Between The Ritz and the Gutter: Francis Bacon’s Life in London
For Francis Bacon, London was an endless labyrinth of possibilities. He first arrived to live in the city when he was nineteen, having been expelled from his Irish home by his tyrannical father three years prior (he was caught trying on his mother’s underwear); he then spent two years in Paris and Berlin. If the Irish countryside had been a prison in his youth, his coming of age in Weimar Germany had opened his eyes to new possibilities of experience and expression. During his time there he had witnessed the thin line between extravagant luxury and dire need, between the Ritz and the gutter as he described it. He adored the company of those who lived by their instincts, whether they were the super rich, to whom every possibility was available, or the amoral rent boys and petty criminals who he would pick up in East End drinking dens and bring across the tracks for his own amusement. He would disappear for days on end, and in the vast confines of the metropolis he could delve into every underground bolt-hole and dark alley his inquisitive senses drew him to.
By 1929 he had created some stability in his life. Roy de Maistre was the first in a series of father figures who were both lovers and patrons who supported Bacon and encouraged and guided his talents. The connection continued but the attraction soon waned. In 1931 an extraordinary domestic arrangement had come into being in the Queensbury Mews studio. Living with him now was Jessie Lightfoot, his nanny since birth, an aging Irish spinster devoted to her surrogate son who slept on the kitchen table. Completing the household was Bacon’s lover of this era, Eric Alden. Still living a hairs breadth from abject poverty, Bacon continued to rely on the rough trade that had kept him warm when he first arrived in London, but he now followed the ironically conventional and lucrative route of advertising himself in The Times as a gentleman’s escort; Nanny Lightfoot would help him pick out suitable offers.
It is sometimes overlooked that Bacon was first and foremost a post-war artist; in describing his close friend and fellow painter Graham Sutherland he also defines an aspect of himself as ‘An Englishman who saw a great darkness gathering.’ In ‘Figure Getting out of a Car’ c.1943, a biomorphic figure with Mussolini or Hitler’s head bends down on a monstrously extended neck to the microphones, teeth bared in a foul grin. The war exposed what lay beneath the gloss of civilization; the primitive animal rage undiminished within us all––the bestiality of man. Bacon saw not only the horror but also the eroticism of violence and political power. The siege like mentality of London during the blitz broke down the social barriers and boundaries of normal life. Bacon’s nature and sexuality was stimulated by risk and the war years were a period of intense germination.
In 1943 the makeshift family moved to 7 Cromwell Place in South Kensington, the address was known as ‘Millais House’ after the eminent Pre-Raphaelite painter who had lived and worked there. It was a grand ground floor studio which perfectly accommodated Bacon’s latest ruse––the creation of a clandestine gambling den which became part of the evening’s round for some of London’s most salubrious characters. The street outside would fill up with Rolls Royces and Daimlers; it was an escape from the dreariness of the war to an atmosphere of faded Edwardian grandeur and bohemian freedom of spirit. Bacon was happy among the ghostly transient clientele of a casino, while Nanny Lightfoot played the hostess. It became part of the round after The Gargoyle club, peopled by wayward aristocrats, drunkard society beauties, artists and intellectuals; Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir once visited. Originally designed by Matisse it was decked with gilt mirrors and a gold and silver staircase swept down into the main room. Bacon loved the uninhibited behavior and the lack of social boundaries or moral constraints.
7 Cromwell Place proved to be an auspicious studio. ‘Three studies for figures at the base of a crucifixion’ was made there towards the end of the war, along with the ‘Head’ series and ‘Painting 1946’. Three studies fulfilled the traditional requirements of a masterpiece; the apprentice absorbs the style of a master whilst establishing a style unmistakably his own. By 1952 the establishment critics, including David Sylvester who was to become a lifelong friend and his most famous interviewer, began writing regular reviews of his work. Bacon’s mythic status had begun to take root.
Around this time his intense sadomasochistic love affair with Peter Lacy began. They met in the now infamous Colony Room. The club also came to be known as ‘Muriel’s’ after its legendary owner Muriel Belcher, a woman of stature and terrifying epithets: ‘You must remember me sucking cocks in rented rooms’ would be her pronouncement to break the ice for new arrivals. Bacon was a founding member of the CR. He had walked in off the street the day after the club had opened in 1948, and was given ten bob a week and free drinks for bringing in as many spending punters as he could. This lasted until he was a millionaire, and there was a waiting list the length of Dean Street to be a member. It was a place where people who did not feel at home anywhere else could lose all inhibitions; a court of witticism and drunkenness, a dingy claustrophobic fish bowl of bitchy remarks and back chat. ‘Champagne for my real friends and real pain for my sham friends’ Bacon would announce as yet another round of drinks was issued.
A handful of key habitués made the Colony Room their home away from home, among them was the young Lucien Freud, who is said to have had a hero worshipping crush on Bacon. Ideologically Freud was his closest companion; they had an affinity as deeply committed figurative painters at a time when abstraction was being hailed as the only inventive mode of painting. Freud also shared Bacon’s obsessive gambling habit and an endless curiosity in the human comedy; they could be as serious and as frivolous as each other. Freud once went round and dealt Peter Lacy retribution after he had found his friend and mentor beaten to a pulp, a favor which received not thanks but an impetuous cold shoulder from Bacon who adored and thrived on his lover’s cruelty. One of Bacon’s closest allies in this circle was Isabel Rawsthorne––a magnetic, lively and resolute individual, she had been, in the Paris art world of the 1930’s, both a muse to writer Georges Bataille and a model for Picasso. Several of Bacon’s most successful portraits were of her. Another less trustworthy but equally invaluable friend was John Deakin, who took some of the most striking photographs of the period.
The Colony Room, this ‘member’s club for outsiders’, the drinking den favored by every lowlife and genius to ever roam the streets of London, is on the verge of extinction, about to be shut down over legal disputes. With its demise ends a way of life in Soho that was created by Bacon and his circle. The mix of desolation and libertine decadence that characterized their post-war existence has thrived for decades within the tiny confines of this unique establishment. Hirst, Emin and the Brit art crowd followed in Bacon’s footsteps as members and punters.
Soho has always accommodated the flotsam and jetsam of the city. In the 40’s and 50’s it was an escape from the drab post-war austerity enveloping London. Bacon’s other favorite haunts were The Golden Lion on Dean Street and the French pub run by the mustachioed Gaston Berlemont, another gathering place for artists and intellectuals. At his favorite restaurant, Wheeler’s on Old Compton Street, he ran up huge credit, even borrowing money, but he brought in so much business and always settled up in the end that he was always welcomed with open arms. He held court there; endless rounds of seafood and excellent wine, and occasionally the East End toughs he brought in would start a ruckus, to the delight of his other friends.
In the autumn of 1961 Bacon moved to 7 Reece mews, a stone’s throw from Cromwell Place, which he was to keep as his London home for the rest of his life. This was also his most famous and well documented studio. A poky, stark and awkward space; he had wished despite his success to retain an ascetic bubble in which to work. He wanted to be rich enough to live like a poor person, without any of the constraints usually implicit in either level of life. In 1962, Bacon took his place in the firmament with a Retrospective at the Tate, organized by his close friend John Rothenstein. From the brilliant outsider to a revered artist of international stature, Bacon’s changed position in London society little affected his sundry tastes for pleasures and amusements. He refused an order of merit from the queen, better than a knighthood, and dressed in Saville row suits, leather jackets and fish net stockings underneath his trousers; he came to know the Kray twins. He was capable of being many things to many people.
Bacon believed that nothing was a coincidence. Both life and painting were made up of fortuitous chance; it all came down to luck, having the gods on your side. ‘It was chance, the slip of a paintbrush the dribble of paint…that gave the image its necessary injection of the unforeseen’, he said of his art. Considering the tragic end to his life, it might be said that George Dyer’s luck ran out the day he offered to buy Bacon a drink in The French Pub in Soho in 1964. Dyer had been bought up in an East End family steeped in petty crime, a career he was not naturally suited to. Isabel Rawsthorne observed that he was too sweet and gentle to be a criminal. For Bacon he was his greatest muse––dark and physically powerful, he was obsessively immaculate in his appearance, characteristic in part of his Teddy boy background. Bacon saw in him an animal rawness and beauty but also an innocence. In the midst of the Colony room crowd he was a lamb among wolves, unable to keep up with their sharp tongues and intellectual wit. His suicide on the eve of Bacon’s greatest exhibition, at the Grand Palais in Paris cruelly reflected the death of Bacon’s other great love, Peter Lacy.
In his current retrospective at Tate Britain, some of the most powerful images are those of the people he knew and loved; the London faces such as Muriel Belcher and Isabel Rawsthorne. None are more affecting however, than the images of George Dyer.
For Bacon, London became malleable to his every whim, he was as at home in the Ritz as he was in the gutter and he always had to have both within reach. He had reached a pre-eminent status among the establishment art world, but he still felt compelled to have in his life the Soho back alley; he needed the tortured expressions of lust and pain to be found in the places of least restraint. This city allowed him to be an enigma, to live out the extreme contradictions in his nature that created the violent dynamism so integral to his work.
Interviews with Francis Bacon: The Brutality of Fact by David Sylvester. London – Thames and Hudson 1987.
The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon: The Authorized Biography by Daniel Farson. London – Pantheon Books 1994.
Anatomy of an Enigma by Michael Peppiatt. London – Constable 2008.