John Edwards (1950-2003) was Bacon's closest companion, confidant and friend from the mid-1970s until the artist's death in 1992 when he became the sole beneficiary of Bacon's will. An illiterate East End barman who first met Bacon in 1974 and impressed the artist (forty years his senior) with his frankness and straightforwardness, Edwards became like a son to the artist and was also the subject of several of Bacon's most important late paintings.
Study of Portrait of John Edwards of 1989 is one of Bacon's finest small portrait heads of Edwards, when Bacon had just turned 80. It depicts Edwards in the act of turning his head, facing to the side of the picture and set against an empty black background. The source image for this work appears to be a still photograph from London Weekend Television's 1985 South Bank Show documentary about Bacon preparing for his Tate retrospective of the same year. In this film Edwards appeared frequently alongside Bacon, often taking pictures of the artist as he worked in his studio, and was interviewed by the presenter Melvyn Bragg. This still image from the program, which Bacon kept in his studio, seems to have formed the basis for several of his later portraits of Edwards. Regularly asked to cook breakfast for Bacon and to accompany him on his late night gambling sprees, Edwards was one of very few people Bacon ever allowed to watch him paint and even on occasion to sit for him. In this, he was one of the very few people, other than Bacon himself and his former lover George Dyer, whom Bacon painted directly from life as well as from photographic source material. Indeed, in the late 1980s Edwards forms the subject of several of Bacon's paintings seated, in the same pose as George Dyer before him, in his underpants with one leg resting comfortably over the other. In most of these portraits, as in this work, Edwards' features are presented isolated against a rectangular black background. Bacon often liked to depict his subjects in this stark, seemingly life versus death manner, highlighting the contrast between living flesh and the black inert emptiness of the void.
"I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail, leaving a trail of the human presence and memory trace of past events, as the snail leaves its slime," Bacon famously said. (F. Bacon, quoted in The New Decade, exh. cat., New York, 1955, p.63.) The slightly macabre animal simile that Bacon used in this famous and much-quoted description of his art is both typical and revealing. Bacon's art, throughout his life, was essentially concentrated around only one subject: the human animal. The figure of man, and very occasionally woman, dominates all his paintings. Whether isolated or imprisoned in the dark, encaged by modern armatures, pinned to the bed, or shut up behind glass, Bacon's often nightmarish flashbulb visions of a world of animated meat enclosed in sinister interiors presented "Man" as if he were an animal in a zoo.
When it came to portraiture, the ferocity of Bacon's visionary, if also strongly existential, gaze was at it most intense and Bacon's favored technique of isolating the subject against a dark void to exposed the human being for inspection like a scientific specimen laid out on a slide. Distorting his subject matter in a way he hoped would convey more of a sense of how a person really looked in life, as they moved and talked, the human face became transformed into a fascinating, animate, mobile and fleshy entity, lit, pulled, probed and tested to reveal the unique and innate, visceral and electric energy of its life force.
When talking about how he approached a portrait Bacon spoke in terms of a hunter or predator seeking to "trap" and "capture" not a record of a person's appearance, but the animal or animating nature of the unique force that made them a distinct individual. "The living quality is what you have to get" he said, "in painting a portrait the problem is to find a technique by which you can give over all the pulsations of a person. It's why portrait painting is so fascinating and so difficult. Most people go to the most academic painters when they want to have their portraits made because for some reason they prefer a sort of colour photograph of themselves instead of thinking of having themselves really trapped and caught. The sitter is someone of flesh and blood and what has to be caught is their emanation. I'm not talking in a spiritual way or anything like that -- that is the last thing I believe in. But there are always emanations from people whoever they are, though some people's are stronger than others...There is the appearance and there is the energy within the appearance. And that is an extremely difficult thing to trap." (F. Bacon, quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London, 1990, p. 174)
Study of Portrait of John Edwards depicts Edwards's profile seemingly moving across the canvas's black void like a smeared but electrifying material presence. Strangely still recognisable, despite Bacon's distortions that render him, his head and ear particularly, like a chimpanzee, Edwards' curious profile strongly conveys animation and mental activity. With his neck moving away from his shirt collar, the painting suggests the movement of a sudden glance to the left, while the black void invading the form of Edwards' figure powerfully conveys a sense of the omnipresence of surrounding nothingness. Here, animate life is strongly contrasted with the pervasive emptiness of death. Bacon heightens this sense of life's electric energy running though Edwards's being by imprinting ribbed color over the surface of his face, blue around the eye and pink around the mouth, in a way that reinforces the drama of motion of nervous or mental activity. This "shuttered" imprinting of color onto the painting's surface was a favored technique of Bacon's in the 1970s and 1980s produced by using the grain in cordoroy or an old sweater laid onto the oil paint and then pressed over the painted image. In this work, this unique and powerful formal device paradoxically both obscures and heightens the concentrated intensity of this both intimate and startlingly animated portrait of his young friend.