The Sacred and the Profane
His sexual relationships were characterised by violence and masochism, a darkness reflected in his most famous works, but, finds Julia Molony, Francis Bacon himself was a contradiction – cruel and vain while also generous and blithe
'I loathe my own face," said Francis Bacon. Whether that was a purely aesthetic judgment or the expression of something deeper, we shall probably never know. Though his paintings were consistently dark in character, Bacon himself was contrary and contradictory. He was troubled, but could be blithe, famous for his generosity but also his cruelty. His life was a big, decadent, glorious mess and he seemed to revel in it. Even his friends romanticised his poetic dissolution, one describing him as "a drunken, faded sodomite swaying nocturnally through the lowest dives and gambling dens of Soho". He suffered tragedy and mishap, violence and abandonment throughout his life, but remained, throughout, according to his sister Ianthe Knott, "a very, very collected man".
Margaret Thatcher called him "that awful artist who paints those horrible pictures", perhaps cementing his reputation as the god of London bohemia. Muriel Belcher – the infamous proprietress of the upstairs dive bar Muriel's on Dean Street in Soho – had the good sense to pay him £10 a night just to show up.
Last month, a triptych he painted of Lucien Freud – his colleague and rival – was the centre of a sale that broke all records, selling for $142m to become the most valuable piece of art ever auctioned. And though, no doubt, were he still alive, Bacon would have been pleased at the achievement this represented, he probably wouldn't have been impressed by the money.
He was not someone who valued money for its own sake, but rather treated it like a game. He was known for handing out fifties like smarties, dropping wads of cash into the laps of homeless people; he was fond of champagne and caviar, but lived simply in the small house in Kensington he moved into before he hit the big time. Donated to the Hugh Lane Gallery after his death, his studio in Dublin is exactly as it was when he inhabited it. Eight archaeologists have painstakingly preserved it, every scrap of paper's position recorded and replicated. His home was by no means lavish. At home, and at work Bacon was almost ascetic. But, out in the world, he was a peacock in leather jackets and bespoke Savile Row suits. He tended towards vanity, often wore make-up and used Kiwi boot polish on his hair.
"Whenever he came into a room, any room," Michael Peppiatt, his biographer has said, "you could feel the temperature go up. Suddenly there'd be a new vitality, with people outdoing themselves in talk and laughter and drink and general carrying on."
If he was socially uplifting, however, in intimate relationships he was demanding. Of the three loves of his life, one committed suicide in a Parisian hotel two nights before Bacon's history-making show at the Grand Palais, another drank himself to death. Only John Edwards, the handsome wide boy he befriended towards the end of his life, to whom he left all his money, endured unscathed.
Bacon was born in Dublin, where he stayed throughout his early years. He was a sickly child who suffered from asthma. His father was an Anglo-Irish Army officer. They were an emotionally remote, military-class Edwardian family. His father was distant and cold. His mother was more flamboyant, but nevertheless did almost nothing to encourage her son's interest in art. As a boy growing up between Ireland and England, the dark shadows of political hostility were cast over his upbringing. "I was made aware of danger at a very young age," said Bacon. Though perhaps he was attracted to it too – he famously declared that he lost his virginity by seducing a stable boy when he was just nine years old.
As a teenager, his father caught him trying on his mother's underwear and threw him out of the house. He responded by doing what any self-respecting young man of a sexually adventurous persuasion would do – he ran away to Paris, and then Berlin. Then, between the wars, Berlin was at the height of its reputation as a permissive playground for all-comers. Unique in Europe, the delights offered there included 170 licensed homosexual brothels. "After Berlin I was completely corrupted," Bacon said of the time.
Returning to London, he embarked on the life of a self-taught artist. In the early part of his career, he experimented with furniture design, creating carpets and painted screens.
It was a sexual relationship that led him to painting. He fell in with the Australian artist Roy De Maistre who re-directed his focus and is therefore credited as being "the man who taught Francis Bacon to paint".
It was in this phase of his life that Bacon worked as a rent boy to make ends meet. It wasn't, however, a professional path that stuck. "I should have been, I don't know, a con-man, a robber or a prostitute. But it was vanity that made me choose painting, vanity and chance," he later said.
Still, he was inexorably drawn to life's underbelly. He called it his "gilded, gutter life". His sexual tastes tended towards the masochistic and he seemed to be attracted to lovers who represented unpredictability, emotional extremes and risk.
Throughout all of this, the one constant was his most enduring relationship with his long-standing manager Valerie Beston, the woman who managed every part of Bacon's life, from buying his underwear to paying his rent.
She was a saint of constancy, waiting to stitch him up after beatings from rent boys, apparently keeping gambling money for him in the safe.
His sister, Ianthe has said of her: "Francis did once tell me, though, that Miss Beston had admitted to him that she was terribly in love with him. She declared herself. And Francis said, 'But you know what I am" and Valerie said, 'I do, but I don't mind.'"
Perhaps his sexual disinterest in her was a blessing. Melvyn Bragg said, "Francis tended to ruin his lovers." His first great love affair, with fighter pilot Peter Lacy was tempestuous and violent – so much so that Lacy eventually "hurled Bacon through a plate glass window", according to Bacon's friend and biographer John Richardson. "His face was so damaged that his right eye had to be sewn back into place."
Rather than treating the attack as a reason to leave, Bacon, ever the masochist, declared he loved him even more, rejecting concerned friends attempts to intervene.
"Unfortunately, drink released a fiendish, sadistic streak in Lacy that bordered on the psychopathic," Richardson wrote.
Still, when Lacy left him he continued to pursue his self-declared "desire to suffer" relentlessly, though he was candid about the destructiveness of this impulse. "Being in love in that extreme way," he said, "being totally obsessed by someone, is like having some dreadful disease. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy."
This next big love, with George Dyer, began when the young Dyer tried to break into Bacon's house in Kensington. Instead of kicking out the thief, Bacon struck up an affair with him.
Their relationship too, was a theatre of cruelty. Friends recall the bullying and abuse that Bacon subjected the fragile Dyer to. According to Richardson, this was an integral part of Bacon's creative process. "Bacon would goad George into a state of psychic meltdown and then, in the early hours of the morning – his favourite time to work – he would exorcise his guilt and rage and remorse in images of Dyer aimed, as he said, at the nervous system."
This approach wasn't without consequence, however. In October 1972, Bacon was preparing to receive an honour that had been bestowed on only one other living artist – Picasso – an exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris.
The day before the exhibition, Dyer took an overdose of pills and died in their hotel room. Bacon, though devastated, still went to the opening night party. It was left, once again, to Valerie Beston to sort out the mess. Knowing that press coverage of the suicide would vastly overshadow the Grand Palais show, she arranged for the police to be called in private and for the whole matter to be dealt with as discreetly as possible until after the opening.
Was it any wonder, given all this, that Bacon's work dealt in moments of acute emotional crisis, in anguish and grim presentiments of death? He was known to destroy his own work in fits of drunken rage. But it was the shocking, screaming frankness of the work, that made it so sensational. He declared that he wanted to "remake the violence of reality itself".
His last relationship was, by all accounts, his least sexually charged but also the least emotionally turbulent. He was introduced to John Edwards a young cockney decades younger than him, by Muriel Belcher. Some who knew him have said that the relationship was based more on a paternal attachment than a carnal one, and indeed, Edwards himself has said that they were never lovers. That's not to say he didn't enjoy being treated like a trophy date. Edwards was 23 when they met in the Colony room in 1974. "He invited me to have lunch at Wheeler's, but it's a fish restaurant and I don't like fish, so he bought me some caviar," he said, of the first time they met.
Edwards saw himself as the artist's protector. "There were always lots of people around Francis on the cadge," he said. "But they wouldn't do it when I was around." Bacon painted around 30 portraits of John during their years together. "We'd talk about everything," Edwards said in 2002. "He was a beautiful man; you'd be hypnotised by him. He'd talk to you and you'd just want him to talk more."
When Bacon died in 1993, Edwards was the sole beneficiary of his estate, inheriting £11m.
It was less than a decade before Edwards passed away himself, in Thailand, where he lived with his new partner, Philip Mordue. When he died, only £800,000 of all the money he'd inherited remained. Feverish speculation remains as to what happened to the money, whether it was squandered by Edwards on champagne, or given away.