Behind the Hedonist Persona of Francis Bacon

Behind the Hedonist Persona of Francis Bacon

Behind the Hedonist Persona of Francis Bacon

Annalyn Swan and Mark Stevens’s comprehensive study of the British artist is a sensitive investigation into his artistic identity.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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