|Francis Bacon, Portrait of John Edwards, 1988|
Oil on canvas, 198.1 x 147.3 cm. Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York
Mick Brown, Eggs, Bacon and Jellied Eels, Telegraph, 18.2.2002
"AND that," says John Edwards, pausing in front of the huge canvas at the top of the stairs in the South Kensington mews where Francis Bacon lived and painted for more than 30 years, "is me."
Portrait of John Edwards, 1986-87, which shows a figure seated cross-legged in a chair, dressed only in a pair of white underpants, is one of the 30 or more paintings that Bacon executed of Edwards, and is widely regarded as one of the artist's last masterpieces.
"Actually," says Edwards, with a laugh, "some people have said I look like a monkey. But I didn't mind. I mean, Francis was a lovely painter, wasn't he?"
For 31 years, Bacon spent almost every day in his Reece Mews studio but, as Edwards admits, he would hardly recognise it now.
The cramped bed/sitting room, lit by four bare light bulbs, where Bacon slept and ate, is now an elegant lounge, all leather sofas and smoked glass tables. The detritus of dirty brushes, paint pots, mounds of newspapers and photographs that littered the floor of Bacon's studio have been replaced by polished wood and splashy abstract rugs.
"Terrible mess, it was," says Edwards. "I remember the first time I saw it, I said to Francis: how can you work in here? But he said it was how he liked it. He couldn't be bothered to clear it up. All he wanted was to have the peace and quiet to paint."
Edwards, the son of an East End docker, was working as a barman in a Wapping pub when he first met Francis Bacon in 1976. For the next 16 years, until the painter's death from a heart attack, he was his closest friend and confidant - as Bacon put it, the only true friend he had.
When Bacon died in April 1992, he left everything - an estate valued at some £11m, including the mews studio in South Kensington - to Edwards.
But the legacy proved to be more tangled than it initially appeared. In 1999, the Bacon estate brought a case against the Marlborough Gallery, which had represented Bacon for most of his working life, alleging that the painter had been "wrongfully exploited" in his relationship with the gallery and seeking a "proper accounting" of his affairs.
The litigation, which threatened to become one of the most acrimonious - and costly - legal battles that the art world has ever seen, was suddenly withdrawn two weeks ago, in a "drop hands settlement", in which both sides agreed to pay their own costs. Marlborough has also agreed to release to the estate all the documentation that belonged to Bacon which is still in its possession.
The reclusive John Edwards has never before spoken publicly about Bacon and their relationship. Following the artist's death, he moved to Florida and, for the past seven years he has lived a quiet, almost reclusive life in Thailand.
Last year, however, he was diagnosed with cancer, and returned to London for treatment.
He is 52, a genial man with dark, battered good looks, who speaks in a soft, unreconstructed Cockney accent, spotted with rhyming slang. "Don't I know your boat-race from somewhere?" he asks. He offers Krug champagne - "it was Francis's favourite" - and a "lah-di-dah" (cigar).
A Bacon triptych dominates one wall. On another are grouped a framed collection of French five franc stamps bearing Edwards's image, painted by Bacon; a child-like picture dedicated "to Francis" and signed "Ronnie Kray, Broadmoor" ("He certainly knew Ronnie", says Edwards, carefully, "but I don't think I'd describe them as friends"); and a scroll marking the award to Edwards of the Lord Mayor's Medal by the city of Dublin.
This was in recognition of his donation of the contents of the Reece Mews studio to Dublin's Hugh Lane Gallery, where it has been painstakingly reconstructed, item by item, and now stands as a permanent exhibit. Bacon, Edwards says, "would have roared with laughter", to think of his discarded brushes and paints, his moth-eaten bedspread and rotted curtains preserved for posterity.
Edwards first met Bacon in the Colony Room, the famously raffish Soho drinking club where the painter would hold court. Edwards, at the time, was working as a barman in his brother's East End pub, and he was friends with Muriel Belcher, who owned the Colony, and Ian Board who worked as the barman there.
A few weeks earlier, Edwards had been asked by Belcher to lay in some champagne as she intended to bring her "famous painter friend" to the East End. But they never came. When Edwards was eventually introduced to Bacon in the Colony Room, he "gave him some stick" for ordering champagne, then not bothering to turn up and drink it. "He liked the way I didn't care about who he was supposed to be."
So began a relationship that would last until Bacon's death. Bacon was homosexual and the popular misconception is that Edwards was his lover. But that, he says, was never the case. Edwards is also gay and has been with the same boyfriend for 27 years. His relationship with Bacon was one of deep emotional, but never physical, friendship.
"Francis was a real, true father figure to me. I was close to my own father. But Francis gave me all the guidance I needed, and we laughed a lot. And I think he liked me because I didn't want anything from him. With everybody else, it was 'Francis this' and 'Francis that'."
It was, on the surface, an improbable friendship. At 66, Bacon was almost 40 years Edwards's senior. He was also Britain's most celebrated living painter; a man of mercurial intelligence and high poetic temperament.
Edwards knew nothing about painting or books. Chronically dyslexic, he had never learnt to read or write. But his lack of a formal education, his down-to-earth unpretentiousness, was one of the things that clearly endeared him to Bacon.
Edwards recalls that, shortly after their first meeting, Bacon took him gambling at Charlie Chester's casino, one of his regular haunts. When Edwards was handed a membership form he confessed that he could neither read nor write. "Francis said, God, that must be marvellous. Because he hated filling in forms or anything like that."
Their life together followed a set pattern. No matter what time he'd been drinking until the night before, Bacon would rise at between six and seven o'clock and start painting. Around nine, he would telephone Edwards to say that he was ready for breakfast and Edwards would join him in Reece Mews, where Bacon would cook a fry-up. Bacon, he says, liked only egg white, Edwards only the yolk, "so it was the perfect relationship". His nickname for the painter was "Eggs".
Edwards would then sit with Bacon through the day while he painted - the only person the artist ever allowed to watch him at work - talking and helping him prepare his canvasses for collection.
"We'd talk about everything. He was a beautiful man; you'd be hypnotised by him. He'd talk to you and you'd just want him to talk more. Everything he talked about - his posh mates, the people he knew in the art world, it was all so clear."
"I think," says Edwards, "he felt very free with me, because I was a bit different from most people he knew. I wasn't asking him about his painting or anything like that. Most people around Francis looked up to him, and he didn't like that.
"I asked him once: what do you see in me? And he laughed and said: you're not boring like most people.
"I remember once we were with the Duke of Devonshire, talking about all this and that, and Francis decided it was time to change the conversation, so he got me talking about running a pub and jellied eels. The nice thing about Francis was he wouldn't let you roast."
"John was the only person in London who treated Francis as an absolute equal," says the architectural artist Brian Clarke, a close friend of both men and, for the past six years the executor of Bacon's estate. "Whenever you saw John and Francis together you knew you were going to laugh a lot. John is a totally honest man. He would be very rude to Francis, which was a very enjoyable thing to see because nobody else had licence to do that. He'd give it to him straight, and Francis appreciated that. Even in the Colony Room, Francis was the king of Soho. But to John he was just 'My Francis'."
Clarke describes the friendship as "each looking after the other". Bacon had a famously cavalier attitude to money. He never carried a cheque book or a credit card, but always had a wad of cash, likened by one friend to "a bog roll" from which he would peel off notes to spend on gambling, meals at Wheelers, drinks at the Colony Room, or simply to give to friends.
Edwards took it upon himself to ensure that no one was "taking liberties".
Bacon, he says, didn't mind being taken advantage of "up to a point". But beyond that point, he didn't like it.
"He said I was a good judge of people, which I am," says Edwards. "There were always lots of people around Francis on the cadge. But they wouldn't do it while I was around."
When they went gambling together, Edwards would carefully pocket some of the chips to ensure that Bacon had something left over at the end of the evening. Bacon, he says, was "a clever gambler", who "won some big lumps and lost some big lumps.
"I remember, one night, he won £15,000. I put some of it in his jacket and some in his trousers, so he wouldn't lose it.
"The following morning, he phoned and asked if I had the money. I said no, I'd put it all in his pockets. We searched all over the flat and couldn't find it anywhere. And then, a couple of days later, I came across it. He'd stuck it in a pair of old socks. He was so pleased, he gave me half of it."
Edwards's guileless good nature was recognised by others in the painter's circle. Sonia Orwell, the widow of George, and a close friend of Bacon, offered to teach Edwards to read and write. But she fell ill before they had the chance.
Stephen Spender was another of Bacon's friends who became deeply enamoured of Edwards.
"I think that if I knew him well I would become obsessed by him, and I can well understand loving him," Spender wrote, in a letter to Bacon, in 1988.
"Of course, it is seriously marvellous to be untainted by what is called education. It means he moves among real things, and not newspaper things."
"Steve was a lovely bloke," says Edwards, affectionately.
This letter from Spender is among a significant cache of documents that have been returned to the Bacon estate during the course of the litigation, and which provide a fascinating insight into the painter's friendships, affairs and his rackety personal life.
They include a cache of some 150 letters from such friends as Sonia Orwell, Hans Werner Henze, Peter Beard and the painter Victor Passmore, as well as numerous pleas for money from Daniel Farson, and a promise to return "the 50 quid you lent me" from Jeffrey Bernard. "Fat chance!" says Edwards with a laugh. "Jeff was terrible. I remember Francis once sitting in the Tate Gallery, signing books, and Jeff was there right beside him, trying to borrow money as he signed."
Clarke says that Bacon's death left Edwards "completely devastated". For years, the painter had told Edwards that he intended to leave him everything, but he was totally unprepared for the attention the bequest brought him.
"I remember him telling me about opening the curtains at Reece Mews and seeing the mews full of photographers," says Clarke. "To a shy person it was the ultimate nightmare."
Edwards retired to a remote area of the Florida Keys for a year, and then to Thailand, where he lived quietly in a house on the beach, spending his days fishing and walking.
But, after five years, he realised that he had still not received a full accounting of his inheritance. He approached Clarke, who in turn introduced Edwards to his lawyer, John Eastman - the brother of the late Linda McCartney - who initiated the action against Marlborough.
Edwards is reluctant to discuss the case, except to say that he is relieved that it is now over.
"All that John wanted," says Clarke, "was to do right for Francis.
"Francis left John very well looked after. And John was prepared to spend every penny he had in the prosecution of this litigation, win or lose."
The documentation retrieved as a result of the case will form a substantial part of the material for a comprehensive catalogue raisonne of Bacon's work that Edwards intends to commission, and will then go to the Francis Bacon archive at the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin.
Edwards is also establishing a charitable foundation that will be devoted to the promotion and study of Bacon's work and life.
It is for other people, he says, to make an estimation of Francis Bacon the painter. He can talk only about Bacon the man.
"I think," he says, "that a lot of people misunderstood Francis. People get this impression of him as the bon vivant, the gambler, the drinker. That was part of it. But what people don't realise is that he was a very lonely, and shy man. But I felt warm with Francis and I think he felt warm with me."