I f there is a force-field around people, his was ten times as strong,' Henrietta Moraes said of Francis Bacon. 'I always knew he was going to be very famous.' Bacon, of course, became very famous. Moraes, his unruly muse, much less so.
With Three Studies for Portrait of Henrietta Moraes, painted in 1963, Bacon captures his friend at a point before she lost herself in a haze of drugs and haphazard crimes. A triptych is an appropriate format for a figure with multiple aspects: in her 67 years she was, variously, an artist’s muse, cat burglar, convict, drug addict, hippy, memoirist, gardener, mother and grandmother.
But in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Moraes was a fixture in London’s bohemian scene, ricocheting down Dean Street between her favourite haunts, the Colony Room Club and the French House pub. There were drinks in the Gargoyle Club and Café Torino, gossip in the Gay Hussar. She was briefly both a sitter – and lover – of Lucian Freud and John Minton bequeathed his Chelsea house to her. But it was Bacon who was utterly transfixed by Moraes’ changeable character and what he described as her 'Herculean body'. Working from borderline pornographic snaps taken by Vogue photographer John Deakin, Bacon would eventually complete some 20 paintings of Moraes.
Her mercurial nature extended to her name. She was born Audrey Wendy Abbott in 1931 in Simla in British India. Her father, who was in the Indian Air Force, abandoned the family when she was a young girl and a dismal childhood in England followed, under the care of a brutal grandmother.
She arrived in Soho in the 1950s in the company of the documentary filmmaker Michael Law, who would become the first of her three husbands. Following Law, there was a body-builder and actor, Norman Bowler (a TV regular on shows such as The Avengers and Emmerdale). Her third husband was the Indian poet Dom Moraes. Following their separation his surname stuck, as did her first husband’s habit of calling her Henrietta.
She tried secretarial college, ran a coffee bar and worked for an advertising company, but it was in the bustling drinking dens of Soho that she found her true calling. In these sticky corners such as the infamous Colony Rooms, she warmed to Francis Bacon’s 'ebullience' and his habit of buying bottles of champagne. 'I used to see Francis every day, drinking in Soho,' Moraes recalled in later life. 'Francis said, "I’d like to paint you…" I said, ‘Of course.’ He said, ‘[John] Deakin can come and take some photos of you. I can’t work from a live model because people are always so shocked and appalled by what I make of them.’
Deakin shot a series of erotic pictures that Moraes considered 'rather extreme'. Bacon was not happy and ordered a reshoot. 'Meanwhile,' Henrietta explained, 'I went to a really low drinking club full of sailors. Deakin was there, furtively flitting about with bits of paper, and so I went over to have a look and there were all these photos of me with no clothes on that he was selling to sailors, ten bob at a time. I was absolutely furious.'
As Sotheby’s cataloguer aptly observes, Bacon captured Moraes’ 'fleshiness, femininity, unvarnished vivacity and instinctual carnality.' It was a heady cocktail, in person and on canvas. The champagne flutes were, however, rungs on a ladder to more dangerous highs. Drugs of all sorts and the hippy trail around the West Country, Wales and Ireland followed. And then there was a brief spell as a thief. 'I picked up bad habits like a magnet does iron filings,' she once remarked.
“I went through a phase of being a cat burglar and was sent to prison for a fortnight,” Moraes recalled. “When I came out there was £1,000 waiting for me at the Colony.”
Her Soho clique were, to a degree, something of a family. 'I went through a phase of being a cat burglar and was sent to prison for a fortnight,' Moraes recalled. 'When I came out there was £1,000 waiting for me at the Colony.'
Expert Voices: Tom Eddison on Francis Bacon's Three Studies for Portrait of Henrietta Moraes
On her death, the art critic Tim Hilton described her as "foul-mouthed, amoral, a thief, a violent drunkard and a drug addict. Yet she was witty, wonderfully warm and lovable'. But even death can’t subdue a bohemian’s ability to shock. A decade following Moraes’ passing, her son Joshua Bowler discovered that his real father was in fact not the actor Norman Bowler but the socialite Colin Tennant, 4th Baron Glenconner, friend of Princess Margaret and owner of the island of Mustique. There had, apparently, been a significant night of revelry at the Chelsea Arts Club back in 1954.
Moraes would no doubt have slipped into obscurity if it weren’t for two pieces of creative brilliance. The first is her own memoir, a piece of writing that immortalised her as what many saw her: the “Queen of Soho". The second is the series of extraordinary pictures of her painted by Bacon. The great work from 1963 at Sotheby’s this autumn – a triptych of fronts, fittingly projected this way and that in a vortex of burnt reds – was the first in which the painter named his subject. And it has, against the odds perhaps, proved to be a name to remember.