Francis: Soho was full of drinkers and artists, but there was only one Francis Bacon. Here, four days before the first anniversary of his death, his old friend Daniel Farson recalls him

Daniel Farson
Friday 23 April 1993 23:02

HIS VIEW of life could hardly be harsher. He did not believe in God, in morality, in love or in worldly success - only in 'the sensation of the moment'. Francis Bacon, above all, conveyed 20th-century man in his various states of loneliness.

To understand the man it is necessary to accept that he was contradictory. He was a loner, though he relished company. His work is seen as pessimistic, yet he had an innate optimism which helped him to survive. He was the best company, the funniest and most humorous. He could be kind and generous, as I knew from experience, yet capable of sudden anger, even petulance. He betrayed many of his close friends, especially if they were rival artists, and some did not forgive him. He was totally amoral.

He was born in 1909 in Dublin, of English parents, and was brought up in considerable luxury and style. His father had been a major in the British Army who moved to Ireland. Later he moved to train horses in Co Kildare, to a comfortable house with outbuildings and stables, ideal for a child who was fond of horses and hunting. Francis liked neither and he detested the countryside for the rest of his life.

The only attempt his parents made to give him a formal education was to send him to Dean Close School in Cheltenham but he stayed there for just a few months. Partly because of his asthma, his education amounted to little more than private tutorials with the parish priest. 'I had no upbringing at all,' he once said. 'I used simply to work on my father's farm.' His closest companion was his nanny.

How Irish was he? Lord Gowrie, the former arts minister, understood his background - they shared the same roots. Gowrie told me that Francis was not an 'Irish painter', although he was in many respects Irish and his memories of Ireland had a traumatic effect upon him. Bacon himself said in an interview: 'I grew up at a time when the Sinn Fein was going around. All the houses in our neighbourhood were being attacked. I'll always remember my father saying: 'If they come tonight, say nothing.' ' He has said: 'I was made aware of danger at a very young age.'

Lady Caroline Blackwood, who was married to Lucian Freud and is a member of the Guinness family, was very conscious of his horror for Ireland: 'He had the intellectual Irishman's traditional dislike of Catholicism. The popes that he painted were all screaming and distorted. Some of them were sitting on the lavatory. Although he stubbornly denied that he had been influenced by his Irish upbringing, the desolation of his vision was very similar to that of Beckett.'

Homosexuality was his nature and he had the strength not to wish it otherwise. When he was 18, his father made a final attempt to 'make a man' of his son by placing him in the custody of a friend of his: a tough, no-nonsense-seeming horse trainer, but he turned out not to be what he seemed. He was a man with a taste for decadence. 'We settled in Berlin for a time,' said Francis, 'it must have been 1926 and by way of education I found myself in the atmosphere of the Blue Angel.'

They stayed at the Adlon Hotel, where Francis enjoyed the luxury of breakfast in their double bed, served by an unperturbed German waiter.

When he returned to London in the late Twenties, after a brief sojourn in Paris, he embarked on furniture design, but in 1933 he abandoned that to concentrate on painting. His picture Crucifixion was that year included in Art Now by Herbert Read. This was a sensational start, considering he was untrained and no more than 23 or 24.

Francis had a deplorable war. When he received his call-up papers, he hired an alsatian dog from Harrods and slept beside it in order to aggravate his asthma. When he reported for his medical the next morning, he was granted an immediate exemption and the unfortunate animal was returned to Harrods - or so one hopes.

Instead of fighting, he stalked the 'sexual gymnasium of the city', as he described the streets of London. No one gave a damn as to who did what to whom, and the darkness of the blackout provided convenient cover as you went in search of trade. Asked later if he liked rough trade, Francis said: 'Yes, and married men, too.'

The writer and painter Michael Wishart gave this account of seeing him make up one evening in those years: 'He applied the basic foundation with lightning dexterity borne of long practice. He was more careful, even sparing, with the rouge. For his hair he had a selection of Kiwi boot polishes in various browns. He blended them on the back of his hand, selecting a tone appropriate for the particular evening, and brushed them into his abundant hair with a shoe brush. He polished his teeth with Vim.'

Throughout the war, when he refused to exhibit - although it is doubtful if many opportunities arose - he survived by gambling.

The Colony Room was a smallish room with a faded air at the top of some shabby stairs in Dean Street in Soho, central London. It was a place where you could drink in the afternoons after the pubs had closed. Owned by a remarkable woman called Muriel Belcher, it was also known as Muriel's. Bacon came to love her and the place and was a habitue for more or less the last 40 years of his life. 'It is a place,' he told me, 'where you can lose your inhibitions. It's different from anywhere else.' Actually, he had no inhibitions to lose.

Though she enjoyed her members' success, Muriel had not the slightest interest in art. This was all to the good. Generally the last thing artists wish to talk about is art, and at Muriel's they gossiped about the things that really mattered - sex, drink, scandal and daydreams. Though Francis was unknown to the public 40 years ago, he was revered by his contemporaries, especially the small group that met at the Colony Room and became known as the 'School of London' or, better still, 'Muriel's Boys'. They included Lucian Freud, Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach and Tim Behrens.

At Muriel's, as at Wheeler's, his favourite restaurant, Francis always signed the bill. He would wave his bottle of champagne, slopping it into the glasses of those around him, spilling much of it on the floor, with the Edwardian toast: 'Real pain for your sham friends, champagne from your real friends', a habit he had acquired from his father.

But Francis was never wholly relaxed, even at Muriel's. It was a long time before I realised that, when he wandered off to the lavatory with his glass in his hand as if he could not bear to part with it, he threw the contents away; he drank less while filling the glasses of those around him.

He could be very nasty. An artist - I think he came from Trinidad - came into the Colony one afternoon to present the club with his latest painting, which was still wet. This generous gesture was accepted politely until Francis made his entrance. He shook his bottle of champagne, aiming it at the picture, whose colours dissolved into an even more frightful mess than it was in the first place.

But he could also be very gracious. One afternoon an art student navely showed him a leaflet he had produced. Francis asked if he could buy a copy, adding that he would be grateful if the young man would sign it for him. Francis made his day, as he had destroyed the Trinidadian's.

FRANCIS'S discipline was extraordinary. In the early Fifties he worked from 6am with fierce concentration. He told me that drink and the after-effects forced him to concentrate on his painting and at times it gave him 'a sort of freedom'. It was hard to imagine him asleep, indeed he could not have slept much. I have seen him on mornings when he was grey and nearly sightless from fatigue after drinking and gambling through the night, but a few hours later he would reappear totally refreshed.

His output was consistent. The years 1951 to 1962, when he was raging around Soho, were also the period of his artistic ascendancy. If we compare his Three Studies for the Base of a Crucifixion, the painting with which he burst on to the scene in 1945, with the masterpieces of his Soho period (that is to say the popes, the remarkable painting Man with Dog, his series on Van Gogh, the astonishing Two Figures, also called 'The Wrestlers' and 'The Buggers', Miss Muriel Belcher, the Paralytic Child Walking on All Fours, and the blood-spattered Three Studies for a Crucifixion of 1962, completed while he was drunk), they confirm his formidable development in a comparatively short time.

In 1974 he met John Edwards and formed a friendship that would go on for the rest of his life and be a happy contrast to an emotional life which had been often turbulent and punctuated with untimely deaths. They met through John's elder brother David, the licensee of The Swan in Stratford East, who was a frequent visitor to the Colony and good friends with Muriel. 'My brother used to say Francis Bacon would be coming to The Swan with Muriel. She would tell us to get champagne every week - and Francis Bacon would never turn up. We were always stuck with the champagne because in those days people did not drink champagne in the East End.'

One day John was taken to the Colony and when he was introduced to Bacon he said: 'Why don't you turn up when you are supposed to for all this fucking champagne?'

Francis was amused and invited him to Wheeler's. From that day they were friends. Ian Board ran the Colony with Muriel and eventually took it over. He remembers: 'John was hypnotised. Francis told him: 'You don't want an old boiler like me', but Francis was a great seducer and, to him, John appeared to be a tough East Ender.'

'To my amazement,' says John, 'when I walked into his studio about two months later, there was a picture he had painted of me. I never sat for him. He was marvellous company, good fun and a great drinking companion. I saw him every day.'

For an East End boy who could neither read nor write, it was an extraordinary transition. Yet he had such self-assurance that Francis didn't have to explain him to anyone. David Edwards says Francis liked John because he told him exactly what he thought. Most people just bowed down to Francis; John stood up to him.

Ian Board remembers asking Francis: 'Are you in love with him?'

'Oh no, dear, fond of him.'

'Then it became 'very fond of him'. Actually, he was riddled with love.'

It had nothing to do with sex. John told me that they shared a bed once after Francis passed out from drink and that was as far as it had gone. What was important was that John was lively, young and streetwise, and of a happy disposition, a welcome change for Francis.

By the time he reached 80, Bacon had been one of the world's most famous artists for two decades, but he had time for some of the people who had need of him. When Sonia Orwell (George's widow) was dying of cancer, he went to the trouble of renting an attractive room for her in a hotel near the hospital, and every evening when she returned from treatment she found champagne and flowers waiting for her. He was also scrupulous in remembering people who might have been forgotten, such as his childhood nurse. 'He remained strangely loyal,' says Ian Board, 'it was one of his surprising characteristics. I'd meet him and it was either 'I've just been to see the old girl', or 'I'm just going to visit her'.'

His stamina and powers of recovery were remarkable. Illness and accidents were ignored. He was so pissed one afternoon that, going upstairs to the Colony, he slipped and one of the metal strips hit the right side of his eye and put it half out. He just pushed it back in again. After an exhausting day's filming for The South Bank Show, Francis got Melvyn Bragg drunk in Mario's restaurant. And, when they continued filming in the Colony next morning, Michael Wojas, the barman, says he can't forget the look on Bragg's face when he saw Francis already sparkling at 11am, having been there for an hour already. Bragg sent out for black coffee; Francis continued on champagne.

'Francis saw him coming,' says Ian Board.

'Did he get Bragg drunk deliberately?' I asked.

'Oh yes. He made a particular point of topping up the drink.'

'To get the edge?' said Michael.

'To show what idiots they are,' said Ian, with a snort.

With a final flourish and sleight of hand, Francis Bacon died on the morning of 28 April 1992 in Madrid. He was 82. This was what he had hoped for: no fuss, no discovery of his body in an empty room a day or two later, not even a funeral. It was not so much a death as a disappearance.

In his way he was triumphant to the end. He treated death just as he had treated life. His whole estate went to John Edwards: pounds 11,370,244.

His friends were shocked by the news of his death, though at the age of 82 death was hardly a cause for surprise. In Soho there was almost revelry. Members climbed the dingy stairs to the Colony Room. 'It's been electrifying,' Ian Board told me. 'The worms crawled out of their holes - I thought many of them were dead - but the extraordinary thing is that the younger generation came in full fucking bloom.'

My own sense of loss overwhelmed me for a few days but one letter I received gave me particular pleasure, for it came from David Sylvester, Britain's most distinguished art critic and one of Bacon's closest friends: 'Since he died, I've not thought about him as a painter. I've only thought about the qualities that have long made me feel he was probably the greatest man I've ever known, and certainly the grandest. His honesty with himself and about himself; his constant sense of the tragic and the comic; his appetite for pleasure; his fastidiousness; his generosity, not only with money - that was easy - but with his time; above all, I think, his courage. He had faults which could be maddening, such as being waspish and bigoted and fairly disloyal, as well as indiscreet. But he

was also kind and forgiving and unspoilt by success and never rude unintentionally.'

'The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon' by Daniel Farson is published by Century at pounds 17.99.

(Photographs omitted)

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