BLAKE AND BACON, TWO SOHO ARTISTS

Bacon 3

1) Both William Blake and Francis Bacon are regarded as Soho artists, but for different reasons.

Blake was born in Soho and lived at several Soho addresses inc. 28 Broadwick Street (now a Patisserie Valerie) and 28 Poland Street.

Bacon was neither born nor resident in Soho. He lived in several South Kensington addresses inc. 7 Cromwell Place and – more famously – 7 Reece Mews. Bacon worked at home, but liked to hang out in Soho at various pubs, clubs, gambling joints,  and restaurants. Only a chosen few saw him in his studio whereas in Soho he was a public figure, always the centre of attention and surrounded by a retinue. He epitomises bohemian Soho.

Blake worked at home also. The Soho pub he is associated with is The Kings Arms on Poland Street, now a gay pub that occasionally hosts Druidic gatherings.

Blake Crucifixion

The Soldiers Casting Lots for Christ’s Garments 1800

2) Blake was an extremely religious artist, though unorthodox. Bacon was a militant atheist. This hasn’t prevented Blake being celebrated by the hard left for his radical politics, or Bacon from being considered as a 20th century religious painter.

Both were hardworking Protestants who didn’t go to church!

Blake believed implicitly in an afterlife. “I cannot think upon death as anything but a removing from one room to another.’

For Bacon, death was nothingness. He liked to joke that when he died his body should be put in a bag and thrown in the gutter.

Both painted crucifixions. Oddly enough, Bacon painted more crucifixions than Blake.

The philosopher who influenced Blake most was Swedenborg. Bacon’s  philosopher of choice was Nietzsche. Both aimed to make work that bypassed the intellect.

Bacon birthplace

63 Lower Baggot Street

3) Bacon was born into the English upper classes, but in Dublin, and grew up in Ireland.

Blake was born into the artisan-craftsman class of petty-bourgeois London shopkeepers but who tended to be highly creative and rabidly dissenting.

Blake struggled for most of his life on a very low income, alleviated by the patronage of friends and admirers.

Bacon supported himself initially by prostituting himself to wealthy homosexual men. Later he became wealthy – and generous – beyond most people’s dreams. He entertained his lucky friends on a princely scale.

4) Their schoolings were both highly irregular. Blake was home-educated. At 10, he went to drawing school for four years, and then studied engraving for seven years.

Bacon briefly attended school in Cheltenham but was entirely unacademic. He had no formal training as an artist.

While Blake was a child genius, Bacon was a slow developer, only getting into his stride in his mid-30s.

Both fell out definitively with their fathers and left their family domiciles in Soho and Kildare respectively. James Blake – hosier – didn’t approve of William marrying an illiterate market trader. Eddy Bacon – horse trainer – didn’t approve of Francis regularly trying on his mother’s underwear. (One wonders what James Blake would have said to Francis Bacon?)

Both were autodidacts. Bacon also learnt much from father figures. Blake didn’t need substitutes and went on to envisage God as Nobodaddy.

BlakeEurope2
5) Bacon’s politics were mostly rightwing libertarian. Blake was a revolutionary Enthusiast. Both were mercurially idiosyncratic.

Bacon’s Painting 1946, and others, portray the powerful as tyrannical and disturbed. Blake’s images of Nebuchadnezzar and Urizen perform a similar function. Both are disillusioned with the political realm and invest all their hopes in artistic creation.

Blake wore a bonnet rouge to signify his approval of the French Revolution and was rumoured to have been in favour of a French invasion. Bacon was terrified of a Russian invasion and of England becoming a communist satellite of the USSR.

Both were fascinated by figures and images of power. Blake envisioned before his eyes historic kings, not to mention Satan, and drew them on the spot. Bacon kept photographs of the dictators of modern Europe in military regalia, channelling their essences into his cosmos.

While Blake wrote and painted his epic poem Europe A Prophecy, Bacon thought of his subject matter as ‘the history of Europe in my time’.

Bacon Two Figures
6) Blake was a monogamous heterosexual. Bacon was a polyamorous homosexual. Though Blake imagined ‘free love’ and wrote and painted in a way that championed sexual freedoms, his wife did not share his aspirations.

Bacon’s sex life was uninhibited, but a dangerous mix of alcoholism and sadomasochism.

Blake’s relationship with Catherine was supportive and productive. Bacon’s relationships with Peter Lacy and George Dyer ended in tragedy and disaster; but he a found a late, if platonic, stability with John Edwards.

Both made images of their lovers.

Blake Vagabond
7) Blake and Bacon both liked a drink. Blake was supposedly fond of porter and wine. Bacon loved champagne and fine wines. Blake was probably more of a moderate drinker and once referred to himself as ‘drunk with intellectual vision’. Bacon’s consumption was mythological.

Bacon’s painterly vision is sometimes seen as representing the blurred state of drunkenness.
Blake’s vision has been scientifically labelled as ‘eidetic imagery’. Neither explanation seems to do justice to the greatness of their arts.

Bacon ingested drugs, if they were going, but not habitually. There’s no evidence that Blake used drugs.

8) Blake loved to draw, and defined engraving as ‘drawing on copper’. Bacon – contrary to popular opinion – did draw but only for preparatory exercises, as a means to an end. He usually destroyed the drawings when he had finished with them.

Both artists distorted the human body, in their own very differently customised ways.

Both use outline in their paintings. (Blake called it ‘the Line of Beauty’).

Both are criticised for their representations of the human form,  and sometimes accused of being ‘unable to draw’.

Both also possessed a raw power in their image-making that went ‘beyond the gentility principle’ and shocked viewers.

9) Bacon did not like Blake as an artist at all, but admired him as a poet.

10) Blake loved Fuseli, Bacon hated Fuseli. Blake admired and imitated Fuseli. Bacon hated being compared to Fuseli.

11) Blake and Bacon were affable men but with ferocious tempers. They were both too opinionated about life and art to brook disagreement lightly. Blake was obsessed by “Nervous Fear’, Bacon by the ‘nervous system’.

Study for Portrait II (after the Life Mask of William Blake) 1955 by Francis Bacon 1909-1992
12) Both artists were fascinated by physiognomy. Blake was inspired by the physiognomical writings of Johann Caspar Lavater. Amazingly, Bacon profoundly immersed himself in Blake’s physiognomy by painting a series of studies of Blake’s 1823 life-mask in the mid-1950s. (Bacon probably ended up knowing Blake’s face better than Blake ever had.)

Furthermore, Bacon obtained a copy of the life-mask and placed it in a prominent position in his legendary studio, right beside the circular mirror. It appears in some photos of the studio, but not in others. It would be helpful to know when he acquired his own copy.

If you visit Francis Bacon’s studio in Dublin, the Blake life-mask appears in photos of the studio and is itemised in the information about the studio contents. But Blake’s head is missing! The Hugh Lane Gallery can solve the problem by finding Bacon’s copy of the life-mask, or buying another from the National Portrait Gallery.

Post Script

Both artists are commemorated in Soho.

Blake’s memorials are more official, including William Blake House on the site of his birth, and the excellent John W. Mills bronze triptych inside it.

Blake is represented in ‘The Spirit of Soho’ mural whilst Bacon is strangely absent, even though his friend Jeffrey Bernard is included.

Bacon appears in photographs in the French House, one of his favourite haunts.

Niall McDevitt

Photo of Bacon image in the French House: Julie Goldsmith

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About Niall McDevitt

Niall McDevitt > poet > author of b/w (Waterloo Press, 2010) and Porterloo (International Times, 2012) > urban explorer > radical pedestrian who leads Shakespeare/Blake/Rimbaud /Yeats walks, among others.
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