Portrait by Cecil Beaton, 1930s
When art patron and high-society darling Peter Watson was murdered in his bath by his jealous boyfriend in 1956, the European art world lost one of its wealthiest, most influential collectors. This compellingly attractive man, doyen of the gay scene in 1930s Paris, adored by Cecil Beaton; the man who was called a legend by contemporaries, who was the subject of two scandalous novels; the man who helped launch the careers of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, fell victim to a fortune-hungry lover.
Drawing extensively on unpublished letters, diaries and other sources, this is the first biography of this elusive figure who was at the very heart of the art and literary world of the mid-20th century.
Elegant, charming and hungrily sexual, Peter Watson had a taste for edgy, disreputable lovers. Gore Vidal described him as ‘a charming man, tall, thin, perverse. One of those intricate English queer types who usually end up as field marshals’. Watson was the unrequited love of Cecil Beaton’s life – his ‘queer saint’ – but Watson preferred the risk associated with younger and less sophisticated lovers.
According to rumour, supported by evidence brought together in this book, Watson’s last lover, fearing he was about to be thrown over, murdered him in his bath, thus inheriting his fortune and his huge, monumentally valuable art collection.
Peter Watson fuelled the engine of mid-20th century art, using his enormous wealth to support artists such as Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, John Craxton, Paul Klee, Picasso, Dali, Giacometti and many others, and was painted by several of them. Without Watson’s patronage, Bacon and Freud might never have been given a start.
As well as giving us our first fully realised view of Peter Watson’s fascinating life and tragic death, this new biography puts forward tantalising evidence that he was entangled with the spy ring that included Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, and that the intelligence services may have been implicated in the events surrounding his death.
Peter Watson by Lucien Freud, 1945 (V&A)
Pastoral for PW by John Craxton (Tate)
Co-authored with Adrian Clark and based on Peter Watson’s own letters, Cecil Beaton’s diaries, eyewitness accounts and extensive archive research, Queer Saint tells the complete true story of Peter’s life for the first time.
Peter Watson's extraordinary life reads like a cross between Brideshead Revisited and Cabaret … a riveting account of this pivotal queer saint and queer martyr.
Neil McKenna, author of Fanny & Stella
Scrupulous and compelling.
This compelling rediscovery of the life and death of Peter Watson casts new light on the intellectual and artistic world of mid-twentieth century Britain: the world of Bacon and Freud, Cyril Connolly and Stephen Spender.