Adam Clayton of U2 is the perfect candidate to dissect the life and legacy of Francis Bacon. He and Bacon are, loosely speaking and to varying degrees, of Anglo-Irish heritage, and then there is the work itself, which is full of terror and hopelessness. But enough about U2′s last album – the subject at hand in Francis Bacon: The Outsider (RTÉ One, Thursday, 10.15pm) is the Dublin-born, Kildare-raised painter’s torturous relationship with his Irishness.
Or was it, actually, all that torturous? That is the question posed by the unassuming Clayton, who, while possessing the most gobsmacking rock-star quiff, otherwise comes across as humble and quietly spoken. Which is probably what happens to you after 40 years on a tour bus next to Bono.
If he didn’t already have a lucrative day job Clayton would make a good presenter of chewy arts telly. He’s low-key chummy and passionate about both Bacon and the influence the 16 years that the painter spent growing up at Straffan Lodge, between Naas and Celbridge, had on his life and art.
“With a few brush strokes he could bring you to the edge in chaos,” says Clayton, who discovered Bacon as a young man in grim 1970s Dublin. “It connected very much with me as a teenager and the beginnings of punk rock.”
There is some real sleuthing going on. Clayton, presumably aided by a vast team of researchers, chronicles the holiday a young Bacon took to Dublin and Connemara at the age of 19 in the company of Eric Allden, a former intelligence officer who was 23 years his senior. (It remains unclear if their relationship was one of mere friendship or if there was a romantic component.)
For an artist whose work drips angst and horror, the Bacon whom Clayton finds holidaying around Ireland cuts rather a jolly figure. He and Allden larked their way through Dún Laoghaire (“Kingstown, now called Dún Laoghaire and spelt Lord knows how,” Allden sneers in his diaries) and put their feet up at the Shelbourne Hotel, on St Stephen’s Green.
They went from there to a cottage in Connemara. And this is where Clayton’s detective work suggests Bacon began painting seriously for the first time. (His ambition as a young man was to be a furniture designer in Paris.) The artwork he is believed to have started in Galway, commonly known as Trees by the Sea, certainly has a west-of-Ireland feel – it is grey but with hints of dread and mischief. In “this great beautiful Irish landscape”, one expert says, Bacon “feels the ominous quality of nature pushing in”.
Clayton’s thesis is that, though Bacon sounded like an Englishmen and was a product of the British Empire (his father was a Boer War veteran who left Ireland when the “communist” Éamon de Valera became taoiseach), there was a lot of Irishness stirred in. Consider Bacon’s first “blockbuster” pieces, his “screaming pope” series from the 1950s. These, Clayton says, spoke to his Irish heritage – and of the Grand Guignol Catholicism that would have been all around Bacon through his childhood (even if he was raised Church of Ireland). “This is where the religion comes from in a lot of the painting,” agrees John Minihan, the photographer – also from Co Kildare – who befriended Bacon in London.
Good documentaries bring you on an adventure, and that is what Clayton does here. He has an argument to present, too: that this great “British” artist is a lot more Irish than the art establishment – or Bacon himself – would allow. Without ever taking himself all that seriously – another trick he hasn’t picked up from Bono – the case Clayton puts forward for Bacon’s artistic awakening having originated in that lonely Connemara cottage is convincing. In his quest to uncover the Irishness in Bacon’s art, you could say he’s found what he’s looking for.