Bohemian rhapsody

<strong>Francis Bacon – Anatomy of an Enigma</strong>

Michael Peppiatt <em>Constable, 448pp, £12.9

“Includes confidential new material”, cries this updated edition of Michael Peppiatt’s 1995 biography, just in time for the Tate’s blockbuster exhibition. So, one might expect to thrill to boozy tales of Soho bohos, shudder at anecdotes of East End rough trade, and have the heartstrings pulled by tales of doomed love affairs.

Not quite. Peppiatt’s biography was one of the less scurrilous of those that emerged after the painter’s death in 1992, striking a balance between high-mindedness and lurid detail. Bacon himself once remarked that “it would take a Proust” to write his biography. Peppiatt is no Proust, but he adroitly debunks Bacon’s self-created myth of untutored rawness, writing instead of an erudite modernist painter, steeped in tradition, and a charming, sometimes callous, man of ruling-class stock.

Peppiatt sketches the mythologised bohemia of 1950s Soho with skill and restraint, although occasionally, elsewhere, he can lapse into earnestness. The monochrome reproductions of paintings in the book are terribly inadequate. And some of the author’s judgements are indulgent to his subject, particularly regarding Bacon’s final decade of lucrative self-parody.

This article first appeared in the 13 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The facade cracks