Serpent's Egg

The Eroticism of Fat Men

Debauchery and darkness: 30 years of drinking with Francis Bacon

For three decades, art historian Michael Peppiatt boozed with Francis Bacon after they’d drunk everyone else under the table. He relives his days in a demi-monde of crooks, misfits and dodgy nightclubs

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City of dreams and nightmares … Francis Bacon and Michael Peppiatt in Paris, photographed by David Hockney.

Partying with Francis Bacon, as I often did over the 30 years we were friends, easily turned into a rollercoaster. However sedately an outing began, over oysters at Wheeler’s or champagne at the Ritz, it always grew exuberant and often dangerous as the members-only drinking holes gave way to Soho clubs where Bacon bought drinks for everyone in sight and dominated the conversation with lengthy tirades about the futility of life. “We come from nothing and go into nothing,” he would repeat triumphantly, his champagne glass held high.

After meeting Bacon in London in the early 1960s, when I interviewed him for a student magazine I was editing, I began seeing him regularly, as much for the interview as for the fun of being taken from grand hotel to seedy drinking den and meeting everyone in his orbit, from poets and pop stars to dukes and gangsters. I became addicted to his nightly routine – which usually took a dizzying course from high to low (sometimes very low), ending in such alarming venues as the Iron Lung – where a milling crowd of misfits and conmen gathered to get drunk in a basement patrolled by a very large ex-policeman referred to, in kinder moments, as Maltese Mary. When I moved to Paris for work in 1966, I thought my time with Bacon was up.

Francis Bacon poses during portrait session in Paris’s Galerie Maeght Lelong in January 1984.
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‘All art dealers are crooks’ … Bacon poses during portrait session in Paris’s Galerie Maeght Lelong in January 1984. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

But luck was on my side. That same year he had his first, really important gallery show in Paris. He began visiting regularly and included me in his festivities. Not only was I readily available, but I was bilingual: whenever he got lost in a rapid crossfire of French he would consult me. “All art dealers are crooks, you know,” he said to me after one such interlude.

A few years later, Bacon was offered the job of his lifetime: a major retrospective at the Grand Palais, making him the only living artist other than Picasso to have received the honour. Once again, I was party to the celebrations, leaving a trail of museum directors, art dealers and critics too drunk to go back to work that day or the next. Then, with me still woozily in tow, we would start on the serious drinking, in exotic nightclubs or increasingly obscure and threatening all-male bars. In the late-night Arab dens, the tough-looking men (one had a whole mouth of metal teeth, I remember) seemed to sense Bacon’s appetite for violence – and be prepared to provide it.

But what should have been Bacon’s greatest triumph turned into his worst nightmare. Just as his retrospective opened, Bacon’s lover, George Dyer, was found dead from an overdose of alcohol and sleeping tablets in the hotel room the men were sharing on the Left Bank. The huge banquet on the show’s opening night became a strange, poignant wake. A drunk and distraught Isabel Rawsthorne, a model and one of Bacon’s oldest friends, broke into a barely comprehensible monologue about how she’d foreseen Dyer’s death. It was as though she was speaking in tongues, and her rant shocked the whole room. Bacon looked withdrawn, as if in another world.

After that trauma I thought he would never set foot in Paris again. I was wrong. He returned with ever-greater frequency, staying in the hotel where Dyer had committed suicide, as if he were deliberately feeding his sense of loss and guilt at the death. Gradually it became clear that Bacon was mulling over a series of paintings dedicated to his dead lover – in the exact spot where his death had occurred.

A member of Sotheby’s auction house adjusts a painting entitled ‘Study for Head of George Dyer’ (1967). The painting is valued in excess of £8m.
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Bacon’s lover … Study for Head of George Dyer (1967). Photograph: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

A year later, Bacon asked me to go house-hunting for him, and I found a bigger, more elegant version of my own place beside the Place des Vosges. The only thing he didn’t like was the black-and-gold flock wallpaper the previous incumbent, a rather pompous French architect, had chosen to grace the walls. Once he moved in, I organised an impromptu housewarming with Sonia Orwell and a couple of other close friends. As the champagne flowed, Bacon kept shooting the walls looks of undisguised malevolence until he could bear it no more. He leapt up and started pulling down great handfuls of the offending fabric. “I want nothing but plain white walls,” he said, and we all joined in, like student pranksters, until we were ankle-deep in the stuff.

*

In the wake of his Grand Palais success, Parisian art dealers were fighting over the famous Francophile artist. One noticed that Bacon got on extremely well with his gallery’s handyman – a bright, tough, resolutely heterosexual fellow of the kind Bacon longed to seduce. To try and bring him round, the dealer hit on the ingenious plan of hosting a party in the handyman’s house in the rough suburbs, where Bacon could fantasise about working-class toughs beating him to within an inch of his life. Several taxi-loads of art buffs arrived at the house where a lavish feast had been laid on by top Parisian caterers. But Bacon, who had been drinking with me solidly all day, knew he was being manipulated. Once all the courses had been served, he suddenly shouted imperiously for the bill. ‘L’addition!’, he hollered, waving his hand over a deeply embarrassed suburban household.

Portrait of George Dyer Talking … The piece is expected to attract bids in the region of £30m when it is presented as part of the Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art auction.
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Bacon’s Portrait of George Dyer Talking. Photograph: Andrew Cowie/AFP/Getty Images

You never knew when or how Bacon might “turn” viciously, above all on his closest friends. I remember one dinner with Bacon and one of his oldest friends, Denis Wirth-Miller. Bottles of wine were emptied as swiftly as if the pair had entered into a drinking contest, and they were soon disastrously drunk. A slanging match began, with Wirth-Miller claiming he had once been bitten by Bacon and Bacon retorting “She’s so poisonous I wouldn’t be here today if I had!”

Moments later, Wirth-Miller cruelly suggested Dyer’s suicide was prompted by Bacon spilling sleeping tablets around him as he lay drunk on the floor. Without missing a beat, Bacon rounded on him and said sweetly: “Shall I spill sleeping tablets into your hand tonight, dear?” At the end of the night, the two somehow left in the best of humour – proof of Bacon’s dictum that real friendship consists of “two people pulling each other to bits”.

As long as a situation could be pushed further, Bacon was compelled to do it – just as he was compelled to have one glass too many, then many more. On one of our last meetings in Paris we shared an excellent (if rather dull) lunch at a seafood restaurant in Montparnasse. He had been ill but all the signs of his devilry resurfaced. I should have known he was out to drink till he dropped.

After lunch we lurched down the Boulevard du Montparnasse to the Sélect, which had been his regular port of call in the 1920s, when he first started coming to Paris, because it was then a top homosexual rendezvous. I don’t know what got into him – whether he felt some inner conflict, or that the Sélect no longer lived up to his expectations – but his mood switched suddenly. As the afternoon faded into night, we were necking round after round of different ports, none of which seemed to find favour. He was falling about at the bar, leaning his whole body against other drinkers who seemed too embarrassed to move. On a whim Bacon chucked his whole glass of port away, splashing everyone around him and shrieking “Your port’s disgusting – now get me me a decent one!”

I thought we were going to get thrown out. But a better bottle was produced and Bacon seemed momentarily mollified, though I sensed waves of anger from other punters. Suddenly he produced a little pink mirror from his black leather trenchcoat and while preening himself began a monologue with provocative camp gestures, laughing, mincing around and saying out loud:

“Do I really look that young still? Well there it is. I’m simply a brilliant fool, brilliant and idiotic, and there it is. I don’t believe in anything and I don’t care about anything. There’s just my brilliance and the brilliance of life. And when you’re old you are never really less than your age and that’s an abominable thing. But every now and then someone does actually come along and thinks you are younger than you really are and when you tell them your age they’re really shocked. It’s tragic still to desire at my age …”

I knew we would have a fight on our hands unless we made for the door. I half-cajoled, half-propelled Bacon out of the hostile crowd, and for several terrifying minutes we wove our way through the speeding traffic to the other side of the boulevard. Bacon kept falling over and no taxi would stop for us. Eventually I hoisted him on to a bus back home, and he left me, swallowed by the night.

 

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This entry was posted on September 2, 2015 by and tagged , , , , .

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