Painted in 1984, Three Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards is a celebration of what was probably the most important and significant relationship of Francis Bacon's life. The subject of this painting is John Edwards, a bar manager from the East End of London, who Bacon had met a decade earlier and who went on to become one of the artist's closet and most trusted companions. Across its three panels, Bacon records with his characteristic verve and painterly flourishes the lithe figure of Edwards dressed in a simple outfit of a white shirt and grey pants. Locating his subject in an ethereal arena-like space, Bacon focuses attention on Edwards' soft features, infusing each brushstroke not with angst and fear, as he had done in his earlier portraits, but with a considered sense of warmth and serenity that was to become the hallmark of his later work. One of only twenty-nine triptychs, this example marks a revival of sorts of this favored format. Other examples from this period are contained in prestigious museum collections around the world, including the Tate in London, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Astrup Fearnley Museum in Oslo. Of all the portaits that Bacon painted, he held this particular example in high regard. He fell out with the writer Bruce Bernard, who was working on a book about Bacon and refused the artist's attempts to feature this work prominently in its pages and when interviewed by British television in 1984 Bacon said this work was one of the most successful portraits he had ever completed. Thus, Three Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards becomes a rare and important triptych that in many ways reflects the different nature of Bacon's relationship with Edwards; a major work that attempts to capture the essence of the straightforward and forthright character of the artist's friend. This three-paneled portrait was chosen by Bacon to be the final work of his second major retrospective exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 1985. This exhibition celebrated Bacon's great triptych paintings, beginning with one of his most famous paintings of all time, the iconic 1944 work Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, and culminating with the present work, which had been painted just one year earlier.
Across a magnificent triumvirate of monumental canvases, Bacon paints near life-size portraits of his companion in a relaxed pose. Each painting displays a different aspect of Edwards' handsome profile, beginning with the right side, before moving onto a full frontal view and ending with a glimpse of the left side of Edwards' face. In each painting, Edwards sits on a tall stool, his right leg pulled tightly upwards over his left knee. His classically sartorial combination is embellished by a brilliant flash of crimson red collar from a garment that Edwards wore underneath his crisp, white shirt.
While the subtle nuances of this striking pose are clear to see, it is in the depictions of Edwards' handsome facial features that Bacon really lavishes the most attention, and in each of the three panels Bacon assembles a range of delicate and not so delicate painterly layers to build up an incredibly detailed and nuanced rendition of Edwards' face. His strong jaw line is highlighted by a graceful sweeping arc in the left-most canvas, accentuated by subtle chiaroscuro, and almost imperceptible shifts of skin tone are visible, ranging from pale white to a more ruddy crimson. In each of these canvases, Bacon incorporates one of his signature techniques by using the cut-off ends of corduroy pants to apply, and then manipulate, the paint across the surface of the work, resulting in thin ridges of pigment that give added depth and volume to his subject's face. This becomes particularly prevalent in the central canvas where Bacon swaths Edwards' fully exposed face in shadow, partly to enhance the enigmatic atmosphere, but (possibly) also to protect his subject from the intrusive nature of the public gaze.
One of the most striking features of the artist's late portraits, and of Three Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards in particular, is the shift in Bacon's use of space as a compositional device. Unlike the complex and frenzied settings in which he placed many of his earlier figures, this triptych is distinguished by the calmness that surrounds Edwards. During the last decades of his life, it became Bacon's avowed ambition to reduce the content within his paintings, and in 1989, he stated, "You're more conscious of the fact that nine-tenths of everything is inessential. What is called 'reality' becomes so much more concentrated and can be summed up with so much less" (F. Bacon, quoted by R. Tant, in M. Gale, C. Stephens and G. Tinterow (eds.), Francis Bacon, exh. cat. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2009, p. 237). Here, the figure of his companion is augmented only by the remains of the circular metal railings that first appeared as early as the 1940s, in works such as Painting, 1946 (Museum of Modern Art, New York), and the metal cage structure, which Michael Peppiatt has traced back to Alberto Giacometti's sculptural iron cages. This minimal setting serves to focus attention on the sublime beauty of Bacon's painted surface, not only of Edwards' figure, but also of the surrounding void. "Three Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards, 1984, has a surface so light it is almost conjured out of airThe surface is dry, and as delicate as the portrait is tender, and in places it is powdered or lightly rubbed with paint" (D. Ades and A. Forge (eds.), Francis Bacon, London, 1985, p. 9).
The artist's relationship with Edwards has been seen by many Bacon scholars as the spur for this shift in the artist's style, as he finally relinquished the demons that had been haunting him, allowing him to begin what would be his last great phase of painterly expressiveness. "The overwhelming sense of guilt and despair that dominated Bacon's paintings of the 1970s, exorcised in the series of 'black' triptychs contemplating the death of George Dyer, gave way to a certain composure, restraint and assuredness of composition in the late paintings. The youthful figure of Bacon's friend John Edwards, whom he met in the mid-1970s, was perhaps the catalyst for this shift in stance, both personally and artistically. Vigorous painterly smears and gross distortions of flesh are replaced by more subtle and diffused colorations of skin" (R. Tant, in M. Gale, C. Stephens and G. Tinterow (eds.), Francis Bacon, op. cit., p. 233).
Bacon first met John Edwards in 1974 and almost immediately the pair developed what would become one of the most important and fulfilling relationships of Bacon's life. Edwards was the dyslexic son of a London dockworker and Bacon was a bon vivant and one of the most famous faces on the London social scene. Both men were members of the Colony Room, one of Soho's legendary private members clubs. The pair met when Edwards, who was managing the Swan--a pub in London's East End owned by one of Edwards' brothers--received a telephone call from Muriel Belcher (owner of the Colony Room) to say that Bacon would be stopping by with a group of friends. Keen to make his important guest feel welcome, Edwards ordered in a large quantity of Bacon's favorite champagne, but when Bacon failed to make an appearance as promised, Edwards was furious, as he feared he would be saddled with copious amounts of champagne that his regular clientele would not drink. When the two finally did connect several days later, Edwards was not shy in telling Bacon what he thought of his selfishness. By this stage in his life Bacon was used to being fêted wherever he went, and Edwards' stark confrontation startled him somewhat, but also intrigued him. The next day, when Edwards went to visit Bacon at his Reece Mews studio, a painting of the handsome man from the East End of London was already underway.
Over the next sixteen years, the pair became extremely close, developing an almost father and son bond between them. The two men began to spend much of their time in each other's company. Edwards was one of the few people whom Bacon would allow into his studio at Reece Mews, and on very rare occasions, would actually allow him to observe him a work. More often than not, after a long day painting alone in the studio, Bacon would telephone Edwards and arrange to meet for dinner. The delight they had in each other's company was plain to see, and according to one account, "He rarely looked happier than when he rounded off a well-wined dinner with Edwards..."(M. Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, New York, 1996, p. 286).
Throughout his career Bacon's painterly style developed as he established himself and his unique artistic language, both of which often reflected his personal circumstances at the time. In 1952, Bacon began a tumultuous and often violent affair with Peter Lacy, an ex-Royal Air Force pilot. The pair met in the Colony Room and their attraction was almost instantaneous. As Bacon later recalled to Michael Peppiatt, "It was kind of a mistake that he went with me at all. Of course, it was a total disaster from the start. Being in love in that extreme way-being, totally, physically obsessed by someone-is like having a dreadful disease. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy" (F. Bacon, as quoted by M. Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, New York, 1996, p. 145). The early days of this relationship coincided with one of the most inventive periods of the artist's career and, whilst not directly biographical, paintings such as Untitled (crouching figures), circa 1952 and Study for crouching nude, 1952 (Detroit Institute of Arts) are permeated with the tensions of his unbridled relationship with Lacy. Scholars have noted the strong parallels between the development of Bacon's increasingly gestural brushwork during this period and the violence that permeated their relationship. In addition, the muscular figures that begin to emerge from the amorphous forms of the 1940s also have parallels with Lacy's own appearance. The 1950s were also important stylistically as Bacon began to introduce a number of his compositional devices that would come to dominate the rest of his career. Study for crouching nude, for example, contains an early example of the circular metal railing that would become important for Bacon, and the vestiges of which can still be seen in Three Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards over thirty years later.
In 1963, Bacon met George Dyer, a petty criminal whom Bacon caught in the act of burgling his home. Although Dyer cut an imposing figure, he was by all accounts a much gentler character than Lacy, and someone whom Bacon could dominate completely. Dyer's striking profile would appear in a large number of Bacon's paintings over the next few years and he would become one of Bacon's most important subjects. By this stage in his career Bacon was growing in confidence, not only in his ability to produce psychologically and aesthetically powerful works, but also due to the fact that his paintings were beginning to be recognized by the wider cultural elite, a fact cemented by the decision of the Tate Gallery in London to hold its first major retrospective of Bacon's paintings in 1962. Bacon's paintings from the period reflect this growing confidence along with his burgeoning relationship with Dyer. In Three Studies of the male back, triptych, 1970 (Kunsthaus, Zürich), the oppressively dark palette of his earlier 1950s paintings began to make way for a richer array of colors and areas of raw canvas that reflected his growing self-confidence.
By the time Bacon completed Three Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards in 1984, his paintings had entered a new phase of achievement, and one which reflected his status as an artist with an enviable international reputation and, perhaps for the first time in his life, his own sense of serenity and well-being. The clarity and sensitivity with which Bacon portrays Edwards' facial features, and the tranquility of his composition, are a far cry from the wretched creatures that occupied his early work. As Bacon's biographer, Michael Peppiatt, points out, "The portraits of John Edwards in particular communicate an eerie sense of calm, like a harmony achieved through violent discourse. It is difficult to know whether the pale colours and concentrated form betoken reconciliation or a certain weirdness, not to say resignation. There are flashes in a painting like the Three Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards (1984) of the supernatural atmosphere that makes Shakespeare's last plays so magical. Here, the figures are so much less distorted as to become almost naturalistic; they appear to rise for the first time above their inherent confusion as self-consciously mortal creatures. Similarly, the stage on which they are presented has been emptied of almost all of Bacon's traditional props and devices, leaving a heighted sense of emptiness behind" (M. Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, New York, 1996, p. 286). In this way, the present work becomes a celebration of an artist who has clearly not lost any of his painterly powers, but was finally coming to terms with them in a more sophisticated way. As the subject of such work, John Edwards might have been the man who was finally able to take the demons that had haunted Bacon for almost half a century and bring them under control.
Bacon belongs to a select group of artists who maintained their level of success well into later life, something that has eluded all but the greatest figures in art history. Yet, as he grew into old age he became cognizant of his own mortality, and as many of his oldest and dearest friends died, Bacon became increasingly aware of his own legacy. In her writings, Linda Nochlin has identified two types of late flourishes for artists of Bacon's caliber--an "autumnal ripening" as typified by Ingres, Rembrandt and Titian, and those who experienced a flurry of inventiveness, like Matisse and his chromatic cut-outs. Yet with his continued examination of the human condition, Bacon's work from the 1980s has been likened to the late style of Pablo Picasso, with David Sylvester identifying its "loss of everything but the ambivalent pleasures of voyeurism and the will and force to go on making art" (D. Sylvester, quoted by R. Tant, op.cit., p. 233).
Francis Bacon died in April 1992, and in his will he named John Edwards as his sole heir and keeper of his estate. Over the next decade, until his own death in 2003 at age 53, Edwards maintained Bacon's legacy by overseeing the artist's archives, including donating the contents of his Reece Mews studio to the Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane in 2001. This level of trust that Bacon placed in Edwards was perhaps the ultimate demonstration of the close relationship between the two men. These three canvases are the physical manifestation of that trust, and the permanent legacy of one of the most powerful relationships that Bacon had ever experienced. From the outset, this relationship had been fundamentally different from any of the traumatic affairs that the artist had experienced throughout his life, and this work remains a highlight of his career. Bacon once said that he liked "perfection on a very grand scale" (F. Bacon, quoted by R. Tant, op. cit., p. 237). With this monumental triptych of John Edwards, he felt he had achieved it.