By Ian Douglas, Librarian and Archivist
This week, I was delighted to receive the major new biography of Francis Bacon, by the Pulitzer Prize-winning team of Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan. It was so kind of them to arrange a complimentary copy for the Memorial Library. The book, hailed as “a captivating triumph” and “the definitive biography”, will be of particular interest to Bedalians because it re-evaluates the time the artist spent living in the Lodge at Bedales during the Second World War.
Bacon had served as a volunteer in the London ARP during the early part of the Blitz, but his severe asthma made it impossible to withstand the suffocating clouds of dust that followed a bombing raid. He was forced to take refuge in the country.
Bacon’s patron and lover Eric Hall, husband of Barbara Hall (Bedales 1908-13) and their friend Ken Keast (Bedales Staff 1939-49) arranged for him to rent the Lodge from 1940 to 1943.
Previous biographers have tended not to make much of this interlude. Many have got no further than the comic image of a confirmed urbanite struggling to adjust to the countryside – “waking up with all those things singing outside the window”.
This is due partly to Bacon’s famous reticence about his artistic development prior to 1945, when his reputation was established with the first exhibition of his Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. This event is widely seen as a watershed in the history of painting — “there was painting in England before the Three Studies, and painting after them, and no one … can confuse the two” — and Bacon himself colluded in attempts to forget all that had led up to it. He destroyed much of his earlier work, and as far as possible he suppressed what he could not destroy.
Stevens and Swann are therefore breaking new ground in exploring the period leading up to this watershed. The years spent at Bedales are re-evaluated as a “critical moment” in the artist’s life; a time of “internal reckoning”. They describe the genesis of the few incomplete works surviving from this time (Man in a Cap, Seated Man, Man Standing and Landscape with Colonnade) which were inspired by news photographs from Picture Post which Bacon used to buy weekly in Petersfield. This work shows “Bacon’s turn towards a more gestural form of figurative painting” as well as prefiguring some of the imagery of the Three Studies.
I’m grateful for this fresh appreciation of Bacon’s Hampshire interlude, and I continue to wonder about his motives in choosing Bedales as his bolt-hole. Was it merely a place where his friends knew of a vacant cottage, or was there a more particular attraction? Bacon had already collaborated in joint exhibitions with OB artists Julian Trevelyan and Ivon Hitchens. He may also have known that John Rothenstein — director of the Tate, who later bought Bacon’s work for the gallery — was a Bedalian. I wonder if he was seeking a sort of urbs in rure, to sustain him in his forced exile among the inconsiderate birds.
The new book draws on material from the Bedales Archive, which receives many such enquiries about the history of the school and its former staff and students. The work of the Archive would be impossible without the generous support of many Old Bedalians. Financial donations, and donations of material relating the life of the school – recent as well as more distant history – are always welcome.
Francis Bacon: Revelations, by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan is published in the UK by William Collins. It is available from the publisher, and from all good booksellers.