Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Tag Archives: redemption

“‘Draw!’ he yelled”: Francis Bacon, babysitter from Hell

A few posts back, I took a brief glance at the early London career of the remarkable Guyana-born painter Denis Williams. In January 1955 the artist Keith Vaughan, a friend of Williams, had a visit from him which made a considerable impression. He wrote in his journal:

Denis Williams, ‘Plantation No 3’ 1950

Interesting account this morning from Dennis[sic] Williams of the time he lived and worked in a small room adjoining Francis Bacon’s studio; idolizing Francis at the time, longing to be of service to him and ending by becoming so wholly enslaved to his personality that he was incapable of any independent action.

‘There was nothing I could do. He would lie in bed in the morning, purple in the face, looking ill – terrible – unable to move until he had taken enough pills, but talking all the time about the paintings he had dreamed of. If I offered him a cup of tea he wouldn’t drink it. He just didn’t see
me. I could have been anyone else and he
wouldn’t have noticed …’

(“Enslaved” is a bit of a loaded term; did Vaughan register that?) Williams went on to tell how, as a simple act of thoughtfulness, he had once hung up a suit of Bacon’s, fresh from the cleaners, that Bacon had dumped carelessly on a paint spattered table in the studio. Bacon had returned, had promptly taken down the suit and, without a word, had laid it back in the paint.

‘I felt absolutely shattered as though my personality had been wiped out.’

It was moving to see how affected D. was by the recollection of this incident. I felt how easily I could occupy the same role … ‘He sees people as mountains of flesh,’ Dennis said. ‘He is obsessed by this extraordinary capacity for flesh to breathe, walk, talk.’

The almost mythic theme of Bacon the charismatic and controlling monster sits easily enough with Bacon the painter of monsters. An extreme take on this is voiced by, of all people, the painter Cecil Collins, in an interview of 1979 with Brian Keeble, in Keeble’s Cecil Collins. The Vision of the Fool and Other Writings (Golgonooza, 1994):

[Bacon] paints Hell, and Hell is a most popular subject today because so many people are in it. Hell is very stimulating and very easy to understand … Bacon paints a condition of mankind which you find all over the cinemas, on the advertisement hoardings, in the police-court news, and in newspapers … It’s profoundly uninteresting because it’s beside the point. But I respect him, in the sense that he paints it uncompromisingly. He is damnation, and damnation is very important. In a way he’s my brother. I’m not interested in what he says and yet I see, very clearly, that it has to be said. It’s inevitable, and it’s exactly the opposite to what I am concerned with.

He’s an inversion of the light.

And Keeble, eager to out-Collins Collins, glosses his relation to Bacon thus:

… from Collins’s point of view … Bacon’s images express the subhuman. To concede that they express the truth of human nature would be to invite the belief that there are spiritual values that can be nourished by something other than the divine. This would amount to thinking that there could be some sort of reparation (why else should such images be made?), through appealing to the concatenation of passions and appetites that comprise and motivate the empirical levels of our humanity.

It’s easy enough to write this off. Collins’ best images are seductive, powerful and arresting, but in too many of them the urge to purify creates a slenderness and slightness that approaches mid-century decorative. Even as a post-Christian New Ager, he was still stuck spiritually in a three-decker universe, with one escalator pointing Up and the other (not to be taken) going Down.

But here’s the But … In a series of notes and aphorisms written between 1939 and 1955 (“Hymn of Life”), Collins takes, unexpectedly, a far more positive view of Hell:

The meaning of life is to come to fruition, to bear the fruit of life, which is happiness. But this fruition can only be obtained through growth, and growth is suffering – Hell. Hell is a state of growth, and growth is a process of purification.


And in the 1979 interview with Keeble he even applies that insight to his own work, in relation to a period in the late ‘fifties when it turned, in Keeble’s words, “blacker, more harsh … strident … more violent in mood”. Collins explains this as a necessary expansion of direct, gestural energy, an enlargement before an inevitable condensation and a new formalising. Hell, then, is a necessary phase in the process. Despite Collins’ claims to see “no context for redemption” in Bacon’s work, the reverse turns out to be the case. “In a way he’s my brother”. A necessary monster, then.

Denis Williams may have felt desperately uncomfortable under Bacon’s influence, but it didn’t prevent him, if only as an occasional last resort, from parking the nipper with him. In Evelyn Williams’ excellent The Art of Denis Williams (Peepal Tree Press, 2012), his daughter Janice recalls the novel experience of being babysat by Francis:

Denis Williams, from the ‘Human World’ series, 1950

‘Denis shared a studio with Francis Bacon. From my earliest memories it appeared to be in a derelict building, bombed during the war, a wrecked shop front on the ground floor served as an entrance. Upstairs Denis had a room on one side of the landing, Francis on the other. Art materials and canvases were interchanged across the hall. A ray of light from a small window breached the dilapidated interior of Denis’ work space whilst Francis had metamorphosed his into a cavernous enclosure, blacked out and ominous. I can feel it now, being overwhelmed with the smell of turpentine and a dark foreboding. Denis was appreciative of canvases discarded by Francis, and would reverse them thus creating a clean serviceable area on which to paint. Francis didn’t have much patience with disappointing or unsatisfactory work. It would be quickly scrapped, a luxury most struggling artists could ill afford.

‘… a cavernous enclosure, blacked out and ominous … always in a black shirt, black trousers …’ Francis Bacon in 1950 by Sam Hunter

It’s like theatre in my head; the imagery and drama of such visits have remained with me forever. A highly charged tense atmosphere pervaded the studio emanating from both Francis and the decor. As a young child it was overpowering, seated on a rumple of bedding on the floor watching him paint on a large canvas hanging on the wall. He turned to check on me every now and then. “Don’t move and don’t talk to me,” he pronounced. Clutching my crayons and paper I was dumbstruck. “Draw!” he yelled. I gazed up at his face and black-attired body. He was always in a black shirt, black trousers and sandaled feet. At any given moment he could start shouting and swearing if things weren’t going well on the canvas. He was bold, intimidating and impatient; a big personality with big paintings. My memory tells me Francis had inherited family money from Anglo-Irish landed gentry connections. He didn’t visit our home more than a few times but I remember he was very fond of Catherine my mother. He gave her some beautiful cut glass dessert dishes, part of his inheritance which I now treasure, passed on to me in memory of the times Francis babysat me.’

She seems to have survived unscathed, with the cut glass to prove it. In fact, we might judge it a formative experience, a necessary phase in the process of growth. And who kindly provided the crayons and paper? My guess is Bacon.

(Incidentally, which of the various addresses at which Bacon worked in the early ‘fifties was this? In 1951 he sold his studio at Cromwell Place, and would not move into the famous Reece Mews studio – now reconstructed in Dublin – until 1961. Not that it matters …)

Runes, redemption, signs, sacraments and selfishness

Odd how things sometimes come together. Some recent random reading has included David Jones’ book length poem The Anathemata, a bit of Swedenborg, and John Michell’s Megalithomania. Artists, antiquarians and archaeologists at the old stone monuments (a readable and relatively objective account, unmuddied by Michell’s usual New Age confusions).

In a chapter on “freaks of interpretation” of prehistoric rock inscriptions, Michell tells the story of Professor Finn Magnussen (Finnur Magnússon), who in the 1830’s transcribed and translated what he took to be extensive runic inscriptions in an unknown script, carved on the Runamo rock in Sweden. He revealed them to be a set of five heroic poems celebrating the victory of the Battle of Bråvalla, a lost masterpiece of early Scandinavian literature. This academic triumph was rather tarnished a few years later when geologists proved the “inscriptions” to be entirely natural fissures in the rock surface. Magnusson was mercilessly mocked, but stuck to his guns till his dying day.

This was not his only petroglyphic misinterpretation (a hazardous branch of scholarship, it seems), but it did take the biscuit. The extent of his self-delusion is breath-taking. In his defence, he cited the unanimous judgement of literary scholars that the poem was an absolute masterpiece. If so, that only makes his creative achievement all the more remarkable. It follows that, without the paranoiac process of “translation” on which to construct it, he could never have written something of such quality.

Is creativity, then, rooted in self-delusion? A delusory experience of discovery? If it is, it can be no more than egotistical folly.

Which makes creativity problematic for the Christian. My wife recently met someone, now ordained, who went through a conversion experience (triggered by Jesus walking into his room) while an art student. He made the prayerful decision to abandon art as a career path because he feared that, as an ego-driven pursuit, it would conflict with his new faith – a perfectly understandable point of view. This was maybe rather more than art being a bit of a diversion from what is important; the self-indulgent is, after all, essentially useless.

The notion of “use” brings me to the 18th century mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. I hadn’t realised that he had started out as an engineer and an anatomist. In The Divine Love and the Divine Wisdom he speaks extensively of the human anatomy as evidence of divine love. Proof of this is the usefulness of every part:

“… all things therein and each smallest individual unit of them are formed in accordance with a use and for that use … This is the Arcanum that results as a conclusion: Man embraces within himself all uses whatever existing in the spiritual and natural worlds … for life from the Lord embraces within itself all uses to infinity …”

Swedenborg, albeit a visionary and a bit of a nutter, correctly insists that his Understanding “is an enlightened rational one”; these are values of the Enlightenment and of the utilitarian Protestantism that shaped it.

No such premium on usefulness for Catholic convert David Jones. (To read Jones you need an open encyclopedia at your elbow, but every now and again, among the obscurantism and the archaic Welsh names, even in the middle of a footnote, prophetic truths leap out.) The “anathemata” of Jones’ title are:

“.. the blessed things that have taken on what is cursed and the profane things that somehow are redeemed … that partake of the extra-utile and the gratuitous; things that are the signs of something other … Things set up, lifted up, or in whatever manner made over to the gods …

… If there is any evidence of this kind of artefacture then the artefacturer or artifex should be regarded as participating directly in the benefits of the Passion, because the extra-utile is the mark of man. For which reason the description ‘utility goods’ if taken literally could refer only to the products of sub-man.”

There. For Swedenborg, man embraces within himself all uses whatever, but for Jones, the extra-utile is the mark of man. Jones’ arguments concerning art as sign and sign as sacrament are well known, but are sometimes summarised down to a sort of weedy creation spirituality: in our creative activity we share in the work of the Creator, and so on. But here he seems to be claiming something well beyond this. The useless, better understood as the extra-utile, is the character of the artefact as sign, as sacramental. And it is by the sacramental that we “participate directly in the benefits of the Passion”. If this is so, the same selfishness that was our undoing now provides, if not the means of redemption, then at least a sure approach to it. And therein, it seems to me, is a great Mystery.

Should anatomist Swedenborg have looked for a gratuitously ornamental bit of the human body as the sign of its divine life? And in his self-delusion, did Finn Magnussen uncover a secret far greater than any saga? If so, I hope my wife’s acquaintance still picks up a pencil from time to time.