Biograpahy explores canvas of Francis Bacon’s hedonistic life

Michael Peppiatt has been described as Francis Bacon’s Boswell and in this biography, writes  Peter Murray, he describes a hedonistic lifestyle that, by comparison, makes today’s excesses seem harmlessly amateur.

IN JUNE 1963, in the French House pub in Soho, Michael Peppiatt, student editor of the Cambridge Opinion, approached the artist Francis Bacon seeking an interview. 

In venturing into this famously bohemian haunt, Peppiatt was in luck; Bacon, who could be dismissive of strangers, was in a generous mood. In spite of the age difference — Bacon was by then in his 50s — the two got on well and thereafter Peppiatt began to accompany the artist on his social rounds, meeting remarkable individuals drawn from all sections of society. Over the years, Peppiatt grew to know his subject well and in spite of their often louche surroundings and confused comings and goings, he took care to keep a diary and, insofar as was possible, make a written verbatim record of their conversations.

The fruits of these alcohol-fuelled days and nights, Francis Bacon in your blood: A Memoir, published by Bloomsbury Circus, is the fifth book by Peppiatt to emerge from his career as ‘Bacon’s Boswell’, in which he continues an intimate documentation of one of the greatest painters of the 20th century. The Bacon that emerges from Peppiatt’s pen is as complex a person as one could meet; by turns generous and mean, kind and callous, angelic and devilish. 

The artist’s circle included Sonia Orwell, widow of George Orwell, photographer John Deakin and French anthropologist and writer Michel Leiris. Although fuelled on champagne and oysters, these lives were far from carefree: George Dyer, the artist’s lover, committed suicide on the eve of Bacon’s retrospective opening at the Grand Palais, while Peppiatt touches on the hazards of embracing a lifestyle that included drugs, gambling, thugs and East End clubs.

An admirer of La Rochefoucauld, Bacon often spoke in aphorisms. ‘I like phrases that cut me’, he was fond of saying, revealing an element of masochism in his character. Born in Ireland in 1909, he had grown up moving between stud farms in Kildare and life in London, where his father, an army officer, worked for several years in the War Office.

From an early age, Bacon was individualistic and rebellious. After a row with his father, aged seventeen, he left home, helped by a small allowance from his mother. His first foray to the Continent in 1927 was in the company of a homosexual friend of his father’s. He stayed in Germany for a while, before moving on to France, where he fell in with an artistic set.

He then settled in London and thereafter pursuing an erratic career as a ‘gentleman’s companion’, socialising in Soho clubs and pubs, and setting himself up firstly as an interior designer, then as a painter. Disillusioned by a lack of success, he gave up art for several years, but then, in the early 1940s, returned to painting.

Together with his former nanny, Jessie Lightfood, he ran an illegal gambling club in a house in Cromwell Place, where he also had his studio. In the febrile world of post-war London, Bacon’s images of tortured figures began to attract attention and command high prices. In 1948, Alfred Barr purchased one of his works for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Over the ensuing three decades, Bacon rose to become a star in the international art world, and by the time Peppiatt caught up with him, he had just had a successful retrospective exhibition at the Tate.

Peppiatt’s literary style is personable, immediate and engaging. The reader accompanies him as he makes his first nervous foray into the dim interior of the French House. Having studied history of art in Cambridge, where the teaching extended up as far as the Renaissance, but not much further, Peppiatt knew that if he managed to secure an interview with this artist, whose paintings were now receiving international acclaim, he was on the road to success. And so it proved.

Within a few hours of their meeting, Peppiatt was being regaled with stories of Bacon’s childhood in Ireland, where the artist recalled his mother making ‘a sort of mousse’ out of Carrigeen seaweed. 

Lucian Freud then joined the circle, and the conversation turned to Nietzsche. Such was the level of drinking, it is surprising that Peppiatt managed to remember any of what was said. Leaving the French House, the entourage moved on to Wheeler’s restaurant, then to a wine bar, and later took a taxi to a pub in the Isle of Dogs. The evening descended into an alcohol-fuelled haze, in which Stephen Ward and other denizens of London’s demi-monde swirled around.

In the months that followed, Peppiatt led a double life - by day a hapless student at Cambridge and at night part of a racy bohemian world in London. He was disappointed when his fellow students failed to comment on the brightly-coloured shirt that Bacon bought him at Sportique, John Michael Ingram’s shop on Old Compton Road. One of the advantages, and disadvantages, of conversations with Bacon was that the artist tended to repeat himself, reiterating the same theories and opinions. In writing up these conversations, Peppiatt has minimised these repetitions, although there are instances, as on pages 48 and 356, where Bacon comes out with exactly the same phrase — in this case, praising Irish writers for their fluent use of words.

Bacon’s relationship with the country of his birth was complex. He routinely repudiated his Irish upbringing, but there is no doubt that he was formed by the edgy, nervous world of 1920s’ Anglo-Irish society. The family lived under constant threat that their home might be attacked and burned. Bacon recalled cavalry making practice charges on the long driveway, and accompanying his grandmother, who had been married five times, to hunt balls.

The family was dogged by unhappiness and tragedy. His elder brother got a job with the Rhodesian police, but died of lockjaw, while his younger brother also died, of tuberculosis. Bacon’s sister Winnie also went out to Rhodesia, but became ill with multiple sclerosis. His parent’s marriage had never been a happy one. 

The day before he died, his father, referring to Bacon’s mother, said ‘for God’s sake keep that woman out of my room, tittering-tottering all over the place in those high heels’. Such experiences, wound in with a love-hate relationship with his father, and an English boarding school education, formed Bacon’s complex emotional psychology.

Much of the action narrated in Peppiatt’s book took place in the Colony Room, a private drinking club in Soho, presided over by the inimitable Muriel Belcher.

There were also excursion to Paris, Barcelona, Tangier and other cities favoured during the hedonistic years of the 1960s. In many ways Peppiatt resembles the fictional Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, a humble and self-deprecating narrator, who serves as a bridge between an everyday world and the blazing comet that was Francis Bacon. The trail of that comet survives. Readers of Francis Bacon in Your Blood who visit the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin are in for a treat. The studio that Peppiatt visited for the first time in 1963 has been transferred — in its entirety — from the Old Brompton Road to Parnell Square.

The apparently chaotic mess that surrounded Bacon while he created his magnificent paintings was in fact a carefully selected archive, comprising images, photographs, press clippings, and visual aids such as Eadweard Muybridge’s The Human Figure in Motion. 

The artist referred to it as the ‘compost’ from which his work emerged. Two years ago, a triptych by Bacon sold at auction in New York for $142 million, underlining the importance of a remarkable creative talent, brought to life in this compelling book.

Francis Bacon in Your Blood: A Memoir

Michael Peppiatt

Bloomsbury Circus, €29.99



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