There is a book by the late writer and broadcaster Daniel Farson called ‘Sacred Monsters’ which looks at the heyday of Soho in the 1950s, and I always think that the title perfectly sums up what I feel about the artist Francis Bacon.
Here is a man who lived the majority of his life on a debauched and sexually adventurous edge, taking part in sadomasochist, homosexual sex on a daily basis, whilst also painting extraordinarily disturbing and distorted figurative work that would go to sell for millions of pounds during his lifetime.
The two shouldn’t really go together. You would think, that the discipline required to be an artist at the top of your game, would get in the way of enjoying yourself to excess the way Bacon did, but he managed both with aplomb and a huge grin on his face for the most part.
Francis Bacon was born in Dublin in 1909 to English parents, his father a racehorse trainer. The young Francis though was in effect raised by his nanny, Nanny Lightfoot – more of whom later.
Bacon knew he was homosexual from an early age and his effeminate ways enraged his father, who had him horsewhipped by his stable grooms by way of beating ‘it’ out of him. Of course, this failed and a young Francis continued much as before, indeed ending up having sexual encounters with the very same stable lads. He later admitted he harboured a sexual desire for his own father, which must have been tricky, to say the least. Eventually, he was turfed out of the family home after being found by his father dressed in his mother’s underwear.
At first, he landed in Soho, partly living off a trust fund from his mother and supplementing that income by taking advantage of rich gay men in the then homosexual underworld of the 1920s.
By 1927, he was in Berlin at the height of that city’s ‘Golden 20s’ period of notoriety, before making his way to Paris, where he first showed serious interest in art.
He returned to London in 1928 and shared accommodation with Eric Alden, who would go on be Bacon’s first collector. Nanny Lightfoot also moved in and looked after them both.
He flitted around London in the early 1930s, moving from one abusive relationship to another and seemingly enjoying every minute of it. In this period, he often worked as an interior designer
His own early artwork was not well received, however, and he continually destroyed what he saw as unsatisfactory early efforts, which of course would be now worth millions in today’s market.
He was already combining a love of medical and anatomical books, to feature in his art, and these would be a recurring theme from then on.
Bacon exhibited in 1937 and it was then that he began to gain attention from buyers. At the outbreak of the Second World War, he was declared unfit for active service due to his asthma and instead served as an ARP Warden on air raid duty. However, the brick dust from the bombed buildings worsened his already pronounced illness and he was discharged.
In 1943, he and Lightfoot took up residence in South Kensington and there they ran unlicensed gambling parties, which consisted of roulette mainly.
It later transpired that Nanny slept on the kitchen table…
In 1944, Bacon finally got into his stride with his art; His ‘Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion’ caused a sensation when revealed. Bacon’s name spread quickly through the art establishment worldwide and he was soon exhibiting internationally, and ending up in prestigious museums, like that of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Sales of his work enabled him to move to Monte Carlo and he lived on and off there for the next few years, gambling his way around town. Finally, he ran completely out of money and struggled to afford even the basic materials for his work.
By the 50s, Bacon had returned to London and was now a fixture in the drinking dens and pubs of Soho. Muriel’s, the affectionate name for the Colony Room bar in Dean Street, and named after Muriel Belcher who ran it, had a license to trade daily from 3 pm to 11 pm as a private members bar, and Bacon was from day one in 1948. Indeed Muriel gave him £10 a week retainer, as well as free drinks, to bring in rich patrons to the premises.
Around all this he continued to work and was now very much in the centre of London’s burgeoning arts and cultural scene along with the likes of Lucien Freud, Frank Auberach and fellow Soho-ite John Deakin. Art critic David Sylvester also actively promoted him and his work. Religious symbolism, with screaming Popes and other church-based iconography, appeared in his work, often depicted in a diptych and triptych style.
By 1958, he was solely represented by Marlborough Fine Art Gallery and that relationship lasted till his death.
He met his first serious lover Peter Lacy, an ex-Battle of Britain pilot in 1952. Their relationship was tempestuous to say the least with Bacon often beaten to a pulp by Lacy, who then also destroyed many works of art during his drunken rages.
The second main lover in Bacon’s life, George Dyer, a petty criminal, appeared on the scene in 1963. Younger than Bacon, Dyer was also a serious drinker, but with the build of a boxer.
Dyer, like Lacy, became the central subject of many a Bacon painting. He was said to be very proud of the depictions, though he would also comment often at the same time, depending on how much he had been drinking, that he thought they were ‘horrible’.
Bacon slowly grew tired of Dyer and his antics, however. Drink got the better of him and eventually consumed and began to contribute to the end of their relationship.
At the time of Bacon’s big show as the Grand Palais in Paris in late 1971, Dyer was in a terrible state, fearing the end, with his drinking seriously out of control.
Whilst in Paris, Bacon left their shared room to escape the ‘smelly feet’ of a rent boy Dyer had picked up earlier that day. He returned to the room the next morning to find Dyer dead, sitting on the toilet, after overdosing on Barbiturates.
Deciding that the show must go on, Bacon with the cooperation of the hotel manager, and the staff of the Marlborough Gallery, also out in Paris with them, suppressed the news of the death for two days.
The death of Dyer hit Bacon badly and that continued for many years. Grieving, he continued to paint the figure of George on many occasions, including the ‘Black Triptychs’, which capture the suicide.
Bacon was at one time the most expensive living artist, with his work fetching millions of dollars. He died of a heart attack whilst on holiday in Madrid 1992, aged 82. His estate was valued at £11 million and this was left to his close friend John Edwards, with whom he had had a long platonic relationship.
His messy and rubbish strewn studio, which was situated at 7 Reece Mews in London, was later reconstructed at the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin in 1998. The move there involved cataloguing over 7,000 items, including artist materials, pages ripped from magazines and books, partly destroyed works of art and over a thousand photographs.
Bacon’s prices continued to rise steadily. In 2013, the work ‘Three Studies of Lucien Freud’ fetched $142 million.
Francis Bacon 1909 – 1982. A life lived.
The Mumper of SE5