Michael Peppiatt

Francis Bacon in Your Blood: A Memoir

“'Mad, bad and dangerous to know' as he was, Francis Bacon became a father figure for me and the central influence on my life.”

Retrospectives are designed to capture an artist’s full potential, full creation, full being in a defined space.

Memoirs function similarly. A full measure of an artist, between two covers. Francis Bacon in Your Blood differs. It is not the story of Francis Bacon so much as it’s the story of Bacon’s influence on another man, Michael Peppiatt (b. 1941), a young journalist who became Bacon’s closest friend and biographer.

Peppiatt met Bacon in 1963 when the former was a young Cambridge graduate looking for an interview. Bacon was fifty-three and established. Peppiatt was immediately taken by the presence of this grand, charming, and erudite man .

I had found not only a more exciting mode of life but an older man whom I admired increasingly for his freedom, vitality and artistic brilliance. What I needed, way beyond the flattery and luxury that I lapped up as a threadbare student, was a father figure. And in Francis I found him.

francis bacon in your blood
Francis Bacon and Michael Peppiatt in the mid-1960s.

I’m only trying to deform into truth, Francis says. ‘After all, photography has done so much, so how are you to make a portrait nowadays unless you can bring what’s called the facts of someone’s appearance more directly and more violently back on to the nervous system? You have to deform appearance into image. There it is. If I didn’t have to live, I wouldn’t let any of this out.

Bacon’s need to live, to reach beyond photographs, to use deformed form to convey emotion is his distinction. His portraits deliver primal, unsheathed honesty at a corpuscular level. A mesmerizing, metastasized pain dripped into our blood through the eyes.

francis bacon in your blood
“Study for Portrait II (after the Life Mask of William Blake)” by Francis Bacon, 1955. Learn more.

“We get caught up again in a round of bars like mice on a treadmill without stopping until exhaustion sets in and we part, grey with fatigue and barely able to stand, at dawn.” Peppiatt brings us to Bacon’s Soho haunts, his relationships with artists like Lucian Freud, his heavily social and alcohol-fueled nights.1

What I always hope for—this sounds terribly pretentious, perhaps one always sounds pretentious when one’s talking about oneself—is this one absolutely perfect image which will cancel all the others out. Make this thing like an idol which would blink out all kinds of other beautiful images.

While often labelled “eccentric,” Bacon, as seen by Peppiatt, was deeply connected to human motivations and needs. The suicide of his long-time lover, for example, precipitated one of Bacon’s most fragile and artistic periods. Bacon circled—on canvas and in life—truthful expression of pain all humans feel.2

francis bacon in your blood
“Study for a Portrait” by Francis Bacon, 1952. Bacon’s distortion of an unnamed man in suit is also entitled “Businessman.” Learn more.

About myself, my thoughts and feelings are what are called moeurs of my times. But then I think I go deeper than my times. That may be a profoundly vain thing to say, but I often feel in my work that I’m closer to the ancient world. I think you can convey all sorts of things about yourself, or about anything really, in painting. I think it’s more difficult in words, even though one never tires of talking about oneself, n’est-ce pas?

While Peppiatt captures these intimacies of Bacon, one wonders if it isn’t Peppiatt in the first place who solicited them. Inspired them through friendship and witness.

francis bacon in your blood
Inspired by Bacon’s portraiture study, I call this “Businessman contemplating Bacon contemplating van Gogh.” The canvas is “Study for a Portrait of van Gogh IV,” painted by Bacon in 1957. Learn more. “I reread them all the time,” Bacon wrote of van Gogh’s published letters. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Human self-awareness brings us the issue of witness. Being seen and having our story told, having another being say “You exist.” We need that. We need a Boswell to document our being. In the warm, complicated affirmation from Bacon, Peppiatt found his own expression and exposure. In return, he exposed Bacon—the real, intimate, human Francis Bacon—to the world.

Bacon sought to prick our unconscious, to prime nerves saturated through overexposure to images. Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others looks more closely at this saturation of empathy. I also recommend the deeply enriching The Letters of Vincent van Gogh, a book—and an artist—that influenced Bacon profoundly.