The present lot consists of two early paintings by Tony O’Malley which, when turned over and joined together, reveal an unfinished nude by Francis Bacon. Divided into two boards, these paintings are viewed together for the first time in almost 60 years. For years this ‘lost’ Bacon was separated, residing in the collection of two different owners. One half remained with Tony O’Malley, while the other was owned by the poet Padraic Fallon, who had been gifted Currach, Clare Island by his close friend O’Malley. The two halves of Bacon’s Figure were first displayed together when an image of the joined paintings was shown at Tate St Ives’s 2007 exhibition Francis Bacon in St Ives.
O’Malley and Bacon both stayed in St Ives in the late 1950s, working just two doors down from one another. In the immediate years following the Second World War, St Ives established itself as the centre for avant-garde art in Britain. Attracting a new generation of artists who, like Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth before them, were searching for inspiration in the wild landscape of West Cornwall. In September 1959, Bacon travelled from Penzance to St Ives to work on a series of paintings for his exhibition at the Marlborough Gallery in March 1960. Bacon’s stay in St Ives occurred during a significant stage of transition in the artist’s career, where he experimented with colour and technique, readdressing how he located the figure in space.
Whilst working in St Ives Bacon rented 3 Porthmeor Studios from the sculptor William Redgrave and his wife Boots, in a row of studios previously occupied by tenants including Ben Nicholson and Terry Frost. Intending to stay for six months, Bacon’s visit was cut short after a turbulent argument with his then partner Ronnie Belton. Hurriedly leaving in January 1960, Bacon abandoned many of his works, including the male nude on the reverse of the present lot. On clearing the studio Boots gave away many of his discarded works to friends who would re-use the materials. Those known include the present nude given to O’Malley and another work gifted to Canadian sculptor Bill Featherstone who used it to roof his chicken shed. It is reported that O’Malley was approached by a dealer who propositioned him to fraudulently ‘complete’ the Bacon and in disgust he split the board in two, while others, such as artist David Page, recount that it was cut to suit O’Malley’s propensity for smaller sized boards.
Since its rediscovery Figure has been examined by the Francis Bacon Catalogue Raisonné Committee and will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné, to be published in April 2016.