Books: Tracing Francis Bacon and his lost Bohemia

Farson's biography of the tortured artist is a pub crawl around Fifties Soho

Daniel Farson arrived in Soho in 1951, fresh from Cambridge, with a short-lived job on Picture Post as a photographer. His subsequent career as an art journalist and TV interviewer and presenter is well-known in Britain. His book on Bacon, "The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon", is lively and entertaining, like his earlier study, "Soho in the Fifties", now revised as a Pimlico paperback.

In fact, Farson's account of Francis Bacon's talk, attitudes and occasional antics in this book rarely leaves Soho and, although it provide some telling vignettes of Bacon and his friends at Muriel Belcher's Colony Room in Dean Street and a few other venues, including some forays to Paris, Tangiers and St Ives, it should ideally be seen as a continuation of "Soho in the Fifties".

Farson is a generous-minded enthusiast for his selected milieu - he is conspicuously acute on two old friends of mine, Colin MacInnes and Graham Sutherland - and if his hero-worshipping view of Bacon is inclined to be limited in depth and range, restricted as it often is to rather trivial scenes in Muriel's or Wheeler's fish restaurant, he is quite acute on the foibles of other individuals as well as the toxic delights of the Gargoyle nightclub, for instance, in its final convulsions in the early Fifties or the clientele of the frowsy but originally more literary pub, The Fitzroy, or the crowded, smoke-filled Caves de France. All these places are the constituents of a lost paradise, a dingy and dishevelled but exotic Bohemia that has vanished forever. Farson brings a lot of it back to life.

Both "Soho in the Fifties" and "The Gilded Gutter Life" could use a little revision, let alone editing, and I wish Farson would now give himself proper time in which to take hold of both texts and bring in enough fresh material from his own earlier and later years to make a unified autobiographical memoir. As it is, a good many descriptions and anecdotes concerning Soho characters and situations to be found in Farson's earlier book are repeated in the new study of Bacon, often slightly but rather confusingly changed in the telling. But there is still enough fresh material to make a compulsively readable book. Farson is not David Sylvester, whose brilliant recorded conversations with Bacon are crucial source material, and he is not John Russell, whose scholarly short monograph is tightly focused on the paintings and more able to relate Bacon's work to broader issues and to cultural and social history. But Farson "is" a writer with a bright mind and perceptive eye and his book should not be dismissed. It covers people and terrain that are not even touched upon elsewhere - there is an extended study of that gloomily, drunken old misanthrope, the photographer John Deakin, that is a classic example of Farson's "collage" system - and it will have to be consulted by anyone writing on Bacon (Messers Anderson, Sinclair, Bruce Bernard, Paul Bailey and any other contenders for the arts of Bacon's biographer, please note). Much can also be forgiven Farson for many telling passages of description: Bacon's first appearance, for instance, in the life of the young Farson sitting in the French Pub circa 1951 with his fellow photographer and highly dubious mentor, John Deakin, is nicely described in both books but amplified with perfectly caught vocal effects in "The Gilded Gutter Life". "It was nearly one o'clock when Deakin gave a stage whisper: `I think, kiddo, this is going to be one of the good days. Look who's just come in.' Opening his mouth in that grimace of a well-meant smile, he nodded to a man on the far side of the bar who now came over to join us. He walked with the cautious tread of a first-class passenger venturing out on deck in a high sea, or that of a man who suspects there might be a small earthquake in any moment ... `What are you all having to drink?' He emphasised the words in a curious mock-cockney whine, a sort of measured Edwardian alto ... he wore a well-cut grey suit and an open-necked shirt, with an effect that was simultaneously smart yet casual, which was unusual then. He was the first person I had met with pronounced jowls, and as he talked he habitually tugged at the collar of his lapels as if to conceal the absence of a neck".

That's our Francis. But I should still like to know which books he bothered to read, whether he liked to listen to music or went to the movies sometimes or the theatre; and how did he get on with his dealers, here and in Paris - and how about that sex life? Probably this book is not so far from the truth in its implicit suggestion that apart from Muriel's, Wheelers', the studio and bed there wasn't too much. After all, Bacon was a great survivor.

"The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon" by Daniel Farson (Century, London, 1993) 279 pp, 39 b/w ills., £17.99

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Resurrecting a lost Bohemia'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 29 June 1993