BOOK REVIEW / Unimpeachable sauces: 'The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon' - Daniel Farson: Century, 17.99 pounds
Sunday 18 April 1993
Although their friendship deteriorated in later years - Bacon may have feared, with some justice, that Farson was exploiting him - they remained in touch and Farson writes movingly and gratefully of Bacon's many kindnesses, not least the ready cheques that helped him through lean times. In fact, he says, the greatest mistake he ever made was paying one of these cheques back and confiding to Bacon's lover, John Edwards, that he had done it from the advance on this book: Bacon didn't like to be paid back anyway, and he dreaded biographies - once or twice, in his cups, he gave Farson permission, but always withdrew it later.
Still, I think he has been well served by this book. It will certainly be the first of many biographies, and perhaps the slightest, but it preserves precisely the aspects of Bacon that will be hardest for scholarly researchers to capture. And although Farson rightly concentrates on what he knew at first hand - Bacon's Soho social life - he casts some interesting sidelights on the work, especially the revelation that in the late 1930s, when Bacon always claimed to be doing nothing, he was actually turning out dozens of drawings a day and painting, according to a lodger who shared his house, leafy Post- Impressionist landscapes - extraordinary if true. Farson knew many of Bacon's models - Muriel Belcher, of course, George Dyer, Isabel Rawsthorne and John Edwards (who became his heir) - and describes them in memorable vignettes. He traces the rise and fall of his relationships with fellow artists Graham Sutherland and Lucian Freud, and his lasting admiration for Giacometti.
Farson is good on Bacon's sex life, too. Knowing many of Bacon's boyfriends, he recognised his taste in pick-ups - 'masculine in suits' - and understood the intrinsic dilemma of being a masochist shopping for sadists. He says, interestingly, that paying for sex was Bacon's way of alleviating his guilt about being homosexual. He records Bacon's reply when asked what he would like to have been if not an artist - 'a mother]' - and makes a conscientious stab at trying to illuminate his childhood: the loveless parents, the choleric and drunken father, the doting nanny, the asthma attacks, the sense of gloom and violence that pervaded their various Irish homes. Bacon told Farson that he had enjoyed frequent orgies with his father's grooms; he told another friend that his father encouraged the grooms to horsewhip him.
How reliable any of this might be remains to be seen, and there is obviously an awful lot of work for a serious biographer to do. Yet perhaps no one can convey better than Farson the fun of Bacon's company and the louche adventures of the Soho underworld. There are some truly joyous yarns in this book - Bacon appearing in full maquillage at Farson's village pub in Devon, a drunken visit to Barbara Hutton's house in Tangier, Princess Margaret insisting on singing at a party and Bacon booing, Bacon clearing a restaurant by saying loudly that he wanted to be fucked by Colonel Gaddafi - and wonderful quotes like Bacon's response when being sent endless deliveries of flowers for his eightieth birthday: 'I'm not the sort of person who has vases.' All in all, a book that is a joy in itself and a goldmine for biographers to come.
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