My time with Francis Bacon

My contact with Francis Bacon started in 1979. That was the year that I exhibited my degree show, at the Royal College of Art.

I was there at nine every morning. On the third day of the show, my tutor rushed over to me.

He handed me a piece of paper with a telephone number written on it. He said, “You must ring this number at exactly 11 o’clock. You’ve had a very distinguished visitor, and he wants to talk to you.” I thought this must be some kind of joke. But he said “This is genuine. Just ring the number.”

At exactly 11 am, I telephoned the number. Francis Bacon answered my call.

Apparently, he had arrived at the show at 8am, to collect some cases of wine. While he was waiting for them to bring it down, he looked around the exhibition. He saw my work – a series of cloth heads. I had been perfecting this way of showing the human face, by using something as flexible as skin, into which I molded the facial features…

“I adore your work”, he told me.
I said, “My gosh! Well, I think you’re the best artist alive in the world today.”
He said, “Great minds think alike! I love Janet. Will you let me buy her?”
I said, “There’s nobody I would rather have a piece of my work.” So Francis bought Janet. And, I still hadn’t met him.’

A couple of years later I was doing a solo show at the inauguration of the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith.
I rang Francis and said, “Can I borrow Janet?”
He said, “Well, I’m loath to part with her. But if you need her … Anyway, she must be in the show.”

Six weeks later, after the show had finished, I sent Janet back. Francis telephoned, “I am so thrilled to have her back,” he told me. “And I have been thinking, would you do my portrait? A cloth head.” I said, “Oh God! I don’t know whether I can.”

I had never made a formal portrait. I would just play with cloth until things came out right.

He said, “Will you try?”
I said, “OK, I’ll have a go. But I’m a bit scared.” He said, “We’ll just see what happens.”

We arranged a sitting. He said “You come around. We’ll chat about it and we could have a sitting… ”

Our first sitting was in Bacon’s studio in Reece Mews. He peered down at me and said, “Come on up.” I went up the steps. It was like going up in a boat. He was peering through a hole in the floor. I was very nervous.

I’d heard that Bacon could be ‘difficult’.

But he was so nice. He had dressed up for the sitting, he had on a pale grey suit, with a blue cord shirt, and this big Rolex watch, and a lovely gold necklace. He looked absolutely fabulous.

The sitting began …

It was very easy. I wasn’t the kind of person who was going to get involved with Francis’s private life.

We were chatting, he told me a lot of his close friends had died. And he felt that he was feeling left behind, which was quite an intimate thing to tell me during the first sitting. But he was like that. He would just come out with what he was feeling. He mentioned George Dyer, his eyes just welled up with tears.

I have never been with someone whose emotions were so on the surface, and were so registering from minute to minute. Of course, it triggered my obsessive drawing – endless drawing.

He would ring me up whenever he wanted. We might not meet for a couple of months. But then we would meet up two or three times over a couple of weeks. Some times he would visit me in my studio, in Bloomsbury. I was in Bedford Square, and had a key to gardens, we used to walk and talk and then we would sit and I would do some sketches.

The cloth head was produced over four years.

He didn’t see the cloth head until I showed him to him in its completed form. He was very happy with it, and hung it beside Janet

After that, we spoke a couple of times and we would see each other. I didn’t see much of him in his final years, but I did know his partner, John Edwards.

John called me after Francis’ death, and asked me if I would do a cloth head of him, so that he could hang it with the head of Francis and Janet, as a family…

Clare Shenstone

Janet © Shenstone Art
Clare Shenstone in front of her work Francis in Bedford Gardens. © Shenstone Art
Sketches of John Edwards. © Shenstone Art