Lucian Freud was at Graham Sutherland’s house in Kent one day in the mid-1940s. Freud asked his host who he thought was the greatest painter in England. The story is contained in the new book “Modernists and Mavericks” by Martin Gayford, who recounts that it would be natural for a major artist such as Sutherland to probably consider that he himself was the greatest painter.
However, Sutherland gave an unexpected answer. He said his choice was like a cross between Vuillard and Picasso: “He’s never shown and he has the most extraordinary life. If he ever does a painting he generally destroys it.” The name of the artist was “Francis Bacon, and he sounded so interesting that Freud quickly arranged to meet this mystery man,” Gayford writes.
The subtitle of the book is “Bacon, Freud, Hockney and the London Painters.” If there were anyone qualified to write about these masters and many others, it is Gayford, who draws on 30 years of interviews.
He couples the Sutherland anecdote by noting that on the evening of November 12, 2013, Bacon’s “Three Studies of Lucien Freud” went under the hammer at Christie’s in New York. After a lengthy bidding war, the work sold for $142.4 million. He writes: “A picture painted in London well within living memory became, for a while, the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction.”
This state of affairs would have been utterly unimaginable in 1969 when the picture was painted, let alone when the two artists first met. The price would stretch credulity even in 1992, the year in which Bacon died.
The book’s timeline runs from the Second World War to the 1970s. It is an intriguing story of interlinking friendships, shared experiences, rivalries and overlapping artistic concerns. The painters sometimes love and sometimes hate their fellows, friends and rivals. They variously work, rest and play together and especially drink together. The list of names is stellar was includes Frank Auerbach, Victor Pasmore, Bridget Riley, Patrick Heron, Richard Hamilton, Prunella Clough, Peter Blake, Allen Jones, Frank Bowling and Howard Hodgkin. It is especially good to see mention of Gillian Ayres, who has sadly just died. If these artists have anything in common it is that they were all obsessed with the question posed by Ayres of “what can be done with painting?” They all shared a belief that paint could accomplish work that other media – photography for example – could not.
The narrative has a constantly changing backdrop, from the post-war years through 1940s Soho bohemia, the confidence of the 1950s and “swinging London” in the 1960s. “Being born just before the outbreak of the Second World War, I just thought things naturally got better and better,” Jones is quoted as saying. “When the Seventies came along, it was a bit more real,” adds Sir Anthony Caro.
The book explores influences from other countries, ranging from Abstract Expressionist contemporaries such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, through to Piero della Francesca, Picasso and Matisse. Despite all these external inspirations, the artist R.B. Kitaj suggested in 1976 that there was a substantial “School of London.” Gayford agrees, while adding that given the idiosyncratic art mavericks involved, it is a very wide-ranging, loose movement. There is no common factor apart from each of the artists was a modernist, sometimes crossing the frontier between figurative and non-figurative: “Several artists, notably Auerbach and Hodgkin effectively set up tents their tents on the border zone itself.” In addition, some are not truly London painters. Hockney for example moved to Paris and then Los Angeles, as well as keeping links with Yorkshire.
Flick through the pages and there are strong senses of how art was influenced by The Beatles and street style. Jones would put his twins into a stroller and perambulate down the King’s Road, past freakily-named and trendy boutiques such as Granny Takes a Trip, while all the time soaking up colorful fashion inspiration: the ever shorter miniskirts and the ever higher heels.
The personal life of all of the main protagonists is enough for any number of books on their own – Freud’s lovers, the suicide of Bacon’s lover George Dyer and so on. Aptly, Freud is quoted as saying that he’s always liked the expression “the naked truth.”
There are constant insights which are amusing and revealing, such as about the creation of Bacon’s monumental “Three Studies for a Crucifixion” in 1962. The entire triptych was painted in a fortnight in what Bacon described as “a bad mood of drinking.” The book says: “Sometimes he was so drunk that he hardly knew what he was doing.” For all this, there is general agreement that the triptych was an important work, a turning point.
Whole books have been written about the Colony Room drinking den. Gayford cleverly cherry-picks the most important moments, right through to the creation of the Michael Andrews picture which contains many of the key dramatis personae. There was a time when the tiny shabby bar run by Muriel Belcher was the center of the city’s artistic world, (perhaps along with the Slade School) and here there are quotes from those who knew it or had first-hand experience of how the cultural world was changing. Paula Rego notes: “England gave me the freedom to be more myself.” Leon Kossoff says: London, like paint I use, seems to be in my bloodstream.”
Gayford, art critic for the Spectator, has also written for Blouin Artinfo and its magazines such as Modern Painters as well as for Bloomberg News. He has had his portrait painted by Freud (resulting in his memoir “Man With a Blue Scarf”) and by Hockney (leading to the book “A Bigger Message.”) Gayford’s other books cover different periods – from nine weeks in the life of Vincent van Gogh, to seven years of John Constable’s romance with his wife-to-be, and a biography of Michelangelo and its centuries of influence.
The book was published in hardback by Thames & Hudson in April in the U.K. priced £24.95 with U.S. publication to follow on June 12 at $39.95. Publisher website http://thamesandhudson.com
Founder Louise Blouin