In Brief

How a Lovers’ Quarrel Led to Francis Bacon’s 1968 Arrest for Marijuana Possession

A tape recently made public reveals that Bacon was busted by the Chelsea drug squad after a feud with his lover George Dyer.

Portrait of Francis Bacon by Ruskin Spear (photo by Caroline, via Flickr)
Portrait of Francis Bacon by Ruskin Spear (photo by Caroline, via Flickr)

Lovers’ quarrels rarely end in a police raid and drug bust, but George Dyer was not an especially rational or forgiving person. New tapes released by Barry Joules, one of Francis Bacon’s closest friends, reveal the artist’s lasting preoccupation with Dyer’s 1968 betrayal.

Bacon believed that Dyer had intentionally planted a marijuana stash in the base of an African carved statue at the artist’s studio as revenge after a particularly heated argument. On the recording, obtained earlier this month by the Guardian, Bacon recalls:

At the time of my arrest, and for a long time after, I stayed furious. To release some of the tension, I straight away went to my easel … did a large painting. He [Dyer] is sitting on a chair with the nasty flattened police dog at his feet sniffing towards the statue … which became George’s head.

The result of Bacon’s impassioned painting was “Two Studies of George Dyer with Dog” (1968), which now resides in a private collection. Rendered in one of the artist’s patently fraught psychological landscapes, the work underwent a series of revisions. At first, the sculpture in the painting’s foreground represented the statue where the pot was hidden. That eventually changed into the image of the police dog “sniffing towards the statue,” as Bacon described it. Then it finally became a depiction of George’s head.

The statue had actually been a gift from Dyer, who told Bacon that the Krays (British gangsters who were twin brothers) had given it to him. Bacon’s comments suggest that he knew Dyer kept his pot stash at the artist’s studio:

So, after giving it to me, then scraping the base covering away … he pulled the stuff wrapped in a thin foil out of the hollowed-out statue. … Then one day after we’d had a series of terrible rows in a great rage he reported me to the Chelsea drug squad. They raided the place here and their trained Labrador sniffed out the drugs in the statue. It was all a dreadful mess … but in the end Goodie [Arnold Goodman, a solicitor] defended me and I got off … finally paying a huge amount in costs. The judge didn’t like me much.

Bacon was acquitted of possession charges, but he still had to pay legal fees totaling £3,000. That’s over £50,400 at today’s rate, or nearly $68,500.

Three years after the drug bust episode, Dyer committed suicide while on a trip to Paris with Bacon, who was being honored with a major exhibition at the Grand Palais. Left behind at the hotel, Dyer consumed a large dose of sleeping pills and was found in the bathroom two days before Bacon’s opening. Although shocked by his lover’s death, Bacon continued prepping for his exhibition as normal. Dyer would continue to haunt Bacon’s paintings for years to come.

In March, Joules released another tape to the Guardian, which revealed Bacon’s extreme distaste for Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol. Expressing his bewilderment at John’s “False Start” (1959) selling for $17.05 million in 1988, Bacon stated: “The whole thing, it is nothing. It is just a series of a number of diagonal scratches going in different directions in red and blue.”

Bacon’s hostility to Abstract Expressionism has been well documented by art historians, but this new evidence comes directly from the artist’s mouth. He agreed to be recorded by Joules only on the condition that his friend not release any tapes until 12 years after his death. Bacon died in 1992.

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