Leading British painter Francis Bacon, a self-taught artist whose canvases depicted distorted figures evoking horror and despair, died of a heart attack Tuesday while on vacation in Madrid. He was 81.

Bacon, who had been staying with friends in Spain, complained of feeling ill and was admitted to a Madrid hospital. He died Tuesday morning, said a spokeswoman for the Malborough Fine Art Gallery, which acted as his agent.Bacon was not only one of the highest paid and most successful British artists of his time, but he was also one of the most idiosyncratic. His private life was a melange of champagne and gambling.

He consorted with seedy characters on the fringes of the underworld and laughed at the efforts of critics to overlay his canvasses with psychological motivation.

He never had a drawing lesson in his life, did not start painting until he was 30, generally worked from photographs or postcards and broke all the rules by using the wrong side of the canvas and mixing his paints in a saucer.

In 1971, France gave him the highest honor it has ever paid a British artist with a retrospective exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris. In 1975 he became the first foreign painter to have an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Although his 1976 portrait of a man on a sofa made the record auction price of $140,000 for a living artist in the United States, Bacon said his disturbing pictures - often tortured faces uttering soundless screams - sold only with difficulty.