When Michael Peppiatt met Francis Bacon in 1963 to interview him for a student magazine, the artist was already well-established, and perhaps even establishment. He had been the subject of retrospectives at the Tate and the Guggenheim, and the Marlborough Gallery had paid off several decades’ worth of gambling debts. No longer an authentically marginal figure, ‘mythologising his life’ was ‘at the very centre of his existence and painting’; and for 29 years Peppiatt became his scribe, drinking partner, estate agent, confidante, gatekeeper and admirer, and the recipient of lavish dinners, drinks, flats, paintings and acquaintances.
Alienated from his own family, Peppiatt grew up in Bacon’s world and only belatedly grew out of it. Francis Bacon in Your Blood is not a biography of Bacon, nor is meant to be; it is a memoir of the life that ensued when the 53-year-old Bacon befriended Peppiatt, then aged 21. Peppiatt kept three decades of notes, and the criticisms and reflections on Bacon’s life, attitude and utterances often feel as if they correspond to Peppiatt’s diaries from that time, with nothing added. The period covering 1963 to about 1971, for example, although including a very good sequence about Peppiatt’s involvement in May 1968 and a farcical, abortive attempt at sabotaging a mainstream literary prize, is heavy on tales of their mutual binges. Dazzled by the endless procession of big-name wines in similar bars, Peppiatt seems not to notice that Bacon repeats the same maxims again and again, almost word for word — stock phrases on painting about ‘immediacy’ and the ‘nervous system’ and a rehearsed bit on the nothingness that stretches before and after life — as if prepping his initiate to write about him. Impressive once, cumulatively they are undermining, especially when heard sober.
Peppiatt realises this as he ages, and when he begins to struggle with his adoration his book really takes shape. Bacon hated anyone being independent of him: when Peppiatt tells him that his first child is on its way, Bacon ‘becomes increasingly agitated … talking as if this birth is an affront to him, a direct, deadly insult. I have never seen him this angry, ever.’
The perspective Peppiatt gradually gains is crucial. Beneath the bluster, dissimulation,megalomaniacal kindness and ‘maniacally controlling way’, Bacon’s ‘living brilliantly’ his ‘gilded gutter life’, is revealed to be a sustaining fiction for a talented, broken man. In practice it meant spending lunchtime until late evening on lobster, lamb and Château Latour in Mayfair, then going to Soho to seduce East Enders. Played on repeat, this doesn’t quite reach the extreme, worldly lifestyle that Bacon thought he lived and successfully projected, and which Peppiatt undercuts just enough to be heartbreaking rather than destructive. Aiming for tragedy but held back by his pettiness and success, in the end Bacon just seems lost. It’s a brilliant portrait that Peppiatt lets Bacon paint, then carry on painting, overworking it until his flaws and nuances appear.
The level of detail reserved for Bacon and Peppiatt himself is understandably not afforded to the supporting cast, who are often dealt with briefly, and sometimes curtly. Peppiatt seems to have learned from Bacon the power of the snap assassination and the belittling detail. Sonia Orwell (who slighted Peppiatt young) and David Sylvester (a significant promoter of Bacon’s work from the 1950s onwards and author of a canonical series of interviews with Bacon) receive varying amounts of this treatment.
The professional catfight with Sylvester is one-sided, Sylvester having died in 2001, leaving Peppiatt alone on the field to score points with references to his ‘pendulous belly’ and stupidity (‘I also wonder whether Sylvester hadn’t prepared the remark or heard it elsewhere’). In one story, the Colony Room regular Denis Wirth-Miller taunts Sylvester with Bacon’s recent outburst that he knows nothing about painting and has to be told what to write, an accusation Sylvester counters by punching Wirth-Miller in the face. It’s only later we discover that this is Bacon’s standard view of any critic who dares to contradict him, and Bacon says much the same about Peppiatt to his face: ‘You just write what you’re told to. Deep down, all journalists are skunks, I know that. And rotten. Rotten to the core.’
Entertaining, calculated and acerbic, Michael Peppiatt really does seem to have a bit of Bacon his blood.