John Edwards first met Francis Bacon in 1974 and became his companion until the artist's death in 1992. Edwards was, like Bacon's former lover, George Dyer, an East End boy much younger than the artist, but from the outset his relationship with Bacon differed fundamentally from that earlier traumatic romance, which had ended tragically in 1971 with Dyer's suicide. Edwards, however, was not destined to be swallowed and destroyed by the love of the great artist in the way that both Dyer and Dyer's predecessor, Peter Lacy had been. Indeed, Edwards is known to have stood up to Bacon and this forthright quality along with his directness and honesty greatly endeared him to the artist who reportedly grew to dote on the young man. According to longtime friend Ian Board - the owner of the infamous Soho drinking club the Colony Room - Bacon was "riddled with love" for Edwards and became increasingly protective of him coming to regard him less as a lover and more as an adoptive son.
Three Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards is a rare and important triptych from the 1980s 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 young companion, this three-paneled portrait was chosen by Bacon to be the final work of his second retrospective exhibition. Bacon's first retrospective at the Tate Gallery in 1962 had begun with his first triptych, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion of 1944 and ended with his great reworking of this painting, the 1962 Crucifixion triptych. The second Tate retrospective paid even more attention to Bacon's great triptych paintings and beginning with the same 1944 painting, it culminated with the Three Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards which had been painted one year earlier.
As the emphasis of the Tate retrospectives show, Bacon's triptychs are widely recognised as being his finest works. Yet, as Bacon himself often observed, these paintings were in essence not triptychs in the traditional sense of the word but, like a progression of film stills, a sequence of paintings that aimed to capture the essence of its subject by conveying a sense of having captured its animated motion and frozen it into a cinematic sequece of static form. "In the series one picture reflects on the other continuously," Bacon observed, "and sometimes they're better in series than they are separately... one image against the other seems to be able to say the thing more" (Quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London, 1990, p. 22).
Furthermore, the artist once warned Michael Archibaud, "I don't know that I should talk about a triptych in my case. Of course, there are three canvases, and you can link that to a long-standing tradition. The primitives often used the triptych format, but as far as my work is concerned, a triptych corresponds more to the idea of a succession of images on film. There are frequently three canvases, but there is no reason why I couldn't continue and add more. Why shouldn't there be more than three? What I do know is that I need these canvases to be separated from one another. That's why I was so annoyed with the way the Guggenheim mounted the three panels of its Crucifixion all in one frame. It was absurd. I wanted them to be separate, and this is also the case for the canvases of the other triptychs... One image, another, then another with the frame adding a certain rhythm to the progression of images" (F. Bacon quoted in In Conversation with Michel Archimbaud, London, 1993, p. 165).
This separation was essential for Bacon because he saw "every image all the time in a shifting way and almost in shifting sequences" and through the sequential portrait he was able to take "what is called ordinary figuration to a very, very far point" (Op. cit., Sylvester, p. 21). In Three Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards this shifting sequential viewpoint is exemplified by the work consisting of three alternate and yet seemingly simultaneous views of Edwards seated on a stool in an empty studio space. The use of a calm grey-blue coloured background and the relative lack of violent distortion in the features of the sitter clearly distinguishes this portrait from those of the angst-ridden Peter Lacy or the sado-masochistic George Dyer portraits. Although pulling no punches in the raw expression of Edwards' pale Anglo-Saxon features and his muscular physicality, there is a tenderness expressed in this work that captures a sense of Edwards' innocence and simple honesty; features which some commentators on Bacon have declared the artist was incapable of expressing.
The relative lack of grotesque smears and distortion in the features of his sitters was a noticeable trend in much of Bacon's work of the 1980s but this is particularly evident in Three Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards where Edwards' features have been sharply delineated and in two of the panels are still clearly recognisable beneath the gestural smudges of Bacon's paint. Framed in the left and right hand panels by a geometric structure that lends a unity to the three paintings and seems through the magic of perspective to have partially disappeared in the central panel, Edwards is presented as if he were being observed through the two-way mirror of a police viewing room. Exposing his innate humanity and charming ordinariness, the three panels, like a sequence of slides present Edwards seated on a swivel stool as if he were an interesting organism under the objective eye of the microscope. The victim of the artist's harsh dispassionate gaze, Bacon has also surrounded Edwards in the left and right hand panels by a circular chrome ring which recalls some of his early furniture design. In doing this Bacon appears to have wanted to enclose and fix permanently the shifting images of the object of his affection by framing them with perspectival lines and the enclosing metal armature and at the same time pinning Edwards' figure to the floor with the thin one-legged stool. It appears in this work as if in doing so, he hoped he could in someway contain and possess the image of his companion, hold onto it and protect it as indeed he sought to do in life.