Food for thought: the chaotic contents of Francis Bacon's studio included a large number of cookery books and images of food. Not only was he an enthusiastic gourmand, but his passion for food--and for looking at it--also influenced how the painter approached his subjects.
When the Hugh Lane team from Dublin forensically removed the entire contents of Bacon's studio in 1998, they catalogued over 7,000 items, including more than 500 books and hundreds of loose book leaves, as well as photographs, magazines, handwritten notes, drawings and abandoned and slashed canvases. (1) Bacon clearly drew on a wide range of material and subject matter for his work, including a large number of cookery books. In an article for The Times in advance of his exhibition at the Marlborough Gallery, New York, Bacon credited Mrs Beeton as a source of inspiration for his work, along with medical books, books on birds of prey and an advertisement in a newspaper. Bacon's biographer, Michael Peppiatt, recalls that the painter would have piles of books on the table in his living room/bedroom--maybe a catalogue of a new exhibition of Seurat, a book by a friend such as the poet Jacques Dupin, or even that well-thumbed copy of Mrs Beeton. (2)
For Bacon, good food--its appearance, the images it conjured and, importantly, its colour--played a strong part in both life and art. His name is, of course, synonymous with meat, and his celebrated forebear--the 16th-century philosopher, scientist and statesman Sir Francis Bacon, after whom he was named--died while experimenting with the possibilities of freezing a chicken.
As Bacon's renown as an artist grew, so too did his reputation as a bon viveur. His love of drinking began at an early age, with alcohol helping him to overcome his shyness: 'When I was very young you see I was incredibly shy and later I thought it was ridiculous to be shy, so I tried deliberately to get over this because I think shy people are ridiculous. And when I was 30 or so I gradually began to be able to open myself out.' (3) When in later life, after the removal of one of Bacon's kidneys, the artist Michael Wishart offered his sympathy, Bacon laughingly replied: 'Well if you have been drunk since the age of 15, you're lucky to have even one kidney.' (4)
Bacon was known to have been a good, if simple, cook and recounted how his mother made relatively straightforward dishes such as shepherd's pie and oxtail stew. (5) He left his home, Straffan Lodge in County Kildare, when he was 16 years old, following a row with his father over his overt homosexual behaviour. In the following year, 1927, he was sent to Berlin with a friend of the family--believed to be Cecil Harcourt-Smith--to be 'sorted out'. Berlin in the last years of the Weimar Republic --with its stark contrasts of sophistication and poverty, as well as the promiscuous behaviour and sexual tolerance--was quite a revelation for the young man from Ireland. Taking advantage of the hyperinflation of the period, the pair stayed in the luxurious Hotel Adlon, made famous by the culinary genius of Auguste Escoffier, the hotel's legendary chef, and its glamorous clientele, which included Marlene Dietrich and Charlie Chaplin.
Rather than helping to sort out Bacon's homosexual inclinations, Harcourt-Smith seduced the young man in one of the ducal apartments. As well as recounting these exploits, Bacon, forever the sensualist, also recalled the sumptuous room service--in particular a breakfast trolley adorned by four silver swans, and the glorious sensation of grasping one by the neck to pull the laden silver trolley towards the bed. (6)
Following his stay of over two months in Berlin, Bacon went on to spend almost two years in France, where he experienced sophisticated continental cuisine. Throughout his life he maintained an abiding affection for Mediterranean fare. Bacon also credited his lover, mentor and collector Eric Hall, whom he first met in the late 1920s, with his appreciation of good food. 'He taught me the value of things--for instance, what decent food was--that I certainly didn't learn in Ireland.' (7)
Bacon was well aware of the role eating and drinking can play in the art of seduction. The writer, photographer and broadcaster Daniel Farson recounts how the first time he met the artist in the French Pub in Soho, London, (8) Bacon regaled those gathered around him with a story of how that morning he had been picked up in the Westminster Bank by a colonel in the South African army. He invited the artist to lunch in the Ritz and then, according to Bacon, wanted him to travel back with him to South Africa. Playing the colonel along for a while, Bacon eventually declined, and apparently there was quite a scene, with the colonel screaming abuse and breaking glasses. (9)
Bacon loved this type of fuss, and was theatrical in his life as well as in his art. His paintings have a dramatic sensibility, with scenes played out in the public gaze, just as he played out his personal dramas on the stage of the public house and city restaurant. He could be courteous and charming, or drunk and obnoxious in equal measures.
Over 40 cookery books were found in Bacon's library, (10) including 10 books by Elizabeth David, four of which were different editions of French Country Cooking. As David's books were almost all without illustration, it must be assumed that her actual recipes were of interest to Bacon--perhaps on their own accord, but probably more for the images they conjured up. (11) Amusingly, Bacon used the cover of the 1966 edition of French Country Cooking as a palette (Fig. 3). He also owned three cookbooks by Jane Grigson, of which Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery was found in the studio (Fig. 4). Her illustrations of the variety of cuts of pork are somewhat reminiscent of Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management. (12) The richly illustrated Larousse Gastronomique, (13) A Taste of Paris: Traditional Food and A Taste of Wales: Welsh Traditional Food, both by his friend Theodora FitzGibbon, (14) La Cuisiniere Provencale by J.B. Reboul (15) and The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson (16) give a glimpse of the diversity of Bacon's cookery books. These books confirm Bacon's affection for continental cuisine, which was also reflected in the restaurants he favoured in London. (17) The French Pub, one of his favourite haunts, had a French restaurant upstairs, frequented by business people, industrial magnates and collectors, essential for an artist's survival.
One of the reasons for Bacon's relative longevity--despite his prodigious drinking--was probably his love of good food, and his delight in it may have been partly due to firsthand experience of food rationing. Born in Dublin in 1909, Bacon lived through the First World War, the Easter Rising of 1916 in Dublin, the Irish War of Independence and the Second World War. Rationing was severe during the two world wars, and while the Easter Rising was short-lived, it too had its impact on food supplies.
In Constance Spry's cookery book of 1956, she gives us an unusual account of food shortage during the Easter Rebellion: 'Some friends of mine, incarcerated in the precincts of Dublin Castle during the 1916 rebellion in Ireland, found themselves restricted to a diet of un-relieved salmon for almost a week. What a blessing to them would have been Mme Prunier's book giving around 30 ways of dealing with this delicious but rich fish. As it was, their close friends were prayed to avoid salmon when entertaining them for long months afterwards.' (18)
Food was even more difficult to source during the Second World War in London. Theodora FitzGibbon recalls the severity of the shortages in her autobiography With Love, a copy of which was in Bacon's studio. Weekly rations 'consisted of one ounce of butter, four ounces of margarine, one ounce of cheese and between one shilling and one and three pence worth of meat. One egg a week in the summer and the winter was unpredictable. Egg powder was a substitute and a pretty ghastly milk powder was also used as a substitute. Vegetables and fruit were ration-free but very infrequent and seasonal'. She goes on to say how difficult it was to get meat: 'When I remarked to the butcher that all animals seemed to be born without tongues, tails, hearts, kidneys, livers or balls, he winked at me, a great arm went under the counter and he flung up a half frozen oxtail. To this day I can taste the thick gravy and see our grease spattered lips as we chewed on the bones ...' (19)
Michael Wishart recounts how, on a visit in 1943 to Bacon's studio at 7 Cromwell Place, South Kensington, the artist cooked a dish of spaghetti with garlic and walnuts, which was to become one of his specialities. (20) Years later, no doubt recalling those austere times, Bacon's closest friend and companion John Edwards recalled how the artist cooked a great roast chicken (21) and how he gleefully boasted of adding a bottle of highly expensive Chateau Petrus to his stew, making it truly delicious. (22)
Bacon's routine of working from the very early morning until lunch time, and spending most afternoons eating and drinking around Soho, Knightsbridge and South Kensington, became legendary, and the habit may have emerged from his wartime experiences. FitzGibbon explains: 'pubs ... were the only places in wartime London where one could entertain and be entertained cheaply and find companionship badly needed during the war... For people of our age with no solid regular work accounts behind us it was difficult to come by even a bottle of sherry. Food was very scarce indeed and food for the occasional dinner party had to be hunted for and often took many hours and much traipsing about ...' (23)
Private drinking clubs such as Muriel Belcher's famous Colony Room and the Mandrake were havens for bohemian London. Belcher was a close friend of Bacon's and he was a regular at the Colony Room. Being a club, it was not subject to the licensing laws that obliged pubs to close daily between 2.30pm and 5.30pm, and as such it was a welcome respite during the dreary, bleak afternoons when the camaraderie of the pub was off limits.
Images of food, and in particular meat, occur regularly in Bacon's paintings. He was fascinated by abattoirs and meat carcasses from an early age. In 1977, an article appeared in The Irish Press by Doreen Moloney, (24) a childhood friend of Bacon who grew up near him in County Kildare. She recounted how Bacon was always drawing, 'and he would hand me sheaves of drawings for my appraisal. He was amused when I could not readily identify the subjects.' He was not overly athletic, but was a keen tennis player, 'fast and steady', and he partnered Moloney in tennis tournaments in the nearby town of Naas. However, his real interests lay elsewhere. She describes how one day, as they were on route to Naas, 'we passed a butcher's shop in Sallins [and] he confessed that he was fascinated by butchers' shops. He persuaded me to go in with him to view the hanging meat. And to this day I see evidence in his paintings of hanging carcasses.'
When Bacon's triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) was first exhibited at the Lefevre Gallery, London, in April 1945, it caused a sensation. Distended figures, part human, part animal, scream out in torment. Such images had never before been seen in paint, and indicate the direction and concerns Bacon was to follow in his art for the next 40 years. Figure with Meat (1954) (25) is also highly original in its iconography, and in its insistence of man as meat it blurs the divide between human and animal. The iconic figure of the Pope is clearly identified by his papal vestments, but he is flanked by sides of meat that replace the sumptuous draperies and traditional Christian iconography. It seems that the old order is overturned, and the Pope is no longer in control.
Bacon's strong sense of nihilism and empathy with man as animal is reinforced by a portrait of the artist photographed by John Deakin for Vogue magazine in 1952. Stripped to the waist, he identifies with the carcasses not as butcher or victim but as alternative living flesh and bone. Meat is the body, the state of the living organism constructed on an armature of bone. The sides of beef, split to reveal the ribs, echo Bacon's own ribcage, and are reminiscent of Cimabue's Crucifixion (1268-71), a copy of which was found in Bacon's studio.
Images of human atrocities, corpses and meat carcasses were also recovered from Bacon's studio, including a series of photographs of scarred corpses taken by Peter Beard in San Quentin State Prison in 1972, and a most unusual colour photograph of the severed head of a bull upside down on a plinth by John Deakin (Fig. 5). As the philosopher Gilles Deleuze pointed out, in Bacon's paintings, in place of formal correspondences, there 'is a zone of indiscernibility or undecidability between man and animal'. (26) What Bacon brings is an empathy to the state of being, where the meat is flesh. We are all cattle, and the crucified flesh of the butcher shop evokes in him an empathy for the slaughter of the living organism, be it animal or man.
One of the earliest cookery books owned by Bacon was his 1888 edition of Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management. Isabella Mary Beeton was an indefatigable household advisor and a remarkable cook. Much used and falling apart, this book was obviously one of Bacon's favourites. However, his domestic arrangements would hardly account for such an interest in labour-intensive and old-fashioned cooking. He had one rather primitive gas oven, and as his kitchen doubled as his bathroom--where, as well as bathing, he applied his make-up before going out on the town--it was hardly the place of experimental cuisine.
So what interested Bacon? Looking through Mrs Beeton, I was struck by how beautiful the illustrations are--detailed diagrams of cuts of meat that must have contributed significantly to Bacon's memory bank of images. Two coloured images of elaborate table settings on patterned carpets were torn out and folded within the book (Fig. 7). While neither directly relates to the carpets in Bacon's paintings, they possibly provided a catalyst for the designs that appeared in works such as Man and Child (1963; Fig. 6), (27) as well as in Untitled (Seated Figure on a Dappled Carpet) (c. 1966). (28) In Mrs Beeton's chapter on 'Recipes for Cooking Mutton and Lamb', (29) the detailed illustration of the top of the fore quarter of lamb (Fig. 9) looks remarkably similar to the heads of the strange creatures that appear in the left panel of Three Studies for a Crucifixion (1962; Fig. 8). (30)
First aid was part of household management in the 19th century, and Mrs Beeton devotes a chapter to 'The Doctor'. (31) Under simple methods of bandaging, the detailed illustration of the hand bandage with a shaded forearm may have been the inspiration for the raised hand in Chimpanzee (1955), (32) and the images of bandaged leg fractures have echoes in the splints on the fractured limbs in the central panel of Crucifixion (1965). (33) The bone structure on which the flesh is hung was a constant fascination for Bacon. Several of his paintings reveal the internal structures of the body alongside exteriors of distorted flesh that are disconcertingly recognisable; imagery tautly poised between man and beast.
Bacon suffered from severe asthma from a young age and this may have awakened his keen interest in medicine and medical illustrations. He kept X-rays of his spine and lungs in his studio, and images from his paintings suggest some association with these reports. Three Figures and Portrait (1975; Fig. 10) shows a curved spine protruding from the chest of the upturned figure to the left of the painting, possibly influenced by Bacon's spinal X-rays. However, a loose page found in the artist's studio shows a beef carcass hanging in a refrigerated truck with an identical spinal structure exposed (Fig. 11).
The visual references to food that occur periodically in Bacon's oeuvre have often been inspired by images from decades earlier. In 1985 he contributed to a cookbook, Peintres aux Fourneaux, (34) edited by Nadine Haim--the sister of his gallerist in Paris, Claude Bernard. Appropriately, his painting Morceau de Boeuf (1978) accompanied his recipe for steak and kidney pie. The eye socket in this painting is, however, more reminiscent of that of a crustacean than a side of beef. There is a marked compositional similarity with the photograph of lobsters in the entry for 'Lobster a la Parisienne' in Larousse Gastronomique from 1961 (Fig. 13). This particular page was marked by Bacon with a torn piece of paper. Given to the artist as a gift, the book is inscribed 'Happy birthday Francis Love Peter' --possibly his lover Peter Lacy, who died the following year. There is certainly a pronounced similarity between the lobster and the phantasmal flying figure suggestive of the Eumenides, hovering to the right in Figure in Movement (1976; Fig. 12). (35)
The discovery of these cookery books--which also included Venus in the Kitchen, (36) a collection of extraordinary aphrodisiacal recipes--gives a great insight into the world of Francis Bacon, whose hypertension and severe asthma attacks did not stop him from enjoying an extravagant lifestyle and taking risks not only in art but also in life. The writer Caroline Blackwood recounts Bacon, then aged 40, joining her and Lucian Freud for dinner at Wheeler's fish restaurant in Soho: 'He had just been to the doctor who told him that his heart was in such a bad condition that not one ventricle was functioning; he had rarely seen such a diseased organ and he warned Francis that if he had one more drink or even became excited it could kill him.' Bacon ignored the warnings and ordered a bottle of champagne, and several more besides. Blackwood worried that she might never see him again. (37)
Bacon had a fatalistic approach to life and a love of gambling, and his desperate optimism --a trait he said he shared with the Irish--saw him live to the age of 82, enjoying a reputation as a flamboyant gourmand as well as one of the most famous and successful artists of the 20th century.
(1/) See Margarita Cappock, Francis Bacon's Studio, London, 2005 (with foreword by Barbara Dawson).
(2/) Peter Lennon, 'A Brush with Ebullient Despair: The Times Profile, Francis Bacon', The Times, London, 15 September 1983.
(3/) Francis Bacon quoted in David Sylvester. The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, London, 1987, p. 71.
(4/) Daniel Farson, The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, London, 1993, p. 247.
(5/) Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, London, 2009, p. 100.
(6/) Ibid., pp. 32-36.
(7/) Andrew Sinclair, Francis Bacon: His Life and Violent Times, London, 1993, p. 77.
(8/) Now the French House, at the time the official name was the York Minister,
(9/) Farson, up. cit. in n.4 above. pp. 51-52.
(10/) The Hugh Lane's library of Francis Bacon's books comprises over 1,300 items. More than 500 were catalogued from the studio between 1998 and 2001, with a subsequent gift of over 700 books donated from the Estate of Francis Bacon. The Hugh Lane, in collaboration with Trinity College Dublin, embarked on a project to catalogue this gift, funded by the Irish Research Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences (IRCHSS) in 2010. Dr Monika Keska was selected as the research fellow to catalogue t he hooks, and the project resulted in the symposium 'Bacon's Books' held in October 2012. See the Hugh Lane website for further details: www.hughlane.ie/baconsbooks
(11/) The editions are 1960, 1961, 1966and 1969. Bacon frequently had more than one copy of books he found particularly interesting. For example, four copies of Eadweard Muybridge's The Human Figure in Motion (first published in 1901) were found.
(12/) Charcuterie and French Park Cookery, London, 1981. The other two are English Food, London, 1981, and Fish Cookery, London. 1973.
(13/) Prosper Montagne, Larousse Gastronomique, London, 1961.
(14/) London, 1974, and London, 1971.
(16/) London, 1971.
(17/) These included t he Ritz, Wiltons, Wheeler's and Mario's.
(18/) Constance Spry and Rosemary Hume, The Constance Spry Cookery Book. London. 1956. My thanks to P.M.J. for pointing this out to me.
(19/) Theodora FitzGibbon, With Love. London. 1983, p. 67. Front cover: The Muse Theodora at Rossetti House, 1942. Photograph: Peter Rose Pulham.
(20/) Farson, op. cit. inn. 4 above, p. 39.
(21/) David Sylvester and Francis Bacon, Francis Bacon and the Brutality of Fact, New York, 1985 (Michael Blackwood Productions).
(22/) John Edwards--heir to Bacon's estate, who presented the artist's studio and con tents to the Hugh Lane in 1998 in conversation with t he author, 2000.
(23/) FitzGibbon, up. cit. in n. 19 above, p. 194.
(24/) The Irish Press, 28 March 1977.
(28/) In the collection of the Art Institute o f Chicago.
(26/) Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, London. 2003. p. 21.
(27/) In the collection of the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark.
(28/) In the collection of Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane.
(29/) Isabella Beeton, Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management, London, 1888, chapter XIV, p. 521.
(30/) In the collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.
(31/) Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management, op. cit. in n. 29 above, chapter LXXIII, p. 1596.
(32/) In the collection of the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Germany.
(33/) In the collection of the Bayerische Staatsgemaldesammlungen, Munich.
(34/) Paris. 1985.
(35/) In a private collection. Bacon greatly admired the Greek playwright Aeschylus' tragedy The Oresteia. From early on in his career he periodically made visual references to the Eumenides, or Furies, in The Oresteia, including Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944. Tate. London). The Eumenides make several appearances in Bacon's paintings of the 1970s, possibly referencing his lover George Dyers death from taking an overdose of drink and drugs in 1971.
(36/) London, 1952. Inscribed 'Happy birthday Francis love from Simon October 28th 1989'.
(37/) Furson, op. cit. in n. 4 above, p. 247
Barbara Dawson is Director of Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane.
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|Title Annotation:||FEATURE: FRANCIS BACON AND FOOD|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2013|
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