’s screaming pope for sale






 ONE OF the most famous works by Francis Bacon, widely considered the greatest British master since Turner, is to be sold by Christies this summer for an estimated pounds 2m. It is one of the few important Bacons likely to appear at auction. Study from Portrait of Pope Innocent X by Velazquez, his violent image of a screaming pope, was painted in 1959. It was the culmination of a series of reinterpretations of Velazquezs original, which Bacon described as 'one of the greatest paintings in the world'; it was an image that 'haunted and obsessed (him) . . . by its perfection'.

His sources also included a contemporary photograph of Pope Pius XII, a blurred photograph of a baboon, and the wounded face of the nurse from the 1925 film Battleship Potemkin. Bacon’s distorted imagery in the Popes series reflects his obsession with the pain and bleakness of existence.

Bacon, who died in 1992, was not a prolific artist, and only a handful of works come on to the market each year. He is one of the few British painters bought by international collectors. In the Fifties, his works could be acquired for just pounds 300. In 1990, a Bacon sold for pounds 3.75m in New York. He was unsentimental about his paintings and cared little about the millions they made. In 1991, Bacon told the Independent that if he could have his way, his figurative work would not have any titles. He said: 'I don’t think it’s a way into a painting.' By prefixing a description with the words 'study for', he intended to imply that the composition was not a final statement.

Christies auction takes place on 30 June.





Papal study in madness






LAST WEEK, Christie’s raised the curtain on Francis Bacon’s 1959 Study: Pope Innocent X by Velazquez, which it is asking £1.8/2-5m — and hoping to nudge the upper end of this estimate — on June 30 at a Contemporary Art sale in London.

The price may prove conservative for a number of reasons. Bacon’s Popes — screaming, grimacing, shaken with spasms, constipated, sick with death — are the image on which his highest fame is based.

Few artists now sell for what they made at the height of the boom of 1987-90; but as worldwide recession has made the art market think harder about how it spends its money. Bacon (1910-92) has emerged as a painter whose Kafkaesque distortions of the human face seem to speak more loudly about the 20th century, and its violence and nihilism, than most of his contemporaries.

Before 1987 Bacon had never achieved more than £1 m at sale. Now his record stands at over £3-75m — achieved for another Study for a Pope, 1955, at Christie’s New York in November 1989. Some contemporary artists have seen their prices fall on their death: the market tends to push up prices before the bad news, and a posthumous large-scale dispersal from the estate can drive values down. This is not the case with Bacon; he left very little, and prices for his work have been unaffected by his death.

Bacon’s Popes are based on the classic Velazquez portrait of Innocent X — the enfeebled 1644-55 Pope who was overwhelmed by Habsburgs, Jansenists, his sister-in-law and the 30 Years War, and who denounced the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, then found that nobody took any notice of him.

Four hundred years later, Innocent’s frustration, anger, impotence, snarls, rage, madness and helplessness live on. Under Bacon’s brush he sits rigid in his chair, his hands — transformed into smudgy stumps — gripping the armrests as though strapped in an electric chair. His mouth has become the most famous since Munch’s Scream, variously contorted, erotic, sad and drooping and ridden with agony and ecstasy.

This Pope, painted in blood pink and grey, sits outside the main series of 1953 and 1956. He rises from a vivid green background, rather than the inky blue ground seen in the earlier compositions. Masks are peeled off Velazquez’s portrait, one by one. What Bacon leaves for public inspection in this forceful work is the torment of a sick individual which, rightly or wrongly, is now pursued by art collectors as one of the icons of our time. 









Helen Lessore







HELEN LESSORE was a painter of quiet but lasting distinction, the central years of whose career were dominated by her direction of the Beaux Arts Gallery, in Bruton Place, which she made one of the most important London dealer’s galleries of the post-war period. She was also a notable writer; in prose of characteristic directness and clarity she identified the lasting values in art in which she believed and for which she fought, often against the tide.

She was born Helen Brook, in London, of Jewish parents, her father having settled there from Lithuania and her mother being British-born ofa German family of Spanish extraction. Assisted by art prizes won in public competitions while still at school, she entered the Slade School in 1924, where she won further awards and was com? mended by Henry Tonks, the Slade Professor. Tonks’s insistence on the visual truth of the observed world was a formative influence, while from the art historian Tancred Borenius she derived an enduring concern with the central importance of composition. Of her early experience, in the National Gallery, of the art of the Italian Renaissance she later observed that it left her feeling she had been put in touch with whatever it is that lies at the very centre of creation. The quest to discover where this quality might be found in the superficially very different art of the modern era and of her own day made her, even before her arrival at the Slade, a person of exceptional seriousness and determination, which she would always be.

In 1931 she became secretary at the Beaux Arts Gallery, which was directed by the sculptor Frederick Lessore. He was 28 years her senior and the larger of the gallery’s spaces bad originally been his studio. They married in 1934. In 1932 she had published the first of her articles on one of the gallery’s principal artists, W. R. Sickert, who was the husband of Frederick Lessore’s painter sister, Therese. From Sickert, Helen Lessore learnt to prefer the vitality of swift and direct drawing from observation over the painstaking precision Tonks had urged in preparation for painting. She shared both artists’ belief in the importance of painting the world one knows, but was concerned to fuse the insights of observation with those of the imagination, so as to produce paintings true to her emotions and embodying the recollection of more than a single moment.

Curtailed by parenthood and by the war, Helen Lessore’s work as a painter was further interrupted when, on her husband’s death in 1951, she was obliged to assume the directorship of the Beaux Arts Gallery. She could not afford the work of the established artists she admired, but realised that this gave her the opportunity of fostering new work of promise. To her artists, she was at once encouraging and critical. The gallery under her direction has been described by Philip Oakes as “one of the most individual and influential nurseries of talent in the country”. As Helen Lessore remarked, the fact that she was an artist “put me on the side of the artist, rather than of anyone else”.

The artist and critic Andrew Forge has well described the very particular atmosphere of the Beaux Arts in these years:

You came off the street up a dark staircase and straight into the upstairs gallery. It was like entering an attic. The first things you saw were floor? boards and a floor-level view of the pictures. The floor-boards creaked and the place always smelt of the paraffin stoves that were standing around....Through the top gallery you came to a balcony hanging out over the large gallery below, just as it might over the squash court which the lower space resembled. On the balcony to the right was Helen Lessore’s desk and she was almost always there, pale, beaked, a melancholy bird. To your left, a precipitous iron staircase took you down into the large gallery. A door opened straight on to the pavement of Bruton Place. Mrs Lessore’s shoes would watch you go. More than anything else it was like a studio, an atelier de peintre spruced up for visitors, and it was this ? that the gallery itself seemed nearer to the painting of pictures than to the merchandising end ? that gave it its inimitable, irreplaceable quality.

Contrary to frequent assumptions, Helen Lessore did not favour a single kind of art; her 86 principal exhibitions at the Beaux Arts even included two or three of abstract art, while on the dominant figurative side of its programme the preoccupation was not with realism-but with the artist’s concern at once with the world as personally experienced and with the material reality of the resulting image. This gave scope for a wide variety of expression.

In the 1950s, the tendency with which the press most strongly associated the gallery was that which David Sylvester christened Kitchen Sink: John Bratby, Derrick Greaves, Edward Middleditch and Jack Smith all showed there in the years before their great success at the 1956 Venice Biennale. Helen Lessore felt closest, however, to the work of a number of artists in whose paintings she identified a specially effective fusion of observation of the world in their own day with response to the central traditions of Western art. Among the artists, she celebrated when painting an imaginary retrospective view of her gallery — “Symposium I” 1974-77, which is in the Tate Gallery collection  were Aitchison, Andrews, Auerbach, Bacon, Kossoff, Raymond Mason and Uglow, to all of whom she had given exhibitions. She later described Bacon as “great among the great of all times and places”. Other artists she showed included Martin Bloch, Jeffery Camp, John Dodgson, Sheila Fell, Heinz Koppel, Evert Lundquist and Marie-Louise von Motesiczky. If the spirit of one artist other than Helen Lessore herself could be identified as continuing to preside over the Beaux Arts Gallery, it would be that of Sickert, whose work was almost always to be seen there. The gallery’s final exhibition was of John Lessore, Helen Lessore’s younger son, whom she’ted herself taught before he followed her to the Slade; one of her greatest sources of gratification was his subsequent development into one of the leading British figurative painters of his generation.

Financial considerations compelled the closure of the Beaux Arts Gallery in 1965, by which date its atmosphere and ethos were in increasingly sharp contrast to the developing London scene. The time thus gained made possible a return by Helen Lessore to more continuous painting, as did her move, shortly before the closure, to a house in Camberwell which afforded greater space, light and closeness to nature. Many of her subsequent paintings would be set in its interiors and its at times almost paradisal garden, dominated by her husband’s sculpture of Pan. Her art merged the inspiration of appearance with her vision of human relations and of the passage of time. Typically, a painting was the long-considered image of a single moment, enriched by suggestions of past and future, her pictures often resembling stages and she the detached observer. Many works depicted her extensive family and others gatherings of friends  principally artists, a group who, using the term in its widest sense, she described as “the salt of the earth, the leaven of society, the only hope for civilisation". Her achievement as a painter was recognised by a retrospective at the Fine Art Society in 1987, and by her election as a Senior RA in the same year.

In the years after she closed her gallery, Helen Lessore was disturbed by the concern in art with innovation for its own sake and by the corresponding weakening, in art education, of the belief that the route to in? dividuality of expression must lie through substantial experience of the disciplines of drawing and composition. In particular, she felt that to ignore the great tradition that lay behind them was impoverishing for visual artists. In her book A Partial Testament (1986), her passionate engagement with the greatest art of the past was combined with her teaching instinct. Though intended above all for students, the book is of relevance to all concerned with art. It distinguishes the character of the Northern and the Mediterranean strands in the Great Tradition of European Art and the vitality of the second Renaissance, which Helen Lessore saw as occurring in late-19thcentury France, above all in the art of Cézanne. Concerned to demonstrate the ways in which the central tradition can continue in the art of our own era, it examines in individual chapters the art of Giacometti, Aitchison, Andrews, Auerbach, Bacon, Balthus, Freud, Kossoff, Lundquist, Mason and Uglow. Opposing the cult of the fragment, it advocates a humanist art of formal strength, material fullness and affirmative spirit. The book ends with an appeal for “an art  a new movement  which should acknowledge the dignity, the beauty, the mystery, of ‘ordinary’ life, or ‘ordinary’ people  an art... considered and monumental, both in painting and sculpture.”

Confirming fhe instincts of a lifetime, this conclusion was composed after a ftrst,visit to Egypt made in the period, her late seventies, when she also embarked on the study of ancient Greek, with a view to understanding the classic authors in the original. At each of her different ages Helen Lessore’s appearance was ofa grave beauty. In the art community, her presence had a certain severity that was allied to her stringency of judgement, but these traits went hand in hand with a lively curiosity and no? table warmth. In her writing and her art the complementary sides of her personality are combined to lasting effect.

Richard Morphet

Helen Brook, painter, vmter, art dealer: born London 31 October 1907; Secretary, Beaux Arts Gallery, London 1931-51, Director 1951-65; OBE 1958; RA 1987; married 1934 Frederick Lessore (died 1951; two sons); died London 6 May 1994.





         ‘On the side of the artist: Lessore photographed by Snowdon at the Beaux Arts Gallery, Bruton Place, London, in 1964; she

          directed the gallery from 1951 to 1965. From Private View (1965), by Bryan Robertson, John Russell and Lord Snowdon













ALTHOUGH she returned to painting and was acknowledged by a retrospective exhibition at the Fine Art Gallery in her later years, it is perhaps for her inspired direction of the Beaux Arts Gallery for 13 years that Helen Lessore will best be remembered. Her life was as much about the work of other artists as it was about her own art, admired though that was by many. In the 1950s and early 1960s her independence, integrity and loyalty to art of quality — regardless of prevailing fashion — won for her the respect and affection of many British painters. A selection of the names who emerged from her period at the Beaux Arts: Francis Bacon, Leon Kossoff, Frank Auerbach and Craigie Aitchison suggests the catholicity of her tastes and reads like a chapter in the history of English art.

She had never intended to become a dealer and it was only on the death of her husband, Frederick Lessore, in November 1951, that she took over the proprietorship of the gallery. Lessore came from a family of artists. His father, Jules Lessore, was an accomplished watercolourist. His grandfather had been a designer at Wedgwood’s. His sister Therese, a talented painter in her own right, married Walter Sickert as his third wife. Frederick Lessore was himself a portrait sculptor before founding the Beaux Arts Gallery in an old coach-house and stables at Bruton Place, London, in 1923.

 During the late 1920s, the gallery had shown work by the 7 & 5 Society and gave John Skeaping, Barbara Hepworth, and Christopher Wood their first solo shows, but after the war it had sunk almost into obscurity. Helen Brook (as she then was), after studying at the Slade School from 1924 to 1928, became secretary at the Beaux Arts in 1931, and in 1934 married Frederick Lessore. Their two sons were born in 1937 and 1939, but Helen Lessore continued her own career as a professional painter.

She was born in Highbury, London, of Jewish parents. Her father was Lithuanian and had settled in England only a few years earlier as a refugee from the Russian pogroms. Her mother was born in England but came from mixed Spanish and German descent. Helen had decided at the age of three that she wanted to be a painter, and she was a Slade student during the rigorous regime of Henry Tonks.

Her own painting is in the figurative tradition, and she shows a typically Slade-bred concern with drawing and painterly technique, though this was balanced by what she also learnt from Sickert. There is, too, an expressionist element in some of her work which explains her sympathetic encouragement of artists such as Auerbach and Kossoff during her reign at the Beaux Arts Gallery. To both of them she gave their first exhibitions in 1956 and 1957. Others whom she showed include Francis Bacon (1953), Michael Andrews (1958), Sheila Fell (1955), Lucien Freud, Craigie Aitchison and Euan Uglow (1961) as well as three other “Kitchen Sink School” artists, Edward Middleditch, Derrick Greaves (1953) and Jack Smith,(1953). Then there were Denis Wirth-Miller, Evert Lundquist and the sculptors Ivor Roberts-Jones and Michael Werner.

Such a recital is an eloquent testimony to her eye for quality. It reflected, too, her commitment not only to what she considered the best young talents but also to those older painters who had yet to win wider recognition. That she cared passionately for art, and that the intricate scheming necessary for successful art dealing were, for her, incompatible, was a prime cause of her inability to withstand the economic pressures from wealthier galleries who lured away those same artists whom she had nurtured.

She also wanted more time to paint again. Thus in January 1965 the shutters came down, and no longer could one climb the steep narrow stairs to the big studio-like exhibition gallery, with its balcony overlooking a second, vaster barn of a room; all permeated with that unmistakable odour of turpentine mingled with the paraffin oil stoves used to heat them .

For nearly fourteen years they had been presided over by a gaunt-featured, sparely-built woman, whose air of quiet melancholy masked a character of great authority and inner strength. Her niche in the history of British painting of the 1950s and early 1960s, first as the foster-mother of the neo-realist Kitchen Sink School, then of Bomberg’s gifted pupils of the Borough Group, Auerbach and Kossoff, and a host of others, is assured.

She also made a contribution of another kind to art history. Her book, A Partial Testament, which appeared in 1986, traced the continuing tradition of European art from the Renaissance to the present century and sought to explain to what extent many of the painters she had nurtured were heirs to it in their methods and preoccupations.

She herself exhibited with Marlborough Fine Arts, at the Beaux Arts and at the Duke Street Gallery. A retrospective at the Fine Arts Society in 1987 acknowledged her contribution to British painting. Appropriately, it included two of her studies of those artists who had featured at her Beaux Arts gallery, depicted relaxing round a table with food and wine. She was elected a Royal Academician in the same year, having been already appointed OBE in 1956. Her two sons survive her.

Helen Lessore, OBE, painter and director of the Beaux Arts Gallery, 1952-65 , died on May 6 aged 86. She was born in London on October 31, 1907








Helen Lessore






HELEN LESSORE, who has died aged 86, was an accomplished painter, but made her most important contribution to British art as director of the Beaux Arts Gallery in Bruton Place from 1951 to 1965.

In the early 1950s she became well-known, even notorious, for her support of the Kitchen Sink School (as David Sylvester christened it). John Bratby, Jack Smith, Edward Middleditch and Derrick Greaves all showed at her gallery before achieving international recognition at the 1956 Venice Biennale.

Yet Lessore perhaps felt more affinity for a slightly later and more loosely knit group of artists including Francis Bacon, Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff; they later became known as the School of London. Other names associated with the gallery were Craigie Aitchison, Raymond Mason, Euan Uglow, Sheila Fell, Jeffrey Camp and John Dodgson.

She mounted 86 major exhibitions, and established a reputation unmatched by any other London gallery of the time. She liked to show artists whose response to the contemporary world was infused with a strong respect for the traditions of Western art.

This attitude derived partly from her training in painting at the Slade, under Prof Henry Tonks, and partly from the knowledge of art history she gained from Prof Tancred Borenius at University College.

In particular the Italian Renaissance paintings she saw at the National Gallery became the touchstone for her judgment of contemporary work.

Lessore cast herself uncompromisingly, in her own words, “on the side of the artist rather than anyone else”. For their part artists found her a marvellously responsive gallery director, whose authority made her criticism as valuable as her support.

The artist and writer Andrew Forge has evocatively described the Beaux Arts in Helen Lessore’s time. “You came off the street up a dark staircase and straight into the upstairs gallery. It was like entering an attic.

“The first things you saw were floorboards and a floor-level view of the pictures. The floorboards creaked and the place always smelt of the paraffin stoves that were standing around . . . She [Helen Lessore] was almost always there, pale, beaked, a melancholy bird.

“To your left a precipitous iron staircase took you down into the large gallery. A door opened straight on to the pavement of Bruton Place. Mrs Lessore’s shoes would watch you go.

“More than anything else it was like a studio, an atelier de peintre spruced up for visitors and it was this — that the gallery itself seemed nearer to the painting of pictures than to the merchandising end — that gave its inimitable, irreplaceable quality.”

She was born Helen Brook in London on Oct 31 1907 into a Jewish family; her father came from Lithuania and her mother, though born in Britain, was from a German family of Spanish origins.

 Young Helen showed herself a talented artist while still at school, and won a number of public competitions before going to the Slade in 1924. In 1931 she took a job as a secretary at the Beaux Arts Gallery, then managed by the sculptor Frederick Lessore.

Three years later — though he was 28 years older — they were married. The match put her very much in the mainstream of British art. W R Sickert, married to Frederick’s sister Thérèse, was one of the gallery’s principal artists, and became a considerable influence on her.

Motherhood and the exigencies of the Second World War had made it difficult for Lessore to keep up her own painting; her husband’s death in 1951 rendered it almost impossible.

Rather against her will she was forced to take on the directorship of the Beaux Arts. Lack of funds prevented her showing well-known artists and so, turning necessity into a virtue, she concentrated on the work of younger painters whom she admired. Despite the general impression that she was on interested in realism, she showed several abstract painters.

In 1965 financial competition forced the gallery to close. With the London a world rapidly becoming more commercial, and with the emergence of artists who resolutely rejected any association with tradition, Helen Lessore’s gallery had become something of dinosaur.

 At least, though, she now had time for her own painting. She had moved to a spacious house in Camberwell with a beautiful garden, an this setting became the basis for complex compositions depicting gatherings of family and artist friends.

The paintings, which combine a sense of immediacy with an air of timelessness have an evocative, almost theatrical quality. They won her many admirers, and a retrospective at the Fine A Society in 1987, the year she was elected a Senior Royal Academician.

Lessore also wrote about art in her later years, notably in A Partial Testament (1986), which expressed her concern about the cult of the new and the pursuit of originality simply for its own sake.

These tendencies, she felt, were undermining the essential disciplines of drawing and composition, the mastery of which she regarded as the essential prerequisite for the true expression of individuality.

Francis Bacon was her contemporary hero, great among the great of all time and places, but Alberto Giacometti, Balthus, Lucian Freud are all given separate chapters. At the end she calls for a new movement which should acknowledge the dignity, the beauty, the mystery of ordinary’ life, ordinary’ people’ ... an art considered and monumental both in painting and sculpture.

Helen Lessore was appointed OBE in 1958.

She had two sons, one of whom, John Lessore, is a much admired figurative artist, and the last painter to be exhibited at the Beaux Arts Gallery.





                 Symposium I, by Helen Lessore, exhibited at the Fine Art Society in 1987


Ian Board






IAN BOARD, who has died aged 64, was the proprietor of the Colony Room, a Soho drinking club favoured by bohemians, artists, homosexuals and assorted loafers.

He inherited the club in 1979 from his patroness, the legendary Muriel Belcher, on whose birthday he died.

Perched on a stool by the door, clad in tasteless leisurewear, his eyes protected by sunglasses, Ida (as he was known to his closest friends) would trade coarse badinage with his regulars. He had a kind side, though, and could be extremely courteous to vesting mothers, whom he immediately enlisted as allies against everyone else.

Board was an heroic smoker and drinker  until recently he would breakfast on brandy, and he once consumed of crème de menthe at a sitting  and if his drinking destroyed his youthful good looks it also shaped and nourished his magnificent nose.

A labourer’s son, Ian David Archibald Board was born in Devon on Dec 16, 1929. His mother died when hw was four, and he was brought up by a woman who, as he recalled, had been bunged in the pudding club by his father.

Boards are very randy, he declared, They all have strings of children. I think I’m the only poof in the family. There were seven full Boards and one half Board.

Young Ian ran away to London at 16 and returned to Devon only twice in later life. He managed to avoid National Service because he was a bed-wetter (an hereditary affliction, he explained, which runs in cycles of seven years), as well as a conscientious objector and a homosexual.

He became a commis-waiter at Le Jardin des Gourmets in Dean Street, and it was there that he met Muriel Belcher, who had run away with he mother from Birmingham at 16, after being slapped by her father for wearing lipstick.

Muriel fulfilled the role of a queens moll at Le Jardin, which was frequented by the lies of Noel Coward. She took a liking to Ian, calling him gel from the start, and when she opened the Colony Room Club  so called because her life-long companion Carmel came from the colonies  he joined her as barman.

At first the Colony clientele were stockbrokers and City types, mostly rich queens, but Muriel disapproved of any hanky-panky. Couples of either sex holding hands were told to save it for the bedroom, dear.

One day Francis Bacon arrived, and he and Muriel immediately became fiends. Bacon was on his uppers, and she gave him £10 per week to act as a hostess, bringing people into the club.

By the 1950s the Colony had become the haunt of artists, writers and actors. The only unforgivable sin was to be boring. Some, such as Dylan Thomas and Brendan Behan, failed the test.

Tom Driberg, Johnny Minton, Terrence Rattigan, the Hermiones Baddeley and Gingold, Frank Norman, James Robertson Justice, Lucian Feud, Joan Littlewood, George Melly and Craigie Aitchinson were among the regulars.

In August Muriel, Bacon and Board used to holiday in the casino towns of the South of France. Bacon shunned the sun because it made his hair dye run. In the evenings, Ian and Muriel would watch him play roulette. It was in the days of currency restrictions, and they found themselves stranded.

They decided to rob a rich acquaintance who was staying nearby. Board stood look-out while Bacon shinned up a lamppost. They then went to the casino where Bacon gambled the loot. He began to win at the tables, but as he did so his face slowly turned a frightening black (he had run out of hair-dye and had used boot polish instead). Having won their fares and more besides, Bacon shinned up the lamppost and replaced the stolen money.

Beneath its tough exterior the Colony had a heart of gold, and every year the club gave a party for disabled children.

Now that Board has fallen off his perch by the door, regulars must look to its next occupant, Michael Wojas. As Board noted, People say Soho isn’t what it was. But Soho never was what it was.








Obituary: Ian Board 








IAN BOARD, the successor to Muriel Belcher as the proprietor of the Colony Room Club, in Soho, was distinguished as much by the peculiarities of his appearance as by the pungency of his speech.


Muriel Belcher, who founded the Colony Room, in Dean Street, in 1948, was famous for the foul-mouthed greeting she gave to visitors to her afternoon drinking club. Board’s line in talk was no less obscene, but tended towards a sustained stream of enraged invective, usually directed towards a stranger or someone who exhibited signs of weakness, such as drunkenness. 'Look at you, you great lump,' he would shout at some unsuspecting woman. 'Just take a look at yourself. You’re a sad and pathetic sight. For fuck’s sake pull yourself together . . .'  and so on, in great sweeping periods of abuse.


By his mid-fifties Board’s nose had swollen under the influence of brandy to a great red pitted ball, like a giant strawberry. He would dress in a bright green floppy cap and green tracksuit, and outside would often carry a stick, since he had hurt a leg and his back in falls.


The club is housed in a small, dark upstairs room, painted racing green, and heavily hung with pictures, photographs and mirrors, a survival from the Fifties. Until the change in the licensing laws in 1988, 'Muriel’s' was particularly popular between 3pm and 5.30pm, with Thursday afternoon the busiest time before the grander members left for the country the succeeding day. Board would perch on the high stool at one corner of the bar, on the customers’ side, where Muriel had always sat. Her capacious handbag hung from the ceiling near one window, and on her birthday he would buy drinks in her memory.


Ian David Archibald Board, whom only his closest associates dared call by his nickname 'Ida', came from a poor family in Exeter. His mother died before he was five. He cared neither for his father nor for his stepmother. Escaping to London as a teenager, he went straight to Speakers’ Corner and picked up a man, with whom he lived for some weeks. After a time he became a commis waiter at a restaurant in Greek Street, Soho. He retained something of his Devon accent, and in the style of his region put the letter 'l' at the end of words ending in a vowel: tomorrowl, dildol.


For all his crude talk, Board could sometimes display, and certainly appreciated, verbal wit. Woe betide anyone who tried to tell a formal joke. 'I can’t stand jokes]' he would yell. 'Shut your cakehole, you boring dreary fart.'


Board’s continued survival under the assaults of drink was a source of wonder. He would go without food for days, then eat a cold tin of ravioli in the small hours of the morning. In his 60th year he gave up drinking brandy for breakfast. He drank vodka in the morning at home and from noon to 11pm more vodka and brandy at the club.


Board treasured the patronage of famous artists  Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Michael Andrews, Barry Flanagan  though in truth their visits became rarer or stopped. One night he bundled Francis Bacon, then nearly 80, out of the door, shouting, 'Get out] Call yourself a painter. You can’t fucking paint. Take your boring friends with you and don’t bother coming back.' But he did.


Board was attracted by success. He was delighted to find that the girl who had taken to drinking in the Colony on her visits to London was the singer Lisa Stansfield, and went to visit her in her home in Rochdale. The return train journey was enlivened by a mother with a baby that kept on crying. Board, infuriated by the noise, and by the strong drink he had taken that morning, asked the woman why she did not chuck the 'thing' out of the window. A policeman was on the platform to meet him on his arrival in London.


In 1991 the Colony’s existence was threatened by a planning application from its landlord to turn it into offices. Hundreds of objections were sent to Westminster Council, largely through the organisational efforts of Michael Wojas, Board’s loyal barman. The planning meeting was swamped by dozens of Colony Room Club members looking strangely pale in the unaccustomed daylight. The application was refused.


It is odd that despite Board’s personal unattractiveness the club inspired such widespread affection. But it was certainly a backwater of a disappearing Soho, where men and women from all social backgrounds (there were a couple of dukes and a couple of stagehands who turned up regularly) could talk and drink and laugh. With the death of Ian Board that world has shrunk a little more.


Ian David Archibald Board, club owner: born 16 December 1929; proprietor, Colony Room Club 1981-94; died London 26 June 1994.









Strong talk in the Colony



 Ian Board




WHEN Muriel Belcher died at the end of the 1970s, she left her club, the Colony Room, to her barman, Ian Board. To be honest few of us members thought Ian, who has died aged 64, could make a go of it. Muriel was such a warm, beady, foul-mouthed, witty legend that her final departure from her famous stool suggested that she was irreplaceable and there would be no point in climbing those squalid stairs and pushing open the steel door into that dark room where drink habitually seduced conscience and time had thrown in the towel. Ian, as I recalled, had been an amiable, good-looking young man, ready at an instant to translate Muriel’s demands for the opening of a rich man’s “handbag” into the pop of a cork, but as a proprietor? It seemed difficult to imagine.

He was to surprise us all. As he came out from behind the bar and aimed for the stall, his voice grew loud and rasping and his neat features began to spread and grow. It was some time and many vodkas before the famous nose, compared with which W C Field’s was retroussé, achieved its formidable size and texture, but the gamble he took, to prevent the colony becoming a shrine to St Muriel, and the way he claimed it as his own, paid off. He didn’t attempt to exorcise her spirit; there was no re-decoration and she was often the theme of nostalgic recollections, but she was no longer in charge. He was.

Ian was not, but then who was, as witty as his benefactress In consequence his swearing, in which he was certainly her equal if not indeed her superior, seemed more like a bludgeon than a rapier. Then again when Muriel was rude, it was usually for a reason; because someone was boring everybody, or trying to gain entry; whereas Ian’s insults were frequently gratuitous, without any point except frustration fuelled by alcohol. As a result he drove off some members, usually middle aged, who failed or preferred not to recognise that behind the bombast was a toughing and vulnerable figure, kind too when it mattered.

Ian’s early history is a closed book for me  he was no Proust — and it is only though Daniel Farson’s fine book, Soho In The Fifties, that I know how he met up with Muriel. She had come across him when he was a young waiter at the Jardin des Gourmets in Greek Street and she was a punter. It was love at first sight, and not long after she invited him to join her at the club she was about to open. The rest is legend.

Ian’s death, after a lifetime dedicated to drinking and smoking can hardly come as a surprise, but is nonetheless sad. It is difficult not to imagine his somewhat piratical figure greeting you in language that would momentarily startle a Glaswegian stoker, but then at the time it was equally impossible to imagine the Colony Room without Miss Belcher. Ian loved that room and made it his own.


 Ian Board, born December 16, 1929; died June 26, 1994





                                                                          Ian Board at the Colony Room in Dean Street, Soho  





A ‘£2mBacon’ fails to raise bid at auction







FRANCIS Bacon’s study of Pope Innocent X by Velasquez — a picture from his most celebrated series — failed to raise a single bid at Christie’s yesterday, after the auction house hoped to make more than £2 million.

Mr Hugues Joffre, a Christie’s expert, said: “This failure does not reflect at all on the picture. It reflects on the value we put on it.”

Bacon collectors were simply missing from the saleroom, for financial reasons, following the fall on the world stockmarkets. Mr Joffre said: “Perhaps the reserve we agreed with the owner last March was just far too high for the market in June.” He maintained later that Bacon was “still one of the great 20th century masters” and “there is no argument that he is seen as absolutely in the top league”.

A simple explanation for failure came from Mr David Nahmad, the world’s wealthiest art dealer. He shrugged and said: “Cest trap cher.” the record for a Bacon Pope was £3-61 million at Christie’s, New York, in 1980. The most recent one for sale cost £1-98 million in 1991.

The non-sale of the Bacon marred a reviving week for European Contemporary artists. British artists bar Bacon did quite well. Sotheby’s sold David Hockney’s Cruel Elephant at twice the estimate or £221,500 and Lucian Freud’s Painter’s Room of 1943 for a high £507,500 to a telephone bidder understood to be William Acquavella, the New York dealer.

Sotheby’s £5-11 million sale was 25 per cent unsold, Christie’s £3-3 million sale 43 per cent unsold by value — half of that accounted for by the Bacon.





Bar counsel 






IAN BOARD, the foul-mouthed proprietor of the Colony Room Club in Soho, who died last week, was not well known as a moral tutor. But a young lawyer, whose blushes I shall spare, remembers that one drunken Saturday afternoon he was sitting in the drinking club on a high stool next to Board and toppled over backwards, overcome by alcohol, taking Board with him.

The noise of Board’s skull cracking against the corner of the piano rang through the room. Perhaps he had breathed his last. But after a few seconds he opened one eye and croaked at the lawyer: “Don’t be a cunt all your life.” Sound advice indeed.




Obituary: Ian Board 






AS PIANIST in Muriel Belcher’s Colony Room from 1958 to 1960, I had daily contact with Ian Board, writes Malcolm Williamson [further to the obituary by Christopher Howse, 28 June]. While I dispensed Gershwin, Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers, he ran the bar.


Ian was then notably abstemious and efficient. Muriel was no stranger to brandy at that time but she was certainly not foul-mouthed; and she was fortunate at the time of later reversals in her personal life that Ian Board was a loyal friend to, and beyond, her passing.


It was not a romantic friendship, but it was something deep and infrangible, reflecting credit on both. I feel that in the Soho of those days when the club drew countless people in the arts into an extended family, by no means all heavy drinkers, Ian’s faithful, moderating and unswerving affection for Muriel and her now vanished world deserves a salute.





Francis Bacon, Part Pixie, Part Painter,

Part Unconventional Guttersnipe





 The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon



  by Daniel Farson

  Pantheon Books, $25




                                                    By Geno







In 1962, the normally staid Tate Museum in London staged a retrospective showing of the paintings of Francis Bacon, and a Welsh friend with the BBC persuaded me that I just had to experience this exhibition.


I was horrified at what I saw upon entering the vast space given over to Bacon’s huge canvases. At every turn, I was faced with misshapen, bloated, supposedly human figures with cruel, ape-like features; there were  dissected torsos and heads, hunks of raw meat as well as screaming popes and baboons. Most of the figures seemed to ooze away into small puddles.


Bacon, as I was told, was expressing his view of the human predicament, the agony of modern man and the dire despair of our times. I was not convinced. I saw little technical ability in the smeared paints and I was not impressed to hear that Bacon’s paintings were fetching prices in the millions of pounds in the art market.


Afterwards, I had to take a stroll through the Tate’s magnificent collection of paintings by Turner to quiet my jangled nerves.


So just what was this Francis Bacon like?


He died in 1992 at the age of 82, and Daniel Farson who knew him for a period of over 40 years, has written this intimate biography of his friend.


He shows Bacon to have been the kind of chap who would go up to perfect strangers and introduce himself as, “I’m an old pouf!”


This delineator of dark despair lived a jolly, raffish sort of life, much of it spent in Soho clubs and bars putting away bottle after bottle of champagne, his drink of choice. He mingled with rent boys, whores and criminals, as well as the dissolute British aristocracy, than which none can be more decadent.


Depending on his mood, Bacon could be a cheerful, gregarious pixie or an insulting bastard who love to embarrass others. He was self-taught and disparaged his painting, calling his study of two male wrestlers “The Buggers,” for example.


He was generous with the money that continued to flow in and kept several male lovers, men of the lower classes, some illiterate. He was not interested in boys. His special kink was to be whipped and on occasion, would display the welts on his back. Altogether a man of many contradictions.


Farson has detailed a wild, unconventional life in a book full of wonderful gossip, full of humor and salacious stories much more entertaining to read than much of today’s so-called fiction.





Last blooming of the bohemians




                                          GOOD COMPANY

                                            Diaries 1967-1970

                                          By Frances Partridge

                                             HarperCollins, £18






The general British reverence for the very old is odd. Frances Partridge, however, has experienced everything interesting this century in the arts, and in science and politics, from the making and dropping of the bomb to the landing of men oh the Moon. She witnessed the revolutions in philosophy from Moore and Russell (just before her own time as an undergraduate at Cambridge), to those of Wittgenstein and Oxford analytic philosophy; the change in linguistics wrought by Chomsky; and the transformation of psychology by Freud (she made the index for the Standard Edition).

Not just because she is as old as the century, but because she is thoughtful and curious, her reflections upon the movements and events that have impinged upon her life have their interest for other people. Because she was lucky in her birth, moreover, she was part of one of the fascinating social and artistic currents of the century: Mrs Partridge is the last survivor of the inner-core of the Bloomsbury group. She has always kept a diary, and since 1978 (in A Pacifist’s War) has published, portions of it.

Her diaries would be riveting reading even if the story of her personal life had not been so absorbing and dramatic, and even if she were not the gifted writer (and, perhaps as importantly, astute editor) that she is. In the current volume, though those most celebrated Bloomsbury names — Virginia, Vanessa, Lytton, Carrington, Roger — are long dead, there are still characters whose movements academics will wish to trace and whose doings will amuse, entrance or infuriate the reader.

"Bunny” Garnett falls in love at 70, and drives to Italy at an alarming pace to prove he is still man enough to do it; while Julia Strachey, swallowing an ever-increasing dose of purple hearts, drives everybody crazy to prove to herself that she is still alive. Of course, it is the concrete observation of the everyday and the particular that makes diaries so valuable to the historian, and also so pleasurable to read. But in 1968, Mrs Partridge makes a striking generalisation: “What is left of Bloomsbury tends to treat the practical side of life in two ways — Bunny, Angelica [Ganett], probably Duncan [Grant], Gerald [Brenan], all have a curious liking for dirt and cold, coupled with rich, home-produced satisfaction of sensuous appetites (excellent food, drink, conversation, books, music); whereas the homosexual element ... insist on their comforts and convenience but cannot lift a finger for themselves and were still dependent — in 1968! — on “good servants”.

Admittedly, many of the entries in Good Company have to do with the children of her celebrated friends, but we have the reward of Frances Partridge’s record of—and the advantage of her perspective on — flower power, hippies and drugs. As a grandmother she was conventionally concerned; but as a Bloomsbury she could not help but admire the streak of bohemianism that in the late 1960s led her small grand-daughter to live in “a big tent, with five horses and a cart”, her mother, four young men, a goat and a dog.

Though she is approaching her century, and though she has had the pain and grief of outliving both her husband and her only child, Frances Partridge has never lived in the past. The pressures on her to do so began with the publication of Michael Holroyd’s life of Lytton Strachey in 1967 and continued through the terrifying prospect of Ken Russell making the film of the book. Now, less frighteningly, Christopher Hampton is doing just that.

Her husband, Ralph, has never had a good press. Gerald Brenan seems to have been responsible for the portrayal of him as wimpish and dim, a view perpetuated in Holroyd’s book (probably for narrative reasons — the love story of Lytton and Carrington requires a dramatic foil). As Good Company makes clear, it is cruel that part of your own life should be a literary property; but the years have made Frances Partridge brave and good-humoured, if not tough . A fine translator, a great diarist, a prolific reviewer (for The Spectator), recently a fashion model (for Issy Miyake), she is a national treasure ; and to her friends (of whom I am lucky to be one), an affectionate companion and a great conversationalist — the best company there is.

Paul Levy




                                                     Partridge: the best company





Far too brave to be kept down



Jeffrey Bernard thinks well of a head-turner






HENRIETTA Moraes is one of the most courageous women I have ever come across. She had a pretty awful childhood — why do all auto-biographers seem to have awful childhoods? — and it is a miracle that she has remained sane in spite of the rich, but often miserable, mix of her life.


It is always easy to read about other people’s troubles, but Henrietta is a particular pleasure because it is well written. My only disappointment is that there is not enough about the Henrietta I first met and knew in the 1950s in Soho, where she reigned over the Colony Room and the York Minster for about 20 years.


She had been brought up by a sadistic grandmother and her father had disappeared when she was tiny, so she did not really have any “good old days” to write about. But they were good days, and she is too dismissive of them in the poacher-turned-gamekeeper manner that drunks and junkies frequently assume.


She was one of the most attractive women I have ever met; she turned every man’s head, this one’s included. She gives me short shrift and why shouldn’t she? After she left her first husband, the dashingly handsome film director, Michael Law, she says that she went off with Norman Bowler who was to become her second husband, deciding “to go and see Jeff Bernard, who was living in a little cottage in a field in Suffolk”:


“It was unbelievably cold in Jeff’s cottage. He had red rashes on his face and the nearest pub was two miles away; I got cystitis.”


Little did she know it was even worse for me, as I was besotted with her and was kept awake all night by the sound of their lovemaking.


Anyway, when John Minton died in the late Fifties, he left her his house in Apollo Place in Chelsea — more, I have always thought, to spite Norman Bowler than from a desire to make her the heiress to his property. It was at about this time that she added amphetamines to her diet of booze. She also took up cat burglary as a hobby, but it was the drugs that brought her down.


When she decided to go on the road, she did it properly in a gypsy caravan pulled by a horse called Rizla, named after the cigarette papers that she rolled her joints in. It took her two years to get to Wales and it was not the kind of jolly adventure that George Borrow would have written about 150 years ago. It is here that she reveals a deep and sentimental love for horses and dogs, which I think is so overdone by so many English people.


She settled for a while in Ireland where she had an appalling accident, falling off a horse and breaking her collarbone in two places, her shoulder, her arm and her leg. However, there were good times as well, thanks to Desmond Guinness’s involvement with the Irish Georgian Society, who set her up in a lovely house, Roundwood.


She made a few local friends, but all was ruined by the suicide of her then best friend, an unhappy homosexual who was, as it were the manager of the house.


Later, back in England, she was diagnosed as having cirrhosis. And the shock of that was also dreadfully depressing, particularly as she loathed going for the first few months to AA meetings, which I know can be so full of evangelical bores.


Now on the wagon, subdued and living in a room in Chelsea with yet another dog, Max, she must often think of the Soho days, drinking in the French pub with the likes of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, nights in the Gargoyle Club and all those very very merry lunches in Wheeler’s.


We went racing as well, and I have vague memories of us being fairly outrageous from time to time. She was very special and quite unforgettable, beautiful and a good friend.


She still reminds me of our lowest ebb together: “Do you remember that morning in the French, Jeff, when we were drinking a half of bitter each and you said: ‘Do you think we’ll ever drink whisky again?’ ” Well, we did, and if only the drink had not hurt such a good woman so badly, this autobiography would have had a happier ending; although, as I say, she is far too brave to be kept down for long.


Henrietta by Henrietta Moraes. Hamish Hamilton, £16-99







          Unforgettable: Henrietta in a Deakin photograph





Naked and unashamed




      George Melly admires a sober memoir of a rackety life




                                                by Henrietta Moraes

                                           Hamish Hamilton, £16-99







LUCIAN FREUD’s painting of her is on the cover. It shows her nude and serious. Francis Bacon, too, painted her many times: most memorably naked, splayed on a mattress with a hypodermic needle stuck in her arm. These images demonstrate how, like Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Henrietta Moraes goes in for metamorphosis.


This book reveals how the whisky-swigging Soho layabout of the 1950s becomes, for a time, a high-powered advertising executive; the beneficiary of the painter John Minton’s will (those years in the huge Chelsea studio were perhaps the only truly happy period in her life) degenerates into the hard-drugging manipulator and ingrate of the 1960s.


Then, after an heroic self-administered cold turkey cure for methedrine addiction (a scarifyingly brilliant passage) she drops her south London criminal mates to join the posh Upper-Crusties — “young and beautiful, worldly but innocent” is her rather more flattering description of them — and plays raggle-taggle gypsy until circumstances leave her stranded as the lonely chatelaine of a Georgian house in Ireland. Her return to London, following the suicide of a much-loved friend, leads, again, to an escalation in her drinking and a total collapse of her liver.


This remarkable book is the result, therefore, of an enforced sobriety. It is not only an illuminating social history of the bohemian world since the war, but a mostly honest account of over 40 years of committed alcoholism reinforced, and at times replaced, by whatever drugs were in fashion — multi addiction recollected in sobriety.


One of the many virtues of the book is Henrietta’s refusal to breast-beat. She never denies that many aspects of her consistently bad behaviour were great fun (at any rate for her) but neither does she pretend that her excesses weren’t directly responsible for her seasons in hell.

What she appears not to understand is that it was her mood-swings and relentless demands which alienated, whether temporarily or permanently, those who loved her. For instance: After a couple of days Penny had to go to England. She said ’Hen, Desmond likes a bit of time to himself when I’m away so you can’t stay here. But you can go to Roundwood if you like...

In fact, she gets moved on rather a lot, but at least people care about her enough to try and find her somewhere else to go. Nor does she equate the fact that she is mostly without a penny and always on the take with people’s eventual impatience. She never whinges though.

Although she was married three times (once to the poet Dom Moraes), sex in this book is very much in the margin. I feel that in her case saying yes was largely a question of good manners or favourable circumstances. Certainly of the three people she really loved, two were gay and both committed suicide. At one point Ms Moraes claims to be non-visual. This is nonsense. I’ve known most of her cast of characters and frequented many of the same places, and her descriptive writing is wonderful.

Not a happy life, of course, but hardly a boring one. With her arresting hawk-like eyes and her horse-like snort of mischievous laughter, she was always as fascinating as she was a pain in the arse. She seems not too unhappy living in a single room in Chelsea and going out very little except to attend AA meetings or exercise her dachshund in Brompton Cemetery.

To have been painted by both Bacon and Freud is a far from negligible achievement. To be alive against the odds and to have written this fine book is even better. The final sentence, while not entirely free from anthropomorphic bias is not that of an angry or frustrated woman. My grandchildren and my dog have never seen me drunk, and I trust and pray they never will.




                                           Not a happy life but hardly a boring one: ‘Three studies of Henrietta Moraes’ painted by Francis Bacon in 1969






A model bohemian life




She was once the favourite subject of Bacon and Freud.

Here, Henrietta Moraes tells her side of the story at last






I LOVE you, Henrietta, ” I said. What would you like for pudding and why does everyone else love you too?


Henrietta Moraes doesn’t understand why she has always been popular but she is clear about the sweets of the world. I want two puddings. So first she had a baked toffee pie and then a big dish of ice-cream spiced with ginger. She gave up her extravagant reliance on drink and drugs five years ago, only to find that her cleansed-out body was diabetic. That wasn’t fair. So once a week she has a tiny binge on sugary things, evidence of a personal? ity that has never liked half-measures.


Life has perhaps not been fair to Henrietta but she has also had luck. She could have died in the gutter or been killed by a dealer. She could have spent a lot more time in Holloway but served only three months. Obviously she owes a lot to the kind, stern doctor who got her off the booze and pills just in time. And were it not for this rescue Henrietta Moraes would not have discovered that she is a natural writer. Like many such guileless authors, she instinctively knows that it’s best to leave out things that are hard to explain. So Henrietta, her autobiography, is lucid, comic, full of gaps, doesn’t ramble and has a kind of innocence.


She was born Audrey Wendy Abbott in India 63 years ago. Her father went off some? where and she was cared for, after a fashion, by relatives in Britain. A grandmother beat her while her mother and aunt looked on. It was my birthday. There was a succession of girls’ schools. She learnt to ride and found out that she was clever. Then she went to Paris, drank a lot and started to dominate parties. I didn’t know how people behaved, so I just did as I wished, probably the best thing to do anyway.


She became part of bohemian London around 1950, via jazz clubs and work as a model at Camberwell and Chelsea art schools. At the age of 19 she moved in with a small-time film director who gave her the name Henrietta. They lived in Soho, and made a routine of visits to the Caf6 Torino, the French Pub and the Gargoyle Club. Suddenly she met everyone — Cyril Connolly, Francis Wyndham, Brian Howard, Philip Toynbee, Humphrey Slater, Johnny Minton and 20 sailors — and became especially friendly with a couple of artists who were to paint her many times. They were Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon.


The best models bewitch artists through personality as much as looks. Obviously Bacon and Freud found her fascinating, clothes on or off. It’s not simply that she’s unconventional, funny, a good talker. Bacon didn’t really need models and painted Henrietta via dirty photographs taken by John Deakin. Freud, a more visual artist, could not take his eyes off her. He was far and away the most interesting man she ever met, Henrietta recalls, and this caused a bit of trouble with her film-director husband.


Henrietta talks about her marriages as though they were moderately amusing escapades of little interest to anyone else. The actor Norman Bowler (of Emmerdale Farm) is the father of her two children. She has her present surname from the Indian poet Dom Moraes, whom she met at David Archer’s bookshop in Greek Street. He was an Oxford undergraduate, but successful, winning the Hawthornden Prize for A Beginning. Does she have any contact with Moraes, now living in Bombay? None. But "we became lovers and remained lovers for 10 years.


Those were the days before hippiedom. Many bohemian memoirs hardly stray from Soho. Henrietta’s book tells how she became part of the drug scene and went on the long treks, beloved by hippies, to the Celtic lands of the West Country, Wales and Ireland. When it describes such things the book becomes rueful and frightening. Henrietta was very deep into drugs. She wouldn’t touch heroin because she had lived with the jazzman Phil Seamon and had seen what it did to him. Her preferences were for lots of amphetamines, darling, washed down with bottles of wine during the day. Hashish I still miss, but it’s such an evening drug. (Heads turn in the restaurant.)


Though she didn’t know it, Henrietta was suffering from acute amphetamine psychosis. Burglary became my obsession, cat burglary. It helped her drug habit to steal but she recalls that the thrill of breaking into people’s houses — tiptoeing through an occupied bedroom, and making off with a couple of bathroom towels was its own reward, so to speak. She wasn’t very competent, hence the spell in Holloway. And then came the injections of Methedrine and the almost final descent.


Today she lives in a little room in Edith Grove, Chelsea, with her dog Max. She goes to AA meetings four nights a week and, in another little room lent by a friend, writes two hours a day. Doing the autobiography enabled her to see how she could form short stories. So maybe she should have been writing all her life. What fun it would be if she became a literary figure rather than being renowned as a model. Everyone would have to buy her puddings!


'Henrietta' is published on Thursday by Hamish Hamilton (?16.99, hardback).


Tim Hilton






    Muse flash: Francis Bacon’s ‘Three Studies of Henrietta Moraes’ (1969) was based on dirty photograph.  ‘I didn't know how people behaved so I just did as I wished’






 Tales from the Colony Room



In a dingy room in Dean Street, the spirit of old Soho lives. Outside,

the brothels are being turned into offices, but inside, Russell Davies

 finds Bohemia thriving






HOW Charles Dickens, the great chronicler of London’s eccentricities, would have loved the story of Ian Board’s nose. It happened only months ago, yet in its macabre hilarity, it seems to belong within the Sketches by Boz. Indeed, the nose itself took a good deal of sketching. The walls of the Colony Room in Soho, where Board ruled until June this year, are lavishly hung with attempts, many quite distinguished, to capture the organ in its full and giant bloom. Latterly it was less of a nose than a kind of fungal splurge, huge and puffy and red, and sprinkled with craters as a strawberry is with seeds. It was one of the sights of Soho, just as Board’s voice, squeezing out the impressive streams of abuse which he employed to keep the Colony as free as possible from fainthearts and bores, was one of its unmistakable sounds.


In the late spring of this year, Ian Board fell suddenly ill with the lung cancer his raucous smoking had invited for decades, and he quickly declined. Towards the end, he was able to sit up with some friends to toast the memory of his mentor, Muriel Belcher, founder of the Colony, on what Board thought was her birthday. But no, it was pointed out, Muriel’s birthday was the next day. Sod it, said Board, or words very much to that effect, and the vodka bottle went round anyway. The next day his energies were gone.


Among the friends at his bedside to hear his last breath was Michael Wojas, the Colony barman, who had effectively run the club for years, while Board dispensed lordly and corrosive judgements on the members and their guests. Board himself had performed the same loyal service for Muriel, until her death in 1979. Now, at last, he himself died, whereupon, Wojas says, the most remarkable thing happened to his nose. Deprived of the blood pressure that had sustained it, it wilted. Before the eyes of the sorrowing company, the nose visibly declined, deflated, sank. ‘I wouldn’t say it quite went back to a normal shape,’ says Wojas, ‘but it was much more Uke a nose than what we had been looking at before.’ There are those in Soho who say this undoubtedly symbolic event marked the end of an era; but then eras in Soho are starting and ending all the time. Safer to say it was the end of a nose.


The post-nasal Colony Room will continue almost as before. You reach it — provided you are in the company of a member, or have some fantastically good excuse — up a cramped little wooden staircase, just a couple of doors away from the Groucho Qub, in Dean Street. It’s like tumbling upwards through a sludgegreen companionway on a submarine. You almost fall into the room, to discover that a room is all there is. Michael Wojas could be heard asking for a quote on a new carpet the other day, and the measurement he specified was a mere 23ft by 12. The carpet he’s already got is so heavily pock-marked with fag burns that it resembles an aerial photograph of a battlefield in the First World War. But it’s to the walls that the eyes are naturally drawn, and to the fantastical encrustation of portraiture, photographs, aged press articles and randomly donated artefacts that covers the place. The odd yellowing item — perhaps one of the bills clamped in the huge clothes-peg marked ‘Unpaid’ — may even date back to the Colony’s founding, in 1948.


Images of Muriel certainly abound, her sleek, sealion head looking as if it had just emerged from a swimming-pool (highly unlikely). There are several photographic tableaux, taken for magazines, of prominent members lurking together in situ: George Melly, Tom Baker the actor, Jeffrey and Bruce Bernard, Francis Bacon. Posing in a gangsterish group, they tend to look simultaneously defiant and cowed, as if they had either just performed the St Valentine’s Day Massacre, or were about to become its victims, and weren’t sure which.


Ian Board’s hooter is photographed and painted in many stages of development: riding atop a beard, glowering under a Breton cap, clashing loudly with Board’s famously camp ‘leisurewear’. Some of these funny oid icons are fixtures, but most are not. They tend, over time, to migrate around the room. Just by the window furthest from the bar, there is a corner cupboard towards which portraits of members are mysteriously drawn as their subjects drift out of favour. At the moment, a picture of Molly Parkin is hovering at the cupboard’s edge. ‘She’s in imminent danger,’ says Wojas. ‘Well, she never comes in now, not since she went on the wagon and found God and all that.’ Soon the corner cupboard will open and swallow Molly up.


Why people go to the Colony at all takes a little more explaining than it used to. In the bad old days of restriaed opening hours, the place was particularly useful in maintaining the continuity of a carouse. Soho drinkers who found themselves on the streets at the afternoon closing time of 3.10pm would ritually put up the cry of ‘Let’s go to Muriel’s!’. It was in these circumstances that I first entered the Room, back in Muriel’s own time. Some sort of warning must have been passed on to me, because I remember being apprehensive over the likelihood of getting sarcastically challenged either by Muriel and/or her long-term favourites like Bacon, or both, though in the event nothing humiliating occurred. I like to pretend now that 1 was disappointed by this, but of course I was profoundly relieved at the time.


It is characteristic of Soho drinking that pretty well anything is tolerated in private places up to the point where the imbiber begins to be perceived as boring. There are no permanent rules about what is boring but it is safe to say that repetitiveness, intolerant attitudes (unless entertainingly expressed), and an obviously deteriorating connection between brain and mouth will put anyone in danger of being deemed a bore. Thanks to the traditions established by Muriel Belcher and Ian Board, the Colony Room still leads the way in defining the parameters of boredom. The last time I was there, Michael Wojas and a couple of cronies were giving an impressive verbal drubbing to an author from Oxfordshire (not present) who had severely transgressed in the earbending department just a couple of days before. Likewise chastised in his absence was a member codenamed ‘Lucan’ (reportedly no relation) who had been on a bender since before the previous weekend and had just slept part of the afternoon away on one of the Colony’s wall-seats. There is no question that this was a boring thing to do, since it did not contribute — not even to the bar takings. But this sort of behaviour does not get a member barred. Indeed, I am inclined to think that in some unspoken way it is encouraged. After all, if there were no bores or | frauds or lunatics at all, the Colony’s habitues would have nothing on which to sharpen the sense of scorn 1 that unites them.


So the Colony works today as a sort of exclusive pub, whose hours are surprisingly short (open at three, goodnight at eleven) but from which, in theory, the kind of people who don’t know what to do in the company of artists are excluded.


As for post-nasal Soho, the world down the green companionway — it changes and it doesn’t change. The excellent Peter Boizot, chairman of the Pizza Express group, and of the Soho Restaurateurs’ Association, a Colony member of long standing and an old friend, kindly agreed to pilot me around the parish for the afternoon. When you are in the company of someone who really knows the neighbourhood, Soho begins to reveal itself as soon as you set foot on the street. The first person we spot on emerging from Kettner’s Restaurant, Boizot’s HQ, is the legendary Norman Balon, landlord of the Coach & Horses, who is just back from his holiday and has come out to peer nostalgically at sun. His reputation is ogreish, but today he is all sweetness, the only cloud his horizon being the necessity to go out and buy an effin’ plastic ice-bucket. ‘First time in my life I’ve had to buy effin’ ice-bucket. The reps used to z ’em away. Not any more. That’s all S changed.’ He’s expecting the Private Eye boys I any minute, it’s the day for their lunch. They may need an effin’ ice-bucket. Probably the actor Struan Rodger will be along later for a game of chess. ‘One thing maybe has changed,’ Norman says in parting, ‘and that's the number of residents. Soho residents. I don’t think there are so many nowadays.' How many? Maybe 3,500 says the Rev Fred Stevens, the local rector, passing by.


We toddle past Marks's cigar store (closed for lunch), and the Andrew Uoyd-Webber-owned Marquee Cafe (‘we never see ’im’); on past Swish Publications (don’t ask), and the Pillars of Hercules, a great pub for poetspotting once upon a time, to Milroy’s magnificent little whisky shop. Jack Milroy, a hefty Scot who runs the place with his brother Wallace, pours us a generous tot of a malt called Glenfarclas, which retails, the shelves disclose, at more than £27 a bottle. We are grateful. High on a nearby shelf rests a bottle of very old Macallan with a price tag of £5,000. ‘Ever sold one?’ Boizot enquires. ‘Sold one last year,’ says Jack. ‘Japanese lady came in, said she wanted the most expensive bottle in the shop, for her daughter’s wedding. Paid with a gold card.’ We all chuckle and swig. Onward to Soho Square: a disappointment today, since the French Protestant church is locked up and Paul McCartney is absent from his office, but a few turns later, in,


Great Chapel St, a mighty lunch trade is being done at the Star Cafe, one of the oldest Italian family businesses in Soho — founded in 1933 by the father of the dapper present owner, Mario Forte. Every table is taken. ‘Mike Leigh, the playwright/director, he’s here all the time, he’s just gone out,’ says Mario. Soho is proud of its regulars, and their various kinds of fame. Some are famous only in Soho, for doing Soho-type things, but that’s enough.


On Berwick Street Market, only the range of fruits has changed (what’s a chow-chow anyway?). At Camisa’s Italian grocery we are given a splendid postcard-photo of the original 1929 ‘Parma Provision Store’ of the Frateili Camisa before the different branches of the family went into competition. Boizot buys a huge block of parmesan, a slab of focaccia and a bottle of artichoke hearts, all of which he will later sample at a table in Kettner’s, somewhat to the mystification of afternoon diners. We progress through Walker’s Court, one of the few remaining concentrations of Soho premises dedicated fiercely to so-called ‘adult interests’, but Paul Raymond, the prominent local landowner, is not at home in his Revuebar (‘he’s ahta the country’).


It was less of a nose than a kind of fungal splurge,laii Board, top left, redoutaWe doyen of the Colony, witli Mkhael Wojas. Centre, the view from the till, crowded with memorabilia Right, Marie! Belcher, the Colony’s terrifying founder,day an the tod on ou an give change.


In Brewer Street, where Randall & Aubin maintain their wonderfully old-fashioned Boucherie and Charcuterie, festooned with worn-out butchery tools, people fear the fax machine and E-mail: they foresee suburban avenues humming with communications technology, and an empty West End. Could be right. Albert Fredericks, Soho-born, and until his retirement, a bespoke trouser-maker in Brewer Street, is manning the Soho Society information centre inside St Anne’s church. From the old copies of the Society’s free paper it is clear that the ‘old Soho’ is forever passing away. The Autumn 1985 issue laments the passing of the Oxford Express Dairy, run by the Welsh-speaking Pughs (‘What other shops could give the vicar a complete run-down on who was in or out of hospital? Why is it that shops belonging to national companies insist on remaining so aloof from the environment we all share?’).


One very late lunch and Italian-grocery-tasting later, our tour is supposed to conclude with a visit to the Colony. We pay the visit, Boizot signing me in most correctly, and find a subtle change: Michael Wojas has moved into the seat by the door, from which Belcher and Board used to issue their crushing edicts. Already the proprietor, he is preparing for the obligatory role of the despot. Has his voice already acquired a touch of satirical sinusitis, reminiscent of the Nose? Will the need to put down interlopers and bores eventually swamp Wojas’s evident good nature? It will take years to find out. Down the companionway again, and out into the dusk.


And it is here that a very characteristic Soho thing happens: we are taken over by revellers more purposeful than ourselves. The writer Noel Botham, who keeps the French Pub with his new wife Lesley, is standing in the middle of the road with the novelist and reviewer Patrick Skene Catling and another companion who later turns out to be a policeman. The beefy Noel insists we all accompany him to the private back bar of a nearby restaurant. Here the beginning of the end ensues.

Next comes a session at Gerry’s, the subterranean bar for actors, and another at the French House itself, where a distinctly camp gentleman asks me if I am married, something that hasn’t happened for years. Probably he is sending me up, which is one of the available pastimes at the French. In this, the talkingest pub in the area, they don’t sell pints, only halves, which by this stage is something to be grateful for.

The evening really closes early the following day, at the Pizza Express in Dean Street, where Scott Hamilton, the American tenor-saxist, is fronting the equally unmissable British trio of Brian Lemon, piano, Dave Green, bass, and drummer Allan Ganley, who, incredibly, was already a Soho ‘face’ by 1950. At midnight or so, Peter Boizot sensibly retires, and I am left sharing the company of a Colony member, who shall be nameless here, on account of his deteriorating mood. About the Colony Room itself he is particularly scathing. ‘An imitation of an imitation of an imitation. Pathetic!’ he spits. I am half-inclined to take his word for it until, proving awake enough to spot the approach of the bar bill, he suddenly makes a rush for the staircase and disappears upwards into the night. At this point I decide he was a bore after all.

These things happen in Soho. All human nature is there, almost none of it beyond salvation. Even the liver regenerates itself, I’m told. But not the nose. D





                              Right, Marie! Belcher, the Colony’s terrifying founder





Conscience of the art world




Helen Lessore not only ran a gallery that helped establish the names of some of

our best-known post-war artists, she was also a fine painter in her own right,

believes Martin Gayford






ART dealing is a profession almost as much maligned as journalism, politics and estate agency. But undeservedly so — in some cases. A good commercial gallery is the main intermediary between the artist and the wider world — the one who initially discovers and foster talent. For certain eras, particular dealers are crucial, as Kahnweiler and Vollard were to Picasso and Cézanne, and as Helen Lessore was to the figurative arts in Britain during the 1950s and'60s.

Lessore, who died earlier this year at the age of 87, not only directed an art gallery, but was also a painter herself. As a young woman she studied at the Slade under the great Professor Tonks, a mentor of generations of artists, including Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer and Augustus John. She later got a job at the Beaux Arts Gallery, and eventually married the boss — Frederick Lessore, whose sister Therese was in turn the wife of Walter Sickert. Through her brother-in-law Sickert — whom she revered — the links go back to Degas and Whistler.

After the death of her husband, Helen Lessore ran the Beaux Arts Gallery — from 1951 to 1965. And during those years she presented an amazing succession of exhibitions, many by unknown young artists who went on to become key figures in the art of our day. Consequently, the exhibition Helen Lessore: Artist & Art Dealer is among other things a splendid, museum-standard array of postwar figurative art. Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, Michael Andrews. Euan Uglow — of the so-called School of London, Lucian Freud is the main absentee. And in his case, she remembered, “a show had been agreed upon, but he was fortunate in receiving an offer from a more business-like gallery”.

Business-like she was not. In fact the word “dealer” — which she disliked — scarcely fits. As the critic Andrew Forge recalled, “For 12 years she showed only what she herself believed in. Not once in that time did she put on a show to pay the rent.” From the financial point of view, such a way of proceeding was “amateurish in the extreme”, but artistically it was triumphant.

Rather than a conventional entrepreneur, she functioned as a sort of keeper of the artistic conscience. Her judgments could be severe, and from time to time there were “ructions”. Her son John Lessore remembers that she was the only person ever to reject a picture by Francis Bacon. This was not a hostile act, of course, merely an application of high critical standards — Bacon was a good friend and an artist of whom she had the highest opinion. She had only met two geniuses, she once said — Sickert and Bacon.

One of the revelations of the show is how good she was as a painter herself. Her work is not very well known, but the best of what is on show has a combination of clear Florentine line and intense colour that is individual and very satisfying. Another highpoint is the moving series of portraits — melancholy, gentle, reflective — by John Lessore of his mother in old age.

It is tempting to conclude that the School of London — whose common factor has proved so mysterious — was in fact the School of the Beaux Arts Gallery. Tempting, but mistaken. In fact, Helen Lessore’s taste was wider than that would suggest. It embraced the “Kitchen Sink” painters — Bratby, Coker, Greaves, Middleditch and Smith. And another complementary show across Cork Street at the Mayor Gallery demonstrates the link between those artists and the Beaux Arts in the mid-Fifties. Lessore also championed the Swede Evert Lundquist, and the marvellous, still very underrated Austrian painter Marie-Louise von Motesiczky.

The great tradition of Western art from ancient Greece to Cézanne had been broken, she believed. But with enough courage and persistence it was still possible to bridge the gap. In different, highly personal ways, her artists had succeeded in doing that — that was the only connection between them. “The life blood of the Great Tradition has flowed into their work and propelled it forward,” she wrote. In other words, in order to make progress, you have to have a deep understanding of where you are coming from. Even in these decadent days, that remains true.


‘Helen Lessore: Artist & Art Dealer’ is at Theo Waddington Fine Art, 5a Cork St Wl (071 494 1584), until Dec 20.

‘The Kitchen Sink and the Beaux Arts Gallery’ is at the Mayor Gallery, 22a Cork St, Wl (071-734 3558), until Dec 23.






                                                        Dealer: Helen Lessore





Francis Bacon and the Loss of Self

The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon: His Life and Violent Times

Francis Bacon: In Conversation with Michel Archimbaud


Bacon Book Reviews by Faye Hirsch 








"One’s basic nature is totally without hope, and yet one’s nervous system is made out of optimistic stuff," Francis Bacon told David Sylvester in the early ’70s.[1] Bacon died of asthma in spring 1992 at the age of 82, after a life so prodigal that only a high degree of optimism — and no doubt some sturdy genes — could account for his longevity. The artist also worked assiduously, starting at six or seven o’clock most mornings, he asserted, in spite of the hangovers that were the aftermath of his late-night carousals with the luminaries and drifters of his milieu. "What is called inspiration," said Bacon, "only comes from regular work."[2] This combination of profligacy and hard work provides a tough precedent dent for artists whose nervous systems aren’t quite up to snuff. And it certainly makes one curious about the man. The Sylvester interviews — surely among the best we have with a 20th-century artist — and Bacon’s several appearances on film have given us a taste of what he was like — his wit, his cynicism. "When he entered a room," writes Daniel Farson, "it was an occasion." Bacon refused to sanction a biography during his lifetime, but since his death two — Farson’s The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon and Andrew Sinclair’s Francis Bacon: His Life and Violent Times — have already appeared, and more are promised.[3]


The challenge for any artist’s biographer is to formulate some meaningful nexus between the available data about the artist’s life and his or her work. There is always a temptation to read the contours of a life into the visual imagery, and with Bacon that temptation is especially strong. Despite his repeated disavowal of the "illustrational" in his paintings, he frequently painted his friends and lovers — Isabel Rawsthorne, Lucian Freud, George Dyer, John Edwards, Sylvester, et al. He also led an eventful and, at times, violent existence that seems to have its correlative in his violent iconography. But, no matter how allusive the imagery seems, one must be wary of drawing too literal a connection. The Farson and Sinclair biographies of Bacon and Ernst van Alphen’s Francis Bacon and the Loss of Self, a study of Bacon’s paintings, raise the question of whether there is some middle ground between an approach that sees the artist’s work as an illustration of his life and times, and one that entirely eliminates biographical material from consideration of the work. Genet wrote of Rembrandt, "a hopeless complicity linked his eye to the world."[4] But deducing the nature of that complicity can be a tricky matter.


Sinclair’s biography is written with the apparent conviction that the subject, his times, and his work are discernibly linked. The author says he had only sporadic direct conversations with Bacon, one in depth in 1988; a fresh tone, then, is not the chief virtue of this biography. Still, though he may not have had an ongoing relationship with Bacon — as opposed to Farson, whose work is engaging precisely because of his 40-year friendship with the artist — Sinclair consulted numerous friends and relations and did thorough research, fleshing out his account with the type of second-hand material that is missing from Farson’s account. The same basics are presented by both biographers: Bacon’s childhood among the lower aristocracy in Ireland, where he was the son of a Protestant military officer in service to England, and later a horse trainer; his youthful adventures in Weimar Germany; his bohemian escapades in London’s Soho and in Tangier.


Bacon’s education was sporadic, his antipathy to academies unwavering. He returned to Ireland only rarely after leaving home as a teenager, when he was banished by his father for dressing up in women’s clothing. He remembered being horse whipped by his father’s grooms at his father’s behest; some connect this experience, justifiably or not, to his later sadomasochist bent (Bacon himself confessed that there was a sexual dimension to his paternal attachment).(5) After drifting about in London, he was sent to Berlin under the "protection" of one of his father’s friends, a "sporting uncle," as Bacon called him, with whom he plunged into the seediest aspects of Weimar nightlife. When he returned to England, by way of Paris, where he was awed by the work of Picasso, Bacon came under the protection of the Australian painter Roy de Maistre. By the late ’20s he was designing furniture, but he had also begun to paint, and a reproduction of an early crucifixion by him was included in Herbert Read’s Art Now of 1993. Success was not to come steadily until after April 1945, when his Three Studies for Figures as the Base of a Crucifixion appeared in a group show at Lefevre Gallery in London along with works by other British artists, including Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland (the latter was one of the many friends with whom he would subsequently fall out).


Bacon did, of course, live through dramatic times, and Sinclair often crams any gaps in biographical information with verbose descriptions of events of the period and the artist’s surroundings. His long excursuses provide backdrops, but little recommends these descriptions over any other of, say, London during the Blitz or Ireland during the Sinn Fein rebellion. Often such events are used to explain, none too subtly, Bacon’s artistic sensibility or to prefigure the appearance of specific details in his paintings. About a 1950 sea voyage the artist made to visit his sister in South Africa, Sinclair writes: "On his voyage, the white iron railings of the old liners with their polished wooden tops would have given, with their oblong definitions, a restraint and a cage to the violence of the living sea and the chaotic wake" — laboured way to describe a simple ship railing, but this railing was contemplated by Bacon, who tended to include railings as frames within his paintings. All of Bacon’s world, as seen through Sinclair’s eyes, is made of such details, as if the paintings are somehow a distillation of that world. And working in reverse as well, Sinclair discerns in Bacon’s paintings innumerable metaphors for contemporary existence: "The umbrella represented the dark halo of the modem age, the poison cloud of the nuclear threat from the air, its ribs spread like the black lines of sound in Munch’s The Cry." Sinclair, a self-proclaimed "social historian," thus transforms art into a mirror of history.


Farson, by contrast, neither fantasizes about Bacon’s subjective experiences, nor attempts to write art history. His is an anecdotal, sometimes self-promoting but always appealing account of the man. Farson knows first-hand the underworld Bacon frequented, and was eyewitness to numerous astonishing encounters. He skillfully recalls dialogue and minute gestures: Bacon tugging on his collar as he delivers a stinging bon mot, the unique impression Bacon made on others:


It was nearly one o’clock when [John] Deakin gave a stage whisper: "I think, kiddo, this is going to be one of the good days. Look who’s just come in." Opening his mouth in that grimace of a well-meant smile, he nodded to a man on the far side of the bar who now came over to join us. He walked with the cautious tread of a first-class passenger venturing out on deck in a high sea, or that of a man who suspects there might be a small earthquake at any moment. This was my first sight of Francis Bacon; he was laughing already.


Farson does not disguise his adulation of the man ("I doubt if he was the greatest man I have known, but he was the most extraordinary"). Although objectivity may not be Farson’s strong point, he does vividly recount instances of the cruelty of Bacon, who could be ruthless to friends, artists and critics, not to mention anyone with unattractive pretenses. (Farson describes Bacon’s rude jeering at Princess Margaret when she gave an extemporaneous recital of Cole Porter songs at a party they were both attending. "Someone had to stop her," Bacon said afterwards.) Farson’s picture is not always pretty — one dark chapter begins with vignettes of alcohol-sodden deaths (Bacon’s was a quintessentially pickled circle and another, about Bacon’s relationship with the pianist Peter Lacy, includes accounts of Lacy’s having slashed Bacon’s canvases and inflicted weals on the artist’s back. Although Farson might to some degree be accused of sensationalism, Bacon did lead a sensational life. ("Seduire c’est tout," said Bacon to Farson.)


Admittedly, Farson’s enterprise is less ambitious than Sinclair’s, and his genre as much memoir as biography. The memoir, unlike biography, can risk seeming tainted by vanity, since the memorialist claims a privileged relationship with the deceased. And, indeed, Parson does not entirely avoid this pitfall. He includes, for instance, an abridged transcript of a television interview he did in 1958 with Bacon for a program called The Art GameSince the film of this interview was subsequently lost, one wonders if Farson’s intention here is not primarily to claim precedence over Sylvester’s (and others’) later interviews. Drawing on the film’s "continuity sheets" for dialogue, he shows himself eliciting remarks on several of Bacon’s most famous themes some years before Sylvester did, For example, in 1962, Bacon told Sylvester that his painting was "an attempt to bring the figurative thing up onto the nervous system more violently and more poignantly." But four years earlier, according to Farson, Bacon had rhetorically asked, "How can I . . . present what is called the living sensation more nearly on the nervous system and more violently?" And although, in 1966, Bacon said to Sylvester, "I did hope one day to make the best painting of the human cry," eight years before he had already told Farson that "one of the things I wanted to do was to record the human cry, and that in itself is something sensational." There are similar expressions, as well, of Bacon’s views of happiness and love, of optimism as the reverse side of "the shadow" — that is, mortality, and of his opinion of abstract art, particularly action painting, as mere "decoration."


Thus, Farson’s belated transcription of his interview is nearly superfluous. Furthermore, much of the incidental dialogue elsewhere in Farson’s book is so wonderfully recalled that many parts of it feel like very richly embellished interviews, in which characters and props have been added for emphasis. Even Farson’s digressions into his own life or those of others in the Soho circles  photographer John Deakin’s, for instance - nicely work to make the milieu come to life. This vitality is precisely what Sinclair’s text lacks; in spite of his book’s title, Bacon’s fife and times in Sinclair’s version seem too remote, too abstract to be of compelling interest.


By the time Michel Archimbaud interviewed Bacon in French in 1991-92, there were few new revelations. Francis Bacon: In Conversation with Michel Archimbaud, recently published in translation by Phaidon in an attractive paperback, is little more than an addendum to the incomparable Sylvester interviews, which are still in print. But Archimbaud’s are the final formal interviews, with some insights to offer. The artist repeats his views on Eisenstein’s Potemkin, on Velazquez, and on the subject of chance; but he also makes quite specific remarks about a wide range of artists from Degas and van Gogh to Warhol and Klee. And, because of Archimbaud’s interest in music, Bacon reveals as well his tastes in a field he has spoken little of before. Had Archimbaud been able to carry his interviews through as planned, who knows what other tidbits he might have recorded? But the artist died before the last of the scheduled interviews could be conducted.

As an alternative to biographies and memoirs, a major new study by Ernst van Alphen, Francis Bacon and the Loss of Self, scrupulously avoids the life in pursuit of a theoretical analysis of the work. "The first time I saw a painting by Bacon, I was literally left speechless," writes the author in his introduction. "I was perplexed about the level on which these paintings touched me: I could not even formulate what the paintings were about, still less what aspect of them hurt me so deeply." In thinking over his "incapacitation," van Alphen, a professor of comparative literature at the University of Leiden, turned to other works of art and literature that had a similar effect on him, in order to try to get at the expressive mechanisms that provoke a "momentary loss of self." His study of Bacon is a close analysis that draws on a wide range of literature and criticism to demonstrate "how Bacon’s works hit the nervous system, not only of the viewer, but also of Western culture and its artistic traditions."

Van Alphen begins by examining the ways that Bacon’s paintings "stimulate" but then cancel out, narrative readings. Through formal discontinuities that undermine temporal and spatial coherence, Bacon creates, particularly in the triptychs, "another kind of narrative: narrative that is contiguous with the reader [sic], that touches the reader by its focus on the performative ’affect’ of narrative." Van Alphen characterizes Bacon’s "narrativity" as one in which the modernist gaze is destabilized even as it is seduced by an apparent readability. Bacon’s subject matter is frequently concerned with perception and its tools - cameras, mirrors, lights - and the figure of the voyeur makes repeated appearances. Van Alphen sees Bacon as eroding the distance between the viewing subject and the painted object; Bacon’s "procreative narrative," he says, "does not allow for a safe distance between viewer and a unified image, but . . . implicates the viewer, in almost a bodily way, in the act of production." What the viewer sees, according to van Alphen, is a shattered image with no potential for a heroic reconstruction of self. Such devices as the multiplication of interior frames or a displacement of corporeal forms onto landscape serve only to confuse inside and outside, subjectivity and the world. Finally, van Alphen claims that Bacon’s representation of masculinity in bodies which "show no signs of stability, control, action, or production" "re-subjectifies" the body, establishing a new self through resistance to received notions of identity.

This is a sketchy summary of a dense argument that ranges through the hot spots of contemporary theory - narrative, perception, mortality, the body, gender. Van Alphen draws upon a battery of literary critics and philosophers ranging from William James to Roland Barthes to Leo Bersani. His own observations on Bacon can be quite insightful, but the constant sampling of secondary sources is sometimes wearying.[6] There are inspired analogies — van Alphen characterizes Bacon’s portraits as "mystery portraits," comparing them to Willem Brakman’s De Vadermoorders (The Fatherkillers), a crime novel in which the murderer is never unveiled. According to van Alphen, "Bacon ... shows that representation, seen as an act of detection, does not unmask the figure; it forms, or better, it deforms, decomposes, and kills the figure."

More surprising is van Alphen’s choice of Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood to shed fight on the splitting and replicating figures in Bacon’s paintings. Clearly, homosexuality has something to do with it; van Alphen sees Barnes’s book as apposite because in it lesbian love is presented as "the ideal representation of loss of self." But why choose Nightwood’s lesbianism rather than, say, the male homosexuality of Genet’s Querelle, where "twinning" and split subjectivity are also of great importance and, I might argue, in which the subcultures portrayed are closer to those that Bacon frequented? The answer, I believe, lies in van Alphen’s desire to eliminate the person of the artist from his consideration of the paintings. But Bacon was, after all, a gay man, although he assiduously denied the importance of that fact for the interpretation of his paintings. No doubt van Alphen knows Bacon’s position. Perhaps he has inadvertently succumbed to the artist’s desire to control the critical interpretation of his work; or perhaps he is simply pursuing his own critical project, which seems to take the idea of "death of the author" to literal extremes. Van Alphen’s last chapter, on masculinity, perhaps the best in his book, never once mentions homosexuality in a 26 page discussion of Bacon’s deconstruction of masculine identity.