Francis Bacon: the Anatomy of an Engima by Michael Peppiatt reviewed by Ruth Hobley

This review was written by a member of the Ilkley Literature Festival review team. The Review Team take part in a special reviewing workshop at the start of the Festival before attending Festival events.


Early on in the discussion, Michael Peppiatt explains that as he has developed as a writer; he has tried to ‘get away from art’ and ‘get into life’. It is a striking and perhaps unexpected statement for an art historian to make; that life is the more interesting of the two.

Certainly the life of this event is found within the book in question, (which is itself an account of a life lived in the ‘electric’ presence of Francis Bacon), and in Peppiatt’s deft and witty rendering of his own writing, he treats the audience to sizeable extracts from his memoir over the course of the hour’s conversation. The extracts are skilfully selected, and give intriguing and enticing material glimpses into a portion of his life clearly shaped by the unfathomable artist; such as Bacon using a gift frying pan from Peppiatt as a paint palate, or filling his glass so full of Bordeaux in Claridges that it flowed over onto the table.

He has a surprising knack for impressions, from Francis Bacon’s boyfriend George Dyer (a cockney thief with a cleft palate, who amusingly in Peppiatt’s mouth sounds rather like a disgruntled Danny Dyer), to the painter Lucien Freud. What matters is not so much their accuracy (I have no idea what Lucien Freud sounds like) as their vivacity; and he succeeds remarkably in bringing each figure from his past, and the page into life. Intriguingly, however, Peppiatt does not seem to have a voice for Bacon himself, other than a version of his own.

It is interesting that Peppiatt confesses to not having seen a painting by Bacon before their first meeting, and it bolsters the talk’s focus upon life over art. He specifically emphasises the parts of Bacon’s personality that do not marry with his paintings, such as his charm and generosity, demonstrating how he could come to view an unstable, alcoholic masochist (whose tastes Peppiatt is keen to stress he does not share) as a ‘kind of father figure’. Francis Bacon does indeed loom large in the discussion this afternoon, like the lost patriarch he appears to have become to Peppiatt, and yet remains tantalisingly just beyond our grasp; in paintings that are alluded to but not seen and in a voice that is recounted but never quite heard. The fact that it was Francis Bacon himself who prevented this book from being published at the time it was first compiled in the 1970s makes the whole experience all the more fascinating.

Peppiatt acknowledges the deep connection between Bacon’s art and his personal life and, by the same token, his memoir documents a life that began with and was moulded by an artist. I would say that what he shows today therefore is not so much what he has ‘got out of art’ as the extent to which art has extended so much further than the canvas or the page.

Ruth Hobley is part of the Ilkley Literature Festival review team.

Ruth is a recent graduate but still an English student at heart.


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