How judicious they are, how determined to rub away at their subject’s corners. Until now, the best books about Bacon have been the work of his friends (Michael Peppiatt, Daniel Farson, David Sylvester): volumes that, however interesting, are muddied with affection (or its reverse), vested interests and, perhaps, a certain complacency. This volume, though, is the opposite. It rings as clearly as a bell. I cannot remember the last time I was so aware of the sheer hard labour involved in biography, even as I was captivated by every line. (They slogged, so I didn’t have to.)
The recounting of riveting anecdotes is easy. Where this biography soars above rivals is where its authors, even while acknowledging the crafted performance, probe beneath the façade. Newcomers can meet the celebrated public figure: dramatic, queeny and confident, charming, generous and funny, fiercely unsentimental and fantastically talented. But celebrity, the authors write, “was a light that, concealing more than it revealed, enabled him to slip in and out of his persona. It certainly did not displace any masks that he wanted kept in place.”
The American art critics Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan have compiled a weighty, thorough and compelling biography of the artist that records nine decades of intense moments. Bacon, especially as the wild man of Soho, has been thoroughly mythologised, but this authorised life brings the carousing, the paintings and the public and private lives together to form a convincing and often touching whole. The book’s daunting size is not authorial indulgence — though they write with documentary diligence — but a reflection of how rich Bacon’s life was.