Tuesday 25 June 2019

Artist friends who lived in Bacon's shadow

Biography: The Visitors' Book: In Francis Bacon's Shadow: The Lives of Richard Chopping and Denis Wirth-Miller, Jon Lys Turner, Constable, hdbk, 386 pages, €25

Bohemian world: Francis Bacon outside the Tate Britain gallery in London with his friends Richard Chopping and Denis Wirth-Miller.
Bohemian world: Francis Bacon outside the Tate Britain gallery in London with his friends Richard Chopping and Denis Wirth-Miller.

Eamon Delaney on an absorbing book that charts the lives of two artists at the ­forefront of the Fitzrovia scene, a hedonistic successor to the Bloomsbury Set.

When I wrote Breaking the Mould in 2009, a book about the art career of my father - the sculptor Edward Delaney - and the arts scene in an emerging modern Ireland in the 1960s, I wanted to make reference to a rare portrait of the painter Francis Bacon by his friend, Lucian Freud. It hung in a large country house in Ireland, but the owner was understandably fearful that, such was the astronomical sums that these two artists now fetch, this detail would have attracted thieves to the owner's relatively isolated demesne and to the coveted painting

So I obligingly changed the detail. But I regretted it too, for the painting is that special thing in art which is a portrait of one painter by another. It is also a collaboration between these now famous artists, who feature large in this absorbing and unusual account of a bohemian and mostly gay (in every sense) post-war London scene into the late 1950s and early 1960s before a different and more public form of bohemianism took over.

Freud and Bacon are not the main figures depicted here, perhaps mercifully, given their dominant and often wild behaviour (Freud seems to have been on the 'disinvite' list everywhere!) but instead the focus is on the lives, thoughts and works of less well-known artists Richard Chopping and Denis Wirth-Miller, sensitive and brave souls who specialised in illustrated book covers and nature drawings. They were also generous hosts, on little means, and most importantly kept a rich and colourful archive of the cultured and exciting milieu that they had helped to create.

Sensitive but tough and often fearless, Chopping and Wirth-Miller were part of a demi monde who tested the conventional limits in their art and relationships against the backdrop of an already culturally rich hinterland of Fitzrovia and Soho in London. There is much alcohol consumed and almost all of the participants were gay when there was still widespread discrimination and entrapment (and violence) for homosexuals in the UK. This always seems strange to outsiders, given that so much of English society - in terms of arts, fashion and even politics - seems a natural fit for gay culture.

But that was the way it was, and so 'the love that did not speak its name' remained furtive, secret and dangerous, with violence and prison sentences looming. There is a sad description here of the actor John Gielgud being busted for 'cottaging' as it was then called. Nevertheless, this repression and illegality did not stop an active gay scene, and indeed there is an impressive level of promiscuity depicted here. In the post-war era, trysts with soldiers and sailors were a particular attraction.

However, Chopping and Wirth-Miller were very much a couple, with all the joys and domestic stresses which that brings. And, beyond the gay element, the bohemian and artistic scene they created is inspirational in the way that any such group that breaks out of the bland norms of conventional society is. One thinks of the 'Catacombs' scene of the very same period in Dublin, which produced Anthony Cronin, Brendan Behan and Patrick Kavanagh. Indeed, Lucien Freud visited Dublin and drank with Behan. It is a similar hedonistic scene that is captured in JP Donleavy's The Ginger Man.

When Chopping and Wirth-Miller died in their nineties - welcome proof that such hard living does not affect longevity perhaps - their close friend Jon Lys Turner inherited an extensive personal archive, including letters with, and lively memories of, many of the pivotal figures in modern British art, most especially Bacon, who looms large. One of the delights of such books is the flurry of interesting names which connect to other names and worlds and disciplines.

Chopping and Wirth-Miller first met the Irish-born Bacon in 1937 and remained friendly with him right up to the latter's death in 2008, partying, working, painting and travelling. The author has teased out connections between Bacon's famous apocalyptic and shocking paintings and the images explored by the two men, and if these linkages sometimes seem ambitious they are necessarily valid. Chopping was exploring similar haunted territory and Wirth-Miller executed almost disturbingly hyper-realistic images of insects, plants and fauna.

In a diary entry, Chopping provides a startling image of how he first saw Bacon, standing in the Gargoyle club. "He had already taken to wearing foundation and rouge and using boot polish on his hair, and would fix fellow drinkers with an intense stare."

The author has nicely peppered his books with drawings, photos and memorabilia such as lists and handwritten notes, adding greatly to the atmosphere invoked. It also makes more intriguing the recreated Francis Bacon studio in Dublin's Hugh Lane - The City Gallery in Dublin on Parnell Square - with its paint-spattered detritus and torn-out magazine photos, given that this was just the sort of milieu (and inspirational imagery) that all three men would have shared. If you haven't been to the reconstructed Bacon Studio in our capital, it is well worth a visit.

Interestingly, Bacon was rejected by the British arts establishment before the war and vanished for a good 10 years, although he re-emerged as an acclaimed confronter of real and existential angst and horror in the post-war period. His paintings soon sold for large sums. His companions found a more modest form of fame and income.

Chopping made a splash as a designer of Ian Fleming's famous James Bond covers, while Wirth-Miller became an innovative landscape artist.

Meanwhile, they kept company with a host of artists and writers, including the 'two Roberts' - Colquhoun and MacBryde - John Minton, poets WS Graham and Stephen ­Spender and had wild parties in both London and at their small but gorgeous looking harbour-front country 'retreat' in Wivenhoe, Essex. The Visitors' Book of the title refers to this modest bolthole.

A further value to a book such as this is the way it creates a linkage between the different artistic and bohemian scenes, through the decades. The Fitzrovia scene described is a fitting successor to the Bloomsbury set of Virginia Woolf, EM Forster and others, except without the latter scene's wealth and privilege - but with more alcohol. Chopping's closest friend was Francis Partridge, described as the last of the Bloomsbury Group. But the Fitzrovia milieu was also an important precursor to both the Soho scene of the late 1950s and then of course the big explosion of rebellious counter-culture in the 1960s, both in London and internationally. Punk followed in the late 1970s, again often on those very same London streets.

The world described was also very important to the emergence of gay culture in later decades, into legality and public respect, and by the end of the book, there is a wonderful description by Chopping of going to a bacchanalian New York in 1975 (gay nightclubs, poppers, disco, etc) and visiting Andy Warhol's famous downtown Factory art and fashion complex, again connecting to a rich counter culture.

"Big scruffy building," writes Chopping. "Bullet proof door. Stuffed Great Dane in reception. Young man offered us champagne and magazines. Andy Warhol and Francis arrived. Very frail, paint be-spattered. Back of his hair black with a white switch so that it looked like a badger. Red veined nose and strong glasses. Young swarthy man with cookies, girl photographer, sexy hairy man photographer. Strange mixture of dereliction. 'My pictures are so fresh they stick together', said Warhol."

This handsome book is a stimulating and absorbing description of intertwined bohemian and artists' lives but also an important slice of social and cultural history from original sources. It not only describes the ferment of post-war Britain and the collapsing norms of class and convention, but also offers an example for all of us of a few brave souls doggedly pursuing their artistic vocations and world views against all the odds.

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