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France gets a taste for Bacon

The Existential Englishman: Paris Among the Artist by Michael Peppiatt reviewed

January 10, 2019

12:54 PM

10 January 2019

12:54 PM

The Existential Englishman: Paris Among the Artist Michael Peppiatt

Bloomsbury, pp.384, $34.00

The case of Michael Peppiatt is a curious one. He first met Francis Bacon when he was an undergraduate at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and visited Bacon for a student magazine. Something clicked and Bacon became his sugar daddy, immediately and for ever, though Peppiatt has said that no sex was involved.

One can see what Peppiatt got out of Bacon: not cash per se, but many opportunities for money, an entrée to the great art world, a raison d’être for his pen, as well as free entertainment on a lavish scale. This he acknowledges gratefully. But what Bacon got out of Peppiatt is never quite clear. It certainly helped that Peppiatt was young, bright, and could match Bacon’s drinking. He must also have been attractive in an obliging, even submissive way. Once Peppiatt was installed in Paris, Bacon used him as eyes and ears and plug-adaptor in the city which Bacon wanted to impress above all others. But it wasn’t an infatuation; there is no Bacon portrait of Peppiatt. By contrast, most of Peppiatt’s writing has been Bacon-centric.

This latest offering implies that the key to their relationship was its flexible lack of definition. It is a memoir, written entirely in the present tense, and it recounts Peppiatt’s life in Paris, to which he moved in 1966 at the age of 24. There is a hiatus near the end when, after a long series of ramshackle affairs and mental crises, he marries an art historian and returns to London to bring up his daughters, before Paris claims him again.

Peppiatt doesn’t have the calibre of John Richardson on Picasso, but he’s a lot warmer, more open-shirted, than the vain, thin-lipped James Lord who covered comparable territory. Inevitably his many Bacon books involve repetition; and since his prose is waffly, amiable, and loaded with familiar phrases, one is never quite sure how much of the material has been covered before. Bacon remains the presiding genius of The Existential Englishman: ‘When Francis leaves the high goes…’ What marks the book is an overriding sense that Peppiatt is being honest with us: ‘When I tried to cosy up to Nancy Mitford the other day I made no impression at all.’ His candor often takes on an exaggerated self-deprecation and one realizes quite early on that there’s a fundamental passivity in him. Even his move to Paris was the result of his father finding him a job there in art journalism.

At one point he feels powerless to shake off a destructive relationship with a girl, ‘even though it’s harming me in all kinds of ways. I can’t understand why I don’t react strongly, decisively, since I have never detected any masochism or passivity in my make-up before’. Really? His love affairs, which he presents passionately, are all with women who appear more powerful than he. Bacon was a sexual masochist but a social sadist and is sometimes vile to Peppiatt. At one point Peppiatt decides to write a book about Bacon who gives him total clearance; but on the eve of publication Bacon pulls the rug and withdraws permission. Yet Peppiatt continues to trot faithfully along behind, instead of telling him to get lost.

My own experiences of Bacon were few, but one afternoon in Muriel’s he was pouring champagne and it spilled on to his hand. He turned and thrust it down the inside front of my trousers. I always loved being groped, but was also ticklish, and burst into laughter; ‘Gedoff!’ and yanked out his paw. Bacon said ‘I was only drying my hands’, not bitchily, but with a weird, simpering expression and wobble of his head — it was like strychnine trying to smile. We were not meant for each other.

So I read Peppiatt to see if I’d missed out on anything — and I had. What I most enjoyed in the book was what I envied: Peppiatt’s short exchange visit to the Lycée Condorcet as an English schoolboy; being repeatedly waltzed around the best restaurants in Paris on the arm of a gifted homosexual with bottomless pockets; art-market banquets in palaces; and the various apartments he finds for himself and does up. The best flat, in a crumbling 17th-century hôtel particulier, is paid for by selling (with Bacon’s blessing) a picture which the artist had given him.

Almost all the characters along the way, including the painters, are expats. The French when they feature are mostly commercial: local shopkeepers and art dealers. When Peppiatt and his wife return to live in Paris, after a gap of 20 years, he finds the Parisians

come across as disenchanted, not to say depressed, in line with the ailing economy which is apparent right outside our building… Because of my intervening absence, I am acutely aware of how brutally downgraded, how lacking in identity and purpose this Paris appears.

Welcome to the Paris of globalization and Islamist terrorism.

This article was originally published in The Spectator magazine.


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