Through the 1950s and well into the Swinging Sixties, anyone in London who was interested in art – indeed in life itself, lived freely and flamboyantly on the street – was drawn to Soho. While most of the city remained tinged with post-war austerity, Soho promised a release into continental pleasures. Once you had wandered into its alluring streets, British food, tea and beer gave way to fragrant dishes, espresso coffee and pungent wine. Within this little European enclave, the lure of sex was openly celebrated and the most interesting artists and writers thronged its pubs and clubs.
No wonder that Henrietta Moraes, in revolt against her strict convent upbringing, plunged headlong into these permissive pastures the moment she could. From the Gargoyle Club to the French pub, from the Gay Hussar to Wheeler’s oyster bar, everything and everyone encouraged her to throw off all restraint and find what turned out to be her alarmingly excessive self - voracious for drink, drugs and anything else that looked like fun, including a bewilderingly motley crew of lovers.
Henrietta soon established herself as the Queen of Soho, much as Kiki, the French model and good-time girl, had reigned over Montparnasse in the 1920s. But other big beasts were padding through Soho’s maze of secret watering holes, illicit gambling dens and places of ill repute. There was photographer John Deakin, the ‘eye’ of Soho who, never missing a trick or a free treat, took a notorious set of photographs of Henrietta stretched out naked on a bed. Fresh from her conquest of Giacometti and others on the Parisian arts scene came the dauntless Isabel Rawsthorne, capable of matching even Henrietta’s thirst once the champagne flowed. Lucian Freud, with his glittering eye, pounced on and painted Henrietta as soon as she set foot on her primrose path. And then, breaking cover only to proceed from Muriel Belcher’s Colony Club to his favourite trattoria or casino of the moment, came the biggest beast of all: Francis Bacon.
Of the many women in Bacon’s life, Henrietta held a place apart. When still an impressionable adolescent on his father’s stud farm in Ireland, Bacon had hugely admired his grandmother for her lavish and unconventional lifestyle, which encompassed several husbands and other such scandalous extravagances as having hobnobbed with the Aga Khan. Forever scrutinizing the human flora and fauna that washed up around him nightly as he cruised Soho’s outlandish ports of call, Bacon immediately noted Henrietta’s full-throated gusto for the pleasures of the flesh as much as her resilience to the pitfalls that ensued. Like him, she could not get enough of life. To the sound of Edith Piaf in small, dark clubs run by majestic lesbians or queer ex-policemen, the two of them exchanged their recollections of the mysteries and miseries of love.
Around this time, Bacon discovered that he no longer required such grand themes as Crucifixions and Popes to give voice to the anguished contradictions that welled up in him. Having achieved not only notoriety but a certain social and material success by the early 1960s, he felt that he could transmit his all but overpowering sensations about the tumultuous beauty and tragic brevity of human life through a simpler, more immediate choice of subject. There had formed around him a select group, a tight inner circle, of friends with whom he whiled away the evenings, talking and drinking, until one by one they parted at dawn. But during those hours of apparent relaxation, Bacon watched everyone around him intently. He saw and studied his closest friends under every light, in the grip of every emotion, drunk or sober, candid or cagy, in triumph as well as despair. Then, like a cat with a mouse, he played with their appearance in his mind’s eye, tirelessly pulling it apart, then rejigging it into a ferociously new conjugation.
After many a long night stumbling between the bars with Henrietta, Bacon asked her whether he might portray her, and Henrietta knew, even then, the privilege that conferred. For his part, Bacon could see the audacious, expressive havoc he could wreak on Henrietta’s strong-featured, generously proportioned looks. Here, after all, was one of his own: a drinking companion of choice who could keep up with his own need for self-destruction and come back for more. At a certain level, she was just like him - endowed with animal vitality and a desire always to push a situation further to the brink. This excited Bacon, and he gave free rein to his impulse to twist every feature out of true, rain down blows of red, black and green obliterating outline and detail until, as in some horrendous accident, no recognizability remained.
And yet the real miracle had not taken place. However great the chaos of pigment on canvas, however viciously the brush attacked, excising an eye, pulping a nose, a remarkable resemblance rose up through the carnage - as if beyond fear and pain now, and inviolable. ‘What does not kill us,’ as the artist had noted in Nietzsche, ‘makes us stronger’, and Bacon’s love for his friends in the end proved stronger than his rage against a pitiless, godless universe. Having been subjected to every imaginable torture, Henrietta ascended into a more heroic sphere. Here, alongside Freud and Rawsthorne, Belcher and Bacon’s ill-fated lover, George Dyer, she joined what became a mythic constellation in the night of time: survivors of Bacon’s strangely tender brutality, icons enshrined in the most memorable portraits of the mid-20th century.