I was going through a box of old documents to find details of my early flying experiences and found an envelope addressed to me at my London bank from Francis Bacon, to whom I had just sold a studio house in the country. The roughly torn envelope contained two letters from him.
In 1958 I sold where I lived beside Chelsea Football Ground in London and was about to set off on a round-the-world voyage of discovery and drawing, when I thought I should still have some sort of root in England as a place to which I could return. So I bought (I think for £425) a tumbledown wreck of a cottage on the Berkshire Downs at the end of an overgrown lane that led from the village of Chieveley, north of Andover.
I bought it from the cottagers next door, a Mr and Mrs Rampling. He was still surviving from being gassed in the First World War, and she looked after him and cultivated a most beautiful cottage garden that looked like a colourful Victorian watercolour.
They had no plumbing, so the contents of the bucket in a small garden shed went into a trench to feed the following year’s runner beans.
Mrs Ramp and I made friends immediately. And, in her only gardening book (a Victorian one that recommended Cannabis for London gardens), she found an engraving of my rosarian grandfather, looking up at tall, spiky, eremurus flowers, on which he had written a chapter. So we established our mutual love of gardens and country lore. She was to keep an eye on my wreck of a house when I was away, and put a man’s hat in a window to deter intruders.
A year later I was back, had drawn up plans, and when Mrs Ramp and I had decided that conditions were safe, I telephoned the Newbury Fire Brigade and told them that there would be a blaze at Chieveley and not bother to attend to it. I put a match to the downwind corner of the mangy straw thatch and was glad to see the last of the verminous place reduced to smouldering rubble.
The house I built in its place, with a Polish builder, would have a gull winged roofline, but I could only afford half of the wing – but anyhow laid foundations for the complete building.
The end result was an innovated structure, there being just one large, glass-walled studio room with a floor of marble washstand tops, saved by me over years for such a project, one internal balcony, and only one bedroom with a bathroom, WC and bidet. Downstairs was a cosy living room with open fire, a separate WC and an under-floor heated kitchen. No plumbing pipes of any sort were visible as they were all concealed within a central column. Air was ducted in beneath the floor to feed the fire, and a parallel chimney ducted in fresh air, which was heated by the main chimney alongside to supply warmth to the bedroom. The structure was of lovely, red, handmade bricks, and internal surfaces were of the unevenly coloured pink plaster that was applied initially. Provision was made for a conservatory, but never implemented. That was the house.
Outside was an ancient well, hand cut through chalk. It was so deep that a pebble dropped into it took some tome to splash into the water below. And so cold was its almost transparent water that we would haul some up in a bucket to keep the beer cool during house construction.
It was a lovely house, isolated, quiet except for the noises of nature, and where birds would even roost in my bedroom.
I grew fat. I struggled to get back into the swing of painting after a year’s worth of drawing around the world. I tried paint, then moved on to collage. At least the latter did help, and although I was not all that pleased with the results, some have now been sold at Christie’s saleroom and been bought by private collectors.
I felt that I was vegetating too much and becoming too introspective. It was time to move on – and to London.
I spoke to local estate agents. They were in accord. No one would buy a one-bedroom house. So I advertised in The Daily Telegraph.
One reply to this advertisement was from a Francis Bacon. I enquired if he happened to be the painter. He was. The year was 1964.
Francis arrived alone. He took to the place immediately, as the internal walls were much like the paint surfaces in his work, and a soft platform surrounding the living room ideal for himself and his subjects. Negotiations took place, with me trying to get a painting as part of the deal. The Marlborough Gallery would not allow it. The sale was completed with, if I remember correctly, the gallery paying.
I must have sent him some seeds, so his first letter was to thank me and invite me back to the country for a day or a weekend. I went for a day.
I remember walking into the bare studio to see a small table on which sat champagne and raw kipper fillets and onion for lunch. The scene was an austere but colourful still life. We got on very well, deciding that “chance” was one of the most important aspects in the creation of a painting.
He spoke of how people thought homosexuals lived in a twilight world. “What absolute nonsense,” he said. “We certainly do not.”
As we talked, George Dyer, his companion at the time, draped himself on the said platform in a languid, greased-hair pose. He hardly spoke. I occasionally see a Bacon painting of George, which was obviously done when he reclined in the corner of that room.
I had left a little art there in the form of door paintings. For a Japanese guest I had painted one with cherry blossom. Francis did not like it. On the other door I had painted, very freely with my previous theatre-painting skills, bookshelves with books. This he loved. We parted great friends.
The other letter he sent me was to discover how often the septic tank should be emptied. He was about to sell the house (March 1966) and the new owner wanted to know. This was strange, as I had heard that an inebriated Francis gave the house to George Dyer and that George had put it up for sale almost immediately. Anyhow, George committed suicide not long afterwards – perhaps richer for the sale.
I was never one of Francis’s coterie, but whenever he saw me on the street he would come to talk.
I did go to one of his parties in Reece Mews, South Kensington, where the American author, James Baldwin, was a guest among other notables. I had expected to see a rather Bohemian crowd in his scruffy studio place, and was surprised to find so many smart young men in city suits as fellow guests.
So that’s all I know about the great painter, other than information from countless books and catalogues.
I consider myself very lucky to have met and been friends with so nice a man.