I wake early in the morning – well, as late as 6.30 or so in the winter but 5 o’clock or earlier in the summer.
This gives me solo time to spend in the studio room at the top of our house to think, paint, draw, or write. The air is clean and clear, as is the light. London lies below almost silent. There is little to disturb me. It is a wonderful time of day.
At times I wake even earlier and lie in bed thinking of the past, present and future – future of whatever painting or writing that I happen to be interested in at the time.
It was during one of these latter periods of thought (this morning to be exact) that I recalled a period in my life when I had vegetated in a country studio that I had built, and realised that I must leave my self-indulgent rural life for a move back to vibrant London.
Funnily enough, the artistic work that I found then to be transitory is much sought-after today.
Somehow I saved quite a few of those struggles when freeing myself from a year’s drawing around the world to return to using paint. I managed it, strangely enough, mainly through the medium of coloured paper collages.
Anyhow, I approached an estate agent who said he’d never be able to sell a one-bedroom house, and that I should advertise it myself.
Francis Bacon answered my advertisement in, of all strange papers for him to be reading, the Daily Telegraph.
He came, saw, and bought the house immediately. I enquired, as part of the financial negotiation, if a Bacon painting might be part of the deal. The Marlborough Gallery, who presumably paid for the house, declined my proposal.
What did Francis see in my rather simple and stark studio house? It was quite the opposite of his chaotic and messy studio in Reece Mews, South Kensington, London.
Perhaps it was its undecorated, original, pink-plastered walls and simple lines – lines much like the “cages” that appear so often in his work.
Anyhow, he and I got on well and I visited him to explain such items of my construction, like the separate chimney running next to the real one. This fake chimney was connected to the outside air at ground level and conducted heat-exchanged warm air up to the only bedroom.
We discussed mainly the value of chance in painting. And on homosexuality he opined that “people think we live in a twilight world. We certainly do not”.
The only neighbours were a lovely cottager couple, Mr and Mrs Rampling (Mrs Ramp). She kept an eye on the house when I was not there, as she did for Francis. Her lovely garden, nourished by human waste, was like those depicted on Victorian biscuit tins.
George Dyer was in residence with Francis when I went to the house. He would curl up, greasy black hair, almost cowering in a corner of the sitting room – and silent. He joined us for salad, raw kippers and Champagne.
In the newspapers one day I saw a photograph of a Bacon painting of George, sitting in that very same corner, just as he had when I was there.
Move on now from 1964 to 2016. I was watching cricket at Lord’s when a man sat next to me. He was a well-known barrister, art critic, and authority on post-WW1 English 20th century art.
This writer was most interested in my account of meetings with Francis Bacon, especially of those at my old studio house in the country. This was because in all the records of Bacon’s life there is hardly a mention of the Chieveley studio house that I had built and he had bought.
When the barrister came to see me to learn more and to see the letters that Francis had sent to me, he brought with him the Bacon Catalogue Raisonné to find the painting of George that I had seen in the newspaper. I could recall it clearly. But it was not included. So where could it be? Lost? In a bank vault? Anyhow, it may be one lost Bacon.
When I visited Francis Bacon in that country studio house, I always looked in on my old friend and ex-neighbour, Mrs Rampling. She wanted to give me a present. I think that her choice was between a painting (probably given to her by Francis Bacon) of Mount Ventoux, or a much more prized possession which was her well-used gardening book, “The English Flower Garden”, 1901, printed by John Murray, in which it was recorded that gardeners in London should grow cannabis. There is a piece in it on Eremurus Robustus, written by my grandfather (the Reverend F. Page-Roberts, the great rosarian), with a splendid engraving of him standing next to Eremurus Robustus plants that tower above him. She chose to give me the book.
Now, that Mount Ventoux painting? Did Francis paint it? Although it hardly looked like his work. Or was it someone else’s effort? The canvas was in pristine condition, not having been recovered from a rubbish heap or anything like that. I can see it now – bright, impasto, oil paint almost as if squeezed straight from the tube, and direct – like a clever child had painted it, and impressive in its way.
Where is that painting now?
That’s two lost Francis Bacon paintings with which I have somehow been connected.