by jdurney on February 11, 2011

A Cannycourt childhood

Sean Landers

In 1911 new tenants moved into Cannycourt House, just outside Kilcullen in County Kildare.  The Bacon family. They would remain there for three years. The head of the family, Eddy, was a retired captain in the Hussars and had seen service in South Africa during the Boer War. His wife, Winnie, was a wealthy woman, the heiress to a fortune in the steel business. There were  also five children, the most important of whom  was Francis, aged nine, who would go on to become one  of the most controversial British painters of the 20th Century. He was  born in 63 Lower Baggot Street in Dublin and when he died in 1992, his partner, John Edwards, donated his studio and its contents at 7 Reece Mews in London  to the Hugh Lane Gallery of Modern Art in Dublin where it  was  installed six years after the artist’s death. The family nurse with the enchanting name of Jessie Lightfoot also accompanied the family to County Kildare.
In his biography of the artist, "Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma,"  published in 1998, Michael Peppiatt discusses his childhood years spent in Cannycourt House but concentrates his attention primarily on the influence his father had on the child. He paints a rather grim picture of Bacon Senior. He had come to live in Ireland because it was much cheaper than living  in  England. He had spent some time hunting in the Irish countryside.  He would make his living as a horse trainer which was considered to be an acceptable occupation for a retired army officer. The house was quite close to The Curragh with its large British Army barracks and its excellent horse breeding, training and racing facilities. The following information about the house can be found in the 1911 Census Returns. Eddy  listed Cannycourt as consisting of "eighteen rooms, occupied by the family and five servants and twenty outhouses and farmsteadings where the nine grooms lived and worked".
Pettiatt describes Eddy Bacon as opinionated, quarrelsome and rancorous. This was in contrast to his wife who was by all accounts " noted for her outgoing, gregarious nature, a stark contrast to her highly strung and argumentative husband. He adds: "By all accounts life at Cannycourt House. was not particularly agreeable. The house was run on military lines with the emphasis on self discipline, a regular routine and punctuality." He found it difficult to hold onto whatever few friends he had and his bouts of anger did not fit well into the world of horse racing where social contacts and friendships formed an important part of the business.
Francis was a "sickly child" . Not only did he suffer from asthma but he was also allergic to dogs and horses. This probably  made his life at Cannycourt quite unpleasant.  Jessie Lighfoot took care of him and frequently gave him doses of morphine to ease the pain during his attacks. A strong bond developed between the nanny and her young charge and in his later life in London  she would live in his house and he would take care of her.  He was spared a lot of his father’s outbursts of rage. The children were kept at the back of the house and only met their parents for half an hour after tea and occasionally for Sunday lunch. Eddy developed a puritanical streak. He became a teetotaller. Alcohol was banned from the house. This, Pettiatt remarks,  was "an enforced abstinence for which his son would take particular revenge".  He had one major vice, however. He liked to gamble. This was a practice that the best horse trainers avoided. He would send his son to the nearest post office to place his bets by telegram "before the off".
Francis had a strange relationship with his father. Pettiatt elaborates: "He considered him an intelligent man who had never developed his mind and who had wasted all his opportunities, including the money his wife had brought to the marriage. Francis also emphasised  how little understanding there had been between father and son particularly during his adolescence yet he  remembered thinking his father was a good-looking man and he experienced erotic sensations about him before he was even aware what sex was."
When war broke out in 1914, Eddy was anxious to do his bit for his country. In conversation with Athy photographer, John Minihan, Francis remembered "just before the 1914 War was starting,  the British Cavalry regiment (one of two barracked at the Curragh) galloping up the drive of the house and carrying out manoeuvres". At 44, he was too old for active service. His fellow officers remembered his bad temper and his name was not put forward for Special Services. He did manage to get a job in the  Territorial Force Records Office in London and so the family left Cannycourt and moved to Westbourne Terrace. They would return to Ireland after the war but not to Cannycourt. The family stayed in several different houses which, according to John Minihan, gave  Francis "a feeling of displacement that would stay with the artist throughout his life".( From THE BRIDGE, Kilcullen Community Magazine. )

Sean Landers recounts the story of the Bacon family who lived at Cannycourt House, Kilcullen. Our thanks to Sean.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: