When Michael Peppiatt stepped inside the French House, a dark, dank Soho pub, one busy lunchtime in June 1963, he could hardly have anticipated how life-changing an impact the next few hours would afford him.
A 21 year-old Cambridge student who’d just become editor of the university’s arts journal, he was hunting a few words of wisdom from one of the lions of the painting world, Francis Bacon, and maybe, too, dreaming of enlightenment.
Gaining access seemed largely wishful thinking, but through the photographer, John Deakin, he soon found himself sitting at the great man’s side.
It was a position he would maintain for the next three decades, in the process becoming Bacon’s sidekick, servile recorder, put-upon apprentice, confidante and, in a myriad of ways, his confessor.
This is not a biography, Peppiatt has already written that, Francis Bacon — Anatomy of an Enigma, 20 years ago, in fact, along with three more books that offer glimpses and reflections of the one of the 20th century’s most compelling artists.
Rather, this is an analysis of a long and often lopsided friendship, a reflection by Peppiatt on his own life, and a contemplation on the cost and worth of living in the often generous, frequently demanding shadow of a genius.
In the book’s preface he tells us “Bacon comes across here in ways that no formal biography could convey: close up and unguarded, grand and petty, tender and treacherous by turn, and often quite unlike the legend that has grown up around him”.
The opening pages, which depict in vivid fashion that historic first meeting, set the tone for what is to come, and if there is an inevitable imbalance between the two main personalities involved then that in no way lessens the worth of book, or the story being told.
Bacon is larger than reality in almost every conceivable way, a walking, bloviating sackful of contradictions, a goading presence on every page, living loose and wild from within his cadre of cartoonish celebrity hangers-on, pushing all the boundaries of excess and masochism, trawling the most sordid corners of the gutteral nightlife in search of the next thrill, the next kick, the next cerebral high.
However, he is also gentle, in moments, and soulful, and fascinated at the kinds of normality that exist beyond what he might have regarded as his Pale.
And always, there is the sanctuary, salvation and protective shield of his art, his true reason for breathing.
Measured against such a full-blown creation, the author is a spare part, yet it is this very position that provides the optimal view of an existence so hard-spent.
Peppiatt, for his part, is a witness but also a student, absorbing lessons not only about the work but about all that feeds it and makes it whole.
He paddles perhaps in the shallows, careful of lines that can’t be easily uncrossed, but finds it impossible to resist falling under the spell of the bacchanal and its rampant conductor.
Even after escaping to Paris, even after finding love, a wife, starting a family, forging a separate life for himself, the artist remains a dominating presence, colouring every detail of the world.
“Having lived to tell the tale, I recount it here as indiscreetly as Bacon once recommended I should, sketching in the parallel evens of my own life as the story unfolds.”
The result is “a double portrait, a diptych of the kind Bacon sometimes painted, showing two profiles, two personalities, two lives closely intertwined.”
Depicting as much, in a readable manner, is a considerable achievement.
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