‘The single head, fourteen inches by twelve, was from 1961 onwards the scene of some of Bacon’s most ferocious investigations. Just as a gunshot sometimes leaves an after-echo or parallel report, so these small concentrated heads carry their ghosts within them’ (J. Russell, Francis Bacon, London 1993, p. 99).
‘That succulent ferocity which we find in the heads of the 1960s... the turbulence of the paint in the face and neck is the more striking by contrast with the flat calm of the background’ (J. Russell, Francis Bacon, London 1993, p. 111).
‘I said rather tactlessly to Graham [Sutherland] ‘who do you think is the best painter in England?’ he said ‘Oh, someone you’ve never heard of; he’s like a cross between Vuillard and Picasso; he’s never shown and he has the most extraordinary life; we sometimes go to dinner parties there’ (L. Freud, quoted in W. Feaver, Lucian Freud, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2002, p. 26).
‘The visual arts were an important and little understood aspect of Roald Dahl’s life and formed a continuous counterpoise to his literary activities’ (D. Sturrock, Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl, London 2011, p. 25).
‘After Pat and I had been married for a while, and when there was a bit more money in the bank, I began buying pictures for keeps... I admired Francis Bacon’s work enormously, and we bought seven of his paintings’ (R. Dahl, ‘Architectural Digest Visits: Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal’, in Architectural Digest, February 1981, p. 74).
‘Roald Dahl and Francis Bacon had much in common. Both were enigmatic outsiders, both hard to pin down. Both liked to work in small, claustrophobic spaces. Both aroused equal measures of controversy and fascination. They smoked, drank and gambled – often to excess. Both could be generous, believing that money, like muck, needed to be spread around. They had a taste for the high life, as well as the low. Despite the fact that physically their paths crossed only occasionally, there was a deep connection between the two men’ (D. Sturrock, 2014).
‘The writer’s stare is unblinking, and most of his tales are irritants, provocations… they stick in the mind long after subtler ones have faded: incredible (literally), unforgettable...’ (J. Treglown, ‘Introduction’, in R. Dahl, Collected Stories, London 2006), p. ix).
‘All I can tell you about the work of Francis Bacon is that it stirs and excites me emotionally. This is surely how the work of any painter should be judged. I can see no other valid way of assessing a painting’s worth. No paintings stir and excite me quite as much as those of Francis Bacon. I know that there are some people who are not moved by them at all and to those unfortunates I would simply say, “Jolly back luck. I can’t help you”’ (R. Dahl).
‘His work impressed me, his personality affected me. He talked a great deal about the paint itself, carrying the form and imbuing the paint with this sort of life. He talked about packing a lot of things into one single brushstroke, which amused and excited me the idea of paint having that power’ (L. Freud quoted in W. Feaver, ‘Beyond Feeling’, Lucian Freud, exh. cat., Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1993, p. 13).
Having spent its entire life in the collection of Roald Dahl and subsequently in the collection of his estate, Study for Head of Lucian Freud, 1967 is one of only two single portrait heads that Francis Bacon executed of his friend and sometime rival, the chronicler of the human condition, Lucian Freud. The essence of Freud emerges from a sumptuously thick and complex surface comprised of lustrous undulations of crisp white titanium mixed with sweeps of emerald, all set against a velvety black void. His features appear and dissolve in the alternating sweeps of gestured paint, with flecks of vermilion articulating Freud’s existence all the more acutely. Darkly haloed by a thin trail of emerald tracing the outline of Freud’s crown, there is more than representation on display here – this is the individual presented as their very essence. It is this very quality that made Study for Head of Lucian Freud so compelling to Dahl, who was to acquire it in the same year as its execution. The work brings together three titans of the arts from the 20th century at the height of each of their artistic powers. Dahl, arguably the greatest children’s author of the 20th century, was first recognized in the 1960s for his uncanny ability to relate to children. His voice on the page was especially attuned to children’s ears and he was able to speak to them like no other adult has, or perhaps ever will. The last of four works, which Dahl acquired by Bacon during the 1960s, Study for Head of Lucian Freud was most certainly chosen for its extraordinary ability to capture the essence of Freud. Much like his masterful triptych Three Studies of Lucian Freud, 1969, Study for Head of Lucian Freud is Bacon’s own raw and intense presentation of Freud. With each masterful sweep of his brush, Bacon has created an emblem to the legendary relationship, defend as much by the friendship as by the rivalry that existed between these two titans of 20th century art. Bacon has animated his friend’s visage, imbuing it with energy and attitude through impulsive, staccato dashes of colour. Conveying the intimacy of their relationship, Bacon succeeds in communicating a sense of Freud’s character, his inner resolve, pride and vitality in paint.
Bacon and Freud became close friends towards the end of the Second World War when they were introduced by painter Graham Sutherland in 1945. As Freud later recounted, ‘I said rather tactlessly to Graham “who do you think is the best painter in England?” he said “Oh, someone you’ve never heard of; he’s like a cross between Vuillard and Picasso; he’s never shown and he has the most extraordinary life; we sometimes go to dinner parties there”’ (L. Freud, quoted in W. Feaver, Lucian Freud, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2002, p. 26). Sutherland made arrangements for the painters to visit him and his wife in the countryside in early 1945. The two travelled together from Victoria Station and Freud recounted, ‘Once I met him, I saw him a lot’ (L. Freud, quoted in ‘Lucian Freud on Francis Bacon: In conversation with Sebastian Smee’, in B. Bernard and D. Dawson (eds.), Freud at Work: Lucian Freud in Conversation with Sebastian Smee, London 2006, p. 26).
The pair immediately became firm friends and regular companions, imbibing the spirit of post-War London through their shared fondness for Soho and the newfound freedoms it afforded after the privations of wartime. In the 1950s, the two were inseparable: Freud found great inspiration in Bacon’s spontaneity and impulsive painterly skill while Bacon appreciated Freud’s quick wit, vitality and consummate risk taking. Together they shared a fascination for the ‘human comedy’, enjoying a garrulous exchange of gossip between games of roulette and poker. Soho at the time provided a fertile ground for both men to enjoy their vices at leisure, passing between the comfortable settings of Wheeler’s, the Gargoyle and the Colony Room which, more so than any other, was the stage upon which many of Bacon and Freud’s personal dramas unfolded. Meeting almost daily, the two painters were completely ensconced in each other’s emotional trials and tribulations – Freud’s faltering marriage with Lady Caroline Blackwood and Bacon’s own tumultuous affair with Peter Lacy. As Caroline Blackwood recalled, ‘I had dinner with [Francis Bacon] nearly every night for more or less the whole of my marriage to Lucian. We also had lunch’ (C. Blackwood, quoted in M. Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, London 1996, p. 192-193).
From as early as 1951, Freud and Bacon began to capture their friendship in paint. Bacon’s Portrait of Lucian Freud, 1951 (Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester) was the first portrait where he acknowledged the name of his sitter. Freud’s first drawings of Bacon also date from 1951 and the following year he carried out an intense portrait of Bacon in oil on a small copper plate. Executed on a miniature scale, Freud and Bacon sat knee to knee for two or three months until the painting was finished. The work conveys the intensity and closeness that this working relationship afforded and it is now considered to be one of Freud’s greatest works.
Following the first fertile years of paintings and drawings in 1951 and 1952, Bacon and Freud did not paint each other again for another 12 years. Bacon reinitiated the painterly repartee in 1964 with a double portrait of Freud and Frank Auerbach and a large-scale triptych using Freud as his exclusive subject. In comparison to the artist’s earlier work, these paintings were marked by an increased confidence and strength of colour and line, becoming the hallmark for Bacon’s most accomplished and important period. Freud’s portraits from 1964-1966 are equally marked out by their looser and impasto applications of paint. The exactitude which defined his works from earlier in his practice is replaced by an intense, physical use of medium for which he acknowledged the influence of Bacon. At this point the two were seemingly intertwined once again, with Freud painting Bacon’s beloved George Dyer on a couple of occasions and Bacon painting Freud fourteen times between 1964 and 1971 in a mixture of two small panels (of which Study for Head of Lucian Freud is one), four large panels (one destroyed), two small triptychs, three large triptychs (one separated) and the rest as part of larger compositions. The second work on this scale was executed two years earlier in 1965. In contrast to the richly rendered and meditated surface of Study for Head of Lucian Freud, Portrait of Lucian Freud, 1965 has a thinner quality due to Bacon’s use of a drier brush to articulate the contours of Freud’s face and hair as his the incorporation of bare canvas to convey the shirt. While these are all techniques particular to Bacon’s practice, their utilization in Portrait of Lucian Freud would seem to indicate that Bacon executed this work in a more immediate, and perhaps incomplete fashion, than the very finished presentation he would offer in Study for Head of Lucian Freud two years later.
Standing in contrast to Freud’s fastidious analysis of the human form, Bacon was reluctant to paint his subjects from life, preferring instead to use photographs as visual triggers, as ways to unfurl personal and poignant recollections. For Bacon, his preference for the photograph or reproduced image was because a friend before him in the studio inhibited his practice: ‘they inhibit me because if I like them, I don’t want to practice before them the injury that I do to them in my work. I would rather practice the injury in private by which I can think I can record the fact of them more clearly’ (F. Bacon, quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, London, 1987, p. 41). His portraits of Freud carried out between 1964- 1973, of which Study for Head of Lucian Freud is one, were all inspired by photographs that Bacon commissioned from fellow Soho denizen John Deakin. Several series of Freud by Deakin were found in Reece Mews, including thirteen images of Freud standing outside a terrace of late eighteenth-century houses in Fitzroy Square and nineteen photographs of Freud standing, seated and reclining across a bed in an artist’s studio, presumably his own. It was during this period that Bacon turned to a close coterie of friends, lovers, and confidants as the source for his art. Deakin’s black and white images became the basis for the majority of Bacon’s portraits throughout the sixties capture, not only Lucian Freud, but George Dyer, Isabel Rawsthorne, Peter Lacy, Muriel Belcher and Henrietta Moraes. From 1961 Bacon employed the fourteen by twelve inch canvas format exclusively for an unprecedented portraiture cycle depicting a close coterie of friends, as well as his own self-portraits, a format and subject that occupied him until the end of his life. John Russell affirmed the central importance of these works within the artist’s oeuvre when he stated: ‘The single head, fourteen inches by twelve, was from 1961 onwards the scene of some of Bacon’s most ferocious investigations. Just as a gunshot sometimes leaves an after-echo or parallel report, so these small concentrated heads carry their ghosts within them’ (J. Russell, Francis Bacon, London 1993, p. 99). For the painter who avidly read the Greek tragedies, the poetry of W.B. Yeats, the philosophy of Paul Valéry and Jean-Paul Sartre, he found that his friends were as ‘vivid and transmutable’ into art as any great literary hero or heroine.
In Study for Head of Lucian Freud Bacon has captured the visceral quality and physicality of Freud by ‘[bringing] the figurative thing up onto the nervous system more violently and more poignantly’ (F. Bacon, quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, New York 1986, p. 12). With his prodigious use of rapid, impulsive brush marks, Bacon creates an encrusted surface wrought from swirling rhythms of scumbled paint, giving the sense of Freud’s life-force. The vitality of the image has been made real by the chance-effect of fine vermilion paint that fecks Freud’s face, created through the imprint of ribbed colour using the grain of corduroy or an old sweater. A technique he would favour through the 1970s and 1980s, Bacon’s process of coating the material with oil paint and then pressing it over his painted image heightened the sense of life’s electric energy running through his sitter’s very entity. Here, this unique and powerful formal device simultaneously obscures and heightens the concentrated intensity of this both intimate and startlingly animated portrait. Indeed it perfectly encompasses Bacon’s quest to ‘distort the thing far beyond the appearance, but in the distortion to bring it back to a recording of the appearance’ (F. Bacon, quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, London, 1987, p. 40). This augments the distortion already at play through the alternating sweeps of colour from right and left which convey a sense of Freud’s head turning. John Russell could have been speaking of Study for Head of Lucian Freud when he noted it has ‘that succulent ferocity which we find in the heads of the 1960s...the turbulence of the paint in the face and neck is the more striking by contrast with the fat calm of the background’ (J. Russell, Francis Bacon, London 1993, p. 111).
Bacon’s ability, through rough impasto and gestural sweeps of green, white and orange paint against a dark ground, to paradoxically efface the figurative portrait of his friend Freud in order to more potently bring about the essence of his nature was a quality that undoubtedly appealed to Dahl. Study for Head of Lucian Freud most certainly struck a chord with Dahl as it seems to have leapt off the pages of his short story, Skin, published in 1953. Situated in the gritty bohemian streets of post-War Paris, the story typifies the avant-garde city he experienced with Smith in 1946, and opens with a drunken request by a man to have the artist Chaïm Soutine (who at the time in post-War Britain was considered the foremost artist of the century) tattoo a painting of his wife on his back. Some years later, the man chances on an exhibition of the now dead artist’s work and enters the gallery where he is dismissed until he exposes the work he owns, which subsequently elicits purchase offers. While the story has a macabre ending that is in keeping with Dahl’s work at the time, it also reflects his deep interest and understanding of the art world. In the story he describes Soutine’s portrait-tattoo as, ‘quite alive; it contained much of that twisted, tortured quality so characteristic of Soutine’s other work. It was not a good likeness. It was a mood rather than a likeness, the model’s face vague and tipsy, the background swirling around her head in a mass of dark-green curling strokes’ (R. Dahl, ‘Skin’ in Someone Like You, 1953).
Indeed Bacon’s singular approach to representation in paint finds great sympathy with Dahl’s own way with words. As Dahl described in one of his first short stories: : ‘He wrote it not in the old man’s words, but in his own words, painting it as a picture with the old man as a character in the picture, because that was the best way to do it. He had never written a story before, and so naturally there were mistakes. He did not know any of the tricks with words which writers use, which they have to use just as painters have to use tricks with paint, but when he had finished writing, when he put down his pencil and went over to the airmen’s canteen for a pint of beer, he left behind him a rare and powerful tale’ (R. Dahl, ‘An African Story’, Over to You, 1946).
Study for Head of Lucian Freud was executed at a time of great professional satisfaction for Bacon: his paintings were gaining international recognition and he was being offered exhibitions at major museums around the world. His major retrospective at the Tate Gallery, London in 1962 and subsequent exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim, New York in 1963 were great triumphs and Bacon was gaining sudden traction and celebrity within the contemporary art world. At the same time, Study for Head of Lucian Freud was acquired of great contentment for Dahl. 1967 marked the fruition of a series of Dahl’s professional triumphs. That year, Dahl achieved a coup when he finally succeeded in obtaining a very lucrative deal with the UK publishing house George Allen & Unwin for the publication of both James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory which had both already been published to great acclaim in the United States some seven years before. Perhaps surprisingly today, both bestselling books had been rejected by no fewer than 11 UK publishers before George Allen & Unwin finally accepted them. Within weeks of publication in the UK, both books sold out and a subsequent reprint sold out as well. Dahl was also finding success in Hollywood, where he had been sought after to adapt screenplays of his peer Ian Fleming’s work. This included the latest 007 film, You Only Live Twice and Fleming’s children’s book, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. It was in this ebullient atmosphere that Dahl found himself able to act in earnest on his appreciation for art, and specifically for Bacon.
Dahl first became familiar with Bacon’s work through his friend, the artist Matthew Smith. Dahl and Smith first met in the autumn of 1941 when Dahl returned home to London following injury in Palestine while serving with the RAF. Dahl was particularly struck by Smith’s work, which he saw in the window of Arthur Tooth and Son’s Gallery during an afternoon walking around Mayfair. Determined to express his admiration for the artist, Dahl sought out Smith at a hotel on Piccadilly where he found him mourning the recent loss of his sons who had died in RAF service. Despite their age difference of some forty years, the two struck up a close friendship based on their mutual passion for the arts, which they cultivated on jaunts through London and Paris. It was through this close connection that Dahl became acquainted with Bacon when his work was shown alongside Smith’s and Victor Pasmore’s in the spring of 1958, in a touring exhibition put on by the Arts Council entitled Three Masters of British Painting. Ever the connoisseur, Dahl was immediately impressed by what he saw as the ’blend of economy and profound emotion in [Bacon’s] painting’, and immediately named him as a ‘giant of his time’ (N. Crosland in conversations with D. Sturrock and R. Dahl, Letter to Claude Gallimard, 29th October, 1971, in D. Sturrock, Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl, London 2011, p. 440).
As Dahl professed, ‘I myself had become an enthusiastic collector of pictures as soon as World War II ended, in 1945. Each time I sold a short story, I would buy a picture when there was a bit more money in the bank I began buying pictures for keeps. I admired Francis Bacon’s work enormously, and we bought seven of his paintings’ (R. Dahl, ‘Architectural Digest Visits: Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal’, in Architectural Digest, February 1981, p. 74). Buoyed by the triumphant professional and financial success of the publication of James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and with the screenplay of You Only Live Twice, Dahl actually bought four Bacon canvases between the years 1964–68. Dahl enthused over the pages of Architectural Digest about his ownership of seven Bacon’s paintings; a boyish exaggeration made on more than one occasion, which his biographer Donald Sturrock regarded as typical of Dahl’s character and a reiteration of the high esteem in which he held Bacon’s work. Between 1964 and 1967, Dahl chose through great care and his exacting eye four singular works from Bacon’s oeuvre: Landscape at Malabata (1963), Three Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer (1963), Portrait of Henrietta Moraes on White (1964) and Study for a Head of Lucian Freud (1967). While Landscape at Malabata is a rare work by Bacon in its absence of a figure, it is as Ernst van Alphen aptly describes, a ‘bodily landscape’, where the landscape takes on corporeal qualities in order to visually convey something of the soul. Three Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer is Bacon’s first triptych of his great love and muse and radiates with ‘the inmost nature of human behaviour’ (J. Russell, Francis Bacon, London 1993, p. 100). Portrait of Henrietta Moraes on White is an unusual representation of Bacon’s close friend where he has mirrored the contours of her body with an intricate weave of cool lavenders and charcoals all set against a white background. Indeed Sturrock recalls seeing these works when he met Dahl for the first time at Gipsy house: ‘On one wall a triptych of distorted Francis Bacon heads glared out at me alarmingly, reminding me that for years, Dahl’s adult publishers had dubbed him “the Master of the Macabre”. On an adjacent wall, another Bacon head – this one a distorted swirl of green and white – returned my gaze’ (D. Sturrock, Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl, London 2011, p. 5). By the 1980s, Dahl’s collection would also include avant-garde Russian artists Malevich, Ermilov, Goncharova and Popova, 16th century Dutch still-lifes, 17th century religious panels, Winston Churchill seascapes and Matisse drawings.
Although he subsequently sold the other three works by Bacon, it is of no great surprise that Study for Head of Lucian Freud immediately captivated Dahl when he saw it in 1967 and that it retained its undisputed place in his collection and subsequently in his family after his death in 1990. Dahl firmly believed that ‘You cannot begin to appreciate any work of art in the true sense until you have studied the personalities involved and the struggles they had’ (R. Dahl, ‘Architectural Digest Visits: Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal’, in Architectural Digest, February 1981, p. 75). He certainly practiced this where Bacon was concerned, maintaining a close friendship with the artist for many years, often having him over for dinner at Gipsy House in the 1970s and 1980s. The two undoubtedly bonded over such high-brow interests as their mutual admiration for the work of van Gogh, an artist that both regarded as their favourite, as well as their more pedestrian pursuits in Soho. Like Bacon, Dahl was a consummate gambler, who after finding much pleasure at greyhound races as a young man and at diplomatic poker tables in Washington D.C., had settled quite comfortably at the Blackjack table at the Curzon House Club.