If you’ve seen the TV drama series "The Crown" about the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, you’ll likely remember the scenes of her late sister Princess Margaret portrayed as an inveterate party-goer given to singing Cole Porter songs. Such scenes would have you think she was good at singing, but the Irish-born British painter Francis Bacon, in attendance at a party with the princess given by Lady Rothermere, saw her differently.

Audience reaction

An ArtDaily review of the book titled “Francis Bacon: Revelations” by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, recounts an incident at Lady Rothenmere’s white-tie ball where Margaret grabbed a microphone to sing “passionately off-key.” And while those attending politely listened – she was a royal, after all – Bacon booed her until she left the party in tears.

Stevens and Swan quote the artist saying, “Her singing was really too awful. Someone had to stop her. I don’t think people should perform if they can’t do it properly.”

The Irish Post’s review of the Stevens and Swan book provided further details of this incident, saying that at the ball, the painter upstaged the princess with his booing “as if she were a music-hall extra.” Bacon's outspoken ways were not all that different from the Irish Post description of him as “flamboyant, unafraid, free.”

High standards

And to hear Art Daily on this point, his words about Princess Margaret also summed up who he was, which was a reference to his “indifference to outrage; the glint of cruelty; and, always, the earnest invocation of standards.” Regarding the latter trait, Bacon was so intent on standards that he routinely trashed his own paintings.

Reasons why

Reportedly untutored in painting, Bacon specialized in picturing torn and twisted flesh. Reasons why abound in the Stevens and Swan book beginning with his childhood. He had such a bad case of asthma that he was kept apparat from other children. The bio also shows that he was raped by the grooms in his father’s stable and subjected to thrashings from them that his father ordered.

As well, an older cousin is said to have raped him repeatedly. Images of his pictures of flayed and malformed flesh come to mind when you read this stuff.

Stevens and Swan also noted how Bacon longed for the “ordinary patterns of joy and solace.” Despite his dark picture-making then, the authors say he was kind and decent and generous, even paying hospital bills for friends, and writing affectionate letters to his mother.

Then there’s this: he lived with his childhood nanny long into adulthood. She stayed on even after losing her sight.

Details, details

The book is packed with details like that, which accounts for its "War and Peace" page count – nearly 900 pages, and in a way, the Bacon story told in this comprehensive bio is a kind of War and Peace. The Irish Post refers to his war side as “a brush with violence” citing his description of his work as "the brutality of fact." The Irish Post specifies one fact of life: he grew up in a troubled, pre-revolution Ireland. This accounts for why historians Donald Hall and Pat Corrington Wykes quote him in their 1990 book Anecdotes of Modern Art, saying, “I want reality, not esthetics.”

He’s got a point. When you’re in the throes of raw, scream-filled emotion, you don’t ask, “how do I look?”