Life with thugs

FRANCIS BACON: Anatomy of an Enigma by Michael Peppiatt, Weidenfeld & Nicholson pounds 15.99

Francis Bacon used to say that what he wanted to capture in a portrait was all the pulsations of a person. This portrait of him is a speaking likeness. It is especially telling on the subject of his most unattractive fault, his controllingness. It is also very telling about the agonising long love affair in which he was for once controlled by the other person - the ex-fighter pilot Peter Lacy. Lacy died a year before Peppiatt met Bacon with a view to getting him to talk to about himself and writing down what was said for later use. The enterprise worked, for his account of the affair with Lacy is based purely on what he was told.

When it came to Bacon's other highly destructive long relationship, the one with George Dyer - a petty crook with a drink problem - Peppiatt was often a witness at close quarters, and here his report is still more moving. It brings back what a profoundly nice and utterly hopeless creature Dyer was and the depth of Bacon's despair in trying to cope with him when he was alive and that of his remorse after his suicide. When Bacon first took up with Dyer after Lacy's death he told me: "I don't care whether they're upper-class thugs or working-class thugs so long as they're thugs." Dyer may have been a thug in the bedroom - or may not - but as a member of the criminal class he was a Ferdinand the Bull.

The publication of Peppiatt's account of the Bacon-Dyer affair is extremely timely inasmuch as the BFI and the BBC and David Puttnam have been showing some determination to bring into being a feature film about that affair to be called Love is the Devil. If they will only read this book and get a scent of how Bacon and Dyer actually behaved and talked, they may realise before it's too late that they've been backing a squalid travesty.

In other respects the book is not timely. It shows several signs of having been rushed into print, presumably in order to cash in on a currently hot subject. For one thing, it could have done with more rigorous editing. It is shamelessly repetitive, and while that may help over serialisation, it's a bit of an insult to buyers of a book. Then there's the problem of the quality of the writing. It can be effective (even if ungrammatical) when Peppiatt concentrates:

Yet there can be little doubt that Bacon's interest in the open mouth was due in large part to its sexual suggestiveness; and that the cry itself is an example of pure ambiguity, betokening rage, pain, fear or the pleasure of release without the slightest degree of differentiation. It is this enigmatic combination which fascinated the sado-masochistic artist. It was the one moment at which human nature could be perceived wholly naked, undisguised by civilised restraint; the spasm that made man indistinguishable from beast. For Bacon, whose genius dictated the shortest way to the heart of existence, the cry was the one indisputable moment of truth.

But on the whole the writing has to get by through the strength of the author's obsession with the subject. Still, it would have been worthwhile to take another look at the passages which are too embarrassingly pedestrian, like:

Outside the studio, Bacon dressed immaculately. Even when he wore a sweater with jeans and a leather jacket, the clothes were of the best quality; and his suits impressed many of his contemporaries by their expert tailoring.

Or too vulgar, like:

It was at Ann Fleming's that Bacon got to know a whole segment of London society including such ubiquitous personalities as the poet Stephen Spender and the legal wizard Lord Goodman, who later defended the artist against charges of drug possession. These frequentations, with or without a Teddy boy in tow, certainly did no harm to Bacon's career.

Further work might also have corrected some of 20-odd factual errors. For instance, there is a failure to pick up on Bacon's own error in believing that he first saw Eisenstein's Strike, which so much impressed him, before the War, rather than in the 1950s. Other examples are that Louise Leiris wasn't exactly Kahnweiler's daughter and that Isabel Rawsthorne, though at first a professional model, didn't give all those sittings to Giacometti because she needed money: she was married then to a highly-paid foreign correspondent.

Such mistakes tend to arise because Peppiatt's knowledge of the art world is sketchy. For example, six million dollars is a high but not an "astronomical" auction price for an outstanding painting about two metres by five by a leading international artist. Mention of "a Mr and Mrs Bomford" as the surprising owners in the 1950s of 19 Bacons signifies unawareness of their fascinating existence as eccentric collectors who also owned a private racing stable with a string of National Hunt horses whose star was the great Colonel Bagwash. There is no mention whatever of Blaise Gauthier, the inspired prime mover of the Grand Palais retrospective in 1971 of which Peppiatt makes so much, nor of Lilian Somerville who, as art commissar of the British council, not only gave Bacon a show at the Venice Biennale in 1954 but had the cheek to give him the best room in the pavilion and, under protest, Ben Nicholson a back room. And he writes about Bacon's complicated dealings with Erica Brausen of the Hanover Gallery in ignorance of published details as to how he double-crossed her. In short, Peppiatt needed time for more thorough research.

Some of the gaps in the book are strange. Dennis Wirth-Miller, who for the last 40 years of Bacon's life was his closest friend, and Nadine Haim, probably his closest friend in Paris, get three passing mentions between them. It seems altogether arbitrary whether people who mattered to Bacon are there or not. Among those missing are Peter Watson, Joan Leigh-Fermor, Janetta Parlade and Gilbert de Botton and several artists he was friendly with, such as John Piper, Richard Hamilton, Mark Boyle, Clive Barker and Karel Appel.

As to artist friends who are present, Peppiatt could have been much more precise on Bacon's complicated and volatile views about the work of Freud and Auberbach and Michael Andrews. Nor is there enough about his views on dead artists. Nothing is said about the admiration he constantly expressed in the 1950s for Bonnard and the Soutine of the Ceret period, admiration that related to the development of his own painterliness.

I called the book a "portrait" earlier because it is only a draft for a biography, not the "definitive Life" the publisher claims it to be. I do hope that Peppiatt will find the time and energy and funding to produce a fuller version of this essential book.

! David Sylvester's latest book is `About Modern Art' (Chatto & Windus pounds 20).

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