George Dyer: Muse & Monster
Painter Francis Bacon (1909 – 1992) first met his muse George Dyer when Dyer was caught breaking into Bacon’s house – according to the apocryphal tale of their first encounter. Though untrue, the story is so colourful and seemingly so in keeping with the chaos of Bacon’s personal life that it has gained widespread acceptance. The scene is even explicitly depicted in John Maybury’s 1998 biopic of Francis Bacon, Love Is The Devil (in which Daniel Craig was cast as George Dyer). This scene, though fictitious, is excusable, for it almost should be the story of the couple’s first meeting.
The reality, of course, is far more mundane: Dyer spotted Bacon at the end of a bar with some friends, and went over and asked to buy him a drink. However, despite the rather simple beginnings, Bacon’s relationship with Dyer was to have all, if not more, of the passion and brutality of his previous romances.
Before Dyer, Bacon carried on a string of relationships with abusive and violent partners. Peter Lacy, one of Bacon’s cruelest lovers, would destroy Bacon’s work and beat him to the point of unconsciousness. The permanent scar on Bacon’s right eye is the result of having been thrown, by Lacy, through a plate glass window.
The early days of Bacon’s relationship with Dyer showed no signs of the physical violence or psychological manipulation that colored many of Bacon’s previous relationships. Initially, Bacon cast himself as a sort of protector with Dyer as his troubled ward. Both were given to heavy drinking sessions, shuffling through SoHo, lurching into the Colony Room when it opened, and pouring themselves out when it closed.
George Dyer in Francis Bacon’s studio at Reece Mews. Image source: Phaidon
Dyer grew up in London’s East End, and dabbled in petty crime before meeting Bacon. There is even some vague evidence that Dyer may have been linked to the notoriously criminal Kray Twins (Bacon had certainly met them). Bacon pulled Dyer into a dazzling new world. He was impressed by Bacon’s stature, he was flattered to be a regular subject, and he was delighted that all of this great spin was paid for by Bacon. Dyer found new meaning to his life, and with it came an elevated social status, and significant financial gain. Yet, Dyer would never integrate into Bacon’s group of intimates, nor would they accept him. He was considered a nuisance, or some sort of pitiful pet. He is believed to have said of Bacon’s paintings, “I think they are really horrible and I don’t really understand them”. Eventually, Dyer became so unruly and unmanageable that Bacon began to try and coax him out of his life with promises of allowances, a cottage in the country and even a studio of his own. Dyer was so hurt by Bacon’s efforts that he became even more resolute to remain a part of Bacon’s life. He grew aggressive, and at one point, he even tried to frame Bacon by planting drugs in his studio and calling the police.
In 1971, Bacon was invited to the Grand Palais in Paris to mount a retrospective of his work, and Dyer begged, pleaded, and finally insisted that he be taken along. Bacon brought Dyer with him and set him up him in a hotel nearby, while busying himself with the necessary preparations for his retrospective. For Dyer, this ignominy was too much. He went to his bathroom, swallowed sleeping pills, and was discovered dead in his room just two days before the opening of the show.
Francis Bacon’s The Black Triptych, (1973). Image source: cultural-discourse.com
Bacon was deeply affected by Dyer’s passing. He managed to maintain his composure for the opening of the his retrospective, but broke down afterwards. Dyer’s passing gave rise to what is regarded as Bacon’s most important series: The Black Triptychs. The Triptychs are the closest Bacon ever came to offering personal narratives in his paintings. Unlike much of his other work, The Black Triptychs are not reactionary to the work of previous artists (like his Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X) nor are they inspired by literature (like his Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion). The Triptychs offer a painfully personal view of life – a life shared with Dyer.
Feature Image: Portrait of Francis Bacon (left) and George Dyer (right). Image source: Christie’s