The British painter Francis Bacon (1909-1992) was a self-taught artist. Born in Dublin, he moved to London in 1928, where he earned his living as an interior decorator until he won almost instant notoriety with Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944). His instinctive, visceral paintings are predominantly figural. This week Tate Liverpool opens Francis Bacon: Invisible Rooms, which considers the cages and enclosures Bacon sometimes painted around his subjects, to make them appear trapped.
Author Michael Peppiatt was 21 when he met Bacon, in 1963, while writing a piece for an issue of the student magazine Cambridge Opinion dedicated to Modern art in Britain. Despite the difference in age (Bacon was then in his mid-fifties) the two struck up a friendship and met regularly over the next 29 years, until Bacon's death. This the latest in our In the Studio interview series draws on his knowledge of Bacon's routine.
Bacon got up very early, usually with first light, even if he’d come home very late and very drunk, because he liked to get going at the first possible opportunity.
Sometimes he didn’t feel like working, and pottered around a bit, but if he did he would go straight into a picture. He used to say: “If it’s going to work, it usually works right away, or not at all.” He worked quickly, so often he managed to finish a painting in a few sessions.
He started the day with strong tea – he made a very good cup, usually to battle the hangover. He was a very disciplined person. He said, “You have to be disciplined in everything; above all in frivolity.”
He had a mews house in South Kensington, where he lived and workedfor the last 30 years of his life. It consisted of two rooms with a bathroom and kitchen in-between. He had his bed in the sitting room and the other room was his studio, so he could just pad straight in from where he slept.
It was very, very chaotic, with about a foot of books and photos and rags and paint brushes and paint, old sweaters and socks on the floor. It looked like detritus but in fact a lot of it was an image bank: he had all these photos and pictures, and sometimes you couldn’t really work out what he’d seen in them, but obviously he had seen something. I was lucky enough to get in on a few occasions when he wanted to show me a new painting or I was helping him look for something. It don’t remember it smelling of turps and linseed oil – he was asthmatic and he must have done something to go a little easy on his lungs. It was the visual shock that I remember more than any other sense.
It was an ordered chaos – I think he knew vaguely were things were, but he was often looking for things – images, clothes, books, and on one hilarious occasion when we were out gambling and he had run out of money, cash. He kept shaking out all these pots of dried paint and suddenly there was a flutter of big notes falling through the air.
He treated his walls as a sort of huge palette. There were paint marks rising up all over them and over the door, too. It was partly trying out colours, and partly cleaning his brush. The room was lit by a skylight, which wasn’t particularly bright, and a small north window. I think he had the electric light on a lot of the time, which was just a powerful bulb hanging down, no shade.
It was a small space; narrow with low ceilings and very crowded. They had difficulty getting the big paintings in and out. He usually worked on one painting at a time, the exception being the triptychs, which he would have lined up against the wall – it would have been impossible to make room for three easels next to each other in that room.
He was always immaculate when he went out, in a freshly pressed suit, without a trace of any paint. I think he was quite careful to differentiate. He made a point of not letting people into the studio when he was working. For Bacon, painting was a very solitary activity. I think he worked in a dressing gown or an old pair of trousers and a sweater.
He never listened to music while he was working, he just wanted to focus on the painting. But outside of that, he liked things like Edith Piaf and other crooners, such as Nat King Cole.
He worked until about midday, when he went out and had his first glass of champagne. He either turned up in Soho and bumped into whoever was around, or he made a date for lunch proper. Then he sort of lurched through the afternoon and into the night from bar to bar. Sometimes he came back drunk and would think he had the solution to a problem with a painting, but if he started to paint when he was like that it was always a disaster.
He found inspiration everywhere. From his own life, his experiences. Most of his paintings are about sex and love, and about his friends. He also drew on the Greek tragedies and poems by Yeats and Eliot, some painters, too – Velasquez is the famous one, but also Picasso, and photography, and cinema. He was a deeply cultured, cultivated man. He looked and he felt and he combined looking and feeling into imagery.
Finishing paintings was always hard for him. Very often his gallery would have a van waiting below to come up and grab a painting before he took it too far. They had to carry it wet out of the studio. Sometimes he wanted to get a painting back because he felt that it wasn’t what he had wanted to let out, but on the whole I think he learned over time that there was a danger of taking a piece too far and losing whatever he’d already got.
He did suffer from a kind of block at times. It wasn’t a case of just churning his pictures out – I think he was a fluent painter but he tended also to paint in bursts. I remember him being a bit incoherent at times, which I think was down to the painting not going well, or perhaps it was his life not going well, but he had distinct highs and lows. I do think that’s one of the things that attracted him to painting, though, that sometimes it worked and sometimes it ground to a halt. He just accepted it. He knew from past experience that, with any luck, things would ease and he’d begin to work again.
He didn’t use assistants, although early on he had a bit of input on how to paint some grass from his friend Denis Wirth Miller.
He only slept for a couple of hours a night. Those who had been drinking with him would be crouched under the pillow, wondering how to cope with the day. I don’t know how he did it – perhaps with enough discipline, one can. He was remarkable in that way.