Francis Bacon and the art of food

When the artist’s studio was forensically excavated, the influence of food - and books about food - became clear


My first visit to 7 Reece Mews in South Kensington, Francis Bacon’s London home and studio for more than 30 years, was in 1997. His small, chaotic studio, measuring six metres by four metres, was mesmerising, packed with heaps of detritus surrounded by vivid, paint-spattered walls. It was like looking inside the artist’s head, and with the protagonist having died five years previously, the space had taken on a personality of its own, the legacy of a great artist.

The other two rooms in the mews were neat and orderly. His livingroom doubled as his bedroom, and, in a rather bizarre arrangement, his kitchen and bathroom shared the same space, with the bath opposite the fridge and the hand basin opposite the sink, beside an old-fashioned gas cooker. On the table between the bath and the fridge lay an intriguing pile of cookery books, including a well-used copy of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1888; first published 1861).

When the Hugh Lane team from Dublin forensically removed the entire contents of Bacon’s studio in 1998, we catalogued more than 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. 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 in New York, Bacon credited 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 livingroom/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 .

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.

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. He left his home, Straffan Lodge in Co Kildare, when he was 16, following a row with his father over his overt homosexual behaviour. The following year, 1927, he was sent to Berlin with a family friend, 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 promiscuous behaviour and sexual tolerance , was 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 its chef Auguste Escoffie and its glamorous clientele, which included Marlene Dietrich and Charlie Chaplin.

Rather than “sorting 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 with four silver swans, and the glorious sensation of grasping one by the neck to pull the laden silver trolley towards the bed.

Following his stay of more than two months in Berlin, Bacon would 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.”

Cookery books
More than 40 cookery books were found in Bacon’s library. They included 10 books by Elizabeth David, of which four were different editions of French Country Cooking . As David’s books were almost all without illustration, it must be assumed her recipes were of interest to Bacon – perhaps on their own accord, but probably more for the images they conjured up. Bacon used the cover of the 1966 edition of French Country Cooking as a palette.

He also owned three cookbooks by Jane Grigson, of which Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery was found in the studio. Her illustrations of the variety of cuts of pork are reminiscent of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management . The richly illustrated Larousse Gastronomique, A Taste of Paris: Traditional Food and A Taste of Wales: Welsh Traditional Food , both by Bacon’s friend Theodora FitzGibbon, La Cuisinière Provençale by JB Reboul and The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson give a glimpse of the diversity of Bacon’s cookery books.

They confirm his affection for continental cuisine, which was also reflected in the restaurants he favoured in London. 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.

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 by Doreen Moloney appeared in the Irish Press . Moloney was a childhood friend of Bacon, and grew up near him in Co 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 en 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) 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 his studio. They included a series of photographs of scarred corpses taken by Peter Beard in San Quentin State Prison, in 1972, and a most unusual colour photograph, by John Deakin, of the severed head of a bull upside-down on a plinth.

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”. Bacon brings 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 Bacon owned was his 1888 edition of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management . Isabella Mary Beeton was an indefatigable household adviser 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. 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), as well as in Untitled (Seated Figure on a Dappled Carpet , c.1966). In Beeton’s chapter on Recipes for Cooking Mutton and Lamb, the detailed illustration of the top of the forequarter of lamb looks remarkably similar to the heads of the strange creatures that appear in the left panel of Three Studies for a Crucifixion (1962).

First aid was part of household management in the 19th century, and Beeton devotes a chapter to The Doctor. 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), and the images of bandaged leg fractures have echoes in the splints on the fractured limbs in the central panel of Crucifixion (1965). 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.

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 , edited by Nadine Haim – the sister of Claude Bernard, his gallerist in Paris. 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 à la Parisienne in Larousse Gastronomique from 1961. Bacon marked this page with a torn piece of paper. Given to the artist as a gift, the book is inscribed “Happy birthday Francis Love Peter”, possibly by 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 and hovering to the right in Figure in Movement (1976).

The discovery of these cookery books – which also included Venus in the Kitchen , a collection of extraordinary aphrodisiacal recipes – gives a great insight into the world of 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.

Bacon had a fatalistic approach to life. As well as his art, he loved to gamble, and these, together with his desperate optimism – a trait he said he shared with the Irish – saw him live life to the full until he was 82, enjoying a reputation as a flamboyant gourmand as well as one of the most famous and successful artists of the 20th century.

Barbara Dawson is the director of Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane. Francis Bacon's studio is a permanent exhibition at the gallery; This is an edited version of an article that appeared in Apollo Magazine.