Blatherings

The mystery of Francis Bacon and Peter Watson

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(out 2 April 2015)

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UPDATE: Queer Saint: The Cultured Life of Peter Watson) is published 2 April 2015. Preorder it now!

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On the very weekend I sent off the completed manuscript of Queer Saint: the Cultured Life of Peter Watson to our publisher, my co-author Adrian was called up by The Observer for comment on a controversial exhibition of paintings by Francis Bacon that took place in 1955 – an exhibition organised by Peter Watson, who was a major financial supporter of Bacon in his early years – a show so deliberately provocative, it was visited by the police …

PW by Beaton early 50s

Peter Watson by Cecil Beaton, c. 1950. (Besides being a patron of artists including Bacon, Lucian Freud and John Craxton, Watson was the object of a lifelong unrequited passion from Cecil Beaton.)

The story is about an exhibition which took place at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (of which Watson was a founder) in 1955. It was small – only about a dozen paintings – but was significant because it was Bacon’s first retrospective, marking the moment when he ceased being merely a brilliant young painter and took up his place a landmark in the history of modern art.

Queer Saint: the cultured life and mysterious death of an aesthete

This week another book has been completed and sent to its publisher: Queer Saint: The Cultured Life of Peter Watson is the biography of art patron, scandalous gay roué, love of Cecil Beaton’s life, and – in the end – victim of a jealous lover’s violent passion.

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Cecil Beaton (left) with Peter Watson in Cecil’s bedroom

There’s always a deep, warm satisfaction when you bring a book to a conclusion and know that you’ve done it well – the characters have come to life, the story grips, and the settings (in this case 1930s New York and Paris and wartime London) are tangible. The chapters are compiled, the footnotes checked, the text polished, and then the precious document is attached to an email and - after a moment’s nervous hesitation - you tap “Send”.

In this case, the journey has been a challenging one – so many letters, so many diaries, so much of Cecil Beaton’s illegible scrawl to ruin one’s eyesight over, so many turns and dramas in Peter Watson’s life, so many lovers … and finally, so many questions about his tragic death in his  bath at the age of 47, apparently at the hand of Norman, the jealous, unbalanced boyfriend who was the chief beneficiary of Watson's will.

Stories I’d like to tell

This is another of the pieces I was asked to contribute to my literary agent Andrew Lownie’s website. Along with some of his other ghostwriters I was asked about whom I would like to ghost. Since most of my ghosting is out of the ordinary, so were my choices.

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I do most of my work at the junction where ghostwriting meets co-authoring. When the author of a biography has done the research and sketched out the book, but struggles to bring out the qualities that would make it a good read, that’s where I come in. Sometimes doctoring the text is enough; more often I have to immerse myself in the subject’s life, and become a co-author (in ghostly obscurity if necessary). That’s when the job is at its most demanding and its most satisfying.

My current ghosted and co-authored projects include the story of Robert Trimble, a WW2 pilot who undertook a secret mission to rescue POWs on the Eastern Front; a biography of Moura Budberg, the Russian spy who fell in love with a British agent during the Revolution and was haunted for the rest of her life by the shattering betrayal she suffered; the life of Peter Watson, millionaire art patron and doyen of the gay scene in pre-war Paris, murdered in his bath by his jealous lover; and the incredibly moving life of James Barry, a Victorian military surgeon who was revealed after death to have been a woman, forced to disguise herself in order to pursue a career in medicine.

How I write

My agent, the tirelessly personable Andrew Lownie, asked me (along with lots of his other authors) to do a short piece describing how I write. This is what I had to say …

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I’m a deviant, apparently. I don’t do any of the things that proper writers are supposed to do. I don’t have a dedicated room to write in; neither do I own a special chair, soiled with the arse-wear of a thousand difficult drafts; I have no inspirational talismans and no magic rituals. I just sit on the sofa in my living room with a laptop and my dog curled up beside me – and write. If I’m writing well, I’m absolutely zoned-in, immersed, and the words will flow whether I’m in a silent room or a crowded coffee shop. Conversely, if I’m stalled or blocked, moaning and kicking the furniture is an equally effective coping strategy anywhere (though ideally not in crowded coffee shops).

Neither do I write multiple drafts. When I begin a book – especially if it’s a biography – I usually have its shape worked out in my head; I know the heart and soul of the story, and have figured out how it should be told; I’ve worked out the narrative arc, understand the characters and have a feel for the keynote atmosphere. I polish and adjust individual chapters as I go along, but as soon as the last page is written, the script is ready to go off to the publisher.

© Jeremy Dronfield 2017