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Another side: Andrew Lambirth on Francis Bacon

A personal view of Francis Bacon by his Boswell, Michael Peppiatt

Michael Peppiatt (born 1941), an internationally acclaimed expert on Francis Bacon, is the author of the standard biography of the artist, Anatomy of an Enigma, first published in 1996 and revised in 2008. He has written Bacon catalogues, notably Francis Bacon in the 1950s, which accompanied a splendid exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich and toured to Milwaukee and Buffalo, and he has compiled a volume of essays and interviews entitled Francis Bacon: Studies for a Portrait (2008). What more, you may ask, has he to say about such a (by now) well known figure? Well, the answer is a very great deal of personal, subjective material – the true story, perhaps, of his complex relationship with one of the most enigmatic artists of our times.

This new book is not an objective account of an artist’s life and times, but the diary of an obsession. It is based on Peppiatt’s notebooks and journals, which recorded in detail the precise co-ordinates of Bacon’s long, and often rambling, conversations. In fact, it was the repetitive nature of these near-monologues that enabled the young writer to commit them to memory and re-present them to us today. This accounts for the occasionally unbelievable extent of Bacon’s recorded speech in the book, which flows imperturbably for paragraph after paragraph. Peppiatt calls Bacon a father figure, and the central influence on his life. When they first met, Peppiatt was 21 and still a student at Cambridge. Bacon was 53 and coming into his mature fame as an artist. The friendship (Peppiatt is not gay) is intriguing, to say the least.

The Baconian tone sounds unmistakably throughout the book. “I like phrases that cut me,” Bacon said, and he spoke of “trapping the image at its most living point”. The rhythms of his speech come across too: the repeated phrase “there it is”, like a punctuation mark; the emphasis on exhilarated despair and the belief in nothingness; the circular conversations, echoing the endless rounds of drinks. Some people maintain that Bacon drank little and poured more into others’ glasses, but Peppiatt tells otherwise, with one mammoth session accounting for 13 bottles of wine between them, and a few chasers. Peppiatt is good at evoking the “murderous voluptuousness” of Bacon’s paintings, and the book is shot through with perceptive asides and rewardingly direct analysis of the art. No one now alive knew the man and his work as well as Peppiatt, and he guides the enthralled (and sometimes appalled) reader through the switchback of moods that Bacon inflicted on his friends.

For those who enjoyed David Sylvester’s interviews with Bacon, Michael Peppiatt’s memoir will touch a nerve. In Peppiatt’s pages we have the unexpurgated version, fuelled by midnight binges, not the studiedly controlled and densely edited text of Sylvester. We also get something of the man Peppiatt, besides the ambitious writer, curator and art historian, and this makes the whole enterprise both more beguiling and more compelling. “From Bacon I learnt that my own contradictions could only be resolved by letting myself drift as freely as possible,” Peppiatt writes. Part of the excitement of being with Bacon must have been the frisson of danger that attended so many of his encounters with unorthodox types, though the artist was dexterous at averting trouble from his protégé at the last possible moment, usually defusing a situation with a mixture of sangfroid and cash. Peppiatt clearly did a lot of growing up in Bacon’s company and calls it “a revealingly accelerated introduction to life”. He now repays the debt by bringing Bacon to life as never before. A tremendous read.

Andrew Lambirth is a writer, critic and curator. He was the art critic of The Spectator from 2002 to 2014

Francis Bacon in Your Blood: A Memoir

Michael Peppiatt

Bloomsbury, 404pp, £25 (hb)