Hilary Fannin: Francis Bacon offers a kind of therapy away from London opulence

Bacon’s bleak vision is more in tune with the times than Bond Street’s glitzy shops

‘Anguish is everywhere in this exhilarating show’. Head VI by Francis Bacon (1949). (Detail) Man and Beast exhibition, Royal Academy, London.

At London’s Oxford Circus Tube station the concertinaed gates had been temporarily drawn closed, the platforms below too congested to take any more commuters. In search of the Victoria line to Brixton, we walked, the three of us, towards Piccadilly and then on to New Bond Street, en route to Green Park station. My two companions walked ahead, talking quietly, amicably, about their shared past, postwar babies both, strolling through the city of their birth. I trailed behind them, looking in the windows of the designer shops.

Dawdling past the displays of frigid opulence on that warm spring evening, the minimalistically exhibited luxury accoutrements seemed, in the light of the increasingly devastating international news, quite bizarre.

The items on show – mother-of-pearl inlaid watches, lambskin “poodle-curve” high-heel sandals (hand-stitched by elves in a forest of primroses), tiny gold-chained handbags that wouldn’t fit much more than a credit card, a tube of Dior Rouge, a condom and a packet of vintage Marlboro – all appeared, as a contusion of purple clouds gathered overhead and a light rain began to fall, particularly vulgar and gracelessly misplaced.

But what do I know? I’ve never shopped on Bond Street, never experienced the rush of pleasure or the sense of belonging that proceeding under the marbled portico of a designer boutique to purchase a yellow shearling handbag might bring. I haven’t experienced the sense of accomplishment that some, apparently, derive from consuming high-end goods.


I don’t know how much the little furry yellow handbag cost; there was no price tag in the window. “If you need to ask…”, as the saying goes.

There was a similar handbag a few shops down, also very small and fluffy and tethered to a golden chain. This one, in shades of tangerine and brown, looked like it might bite; looked indeed as if it might have a row of tiny incisors underneath its pelt to snap the hand off anyone who might try to snaffle it. Mind you, given that it was retailing at around three grand, you’d expect it to do something for its keep.

We'd been at the Royal Academy that afternoon to see the Francis Bacon exhibition, Man and Beast. The uncompromising savagery of some of the Dublin-born artist's images – many painted and exhibited in the immediate aftermath of the second World War – made them feel like the work, once again, of a man for the times.

Anguish is everywhere in this exhilarating show. It is in the studies of the figures at the base of a crucifixion; in the emaciated howling monkey on its shocking pink background; in the aghast, almost severed-looking heads of the popes, melting like wax on the canvas; in the deformed, mostly faceless bodies with screaming razor-toothed mouths. There is carnage, too, in the circular room full of massive orange canvases depicting the bullfight, in the broken bodies of matador and taunted beast.

The retrospective, spanning decades, at times felt almost too much. But then there was always the distraction of observing the other spectators, standing stock still and silent in front of the work, themselves adding another component to the dramas on the walls.

Some visitors to the gallery even brought along small foldable stools and perched, seated, in front of the paintings, staring intently at their details.

I watched one elderly man, his eyes wet with emotion, sit and lean forward towards the canvas as if he was trying to read it, to decipher in its language signs of hope or revelation.

I watched a magnificent woman with long dark hair, dressed in the palest yellow silk, her slim feet in jewelled shoes, stand in front of a painting called Two Figures in the Grass, in which two hunched lovers are coldly observed as if by a huntsman watching game.

Even if I was desperately rich; rich enough to schlep about in poodle-curve slingbacks with a tooth-baring reticule over my arm, I wouldn’t have paid to have a private view of this exhibition.

Although I’m aware that paying a few quid for the thrill of its unyieldingly bleak vision is itself a form of consumerism, experiencing it with other silent watchers gave me a momentary sense of belonging which, to be fair, I don’t think I’d get from purchasing a pair of diamante-encrusted sunglasses.

At Green Park station, the newspaper billboards told a grim story. I followed my companions down the escalator, dropping into the bowels of the city, reassured once more by the murmur of their equitable conversation, by the ordinary, unremarkable rhythm of our homeward journey.