I first became aware of Francis Bacon shortly after World War II. I was then eighteen, and I was invited to a formal London ball given by Lady Rothermere, who was later to become Mrs. Ian Fleming. Princess Margaret was among the guests and could immediately be seen on the parquet floor wearing a crino-line and being worshiped by her adoring set who were known at the time as “the Smarties.” She was revered and considered glamorous because she was the one “Royal” who was accessible. Princess Margaret smoked, and she drank, and she flirted. She went to nightclubs and she loved show business and popular music.
As a guest Princess Margaret used to send out confusing signals. At times she seemed to ask to be treated as an ordinary racy young girl. But her conception of “ordinariness” sometimes made her behave in a manner that embarrassed rather than reassured those who entertained her. In order to put them at their ease so that they could forget that they had a royal figure at their table, she would pick up strings of tomato-pasted spaghetti from her plate and make loud sucking noises as she ate them with her hands. However, because she had emerged from the insulated capsule of her regal upbringing with ideas of “normality” that were askew, Princess Margaret inspired fear among her contemporaries. She encouraged familiarity and then, without warning, drew herself up to her full, small height and administered chilling snubs in which she reminded the socially inept that they had offended the daughter of the King of England.
Toward the end of the ball given by Lady Rothermere, after much champagne had been consumed, Princess Margaret seemed to be seized by a heady desire to show off. She grabbed the microphone from the startled singer of the band and she instructed them to play songs by Cole Porter. All the guests who had been waltzing under the vast chandeliers instantly stopped dancing. They stood like Buckingham Palace sentries called to attention in order to watch the royal performance.
Princess Margaret knew the Cole Porter lyrics by heart but she sang all his songs hopelessly off-key. She was given unfair encouragement by the reaction of her audience. All the ladies heavy-laden with jewelry, all the gentlemen penguin-like in their white ties and perfect black tails clapped for her. They shouted and they roared, and they asked for more.
Princess Margaret became a little manic at receiving such approval of her musical abilities, and she started wriggling around in her crinoline and tiara as she tried to mimic the sexual movements of the professional entertainer. Her dress with its petticoats bolstered by the wooden hoops that ballooned her skirts was unsuitable for the slinky act but all the rapturous applause seemed to make her forget this. Just when she had embarked on a rendering of “Let’s Do It,” a very menacing and unexpected sound came from the back of the crowded ballroom. It grew louder and louder until it eclipsed Princess Margaret’s singing. It was the sound of jeering and hissing, of prolonged and thunderous booing.
Princess Margaret faltered in mid-lyric. Mortification turned her face scarlet and then it went ashen. Because she looked close to tears, her smallness of stature suddenly made her look rather pitiful. She abandoned the microphone and a phalanx of flustered ladies-in-waiting rushed her out of the ballroom. The band stopped playing because they felt it was unseemly to continue in the face of this unprecedented situation. There was a buzzing of furious whispers as Lady Rothermere’s guests started to take in what they had witnessed.
“Who did that?” I asked the nearest white-tied and black-tailed man who happened to be standing next to me. His face was already red but rage made it look apoplectic. “It was that dreadful man, Francis Bacon,” he said. “He calls himself a painter but he does the most frightful paintings. I just don’t understand how a creature like him was allowed to get in here. It’s really quite disgraceful.”
Later when I was married to Lucian Freud and I got to know Francis he once referred to this incident, which caused a scandal.
“Her singing was really too awful,” he said. “Someone had to stop her. I don’t think people should perform if they can’t do it properly.”
Francis had an anarchic fearlessness which was unique. I can think of no one else who would have dared to boo a member of the Royal family in a private house. Among all the guests assembled in Lady Rothermere’s ballroom, more than a few were secretly suffering from Princess Margaret’s singing, but they suffered in silence, gagged by their snobbery. Francis could not be gagged. If he found a performance shoddy no conventional trepidation prevented him from expressing his reactions. Sometimes his opinions could be biased and perverse and unfair, but he never cared if they created outrage.
He could be fearlessly outspoken and crushing if provoked. I remember him being pestered in a bar by a very bad and irritating artist who was trying to make him come to his studio to look at his work. The artist said that he had the feeling that Francis only refused to come and look at his paintings because they threatened him. Francis replied that he didn’t feel in the least threatened by the man’s paintings.
“I don’t want to come to your studio because I’ve seen your tie.”
This same quality of fearlessness manifested itself in his work. The critics who found his painting obscene and ugly did not intimidate him. With big and masterful brush strokes he continued to stamp his canvases with the bleak but beautiful images that expressed his darkly Irish, pessimistic, and extremely personal vision.
There was also a fearlessness in his attitude to money, a wildness in his reckless generosity. When I first got to know him in Soho he was forty and he had not yet found any gallery prepared to give him a show because his work was considered too off-putting. Francis was broke at that time but somehow, mysteriously, he still managed to pay for rounds of drinks and he kept the champagne flowing. Later when he became world-famous and very rich there was no basic change in his behavior. He continued to keep the champagne flowing, the only difference was that he filled his friends’ glasses with champagne of a very much higher quality.
His generosity like his fearlessness was infectious. Extremely stingy and mean-fisted people who hated to pay for others would suddenly and amazingly offer to pay for a round of drinks while they were in his company. He could always shame the miserly.
In the Fifties, I remember Francis joining Lucian and me for dinner in his favorite fish restaurant, Wheelers, in Soho. The owner was perceptive and he allowed him to eat and drink there in return for his paintings, which were still spurned by the art world. Francis arrived late because he’d just been to the doctor. He came rolling in with the confident walk of a pirate making adjustments to the slope of the wind-tilted deck. As usual his round cheeks made him look cherubic, but his eyes were far more intelligent than those of the average cherub.
He said that his doctor had just told him that his heart was in tatters. Not a ventricle was functioning. His doctor had rarely seen such a hopeless and diseased organ. Francis had been warned that if he had one more drink or even allowed himself to become excited, his useless heart would fail and he would die.
Having told us the bad news he waved to the waiter and ordered a bottle of champagne, and once we had finished it he went to order a succession of new bottles. He was ebullient throughout the evening but Lucian and I went home feeling very depressed. He seemed doomed. We were convinced he was going to die, aged forty. We took the doctor’s diagnosis seriously. No one was ever going to stop him from drinking. No one would ever prevent him from becoming excited. We even wondered that night if we would ever see him again. But he lived to be eighty-two. His attitude toward doctors and death was disdainful. They didn’t frighten him. In his way, he jeered at them just as he jeered at the bad singing of Princess Margaret.
A younger British painter, Michael Wishart, once said to me that he thought that Francis had two major ambitions. He wanted to be one of the world’s best painters and he wanted to be one of the world’s leading alcoholics. Whereas most people discovered that these two ambitions were contradictory and self-defeating he felt that Francis had pulled them both off.
There was an “Irishness” in Bacon’s temperament, although he vehemently denied it, having experienced his childhood in Ireland as traumatically painful. He found it impossible to return to Ireland although he loved its countryside. He developed a neurotic attack of asthma on the plane whenever he tried to get there. He could fly to any country in the world without physical mishap, but any flight to his homeland always proved disastrous.
“My father was a horse trainer,” I remember him saying to me with a shudder. “A failed horse trainer,” and he stressed the word “failed” with such disgust and anger that he made his father’s occupation sound utterly repulsive. When he was a little boy his parents had put him astride a pony and they had forced him to go fox-hunting. He loathed the brutality of the “Sport of Kings” and developed a violent allergy to horses. He turned blue once he found himself on the hunting field and he started to choke with chronic asthma. His parents were very soon made to realize that he was never going to be the son they had wanted.
“Surely there’s nothing worse,” Francis once said to me, “than the dusty saddle lying in the hall.”
Coming from Ireland myself, I sometimes tried to make him tell me more about his unlikely and horsey Irish upbringing. I wanted him to go on, I longed to hear more about his loathing of the awful dusty saddles that symbolically litter the Irish hall. But the subject made him freeze. He became agitated whenever I broached it. He started to tug at the collar of his shirt as if he were trying to loosen some kind of noose which he found asphyxiating; for a moment he resembled the agonized figures in his paintings whose faces turn a truly dangerous shade of indigo purple as they go into the last stages of strangulation. I always stopped my questioning because it seemed cruel and tactless to upset him. I was told by a homosexual friend of Francis’s that he’d once admitted that his father, the dreaded and failed horse trainer, had arranged that his small son spend his childhood being systematically and viciously horsewhipped by his Irish grooms.
But with all his horror of 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.
There was nothing tragic or untimely about his end, although his gallantry, his fearlessness, and his exuberance made one feel he could last drinking champagne forever. Fascinated by the inevitability of human physical decay, Francis, himself, never believed that he would last forever for one moment.