t: +353 1 222 5550
t: +353 1 222 5550
Collection of photographs from Francis Bacon’s studio archive
In 1997, I first visited Francis Bacon’s studio, 7 Reece Mews, in South Kensington London with Brian Clarke the executor of the artist’s estate and the artist’s heir John Edwards. Climbing the steep wooden stairs which led from the street to the first floor modest flat, I wasn’t prepared for the visceral reaction I experienced entering that small cramped space. It was like looking into the artist’s head. As I surveyed the chaos of the studio with material in heaps on the floor, crammed onto shelves as well as stuffed into cardboard boxes, my eye was caught by a large photograph of a handsome blond-haired man sticking out of one of the boxes. It was Peter Beard, the renowned American wildlife photographer.
During our cataloguing of all of the items in the studio, 200 of Beard’s photographs were discovered, an indication of the considerable role the photographer and his work played in Bacon’s life and oeuvre.
In 1965, Beard’s book The End of the Game on the demise of African wildlife and the destruction of its ecosystem in the face of increasing industrialization, was published in London and Bacon had a copy of it. Peter and Francis first met after that in the Marlborough Gallery, Albemarle Street, at a launch of a Bacon exhibition. The two men stuck up a conversation and Bacon invited Beard to Reece Mews. Beard became a friend, muse and a source of inspiration for Bacon. No doubt Bacon enjoyed the company of this talented and innovative photographer and artist whose lifestyle like Bacon’s was exuberant and unconventional.
A graduate of Yale University where he studied art history having jettisoned his place in medicine, ‘it became painfully obvious that humans were the disease’, Beard studied under Josef Albers, Neil Welliver and Alex Katz. He first visited Africa during his college years and like Bacon was fascinated by Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen). He bought a farm in Kenya, outside Nairobi, Hog Ranch facing the Ngong Hills and Blixen’s former coffee plantation. Visitors to Hog Ranch recounted their astonishment in encountering wild animals wandering around the camp.
Beard recounts that on his first visit to Bacon’s studio the artist had several of his photographs in what he called ‘the compost heap’ on the floor splattered with paint. They do not appear to have survived and our collection appears to date from the start of their friendship. The photographs vary in subject matter and include magnificent images of African wildlife in all of its beauty and savageness, contact sheets of self-portraits, images of Beard sitting crossed legged on a chair in the Jardin des Plantes, Paris by Michel Soskine and commissioned by Bacon, and images of Bacon sitting on the roof of his house, 80 Narrow Street London. Also found were images of inmates from San Quentin Prison which Beard took for an assignment for Life magazine while he was covering a Rolling Stones tour with Truman Capote in 1972.
Bacon had several books on wildlife in his studio and shared with Beard a great interest in the splendid primordial and primitive African world. A passionate conservationist who challenged the Western conservation strategies being introduced in Africa, Beard’s contact sheets of aerial views of a calamitous conservation project which resulted in over 30,000 elephants dying in Tsavo National Park are devastating. He lamented ‘Africa’s soils are senile, lateritic and unable to support themselves. Many species of game have already been crowded out. Life slowly gives way to a flat desert mirage” Beard supplied Bacon with many of his African photographs as well as sending him postcards and letters sometimes covered in drawings. He liked to embellish his photographs with handwritten texts and drawings often in red ink and occasionally in blood.
Francis Bacon likened the mind to a camera shutter which, when triggered, captures myriad images and Beard’s photographs were very important trigger for him. Speaking of Beard’s wildlife photographs Bacon commented “I would say that the photographs of elephants are naturally suggestive - what I see in those photographs is a trigger – a release action-it releases one’s sensibility and one’s psyche and all kinds of images crowd into you from seeing this particular image” Bacon also liked Beard’s polaroids which he told the photographer when looking at them they gave him fresh ideas. Over the course of their friendship Bacon painted nine portraits of Peter Beard including four triptychs.
I first met Peter Beard when he came to the Hugh Lane Gallery for the launch of our Francis Bacon centenary exhibition in 2009 with his wife Nejma and daughter Zara. He was fascinated by our database of material from Bacon’s studio and where he could he identified unknown locations and subject matter in his photographs. He was struck by the image of him with his head shaved having been incarcerated in the infamous Kamiti Prison in the outskirts of Nairobi in 1970. He claimed that this image inspired the left-hand panel of Bacon’s Triptych 1976 and that Bacon told him he used the same blue in this panel as on the rim of the limousine in which President Kennedy was assassinated. Peter was wonderful company and gave a spirited and fascinating interview on RTE radio during his visit. It is with great sadness that we learnt last week of his death in Camp Hero State Park near his home in Montauk, Long Island. Suffering from dementia he had been missing for almost three weeks. Our sincere condolences to his wife and family. May Gaea watch over him as he returns to nature.