By Paul Dunwell, writing for EasyFrame
© Copyright EasyFrame 2019
What This Article is About
This article is about Francis Bacon. The 20th century painter not the 17th century philosopher, statesman and essayist though the two men were related!
Born 110 years ago in Dublin, which at that time made him British, the latter-day Francis Bacon was to become a successful creative who enjoyed critical acclaim and died a multi-millionaire. Yet his work is not everybody’s cup-of-tea and he had a troubled life, though he is frequently placed amongst our top 10 native artists. We examine what drove him, the themes with which he was preoccupied, and wonder whether we’d like any of his work on our walls.
A Troubled Soul from the Outset
Bacon was the son of an Anglo-Australian former army captain turned horse-trainer and a Sheffield steel and mining heiress-cum-flapper. He was effectively raised by a beloved nanny with whom he lived for many years, but had a disturbing childhood that included frequent horse-whippings at the hands of grooms on the orders of his father. It gets worse. That father found young Bacon admiring himself in a mirror wearing his mother’s underwear. And he admitted that he fancied his dad, who may have connived in introducing his son to an ‘uncle’ for sex. He then went on to live a life that was largely defined by a series of homosexual liaisons, some of which were horrendously violent and where he and his partners were petty criminals until he was successful, and by drunkenness and debauchery on an epic scale when Bacon could afford to sponsor it. Several of his friends, because of this lifestyle, achieved notoriety or met sticky ends or both, and one of his partners committed suicide. Another threw Bacon through a plate glass window, damaging the artist’s eye so much that it had to be sewn back in place. Amidst all of this, and some might say because of it, much of Bacon’s imagery was religious.
Bacon’s motives for much of what he did are obscure. Certainly the preoccupation with religion is hard to explain. He was an atheist. Innocent X might have held some appeal because Bacon was Irish and Innocent X supported the Irish in their struggle against the English some 300 years ago. But Innocent X was pretty unlikely to scream. Even if he was placed in some sort of cage, an odd approach to which Bacon often resorted. So what was going on here? It’s unclear. The artist was often unsure himself, and was well known for either scrapping a work and painting over it or just taking a knife to it. But there’s something disturbing about it all.
Bacon was apparently fascinated by mouths. Not any mouths, you understand. Oh no! He was fascinated by diseased mouths and had a major reference book on the subject. And, in general, malformation and disease were a preoccupation.
Bacon’s homosexual lifestyle pervaded everything. He’d gone to Berlin when he was 18, frequenting the gay clubs. When he’d been left to make his own way in the world on just £3 a week from his mum he’d offered himself up as a ‘manservant’. And he apparently continued to enjoy the patronage of older homosexuals until his own career took off (as an artist, though he had given interior design a spin beforehand). Despite a tumultuous personal life he apparently settled down eventually with John Edwards, to whom he left his fortune when he eventually succumbed to breathing problems.
Why Would Anyone Want It?
Good question. Even during his lifetime millionaires scrambled to buy his work and Bacon was therefore a very rich man. Dying in 1992 his estate was worth £11m (probably around £25m at today’s values) and this is after he’d spent a lifetime gambling on the horses as well as sponsoring an entourage of hangers-on who appear to have spent decades sozzled in gentlemen’s clubs. But back in 2008 somebody paid £14m for a 1967 study of the head of George Dyer (George, Bacon’s lover at the time, famously topped himself just before a big exhibition in Paris back in 1971 and guarantee plenty of press coverage. Bacon never liked narrative painting, apparently, but mustered sufficient interest in the genre to later knock out a work commemorating Dyer’s death from a barbiturate overdose on the toilet). Oh and he left around 600 paintings. His three studies of his buddy Lucian Freud are reputedly the most valuable artwork ever sold at auction (apparently displacing Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’, which sold for US$119.9m in May 2012).
Bacon destroyed much of his early work, unsure of his ability. Some of his detractors think he should have destroyed a lot more. Margaret Thatcher described Bacon as ‘the man who paints those dreadful pictures’ (and here was I thinking I could never agree with her on anything!) Yet his fan-base believes that his work demonstrates raw and visceral emotion. I’ll leave you to judge.
Francis Bacon’s work will endure in its popularity. Odd though it is. And even a print is likely to retain its value.
Bacon continues to fascinate. If you like that sort of thing there was a biopic in 1998, ‘Love is the Devil’, in which Sir Derek Jacobi played Bacon and James Bond actor Daniel Craig played Bacon’s lover George Dyer.
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