It was a Greek tragedy in a modern day society. A tale of passionate love, complicated relationships and broken hearts. It was the love life of Francis Bacon. We will take you back to a rainy day in London, where unintentionally a relationship sprouted in the still of the night. In the most unlikely of circumstances, a love story started.

VINCENT tells:

Like a thief in the night

‘The dramatic love life of Francis Bacon’

George was a burglar. Not your Oceans-Eleven-kind of criminal, but the kind you could find in suspicious alleys. He was a vagabond. Committing small crimes. With the theft of food, liquor, and the occasional purse, he didn’t have an impressive criminal record. He grew up in a poor environment. The greatest lesson his parents had taught him, was to survive by any means necessary. And so he did. For people like George, the line between good and bad was thin. And a hungry stomach fades away all kinds of boundaries. In such an environment, you didn’t grow up to be a doctor. Your career got measured by the years you served in jail. Yet George felt he was different. Deep inside he knew he was not a criminal. He had too much heart for it and couldn’t live with the knowledge he’d ever hurt someone. So he lived by this one rule: No violence. Never. In his occupation, such a rule isn’t really helping business. Indeed, business wasn’t going well at all. He could kill someone for a new high, or just a cup of hot coffee. Figuratively speaking of course.

A beautiful stranger

While the city was asleep, George heard the rumble of his empty stomach. He hadn’t had a proper meal for days. So there he was, roaming the dark streets of London. The streets of South Kensington to be precise. This place harbored a great potential for some loot. You didn’t live around here unless you had decent income. Time had taught him that much. So here he should be able to loot some goods and get himself a decent meal. It shouldn’t be that much of a hassle for him. Security equipment wasn’t common in those days, or at least rather easy to sabotage. Dogs were the greatest threats for a burglar like him. With such lousy prevention, a trained (and hungry) crook, could stand in the hallway within a minute.

He browsed through Kensington, lurking for an opportunity. With the eyes of an eagle, he judged the properties on potential success. Years of experience made him able to tell a good raid from a bad one. A water bowl at the doorstep indicated a dog. If there was a lamp burning in the back of the house, the owners were probably out for the night. He carefully considered his chances and never took too much risk.

Suddenly he stopped in front of a certain home. There were no lights burning, nor was there a car on the drive way. Moreover, no water bowl and definitely no indications of an advanced security system. This could be his workplace for tonight. He did a few steps back, looking for the neighbors. But the sight was perfectly blocked by the hedges. All was good so far. He imagined the inside of the house and drew a map in his head. He would enter through the hallway. From there on, the living-room should be on the left. Judging by the curtains, the master bedroom was directly above the living-room. If there were to be owners inside, they would be fast asleep. So he had to be silent. Very silent, or it would all come falling down. But for now, George had to take his chances.

He popped his collar and pulled his hood over his head. With a short dash he leaped over the fence and landed smoothly on the gravel. Slowly he crept over the driveway towards the residence.

His instinct hadn’t let him down so far. The door-lock didn’t proof to be any trouble. Within a minute George stood in the hallway. Unseen and unheard. Slowly he lurked to the first door on his left hand side. This had to be the door to the living-room. He rested his leather glove on the heck and pushed it downwards. The door made a squeaky sound as he carefully opened it. As the door was ajar, he noticed a chemical odor. With his heart racing in his throat, he stepped in.

The light of the lanterns casted a pale light into the living room, throwing long shadows on the floor inside. The faint light found its way to the many canvases on the wall. The surrounding floor was covered in paint. Cans and scraps of paper lay scattered across the room. On a small table he could see brushes, jars and tainted cloths. This was no ordinary living-room. This had to be an atelier, or a workplace. Some walls seemingly served as a palette, for they were filled with colorful swipes.

‘What is this place?’, George must have thought. It wasn’t quite like he imagined the room to be. His attention was drawn by a picture on the wall. It was a picture of a person. In the hazy light he identified this person as the pope. Or at least someone quite like him. In front of the picture stood an easel. The picture of the pope apparently served as a model for the painting on the stand. But this was no ordinary portrait. This painting was rather twisted, quite lurid if you’d like. George flicked on his flashlight. The composition looked like a scene straight out of a horror movie. He saw the similarity’s with the picture on the wall, but the pope on the painting was deformed. It looked like somewhat of a demon. A blasphemous work of art.

Francis Bacon, Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953

He felt a shiver traveling down his spine. The burglar took a step back and shook off the chills. But the silence of the night was disturbed by a sharp noise. The wooden floor made a distinctive creak. Startled George turned around. Did he step on something by accident? He could feel the cold sweat dripping down his back. With his flashlight he searched the room. It lit up the corners of the aerie place, until it had reached the doorway.

For a moment George couldn’t breathe. His heart stopped. He felt a rush of blood go to his head as he dropped his light. Yet it illuminated the room with a dim gloom. In the doorway stood a silhouette. A person was standing in the corridor and was watching him from within the twilight. George was caught red handed. For a brief moment he considered his options. Could he make a quick escape through the window? Should he make a run for it and charge through the hallway? For a second he probably even thought of breaking his number one rule: No violence. He panicked. The small time criminal was trapped, and there seemed to be no way out.

The person blocked the doorway, not flinching a muscle. The silence was deafening, his pounding heart almost echoed throughout the room. The tension was rising as George prepared for a faceoff with this mysterious person.

But out of the doorway stepped a man. Now George was able to see his face. It was the face of Francis Bacon. A talented painter. Yet George had no idea whom he was dealing with. He was trembling like a leaf. Little did he know this man was going to change his life forever. Francis was the one who broke the silence.

“We have two options”, he said. “I can call the police and turn you in, or you can come to bed with me”.

George was dumbstruck. Did this man suggested that he should spend the night with him? Was this some sort of deal? And moreover, what exactly did he mean by coming to bed with him? Was he trying to get him to have sex with him? A lot of things crossed his mind. George stood on a crossroad in his life and made a choice that changed everything he knew.

Star-crossed lovers

That night in 1963 George chose to lay with Francis. As said, George grew up in a poor environment up in the East End of London. Raised by a family not unfamiliar with criminality. He had spend the better part of his life drifting between the streets and jails/juvenile centers. His whole life he had struggled with poverty, which he countered with hustling and theft. But all that would change in the dead of the night, as he was caught by Francis. If these changes turned out for the best on a long term, is up for discussion. But we’ll leave that topic untouched.

George and Francis (photo by The Telegraph)

Now, these men couldn’t have met in more awkward circumstances. But yet it’s quite typical for the both of them. That night Francis Bacon shared his bed with George, who would become his lover. Till that very moment, George wasn’t homosexual. But on that night he felt attracted to Francis. He spoke with a certain resolution in his voice he wasn’t used to. The way Francis looked at him while they met in this most unlikely encounter intrigued him. Considering the situation he felt persuaded (and maybe compelled) to follow Francis. It would turn out to be characteristic for the relationship that followed.

Francis offered George a last straw that night. It meant a way out for the crook and a interesting turn of events for the painter. Francis was a charismatic person and a extravagant. A man with an edge. Larger than life. The painter was living it up and was overall a pretty nice guy. But he also had a different side to him. He had a few dark character traits which made him somewhat difficult to handle. He enjoyed making people uncomfortable. He liked it when people got all awkward in his presence. Let’s just say he could be a kind of a jerk from time to time. A masochist if you like. Moreover, he was a bit depressed sometimes.

Francis Bacon, Study for Head of George Dyer, 1967

George on the other hand was quite the opposite. He was a decent fellow, caught up in a complicated and hard life. Our burglar had his heart in the right place. He was really a nice guy and even a bit emotional sometimes. Though he wasn’t stupid, he wasn’t by far as educated as Francis. George was streetwise, Francis was an intellectual. Some say George didn’t learn to write until his lover provided him with a checkbook. But this wasn’t the only major difference between this odd couple. George was thirty, whilst Francis was twenty years older.

In spite of all these contradictions, George never left that house after he broke in. He stayed with his lover and was introduced to a whole new way of living. Francis showed him how to live (it up) in London, when one has money to blow. He went from rags to riches and found himself in a world of plenty and abundance. He got caught up in this luxury lifestyle were party’s seemed to be routine and drugs and liquor were available whenever. He became part of the elite together with Francis. A man he still couldn’t fully understand.

Nevertheless they both benefited from their relationship. Where George was now given a chance to finally start living, Francis enjoyed the new influence in his life. His younger lover sometimes had an almost childish naivety. It worked refreshing for the artist who often felt tortured by his own intellect. In this high society, George’s innocence was a breath of fresh air. And though George was soft and kind, he carried scars caused by his tough past. It gave him a mysterious edge. Something that intrigued Francis. And such a state of mind is rather useful for an artist. George became of inspiration to him. He created various work based on his beloved one.

Francis Bacon, Three Studies for Portrait of George Dyer on light ground, 1966

But nothing lasts forever. Not even a relationship between two men who live d life like a fairytale. As time passed, their relationship decayed. Francis was like a whirlwind. He was all over the place. He was a man that lived an exuberant lifestyle. Wasn’t of great fidelity either. The inspiration and happiness he got from George seemed to fade, and he started losing interest in his lover. Not because of George, but because he was an artist. Someone who needed new influences to foster his creativity. Francis needed to shake thing up and experience life from new perspectives now and then. Something George simply couldn’t give. This instability weighed like a heavy burden on their relationship. It even proofed to be such a burden, Francis eventually ended the relationship.

Picking up the pieces

The breakup was tough for George. From the moment Francis left his world, he collapsed. He had become completely dependent of Francis over the years. Without Francis to guide him, he lost his way. Alcohol and hard drugs seemed to be the only things that could pull him through. The wry thing about it all: as George slipped into oblivion, Francis’s career was thriving.

But the downfall of his former suitor didn’t let him untouched. Francis was hurt to see George fall into this dark hole, suffering from a great deal of depressions. This once boyish man he used to know, was consumed by drugs and despair. And it may sound harsh, but because of this he was a danger to Francis. In such an important phase of his career, he couldn’t use someone that would drag him down. He wasn’t planning on abandoning him forever, but for now he was just too much to handle. So he decided to cut George loose from his life. It made it all the harder for George, but casualties had to be left behind. All for the love of art.

His decision seemed to work (for his career). Not long after he broke contact with his ex, the painter got a golden opportunity. A chance to exhibit his work in the Grand Palais in Paris. The Walhalla for artists. It was a lifetime achievement which made sure you would go down in the history books. It was a crown on his career.

But Francis couldn’t enjoy his success without acknowledging one of the driving factors in his work: George Dyer. The man he had loved (and who knows: still loved). A man of which he made so many studies, he left an unmistakable print on his collection. So although he wanted to stay away from him, he invited George to come along to Paris and witness this remarkable milestone. Yet on the condition he would be sober while he would reveal his work. But once in Paris, George couldn’t hold it together. He was (still) lost and confused and tried several (drastic) thing to get Francis’s attention. For an example: he tried to commit suicide on various occasions. But Francis Bacon was the talk of the town. The man of the hour, surrounded by many people who wanted to meet him. For George it must have been devastating. Francis was once again back in his life, but yet seemed further away than ever.

In the meanwhile, the day of the exhibition drew closer. And when it was due-day for the artist, he stood in the Grand Palais, awaiting to reveal his work to the world. But George wasn’t by his side as they had agreed. He did not show up at the festivities, nor at the exhibition. As Francis was on the brink of landing the greatest success of his career, George had reached his final low. He couldn’t bring up to be sober and accompany Francis to his display. He took a lethal cocktail of drugs and alcohol which would proof fatal. When the narcotics kicked in, he crawled to the bathroom, reaching it barley. There he blew out his last whiff of air, his head laying against the washbowl. A tragic death of a man, beaten around by life from one extreme into another.

At the Grand Palais, Francis was still waiting for his moment supreme. When word of George’s death reached him, it felt like a punch in the stomach. The loss of his former lover broke his heart. Despite this devastating news, he decided to proceed with his exhibition. As the saying goes: ‘the show must go on’. But he never forgot George. He felt guilty for his faith. He was the one who broke up with him, the person who preferred his ambitions over his lover. From that point on Francis knew: ‘this one is on me’. In the years that followed, he would often return to Paris. Booking the same room where George lived his final moments. As a tribute to his deceased lover, he created a final work in his honor. A painting showing a man hanging over a washbowl in spasm, fighting for his life, drawing closer to his final breath. A faith that had been sealed. A moment that had come to pass, but was never forgotten by Francis Bacon. For one last time he painted the man he once loved. The death of George Dyer was immortalized on an iconic painting we now know as ‘Figure at washbasin’.

Francis Bacon, Figure at washbasin, 1976

By VINCENT | @byvincent_

Check out more stories about art in the art story boutique VINCENT at www.byvincent.org.

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