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Devoted to booze, betting, boys… and his nanny!

BOOK OF THE WEEK 

Francis Bacon: Revelations by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan

(William Collins £30, 880pp)  

London, 1949. A sumptuous white-tie ball. Princess Margaret was among the glittering guests.

Giddy with champagne in the small hours, the princess grabbed the microphone from Noël Coward. The partygoers stopped dancing.

The princess started singing, loudly, warbling off-key. The guests clapped and clamoured for an encore.

Just as she was settling in to Let’s Do It, a ‘ghastly hiss, a jeer, a prolonged and thunderous booing’ welled up from the belly of the crowd. The princess went red and rushed out of the room, followed by her flustered lady-in-waiting.

Who was it who had dared to boo Princess Margaret off the stage?

Francis Bacon: Revelations by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan tells the story of the British artist’s colourful life and loves. Pictured: Francis Bacon in 1969

It was the 40-year-old Francis Bacon, or ‘that dreadful man, Francis Bacon’, as some guests muttered: that ‘drunken artist’, standing next to his similarly appalling friend Lucian Freud.

‘He calls himself a painter,’ remarked one old gent, ‘but he does the most frightful paintings. I don’t understand how a creature like him was allowed to get in here. It’s really quite disgraceful.’

A small handful of younger guests, according to Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, the American authors of this magnificent new biography of Bacon, found his boos thrilling: ‘A rush of night air into England’s stuffy room.’

That’s what Bacon was. From the moment he first put paint to canvas, the untrained (and almost uneducated — he only went to school for two years of his teens) Bacon had an innate urge to mount an assault on convention.

Pulitzer Prize winners Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan have written about his life. Pictured: Francis Bacon in his studio, circa 1960

Pulitzer Prize winners Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan have written about his life. Pictured: Francis Bacon in his studio, circa 1960

Through his terrifying triptychs of crucified flesh, his screaming Popes, his grimacing businessmen in cages and so on, his own scream ’emerged from deep within the physical body as a welling up of rage and despair over the fraudulent constructs of civilised life’.

Though his paintings were shockingly raw and violent — one New York art critic remarked that there was so much flayed human flesh that he should have worn a butcher’s apron rather than black tie to the private view — Bacon comes across as a kind, shy man, keen on rough sex but very fond of his male lovers and devoted to his nanny, Nanny Lightfoot, who lived with the family in Ireland during his childhood and continued to look after Francis in London until her death in 1950, when he was 41 and she was 80.

Nanny Lightfoot almost deserves a biography in her own right. A bespectacled Cornish lady with pinned-up braids, she came to the rescue of wheezy, nervous little Francis whose tyrannical, homophobic Anglo-Irish father, Captain Bacon, thought him pathetic.

The new book tells how Bacon had a desire to tackle convention with his work. Bacon is pictured left with photographer John Deakin

The new book tells how Bacon had a desire to tackle convention with his work. Bacon is pictured left with photographer John Deakin

Nanny would later become Bacon’s partner in crime, acting as doorman/bouncer at his illegal London gambling evenings, and the two of them could sometimes be found poring over small ads together, both in search of ‘a little something on the side’.

Oddly enough, Francis fancied his father. He was always sexually attracted to opposites: older posh men, or cockney criminals. He had his first experiences with the grooms in his father’s stables and for ever after found the smell of horse dung arousing. He was, say these authors, ‘catnip to the closeted’.

An upright cousin of his father’s, Cecil Harcourt-Smith, who was a closet ‘ultra-sadistic sadist’, took Bacon on a dissolute trip to Berlin in 1927, where his eyes were opened to the intoxicating contrast between opulence and squalor.

Bacon based a number of famous paintings on photographs he commissioned from Deakin (the pair are pictured together)

Bacon based a number of famous paintings on photographs he commissioned from Deakin (the pair are pictured together) 

From then on, he sought out the low dives of Soho, putting rouge on his cheeks for long nights of drinking and sex.

His first two long-term lovers were rich, older men, both called Eric, who supported him financially.

It’s fascinating to watch his agonisingly slow rise to celebrity. He started off not as a painter but as a modernist furniture designer. His first private art show was a disaster, his paintings described as ‘exotic monstrosities’. He destroyed all the unsold ones.

With his choirboy looks, he became known as ‘the baby-faced canvas-slasher’, as he had already destroyed 700 of his own works by 1939.

When war broke out in 1939, the asthmatic Bacon failed his ‘physical’ with the military board. Instead, he holed up in a cottage in Hampshire (with Nanny) and painting became an obsession.

He was inspired by Nietzsche’s view that ‘it’s all meaningless so you might as well be extraordinary’.

Francis is pictured in Paris in 1987. This new book reveals all the detail of his career and personal life

Francis is pictured in Paris in 1987. This new book reveals all the detail of his career and personal life

In 1945, his deeply disturbing Three Studies For Figures At The Base Of A Crucifixion shocked the contemporary art scene and made everything before it seem bland and safe by comparison. Graham Sutherland spotted Bacon’s genius and ‘recommended him to the tastemakers’.

Bacon carried on being short of money for years, writing begging letters to his rich friends and gambling away anything he did earn.

Like his friend Lucian Freud, he got a kick out of losing all his money: it ‘swept away the fog of hope’.

He played the tables at Monte Carlo, accompanied by Nanny, and gambled in the low dives of Tangiers, where he frequently visited the third love of his life, an ex-fighter pilot called Peter Lacy, with whom the sex was at its roughest; Bacon would emerge bruised and resort to amphetamines after ‘a rough night’.

It wasn’t until he was taken on in the 1950s by Marlborough Fine Art, the prestigious art gallery in Old Bond Street — founded by two Austrian-Jewish emigrés Frank Lloyd and Harry Fischer, who knew how to nurture, hype and market him — that Bacon became world-famous and mobs crowded outside museums on his opening nights.

On one of those events, in Paris in 1971, his Cockney lover George Dyer died on the loo in their Paris hotel, having taken an overdose of drugs. Earlier in the day, Bacon had found him in their hotel room with an Arab boy whose feet stank.

Francis Bacon: Revelations by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan ( William Collins £30, 880pp)

Francis Bacon: Revelations by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan ( William Collins £30, 880pp)

Bacon quietly asked the hotel manager if he could ‘postpone’ George’s death to the next day, as the red carpet evening was about to begin at the Grand Palais, with a Guard of Honour. The hotel manager obliged. Bacon managed to get through the evening in a heartbroken state.

George, like so many of Bacon’s lovers, comes across as rather sweet: an ‘inept thief’ with a ginger crew-cut and a stammer, he lost his self-esteem when he gave up his profession as a burglar. He even took elocution lessons to get rid of his Cockney accent.

Their love affair started (rumour had it) when George had tried burgling Bacon, but Bacon heard the noise and caught him red-handed. He said they must have sex there and then, otherwise he would report him to the police.

They became a devoted couple, and Bacon painted this short, muscly man 20 times all through the 1960s.

But George drank, started ripping up Bacon’s art and once set fire to the studio.

‘Light-filled people sometimes best capture darkness,’ the authors of this wide-ranging and thoughtful book surmise.

In spite of all the nocturnal roughness, Bacon was light-filled in his daily life, relishing the company of old friends to shore up the ‘deep well of loneliness’ inside him that had been there since his childhood.

And he could depict love. Lucian Freud kept one of his paintings, Two Figures, above his bed for more than half a century, and was so possessive of it that he refused to lend it for a retrospective.

That work may be, the authors write, ‘one of the most sensitive, even tender, depictions of the animal in man to be found in 20th-century art.’

Deep into his 70s, Bacon still dressed like a dandy. Right up to the time of his death in Madrid, aged 82, he was being rejuvenated by a much younger Spanish boyfriend. A painter of darkness, he ‘remained a desperate optimist’.

In his life as well as his art, his urge, as he himself said, was always ‘to say the truth even if it hurts’.


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