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Francis Bacon, Queen of Camp - ​Nicky Haslam

Blog | By ​Nicky Haslam | May 01, 2022

Francis Bacon by Reginald Gray (National Portrait Gallery)

Nicky Haslam remembers meeting Francis Bacon, the eminence mauve of the Colony Room Club, in 1950s Soho

The Royal Academy has posted trigger warnings of – deep breath – ‘adult content’ on paintings in its new Francis Bacon show.

But just how ‘adult’ are they? They are anything but. Instead, Bacon depicts sophisticated but infantile images of bad dreams and worse memories. They’re decked out on modish furniture – which, in an earlier career as an interior decorator, he designed – and they’re imprisoned by linear structures to impart a Giacometti-ish, hard-edged modernism.

The sheer grotesqueness of Bacon’s images was once considered the acme of Freudian night sweats. Now they seem more like storyboards for some Squid Game spin-off – the very thing, these days; the stuff of a five-year-old’s yearnings.

Dear old Francis is beginning to look dated – quite apart from the fact that much of his work is really rather bad. While the major works are (along with, say, Basquiat) apples in collections of those who have precious little eye or taste, the impact of their flaunted frightmarishness can somehow seem merely decorative.

Isn’t Bacon’s work the epitome of high camp? There’s nothing wrong with that. Many breathtakingly innovative artists produced profoundly camp paintings: Parmigianino, Caravaggio, Fragonard, Beardsley, Dalí and let’s not forget Warhol.

Bacon was an accomplished enough draughtsman to bring high camp to a new low. Those isolated, twirling, multi-faceted figures bring to mind Gustave Moreau’s Sirens – vampiresque brides stripped bare of their rococo rockery surroundings, or the contorted, bleached flesh of his dying Apparition. But Moreau was a far happier camper than Bacon, for whom melancholy is outstripped by angst.

I do not mean to use the c word pejoratively. Many people’s lives – including Francis’s – were led on the high-camp wire in a kind of postwar euphoria. In the late ’50s, eager from school, I was taken to the Colony Room Club, known as Muriel’s, in Soho. Up the wonky, viridian-green-painted stairway of a tumbledown Georgian house, past a landing – and lav of indescribable chaos – the door opened to Muriel. Large-featured and solid, she perched surprisingly elegantly on a bar stool, delivering her famous greeting, ‘Hello, Cunty,’ in a smoke-ridden and alcohol-perfumed room.

There the cleverest, most waspish and campest (in its humorous, rather than sexual, sense) artists, writers, journalists of the time gathered, drunker and drunker, to bitch about all others outside its grimy windows and, more remorselessly, those inside.

Francis, with his piercing eyes and jerky smile in a face that looked as if it had had ‘work’ long before such a thing seemed possible, was the Colony’s eminence mauve, and a great friend of my first lover, the artist Michael Wishart (1928-96). I was quickly swept into his galère – the painters Colquhoun and MacBryde, John Minton and some ravishingly beautiful girls, Henrietta Moraes and Diana Melly, George Melly’s wife.

The photographer John Deakin was a former passion of the exotic American moneybags Arthur Jeffress. Deakin hurried me, soon after our first meeting, to his ramshackle flat off Edgware Road for a portrait session. The result became the cover of my autobiography, Redeeming Features.

A plethora of books on Lucian Freud, both hagiographic and chatty, tumbles off the presses, thick and vast. There have been fewer about Bacon, once the closest of Lucian’s friends but, by the time I was around, his bitter rival.

I can’t recall ever seeing Lucian at Muriel’s. Initially married to Michael Wishart’s cousin Kitty Epstein, Lucian had an almost daemonic allure. It shot him into a social stratosphere alien to Francis’s more earthly delights. Beyond mutual denigration, both had drawn a veil over their shared past.

Neither had much truck with nostalgia, which shows in the early, surreal work of both artists. They both fought – and eventually won – a war against the soft realism of living British painters, and the self-proclaimed art lordship of the École de Paris with its Tachiste canvases.

Both deeply private with their personal emotions, not for many decades to come would Lucian sometimes, and Francis rarely, let a little limelight into their creative dual monarchy.

Now the art dealer James Birch, whose parents were among Bacon’s intimate friends, has published a fascinating account of his friendship with the Francis he knew from childhood. It centres on his cherished quest to take the first-ever exhibition of Bacon’s work, and Bacon himself, to Moscow in 1988.

The tangled process involves dodgy Russian entrepreneurs and beautiful lady spies, Grayson Perry, the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, Francis’s long-term love object (and heir) John Edwards and, not unnaturally, Francis himself.

The twists and turns, the vagaries of plots and promises, the letters and loopholes and Francis’s changes of mind about attending the opening – he eventually agreed but was prevented by his acute asthma – make for fascinating reading, like some latter-day mix of Kafka and Firbank. Like Bacon’s work, perhaps.