A year before his death in 1992, Francis Bacon quietly slipped into the Prado in Madrid, discreetly followed by its deputy director, Manuela Mena. There, he spent 90 minutes alone with its collection of Velázquez (it was a Monday, and the museum was closed). What did Mena make of Bacon, who was then 81, and in the habit of using shoe polish to colour his hair? “I’ve never seen somebody so gentle,” she said. “He looked you straight in the eye. He wanted to see who you are. He had… this security in himself.” Bacon lingered longest, she recalled, in front of Mars Resting (1640), in which Velázquez depicts the Roman god of war with his face in shadow – a decision that whispers a loss of masculine power, even as the muscles on his torso seem to ripple like damask in a breeze – and we can assume that he was grateful for the chance to have done so: afterwards, he sent Mena the most beautiful flowers she had ever received.
None of us can know what’s coiled inside another human being; the closer one is to a person, in fact, the greater the shock may be when all is revealed (if it ever is). Distance, then, can sometimes be as useful to the biographer as intimacy. In Bacon, Mena saw something that was apt to escape others – a gilded ease, as well as an isolation; an unexpected tenderness – and in their magnificent new life of the artist, the Pulitzer prize-winning critics Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan are wise enough to make good use of it, deploying Mena’s memory at a point when others might have been inclined, in the race to the finish, to throw it away. But then, this is them all over. 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.)
Bacon had an extraordinary, high-low life: like Dickens, biography and work seem almost to compete when it comes to unlikeliness, to thrills, to horror. “I think artists remain closer to their childhoods than other people,” he said. This book digs deeply into the peat of his. He grew up in the decaying Anglo-Irish realm of JG Farrell’s novel Troubles: a half-shabby, half-splendid world of big houses and servants under which a bomb was ticking loudly in the form of independence; all her life, his mother refused to sit at night with her back to the window, remembering an IRA ambush that Bacon’s granny Supple was lucky to survive. But his own terrors (and excitements) lay closer to home, a triptych that comprised his asthma, his homosexuality, and his father.
Bacon hated his father. But he was also sexually attracted to him, and in this ambivalence the authors see the beginnings of the interrelated struggles that beset him all his life: with men, with love, with work. Such agonies, though, must be set against everything else that he was, qualities on which they insist. He never hid his sexuality. He wore makeup in the scariest pubs. He was a dandy of the best sort (what he couldn’t do with a scarf). Above all, there was his genius for friendship; the Soho nights at the Colony Room and the Gargoyle Club were about company, not just sex and champagne. Drunk, he could be vile: a truth-telling viper for whom it was a point of pride to boo Princess Margaret as she murdered Let’s Do It at a party. Obsessed with good looks, he had a complex, performative relationship with disgust (in Tangier, there was sex with a legless Moroccan who pushed himself along on a board with wheels). But he was also kind, generous, even dutiful: a man who would ask his char to his private view; who took his frail cousin for dinner even when she stank of pee. Lucian Freud, who kept Bacon’s Two Figures (1953) above his bed, thought him the bravest person he’d ever met.
The authors are diligent about the shows, the critics, the mentors. It’s fascinating (and startling, when you consider what his studio looked like) to read of his first career, as an interior designer, and chastening to consider how long full recognition took to arrive (in Britain, not until the Tate retrospective of 1985). But where they really triumph is in their sympathetic, psychologically convincing accounts of his love life. As a young man, he had two Erics: Allden, a civil servant, and Hall, a married war hero; closeted, semi-paternal, establishment types with wallets fat enough for his gambling debts. Later, there was George Dyer, the burglar whose death from an overdose on the day of Bacon’s 1971 Paris retrospective was announced 24 hours after the discovery of his body, the better that the show might go on; and John Edwards, the illiterate publican who would inherit his estate. In between, there was Peter Lacy, the pilot turned piano-player whose thwarted-ness appealed to Bacon for the way it concealed, like the shell of an oyster, something more poignant (and salty) within.
No other artist has come so close to expressing the way that loss and yearning repeatedly give birth to each other
Their relationship was violent. Bacon would push and push until Lacy beat and raped him. All they had in common was their strange, disappointed adoration, a compulsion that finds its way insistently into the greatest of his paintings. Bacon’s work, as Robert Hughes once put it, “clamps itself on your nervous system”: the pictures come with teeth, and drool you cannot wipe away. Here, you think, is the 20th century, in all its alienation and human suffering. But such thoughts arrive only after the physical excitement of seeing them has ebbed. At first sight, they’re all inward heat. No other artist has ever come so close to successfully expressing the way that loss and yearning repeatedly give birth to each other – and how exciting this is, and how irredeemably sad.
Before his death in 1962, Lacy gave a scrapbook dating from his years with Bacon, from whom he was by then separated, to a man to whom he’d opened his heart in a Spanish hotel. The man was blind, which was important, for it meant he could not see the document in his care: all those unaccountable feelings, pasted in. The man said later that he’d never met anyone more in love than Lacy, nor more destroyed by the end of that love. It was different for Bacon, of course. He had his work, and a mind that could snap shut like a poacher’s trap (a mind that enabled him to bask in adulation even as he pictured George Dyer’s barely cold body). But still, he loved Lacy to – there’s no better word – distraction. This book’s great achievement is that it does not confuse flexibility in the matter of relationships with insincerity, nor ravenous desire with decadence. Bacon, you come to understand, was fundamentally serious, and fundamentally loving. If his heart was often on the hustle, it was also ardent: as twisted and as fervent as his art.
• Francis Bacon: Revelations by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan is published by William Collins (£30). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply