In recent years, and especially since his death in 1992, there have been many proposals for a life of Francis Bacon. One of them came from Michael Peppiatt. He was well placed for the task, having been a friend of the artist for some thirty years; and his book is all the more moving because it explains why a full account of Bacon’s work and personality was impossible.
Or why, alas, it could not be written by Peppiatt himself. He was overwhelmed by his subject. He loved Bacon so much that he could not see him from a distance, and least of all with the judgement of an art historian. So the best parts of his book are close and immediate summaries of Bacon’s conversation. These he wrote, no doubt with a hangover, the morning after long nights of boozing. Here is Bacon’s voice, with his splutterings, repetitions, changes of subject and general disregard for other people’s opinions, his occasional bons mots and – far too seldom – his reminiscences.
Peppiatt was a listener rather than an interviewer. Bacon must have had many a story to tell, and they would have had a ghastly sheen over their seediness. He was Irish, from a quite rich but classless horse-breeding country family. His first sexual experiences were with one of his father’s grooms, at the back of the stables. The lonely boy was then sent to an English boarding school before a period in Berlin in the late 1920s, where he was an adolescent prostitute, and some months in Paris, where he decided that art was more interesting than any other part of his life, though it lacked the same immediate gratifications.
In Paris Bacon first saw works by Picasso. In later years, Peppiatt records, he often declared that Picasso was the only modern artist greater than himself, though he conceded that there might be something to be said for Matisse and Duchamp. How are we to treat this information? Many people can make idiotic remarks as they near the end of their first magnum of Pol Roger Brut 1947; but it appears that Bacon genuinely believed that he had such a status, and said so whether drunk or sober. The loyal Peppiatt does not demur from such egocentric imaginings. Everyone else will feel that Bacon’s table talk was massively benighted.
I surmise that Bacon’s mind lost touch with reality at the beginning of the 1950s, the time of his first public renown. This was probably a part of his mental surrender to alcoholism and high-stakes gambling – the years of his undocumented activities in Paris, South Africa, Monte Carlo and Tangier, where he had a long, unwholesome affair with Peter Lacy, a former test pilot who earned a living by playing the piano in fashionable bars. This lover may be the figure portrayed (or, rather, represented) in Bacon’s pictures of male couplings. But we have no documentation of any of these adventures, and Peppiatt never asked the questions that might have added to our partial knowledge.
Also mysterious is the period Bacon spent in various studios and flats in London, before and after the Second World War. He designed some furniture and found other employment in various places in South Kensington that dealt in domestic furniture. He was also painting, and came to know other artists of the day. Bacon destroyed his work from this period, or lost it. His early art is therefore unknown – though I once saw, in a recondite private collection (in a block of flats next to Marylebone station, since you ask), a small painting of a fox. Much as I dislike Bacon’s art in general, here was something that pierced me, so simple and eloquent was it, the brushstrokes pulsating as they came closer to the fox’s eyes, both malevolent and innocent of human ways. I dated it to the later 1940s.
After such a peculiar beginning to his career, there came some important canvases. I see Bacon as a child of the Blitz. He did no military service but experienced the fires in London and imagined the sufferings of people elsewhere. He was a war artist. And if you were to put the works of the postwar establishment, such as Graham Sutherland, Ceri Richards and Keith Vaughan, alongside Bacon’s pictures from the early 1950s, they would all fail to match his daring and emotionalism.
However, he could not maintain or vary the dramas of the paintings that gave us crucifixions and screaming popes. Aesthetically, the prints he made after his most famous paintings are more satisfactory than the original canvases. The banality of his palette matters less and the smearing nature of his touch – as though he were soiling linen – is not so apparent. The prints do not ruin our hope that beauty might once have been among his artistic goals.
Unfortunately, neither criticism nor the conversation of his artist friends had any effect on Bacon. The intake of champagne and burgundy, bottle after bottle throughout the day, prevented genuine cultural discussion, whether at table or in his head. He simply liked, and never tried to escape from, his way of life and thought – ‘my golden gutter’, as he called his existence. And he enjoyed being famous, which may be one reason why he took to Peppiatt.
Peppiatt was a young Cambridge undergraduate when they met in 1964, and not a happy or a successful student. He fancied a life in journalism. Half a lifetime later, Peppiatt has experienced many unpleasant things about the world, mainly because of his association with Bacon. But there is still some innocence in his writing. Perhaps it was his open character that attracted Bacon, even though the dirty old artist had quickly realised that his admirer was heterosexual. And Bacon would have liked the fact that Peppiatt was guileless, while most of his hangers-on had the mentality of pickpockets. His book is very long, and I suppose that its length has something to do with a generous spirit. In so far as anyone could be kind to Bacon, arrogant in his career of self-harm, Peppiatt was. Bacon was fortunate to have known him – more fortunate, perhaps, than Peppiatt was to have known Bacon.