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Velázquez, hippos, snail slime & the Pope: Highlights from Francis Bacon: A Self-Portrait in Words

Posted on 16 May 2024

This new book brings together letters, statements and interviews from one of the 20th century’s most influential artists. Here, Michael Peppiatt shares some of the most striking passages.

Words by Michael Peppiatt

Francis Bacon is one of the most significant artists and notorious characters of the twentieth century and yet his writings have never been collected. Most of his letters and notes have never been seen by the public, languishing in obscure archives and hidden away in private collections.

This new book brings all of his known writings to light, and so will dramatically impact how the fabled painter is understood. These brief quotes from the volume give a sense of its interest and importance.

One of the problems is to paint like Velázquez but with the texture of a hippopotamus skin.
– ‘Survivors’, Time, 21 November 1949


As this quote shows, Bacon could be almost as exciting in words as he was in paint – even if it often feels like he is using his rhetorical skills to avoid giving journalists frank answers that might have ruined the mystery and incomprehensible power of his paintings.


I’m trying to paint the track left by human beings – like the slime left by snails.
– ‘Art: Distort into Reality’, Time, 8 June 1962


Just as he contrasted the velvet of the Pope’s robes with the scream of a wild animal, Bacon could shock in his statements with unexpected juxtapositions – Velázquez and hippos, humans and snail slime.

I like the country, but I can’t live in it. I just have to come back to town to work. I hate to hear those things singing out there in the morning…
I’ve never known why my paintings are thought of as horrible. I’m always labelled with horror but I never think about horror. Pleasure is such a diverse thing. And horror is, too.
– From remarks to Peter Beard stored at Yale University


Just as he aimed to strike the nervous system directly with his startling canvases, Bacon loved to provoke and disturb in conversation and correspondence. For us now, unlike his loved ones who had to live with his volatility, his contrarian posturing is endlessly amusing. We read how he hates birdsong in the mornings and why his paintings should not be considered horrific, despite their obvious concern with violence and despair.

A note on putting glass over my paintings
To give a unified texture to the painting without having to alter the abruptness of the technique in the painting also to preserve the surface.
– Francis Bacon: Recent Paintings, exhibition catalogue (New York, 1968)


The new material also offers straightforward answers to questions about Bacon’s art and approach – his use of photographic sources, his preference for glazing pictures, the way he kept his studio space and the routines he adopted. This is refreshing given the ever-growing number of second-hand interpretations which, interesting and rigorous as they may be, often beat around the bush and bypass the artist’s own explicit intentions.

Most touchingly and shockingly, though, we get a direct insight into Bacon’s innermost thoughts and feelings. Reading the book is at times like sitting next to the artist in the French House in a moment of vulnerability. Here, at the height of his powers in the early 1970s, he opens up about his personal views on love and his feelings of creative failure.


I don’t think I’m satisfied with what I do. How can you be satisfied? Because everything escapes you. You know that perfectly well. You know even if you’re in love with somebody, everything escapes you. You would want to be nearer that person. How can you cut your flesh open and join it with the other person? It’s an impossibility to do.

So it is with art. It is almost like a long affair with objects, and images, and sensations, and what you would call the passions. It’s very much like that. You may love somebody very much, but how near can you get to them? You’re still always unfortunately sort of strangers.

– From a BBC interview on 29 October 1971

Dear Diana,
I had a most awfully good journey home got back to Gloucester at 3 p.m. I have sent the wire to Major White. There is no chance of me getting into Cheltenham as Latin is the thing they go in for most. Nobody expects me to get in so it will be alright. I hear Aunt Highat wrote to Mummie to know if I could go and stay there after I left you; thank heavens I couldn’t as I should have seen all my beloved Aunts.
I wonder if I shall hear from the dashing Major…
Very sincerely your
loving little cousin
you must excuse pencil


Over the course of the book, we see him grow from privileged boy to impoverished bohemian and finally to world-famous painter. And with this new perspective, sides of his art and personality normally neglected suddenly come to the fore – how carefully he planned his pictures, for example, and how lovingly he treated his loyal friends.

As he became wealthy and famous, Bacon delighted in the fact that he did not need to impress anyone. He could do and say as he pleased – a sense of freedom that deeply excited him. With his later power in mind, his early letters to his cousin Diana Watson, written in the polite, earnest tone of a schoolboy, are particularly touching. In this example, he discusses his slight chances of getting into Cheltenham College. Even here, his humorous irreverence and admiration of authoritative men shine through.

Discover more

Francis Bacon: A Self-Portrait in Words

Michael Peppiatt, Colm Tóibín

Francis Bacon: Shadows (Francis Bacon Studies)

Martin Harrison, Christopher Bucklow, Amanda Harrison, Stefan Haus, Hugh Davies, Sophie Pretorius