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Francis Bacon

Conversations with Bacon: Marking Grey Gowrie's 75th birthday with his poem on the artist

Gowrie, a former UK arts minister, art dealer and chair of Sotheby’s and the Arts Council, is also a poet

“Reece Mews: Conversation Piece”, one of two poems Grey Gowrie has written about Francis Bacon, is a collage of remembered conversations. “It’s not made up, everything was said, but it wasn’t, of course, a sequential conversation,” Gowrie says. “It’s a kind of bouillon of conversations over about eight years.”

It is about Bacon, but also the characters around him, many of them friends of Gowrie’s too. “I knew Francis fairly well in the last ten years of his life, but I didn’t know him in his prime,” Gowrie explains.

When the two men met in 1982, Gowrie was a minister in the Northern Ireland department of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government and was soon to become the arts minister. Born Alexander Patrick Greysteil Ruthven in Ireland, and eventually becoming 2nd Earl of Gowrie, he was a hereditary peer, but his background was in poetry and academia, having taught at Harvard alongside the US poet Robert Lowell, as well as publishing poetry himself.

Poetry, politics and art

After returning to the UK and spending some time at UCL, he was “poached by government” and began to serve in Conservative administrations—first in Edward Heath’s government but most prominently under Thatcher. Meanwhile, in the 1970s, he was also an art dealer with Thomas Gibson Fine Art.

In 1979, after Thatcher’s election victory, he gained more senior government roles, first in employment, then in the Northern Ireland department and finally as arts minister from 1983 to 1985, a job he “wasn’t actually terribly keen on” because “I believe very strongly that politicians shouldn’t be involved in the arts,” he says. “What they should do is get the money and let the Arts Council do it.”

Despite this, he felt that he could do some good in “heritage issues, tax things, stately homes, stuff like that”, he says. Gowrie maintains that the perception of cuts to state subsidy of the arts under Thatcher was false. “We had this deal that I was to complain royally and whinge about money, but she’d smuggle me some. And we didn’t have great cuts; that’s all a myth.”

He first met Bacon through the critic David Sylvester, the great Bacon specialist—“we were great mates”, Gowrie says—but he admits he was “rather cautious” about meeting the artist.

“Absolutely charming”

“I admired him very much, but I always thought he’d be a rather terrifying figure,” he says. In fact, “he was absolutely charming and easy” at that first dinner.

He then saw Bacon fairly frequently. “He approved of me because he thought I had done him a great favour,” he adds. He can only dimly recall it now. “He was threatened with eviction from his studio and he was getting on—in 1983, Francis was 71 or 72 and so he didn’t want to move—and there was a proposed redevelopment. I can’t even terribly remember what I did; I made a few calls, and said something like: ‘Cool it for a bit, this is quite an elderly person.’”

That very studio, 7 Reece Mews, is the setting for the conversational episodes captured in this evocative poem, a series of memories of a friendship that lasted up until Bacon’s death in Madrid in 1992.

• “Reece Mews: Conversation Piece” is from Grey Gowrie’s book The Italian Visitor, published by Carcanet Press, 2013

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“Miss Beeston”: Valerie Beston (1922-2005)

“Bacon’s friend and minder at Marlborough Fine Art”, as Gowrie describes her in the poem’s footnotes. As the poem says, she took a shine to Gowrie, something she did only rarely. “I was rather pleased that she liked me,” Gowrie says today. “It was very funny, Francis saying ‘she only likes me’ and she was a militant lesbian, so ‘I suppose a few women’. She liked me simply because she was Francis’s nanny, and she thought I was not on the make but taking care of him in some way.”

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Muriel Belcher (1908-79)

The proprietress of the Colony club, the infamous Soho drinking hole frequented by Bacon and many of his friends. “I used to be taken, it was really before I knew Francis, when I was a bachelor, in between marriages and I lived in Covent Garden,” Gowrie says. “I had a woman friend and she was a great friend of [photographer and Soho drinker] Bruce Bernard and she used to take me to the Colony club. It’s not my kind of scene, as I say; I’m a Tory peer, come on! Everyone was perfectly nice to me, but all this stuff like everyone being called Cunty, and so on, I thought it a bit much.”

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Israel Citkowitz (1909-74)

One of the most powerful, and most Baconian, sequences in the poem is the description of the open-mouthed corpse of Citkowitz, a composer and musicologist, and acquaintance of Bacon’s. It begins with Gowrie and his wife waiting for Citkowitz at Wheeler’s restaurant in St James’s, central London, and ends with Gowrie climbing a fireman’s ladder and finding the body. “I haven’t seen many dead bodies, perhaps two, but Israel’s was the one I looked at for longest,” Gowrie recalls, “and the person has so left, it’s so mummified, it’s so sculptural that any elements that could be rather horrifying are more horrifying in language than in life.”

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George Embiricos (1920-2011)

A “great collector” from the Greek island of Andros who acquired major works by Bacon. “I never sold him anything, I never did business with him, but I was friendly with him,” Gowrie says. He introduced Embiricos to Bacon, and can vividly recall seeing a Bacon portrait of Henrietta Moraes amid the stunning collection that Embiricos had at his house in Lausanne, keeping illustrious company: a large Braque, a Pink Period Picasso, three Van Goghs, “an absolutely huge, wonderful jazz Kandinsky”, two Gauguins, “and then his star painting, which was a card players of Cézanne, and two late Picassos, but very strong and good ones. Just wonderful stuff everywhere.”

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David Sylvester (1924-2001)

Sylvester introduced Gowrie to Bacon and was a regular companion at their meetings. “I knew David very well from the 1980s to his death, and I was very close to him,” Gowrie says. “He was ill and recovered; I thought he was going to die, and then I was very ill—I had a heart transplant in 2000— and he came to see me in hospital. And then I only saw him for about a year after that as he died in 2001.” The poem “Gift” in Gowrie’s “The Domino Hymn” cycle—“13 poems about having a year in hospital”, as he describes them—is in memory of Sylvester.

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Lucian Freud (1922-2011)

“There was no sense that I was a friend of Freud, but I was perfectly friendly with him,” Gowrie says. But he adds that Bacon “was very sad when I knew him, because he’d kind of broken up with Lucian, and I put that in the poem”. He, too, fell foul of Freud after writing an essay about his work, containing the idea expressed to Bacon in the poem: “I said you were an imagination, Lucian an eye.” After the essay, Gowrie says: “Lucian absolutely cut me dead whenever he saw me; I never got faintly acknowledged.” In the poem Gowrie mentions two Freud paintings that he covets. “What Lucian was very good at was beauty, and he was operating in an aesthetic, a culture which is suspicious of beauty,” he says.

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Caroline Blackwood (1931-96)

Irish writer, and wife of Lucian Freud between 1953 and 1958, immortalised by him in works like Girl in Bed, 1952. “We were great, great friends”, Gowrie says. She witnessed the closeness of Freud and Bacon’s relationship in the 1950s. “Caroline had said of her marriage to Lucian: ‘I don’t think there were more than three dinners we didn’t have with Francis’,” he recalls. She later married Israel Citkowitz (see facing page) and Gowrie’s mentor Robert Lowell. Bacon’s reference to Memling in the poem reflects Gowrie’s own feelings about Freud’s portraits of his first wife. “I love the Memlingy Freuds,” he says. “I still think that that’s where his genius is. I also thought he had the wrong kind of penis envy of Francis; he wanted to shock and I don’t think he’s good at shocking.”

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John Edwards (1950-2003)

Friend of Bacon’s and ultimately his heir. “He was very tender towards John; John was a surrogate son in a way,” Gowrie says. “And John was rather wonderful looking. Francis’s portraits of him are unbelievably Annigoni-like, as are his pictures of lots of people. They have a great feeling of likeness. He really did understand people’s faces or what the effect of them in a room was like.”

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 262 November 2014