Valerie Beston

Francis Bacon's loyal 'Miss B'
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The Independent Online

Valerie Fay Beston, art dealer: born West Bromwich, Staffordshire 26 May 1922; died London 9 June 2005.

As friends often find, discretion can be mistaken for secrecy, loyalty for control. Such was the case with Valerie Beston, whose long career as dealer and friend to Francis Bacon ended under a cloud that was almost certainly undeserved.

Miss Beston, as she was invariably known during her 50 years at the Marlborough Gallery in London, was the model of order in a world not noted for its clarity. Starting as a typist when the Marlborough opened its doors in 1946, she grew to be liked and, above all, trusted by that generation of British artists the gallery helped bring to fame: Frank Auerbach, Lucian Freud and, most notably, Francis Bacon.

Beston was bright and cultured and had a good eye for a picture; educated at a Belgian convent, she read Proust in French. Unlike other Mayfair art folk, she wasn't high-handed. Her preferred way of meeting artists was over a cup of tea in her office, and she shunned the private views for which the Marlborough was famous. Her meticulousness was legendary, her notes and records of museum standard. Anthony d'Offay, then an aspiring young gallerist, once dragged a new assistant into the Marlborough in the early 1970s, pointed at Miss Beston and said, "That's what I want you to be."

But Beston was also private, fastidious in a British way that now seems vaguely comic: a Miss Moneypenny to the M of Frank Lloyd, the gallery's less scrupulous founder. It was Lloyd, a Viennese dealer who fled to Britain at the beginning of the Second World War, who introduced the tough mores of market economics to the London art world. His famous dictum - "I don't collect paintings, I collect money" - summed up the Marlborough's credo, although this fact was hidden by Lloyd's carefully chosen blue-blooded board of directors.

Something of the Marlborough's actual working method was exposed in the early 1970s by the scandal over the painter Mark Rothko. A court case found that Marlborough AG, the gallery's Liechtenstein subsidiary, had acquired 600 pictures from the artist's estate at knock-down prices and re-sold them at a huge profit, cheating Rothko's widow and children. The gallery's New York business was heavily fined and barred from the American Art Dealers Association, while Lloyd was convicted of tampering with evidence.

Twenty years later, this incident came back to haunt Marlborough London and in particular Beston, by now one of its directors. In 1958, Francis Bacon had joined the gallery's stable of artists. A shared love of privacy and French literature endeared him and Beston to each other, and their relationship developed into a kind of professional marriage. Bacon's life was lived, in his own phrase, "between the gutter and the Ritz"; Beston's, by contrast, was conducted between Bond Street and a Harley Street flat to which visitors were seldom admitted. (Beston had worked in intelligence at Bletchley Park during the war, and something of an air of secrecy clung to her.) Although they made an odd couple, Bacon's raffish genius was perfectly offset by Beston's meticulousness, and vice versa.

For more than 30 years, the painter's life was organised by the woman he referred to as "Miss B" or, although not to her face, as "Valerie from the Gallery". Beston countersigned his cheques, paid off his Harrods account, organised his rent; she also kept an envelope of money in her office for Bacon to gamble in casinos. Aware of the artist's habit of destroying his work in fits of drunken self-doubt, she arranged for pictures to be taken straight from his studio to the gallery by Dave, the Marlborough's driver, "as soon as the paint was dry".

This last phrase was spoken by Geoffrey Vos QC, hired by the Estate of Francis Bacon to prepare a £100m lawsuit against Marlborough Fine Art (London) Ltd in 1999, seven years after the painter's death. According to the estate, the gallery had conned Bacon royally for more than three decades, paying him on a scale agreed before he was famous and relying on his shambolic grasp of figures to squirrel away pictures in Liechtenstein for which he wasn't paid at all. As with Rothko's widow, there were suggestions that Bacon's last companion and sole heir, John Edwards, was being cheated of his inheritance; worse, that Bacon had been blackmailed into staying with the Marlborough by threats of exposure to the Inland Revenue over sums paid into his Swiss bank account.

Although the estate finally dropped these claims in February 2002, two weeks before a High Court case was due to begin, the distress they caused an already grieving Beston was incalculable. Suffering from Alzheimer's, she couldn't understand how 30 years of loyalty - perhaps of love - could be so cruelly rewarded. At one point, she produced a £1,000 cheque Bacon had given her as a Christmas present in 1991 and which she had left uncashed: "People were always taking his money," she said. "I couldn't."

"Champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends" had been Bacon's toast at the Colony Room, his favourite Soho watering hole. There's no doubt that Beston had been his real friend, nor that the pain she came to feel for him was real.

Charles Darwent

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