Book of the week: Francis Bacon Revelations
Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan ‘analyse what lay beneath the mask’ of one of Britain’s most written-about painters
Francis Bacon is “quite possibly the single most written about artist that Britain has produced”, said Rachel Campbell-Johnston in The Times. Since his death in 1992, numerous biographies and memoirs have appeared, most focused on his exploits in the “sleazy demi-monde of Soho in London”. We know all about the all-night drinking sessions, and the often-repeated anecdotes: the time he booed Princess Margaret’s cabaret singing; the time he offered Ronnie Kray a painting, to which the gangster replied: “I wouldn’t have one of those f***ing things.” Less well-known is the complex, elusive, often anguished character who concealed himself behind his public persona. In their “thunking” new biography, Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan “analyse what lay beneath the mask”. The result is a work that, though extremely long and based on “mountains of research”, also achieves a rare “sense of intimacy”.
Bacon was born in Dublin, in 1909, into a “semi-grand Anglo-Irish family”, said Christian House in the FT. His parents viewed their asthmatic, weedy-voiced son as “the runt of the litter”; Bacon, for his part, detested his father. His early years as an artist included spells in Berlin and Paris, during which he discovered the European modernists, and passed an “improbable period as an interior designer, arranging rugs and calfskin pouffes”. The War changed his fortunes. Spared service on health grounds, he spent it painting in Hampshire. His pictures from this time – of “screaming popes, tormented businessmen and crucifixions” – suddenly had an “awful relevance”, and catapulted him to fame.
While this biography is a compelling portrait of Bacon the artist, it is most triumphant in its handling of his love life, said Rachel Cooke in The Observer. As a young man, Bacon went for “semi-paternal, establishment types” who could pay off his gambling debts. But from the 1950s on, his boyfriends became ever more disreputable: they included Peter Lacy, a former RAF officer who “beat and raped him”; a petty burglar named George Dyer; and, in Tangier, a “legless Moroccan who pushed himself along on a board with wheels”. Stevens and Swan provide convincing explanations for these relationships, suggesting they were expressions of a taste for “deformity” that also manifested itself in his art, said Michael Prodger in The Sunday Times. Theirs is a work that “brings the carousing, the paintings and the public and private lives together to form a convincing and often touching whole”.
William Collins 880pp £30; The Week Bookshop £23.99 (incl. p&p)
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