The Francis Bacon I Knew; "Disruptive, Assertive, Violent": Study of George Dyer in a Mirror (1968) Man of Contrasts: Bacon in 1975. His Famously Frivolous Wit Masked the Intense Melancholy of Much of His Work Big Breakthrough: With Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion ( 1944) Bacon Emerged as a Painter of Pessimistic Imagination, His Images Coldly Barbaric, Assaulting the Nervous System of the Art World

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Byline: BRIAN SEWELL

FRANCIS Bacon died in April 1992, to the very day six months short of his 83rd birthday, and Tate Britain is about to open a centenary retrospective exhibition of his inseparable art and life. Long in the planning, this is to be shared with the cities of Madrid, where he died of the cumulative effects of pneumonia, asthma and a heart attack, and New York, where he had his most profitable success.

Inseparable art and life? For most of his many years it was simply not possible to speak or write of Bacon's private life, whispered to be not merely disreputable but punishable, at least in his first half century, by sanctions almost as harsh as those for treason and murder. Though to critics of any sensibility it was obvious that this private life was largely the source of imagery and energy in his paintings and unquestionably crucial to his aesthetic development, there were others who through overwhelming prominence on the Arts Council and our television sets, almost as celebrated as himself for their performances as his interpreters gave us a Bacon distorted and bowdlerised. In their constructs he could discern little of himself, but in a sense he was content with their dissembling, for it kept him camouf laged and his private life remained largely private to the end.

Though he knew them to be in error, his conviction was that in time their interpretations would be recognised as fraudulent, then discarded, letting his paintings at last speak for themselves "painting is its own language and is not translatable into words".

I first encountered Bacon's paintings when I was a schoolboy and am convinced that at the Hanover Gallery, Erica Brausen, his first dealer until 1958, showed paintings that I have not seen since, either in the flesh or published in the many books produced by Johnnies-come-lately; this is true, too ,of an exhibition at the old Beaux-Arts Gallery, where Helen Lessore had his paintings in 1953. It is therefore with great interest that I await the publication of a catalogue raisonn?. In London in the Fifties it was impossible not to be aware of Bacon; and after his transference to the Marlborough Gallery and the Tate's first retrospective of his work in 1962, it seemed to me from then on that no matter where I went in Europe and America I ran into more or less the same travelling Bacon circus in Chicago and New York, in Turin, Kassel, Mannheim, Zurich and it became increasingly evident that the formerly slow-thinking and slow-painting painter, in abandoning the considered, deliberate and frequently revised terribilit? of the early works, was at risk of becoming slick and habitual, even intellectually easier and emotionally shallower, and that the output of his pictures of ambitious scale was mightily increased, raised to some 20 canvases a year instead of two or three.

It was at this point of sudden but shrewdly engineered success that I first encountered Bacon. I was to know him for 30 years or so. Our acquaintance developed from an enquiry I had to make when a painting said to be by him was delivered to Christie's and I doubted it. Bacon was not then the sort of painter whose work Christie's liked to sell, but was nevertheless one whose work I thought they ought to sell though not if it was a forgery, and I knew that in Milan a forger was producing, even at that early stage, almost plausible pastiches. As Bacon answered neither telephone nor letter, I risked knocking on his door on my way home, was kindly, if briefly, received, and the picture's authenticity denied. Milanese forgeries again came into play in the later Sixties ( a small London dealer was importing them, their quality menacingly improved), and again I had reason to see Bacon, the acquaintance cementing to the point where Bacon felt that he could, for example ( since I lived only half a mile away), telephone at crack of dawn and ask me to drive his lover, John Edwards, disablingly hungover, to a family conclave in Long Melford. …