Francis Bacon: Revelations by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan

“We are born and we die, that’s how it is.” Francis Bacon’s philosophy of life was blunt. “But in between,” he declared, “we give this purposeless existence a meaning by our drives.” Bacon relished and interrogated his drives — his desires and passions, lusts and obsessions — as much in his life as his work. He poured his impetuous talent into both. Little wonder that biographers are riveted.

Within five years of his death at the age of 82 in 1992, three lives had been published, the ground-setting Anatomy of an Enigma by Michael Peppiatt and Daniel Farson’s exultantly gossipy The Gilded Gutter Life among them. Since then can be added the David Sylvester classic The Brutality of Fact, a slew of lesser biographies, memoirs, catalogue essays and scholarly analyses (even his medical records have provided fodder for a book). Bacon is quite possibly the single most written about artist that Britain has produced. Do we need yet another exposition of his life story? Is there anything left for Francis Bacon: Revelations to reveal?

The American duo Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan (the former an art critic for several prestigious publications, the latter a veteran arts editor who now teaches) have produced a biography that no Bacon fan — or indeed foe — can afford to overlook.

Britain’s de Kooning

As a husband-and-wife biographical team, Stevens and Swan cut their teeth on another controversial art-world figure: the American abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning. It won them a Pulitzer prize. Now they turn their attention to the painter who might be seen as De Kooning’s British counterpart (Bacon certainly respected him. He called him “the great man in the United States for bursting through the abstract and planting an image on the canvas”).

Ten years of work have gone into this thunking great volume. It shows, but thankfully more in the profusion of endnotes (they constitute nearly 100 pages of this tome) than in the prose, which flows swiftly and elegantly. A mountain of research, including great chunks of description (of places and people and paintings and periods), piles of anecdotes, and dense scatterings of detail (anything from the profound impact of Nietzsche to Bacon’s fascination with false teeth: “Teeth could rip the world apart, but a man with false teeth was just another toothless man putting up a false front”) diffuse effortlessly into the narrative stream.

Clockwise from left: Bacon, right, with lover George Dyer, a petty criminal and subject of more than 20 of Bacon’s paintings; a young Bacon; an artists’ lunch at Wheeler’s, in London, with, from left, Timothy Behrens, Lucian Freud, Bacon, Frank Auerbach, and Michael Andrews.

The outlines of the plot will be familiar. Bacon, the asthmatic, homosexual son of a bullying Anglo-Irish father, eschewed the upper-class world of his childhood (“when I think of my childhood, I see something very heavy, very cold, like a block of ice”) for the sleazy demimonde of Soho in London. There, indulging his tastes for drinking, gambling, sadomasochistic sex and (after a period spent as a designer) painting, he came to fame as a painter of crucifixions and screaming popes. By the late 1960s he was internationally fêted. The iconoclast had become an icon.

A rich cast of characters peoples this theatrical tale. Anyone from fellow artist Lucian Freud, with whom Bacon fostered a fierce friendship for several decades before finally falling out (shortly before his death, Bacon, sitting in a restaurant, saw Freud for the last time: Freud walked right past him) through the notorious Kray twins (he became so friendly with Ronnie that one drunken evening he offered him a painting, which was refused with the words: “I wouldn’t have one of those f***ing things”) to the eccentric bit-part player Lord Berners, who kept a pet giraffe, dyed his estate pigeons bright colors and liked playing the clavichord in the back of his Rolls-Royce.

Bacon, the authors inform us, was “attracted to beautiful but suppressed men in whom there lay — somewhere between weakness and power — a seductive but dangerous line that he could test”. A succession of tempestuous, frequently violent homosexual liaisons punctuate a sex life that veered dramatically from brutish backstreet encounters to profoundly felt passions. Love was a “dreadful illness”, Bacon quipped, but he was “smitten as a school girl” by the genial Peter Lacey (“even his calves were beautiful”).

The asthmatic, homosexual son of a bullying Anglo-Irish father, Bacon eschewed the upper-class world of his childhood for the demimonde of Soho in London.

George Dyer, a petty criminal whom, according to legend, Bacon first encountered when he was burgling his house, became over the course of a stormy decade the subject of more than 20 paintings, not least the haunting 1973 triptych that depicts Dyer’s death from an overdose on the eve of Bacon’s big Parisian retrospective. John Edwards, more a kept man and companion than a lover to the aging Bacon, was a background figure for the painter’s last 15 years. He became the controversial benefactor of the Bacon estate.

Bacon might be seen as William de Kooning’s British counterpart.

What might to many emerge as surprising, however, is the powerful role played by women in Bacon’s life. His childhood nanny, Jessie Lightfoot, who “understood life’s underbelly”, went on to live with him in London, using his kitchen table as a bed for a time. (“It made quite a picture, Francis and Nanny sitting in the parlour … poring over the adverts, searching for wealthy men who wanted a little something on the side.”)

His cousin Diana Watson (“He seems to be without any link in the outside world except from Nurse and myself,” she wrote) remained a lifelong confidante. He felt more comfortable discussing art with the artist Isabel Rawsthorne than many other painters. There is a vivid description of them toasting his successes together: Rawsthorne “laughing a wide, wet, red laugh”, tearing open congratulatory telegrams, reading them and then letting them drop on the floor. Erica Brausen, “a formidable razor sharp German” lesbian, was Bacon’s first real dealer, Susan Sontag the first critic to recognize his true place.

At Marlborough Gallery the staidly respectable Valerie Beston became his companion, gatekeeper and fairy godmother of his finance. Sonia Orwell (wife of George Orwell) was a long-term friend and loyal supporter. When she was penniless after a bitter copyright battle over her husband’s writing and close to death, it was Bacon who paid her hotel bills, visiting her attentively and ensuring that her room was filled with flowers.

Finding Glory in Squalor

“The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery,” Bacon believed. He “could represent contrary things at once” the authors tell us. This is demonstrated over and over with anecdotes. Bacon mastered the art of concealment and display, ruthlessly excising the humdrum, the failures, the hard slog from his story, curating the character of a “great original”. Dedicating himself to futility with an all but religious fervor, he found glory in squalor, snatched grandeur from the banality of life.

This biography presents a mesmerizing portrait of a performer commanding the stage of the 20th century, delivering his lines to a public at times wildly applauding, at times gawking, appalled. “If there is a force field around people, his was ten times as strong,” his friend and painting subject Henrietta Moraes declared. All the set pieces are there for the taking: the time that he booed Princess Margaret for her off-key singing of cabaret songs; scurrilous tales from the Colony Club; the story of how he had a huge win in the casinos of Monte Carlo but then blew all his money on a villa so that, ten days later, he had barely the funds to get home.

Bacon in his London studio, 1985.

The recounting of riveting anecdotes is easy. Where this biography soars above rivals is where its authors, even while acknowledging the crafted performance, probe beneath the façade. Newcomers can meet the celebrated public figure: dramatic, queeny and confident, charming, generous and funny, fiercely unsentimental and fantastically talented. But celebrity, the authors write, “was a light that, concealing more than it revealed, enabled him to slip in and out of his persona. It certainly did not displace any masks that he wanted kept in place.”

Stevens and Swan analyze what lay beneath the mask. A growing sense of intimacy strikes. It begins with small details: Bacon’s youthful enjoyment of tennis (one friend recalls him ruthlessly running a fat female opponent from side to side of the court with remorselessly placed shots), his particular taste for Tiptree “Tiny Tip” Raspberry conserve. We sit on the edge of the bath with the wickedly amusing Michael Wishart watching him dress for a night out, applying foundation “with lightning dexterity born of long practice”, brushing brown Kiwi boot polish into his graying hair, whitening his teeth with Vim. We see a photograph of him naked bar his budgie-smuggling underpants. We are told — although the precise details remain secret (Bacon erupted in fury when probed) — that he, an emphatic atheist, was once shaken to the core by a religious experience.

“If there is a force field around people, his was ten times as strong.”

This book’s true “revelation” is Bacon in all his mysterious complexity. He was not just “a radical master of the 20th-century stage who exulted in the dark arts”. He was simultaneously “an Englishman suffused with longing for the ordinary patterns of joy and solace denied him as a child and a young man”.

This is not a portrait of a myth. It is the story of a man. And when it comes to the figure of Francis Bacon, a biography that can make manifest this intrinsic paradox must surely count as definitive.