Executed in 1978, Francis Bacon’s Study for a Portrait is a marked departure from the artist’s painting of the previous decade which had been dominated by canvases that explored his inner turmoil following the death of his former lover George Dyer. It is one of the first beacons marking Bacon’s emergence from this dark period thanks to his burgeoning friendship with John Edwards, an affable young East Ender four decades his junior whom he met in the Colony Club in 1974 and who became Bacon’s closest friend and companion from 1976. Study for a Portrait possesses many of the young man’s distinguishing features while seemingly merging them with that of Dyer and Bacon’s own self-portraits. The work also relates to a prolonged series of very dark self-portrait heads Bacon began in the mid-1970s. These paintings created between 1972 and 1978 were, for Bacon, ultimately connected to his own very strong awareness of mortality at this time, of his isolation and the presence of death within everything in life. Indeed he told David Sylvester in 1975 ‘I’ve done a lot of self-portraits, really because people have been dying around me like flies and I’ve had nobody else to paint but myself’ (F. Bacon, quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1990, p. 129). These early portraits related to Edwards proved an antidote, if not a cure, to the trauma and guilt the artist felt over Dyer. Indeed Study for a Portrait is a trinity of sorts, uniting the artist with the most significant man of his past and Edwards, who would go on to become his most significant friend and confidant.
In Study for a Portrait, Bacon appears to have conflated the features of Edwards with the spectral shadow of Dyer and perhaps even himself. The hair-parting, ears and cleft chin are all reminiscent of Edwards’ handsome visage, as is the clean white shirt-collar typically donned by Edwards in photographs taken by Bacon around 1980. Indeed there are over 150 photographs of Edwards, far exceeding that of any sitter for the artist. As Bacon noted, ‘Even in the case of friends who will come and pose, I’ve had photographs taken for portraits because I very much prefer working from the photographs than from them. It’s true to say I couldn’t attempt to do a portrait from photographs of somebody I didn’t know. But, if I both know them and have photographs of them, I find it easier to work than actually having their presence in the room’ (F. Bacon, quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1990, p. 38). Whereas Bacon often noted that he found it more freeing to work from photographs than from the sitter, as Margarita Cappock suggests, the abundance of photographs of Edwards would seem to have allowed Bacon to not have to choose between a narrow selection of poses but to synthesize his qualities more completely into finished paintings whether he was the direct subject or not. Indeed this work bears an affinity with Study for a Portrait of John Edwards from 1989. Although the figure shares a striking resemblance to Edwards, the shadow presents an entirely different visage, standing in contrast to the subject’s slightly turned head. Indeed the prominent nose and tousled hair found in the shadow of Study for a Portrait recalls Bacon’s Self-Portrait of the same year, which presents Dyer’s profile as his own shadow. John Russell claims that the single head portrait became ‘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).
With a paint brush buffed on his own pant-leg, Bacon has set about capturing the vitality and mortality of human existence. There is a suffusive luminosity in his application of near-dry paint that creates an interplay of textures between flesh, cloth and shadow. This textural phenomena in Bacon’s work is reiterated through his singular use of priming the back of the canvas. In Study for a Portrait, Bacon blended a multitude of pinks, purples and creams to convey smooth flesh giving life through complex physiognomy below the surface. He used the imprint of corduroy to describe the modulations of texture across the subject’s face. For the subject’s meticulously arranged hair, Bacon dragged streaks of dry pigment to create an almost powdery, pastel surface which mirrors Bacon’s own ideas on the work of Degas, an artist whom he admired. ‘When you talk of Degas’, Bacon explained, ‘the very great Degas’ are the pastels, and don’t forget that in his pastels he always striates the form with these lines which are drawn through the image and in a certain sense both intensify and diversify its reality. I always think that the interesting thing about Degas is the way he made lines through the body: you could say that he shuttered the body, in a way, shuttered the image and then he put an enormous amount of colour through these lines. And having shuttered the form, he created intensity by putting this colour through the flesh’ (F. Bacon, quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, New York 1990, p. 176).
Bacon appears to have also built on this idea of shuttering form in the many framing devices deployed in Study for a Portrait. Beyond the dark halo of the shadow, Bacon has placed his subject against a celestial blue background, which itself ostensibly sits atop a neutral background. These regular geometric forms offer a cool detachment – highlighting the anatomical approach to the figure derived perhaps from Bacon’s book on body positioning in radiography. Of this influence Bacon said, ‘I’ve also always had a book that’s influenced me very much called Positioning in Radiography, with a lot of photographs showing the positioning of the body for the X-ray photographs to be taken, and also the X-rays themselves’ (F. Bacon, quoted in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, New York 1990, p. 32). His subject’s lowered gaze and head placement recall illustrations from this book of patients preparing to have their head’s X-rayed. But as Sylvester identifies in Bacon’s use of photography, ‘the influence, though, tends to be oblique’ (D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, New York 1990, p. 32). As Sylvester suggests, Bacon uses these photographs in tandem with his subject as a conduit of sorts to approach a more cerebral idea in paint. In his exploration of his subjects through this motif, Bacon identified a process which reveals an alternative portrait, exposing a hidden, vulnerable interiority with clinical logic. The use of this framing motif relates closely to Bacon’s major paintings of the 1980s where Bacon isolated his figure against a rectangular frame-like background.