Catalogue entry


Oil and gouache on paper
339 x 263 (13 3/8 x 10 3/4)
Purchased from Lady Natasha Spender with assistance from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund, the National Art Collections Fund and a group of anonymous donors in memory of Mario Tazzoli, 1998

Given by the artist to Stephen Spender (early 1960s) and thence by descent

Francis Bacon, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, June-Oct.1996, Haus der Kunst, Munich, Nov.1996 - Jan.1997 (92, repr. in col. p.234)
Francis Bacon: Working on Paper, Tate Gallery, London, Feb.-April 1999 (1, repr. in col. p.38)

Fabrice Hergott and Hervé Vanel in Francis Bacon, exh. cat., Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 1996, p.233
Richard Cork, ‘I can’t draw, said Bacon’, Times, 26 Jan. 1998, p.18
Richard Morphet, ‘Francis Bacon: 38 Unique Works on Paper; Four Unique Works on Paper’, National Art Collection Fund 1997 Review, London 1998, pp.99-100, repr. p.99
Matthew Gale, ‘Points of Departure’, in Francis Bacon: Working on Paper, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1999, pp.13, 15, 23-4, 34-5

In 1954 David Sylvester wrote about the practice of drawing: ‘A painter or sculptor who has not the habit of making drawings is considered a curiosity.’[1] The critic was one of Francis Bacon’s most thoughtful supporters, and, although not mentioned in the article, the artist was already marking himself out as just such a ‘curiosity’. Eight years later, Sylvester posed the (negative) question: ‘you never work from sketches or drawings, you never do a rehearsal for the picture?’ To this Bacon replied apparently without equivocation: ‘I often think I should, but I don’t. It’s not very helpful for my kind of painting. As the actual texture, colour, the whole way the paint moves, are so accidental, any sketches that I did before could only give a kind of skeleton, possibly, of the way the thing might happen.’[2] The assurance of this statement remained unquestioned by Bacon scholars, even as both participants in the dialogue must have been aware of Figure in a Landscape, c.1952, a work on paper with all the qualities that the artist had just dismissed. He gave the drawing to his friend Stephen Spender probably during the early 1960s and probably with a looser sketch, Turning Figure, c.1959-62 (Tate Gallery T07352). The writer had already received two other sketches Reclining Figure, no.1 and Reclining Figure, no.2, both c.1957-61 (Tate Gallery T07353 and T07354).[3] Although these remained unexhibited until 1996, they were familiar to visitors to the Spender household - including curators and dealers[4] - and Bacon himself ‘used to greet them, as it were, when they were standing on the chimney piece’.[5] Thus the artist’s public dissembling was matched by the protective complicity of his friends; as Henry Geldzahler wrote, knowingly, in 1975: ‘Very few drawings by Francis Bacon exist, or, to be more exact, very few of his drawings have been seen.’[6]

The reasons for Bacon’s persistent denial of sketches are complex and difficult to discern.[7] He may have felt a diffidence about his draughtsmanship because of his lack of artistic training, although publicly he expressed a disdain for art schools.[8] Certainly, there are accounts of drawings being consigned for destruction, as ‘Bacon scrapped any such sketches as soon as the painting in question was under way’.[9] A sufficient number from the late 1950s and early 1960s - notably what are presumed to be the contents of a single sketchbook (Tate Gallery T07355-T07380) - have escaped to confirm that, at that time, they formed a fairly orthodox part of Bacon’s working process, and that he differed from other artists principally in seeking to suppress them. The survival of Figure in a Landscape, c.1952 opens the possibility that this was the case over a longer period, but this is by no means certain. Bacon may have been wary of the sort of interest that Sylvester characterised in 1954, when he wrote: ‘we know that drawings, being the artist’s naked autograph, are possibly the best of all means of attaining an insight into his mental processes and that they ... can quicken the emotions and imprint themselves on our memory as readily as more substantial works of art.’[10] For his part, Bacon never allowed his drawing to be seen on a level which precisely matched the claims made for his paintings.[11]

The denial of drawing fitted into Bacon’s self-construction as an artistic autodidact with a facility for painting attained through independent research. More significantly, it may be associated with wider artistic concerns. Bacon’s emphasis upon his spontaneity on addressing the canvas could have been compromised by the use of drawings, as he suggested to Sylvester.[12] Thus accident was an essential ingredient; it was inherited from Surrealist automatism (with which Bacon had long been familiar), but was also associated with the technique of other artists from Picasso to Soutine. As Geldzahler has remarked,[13] it reflected contemporary concerns and may be seen in the context of debates about the creative process in relation to Abstract Expressionism. In discussing an approach close to that outlined by Bacon himself (despite the artist’s rejection of abstract art), the critic Harold Rosenberg had described the canvas as ‘an arena in which to act’.[14] He reported that a painter working from sketches was not considered modern, and, although he allowed that ‘an act’ might be ‘prolonged from a piece of paper to a canvas’ or ‘have the function of a skirmish,’[15] the idea of sketching as an impediment to the action of painting was widespread.

In the light of the secrecy surrounding the works on paper, it is perhaps ironic that Figure in a Landscape, c.1952 should, in some respects, demonstrate the proximity of Bacon’s painting and drawing techniques. The loose flicking of the purplish-black paint to denote the foreground grass is close to what Stephen Spender characterised as ‘repeated hook-shaped strokes’[16] in contemporary works such as that in Study for Figure in a Landscape, 1952 (Phillips Collection, Washington),[17] to which the composition relates in general, and to that in Landscape, South of France, 1952 (private collection)[18] to which it has been compared by Fabrice Hergott and Hervé Vanel.[19] The main difference is that the strokes on the paper rise (tailing off like a leaf), while they are downward on the canvases. The background, too, is treated similarly to that in Study for Figure in a Landscape (where purple invades the undergrowth as well as the figure), so much so that it belies the observation about scale that Sylvester made to the artist: ‘I take it that ... to work on a smaller scale for something on a larger scale would be pointless for you.’[20] In this particular case, the sketch figure differs from that in the oil painting although the larger size of the latter afforded a greater amount of detail; in the sketch it is in a drier richer black paint than the surroundings and plays a more prominent and central role. The blotting of the paint has lead Richard Cork to describe the figure as ‘shadowy and sinister’,[21] and Richard Morphet to identify ‘a brooding quality’ in the ‘dense obscuring of the facial features’.[22] This relates closely to Bacon’s striation of the body in oil paintings, whereby individuality was disguised, and in particular to the veiling of the figure in Study for Figure in a Landscape. In this respect, the sketch may be considered ‘a kind of skeleton ... of the way the thing might happen’ as Bacon suggested.[23]

Grass was a favourite motif for Bacon - being both spiky and concealing - but the insertion of the nude body into the landscape was a refinement particular to this moment. It coincided with a number of paintings of wild animals in similar situations which derived from the artist’s two trips through southern Africa, in the winter of 1950-1 and the spring of 1952. Some of the blurring of the settings has been related to that in the high speed photographs in Marius Maxwell’s Stalking Big Game with a Camera in Equatorial Africa to which the artist referred,[24] and of which a page survives from the studio showing a belligerent rhinoceros.[25] Bacon’s treatment of figures outside was also shared with Graham Sutherland who, in the Path Through Plantation series of 1950-1,[26] used a comparable energy for his drawing of plants and a similar layering in order to convey the sense of space in nature. At the same time Bacon’s substitution of man for animals suggested an atavistic appreciation of nature which is absent from Sutherland’s vision of imposed order. In such works as Bacon’s homoerotic Two Figures in the Grass, 1954 (private collection)[27] this presence took on a specifically sexual quality which in Figure in a Landscape, c.1952 and Study for Figure in a Landscape remained latent.

Matthew Gale

May 1998
Revised February 1999

[1] David Sylvester, ‘Contemporary Drawing’, Britain Today, no.216, April 1954, p.24
[2] David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1975, revised as The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, 1980, 3rd ed. 1990, 4th ed. as Interviews with Francis Bacon, 1993, p.20-21
[3] Natasha Spender, conversation with the author, May 1998
[4] Desmond Corcoran, letter to Nicholas Serota, 4 Nov. 1997, Tate Gallery acquisition files
[5] Natasha Spender, letter, 8 Feb. 1997, Tate Gallery acquisition files
[6] Henry Geldzahler, ‘Introduction’, Francis Bacon: Recent Paintings 1968-1974, exh. cat. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 1975, p.10

[7] See Matthew Gale, ‘Points of Departure’ in Francis Bacon: Working on Paper, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1999, p.33-6
[8] E.g. Sylvester 1993, p.68
[9] Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, London 1996, p.225
[10] Sylvester 1954, p.24
[11] See David Sylvester, ‘Introduction’ in Francis Bacon: Working on Paper, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1999, p.9-11

[12] Sylvester 1993, p.21
[13] Geldzahler 1975, p.8
[14] Harold Rosenberg, ‘The American Action Painters’, Art News, vol.51, no.8, Dec. 1952, republished in The Tradition of the New, New York 1959 and 1960, London 1962, p.25
[15] Ibid., p.26

[16] Stephen Spender, ‘Francis Bacon at Nottingham’, Listener, 23 Feb, 1961, p.360
[17] Repr. Francis Bacon, exh. cat., Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 1996, p.110, no.18 (col.)
[18] Repr. Ronald Alley, Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné and Documentation, London 1964, [p.179], no.51
[19] Fabrice Hergott and Hervé Vanel in Francis Bacon, exh. cat., Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 1996, p.233
[20] Sylvester 1993, p.21
[21] Richard Cork, ‘I can’t draw, said Bacon’, Times, 26 Jan. 1998, p.18
[22] Richard Morphet, ‘Francis Bacon: 38 Unique Works on Paper; Four Unique Works on Paper’, National Art Collection Fund 1997 Review, London 1998, p.99
[23] Sylvester 1993, p.21

[24] Marius Maxwell, Stalking Big Game with a Camera in Equatorial Africa, London 1925
[25] Repr. Sylvester 1993, p.33
[26] E.g. Path Through Plantation, 1951, Beaverbrook Foundation, Fredericton, New Brunswick, repr. Douglas Cooper, The Work of Graham Sutherland, London 1961, between pp.84 and 85, no.109
[27] Repr. Alley 1964, p.85, no.80 (col.)