This painting stands as a rare record of a period in Francis Bacon’s career in which the artist destroyed most of his work. The canvas features what appears to be a male figure, with his hand raised to his open mouth. The top part of his cylinder-like head is partially obscured by the branches of a nearby tree, while his torso is a strangely translucent form with pronounced vertical banding. Dark blue paint half-defines the figure’s features and denotes perhaps a vigorously painted, dagger-like shadow down the side of the arm. To the side a small red-brown dog-like creature paws at the body of the dominating figure, while behind stands a solitary tree. The background is divided into three distinct horizontal bands that can be seen through the quasi-transparent figure: the green of tree foliage with individually painted branches, a large dark central band suggestive of deep space, and a light green band evocative of grass.
In a 1935 letter Bacon described what may have been an earlier version of this painting: ‘a figure in a garden which I think has come very well. It has some how by accident got a rather strong feeling of the Webster lines about the fish in the garden and the sunlight at least I don’t think it is purely something I read into it’ (quoted in Harrison 2008, p.49). This may refer to a section of John Webster’s tragedy The Duchess of Malfi (1614), in which the Duchess’s brother reflects guiltily on his role in her murder. Later, however, Bacon insisted that he had not intended this painting to have ‘illustrative content’ (quoted in Harrison 2005, p.35).
This painting has also been known as Seated Figure (when included in an Arts Council touring exhibition in 1951), The Fox and the Grapes (when sold at Sotheby’s, London, in May 1952) and Goering and his Lion Cub (at an unknown date; see Rothenstein and Alley 1964, pp.32–3). Multiple titles often exist for Bacon’s works, and they can, as here, offer perspectives on his use of source material and the painting’s themes. Art historian Martin Harrison suggests that the title The Fox and the Grapes, for example, implies a relationship between this work and The Fox c.1934–5, a painting by Roy de Maistre, an Australian artist who was a friend of Bacon. Harrison also suggests that the title alludes to two fables by Aesop, ‘The Fox and the Mask’ and ‘The Fox and the Grapes’ (Harrison 2005, p.34). In referring to the physically imposing commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Goering, who kept a pet lion cub, the title Goering and his Lion Cub places the painting into the broader context of Bacon’s career-long interest in men of power and their representation in the media.
The distorted and unexplained nature of the imagery in Figures in a Garden might suggest a link to surrealism, the artistic and intellectual movement which began in Paris in the mid-1920s. Bacon’s work, however, was not included in the International Surrealist Exhibition held in London in 1936. The artist remembered that his ‘pictures were in fact refused because they were not sufficiently Surrealist, according to the organisers. I myself think that my pictures were not at all Surrealist’ (quoted in Michel Archimbaud, Francis Bacon: In Conversation with Michel Archimbaud, Paris 1992, p.128).
Figures in a Garden was first displayed (and under this title) in an exhibition titled Young British Painters at Thomas Agnew and Sons, London, in January 1937. It is the only one of the four Bacon works included in the exhibition to have survived Bacon’s regular purges and reworking of his paintings, probably because it was purchased from the show by the artist’s second cousin, Diana Watson. Bacon would not re-emerge as an exhibiting artist until the inclusion of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion c.1944 (Tate N06171) and Figure in a Landscape 1945 (Tate N05941) in a group show at the Lefevre Gallery, London, in 1945. As Bacon’s reputation grew, Figures in a Garden was displayed as part of an Arts Council touring exhibition in 1951, and it was also shown in a solo Bacon show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, in 1955. It subsequently became part of the major Bacon exhibition which began at the Tate Gallery in London in May 1962, and later toured Mannheim, Turin, Zurich and Amsterdam.
John Rothenstein and Ronald Alley, Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné and Documentation, London 1964, pp.32–3.
Martin Harrison, In Camera – Francis Bacon: Photography, Film and the Practice of Painting, London 2005, pp.34–6.
Martin Harrison, ‘Bacon’s Paintings’, in Chris Stephens and Matthew Gale (eds.), Francis Bacon, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2008, pp.40–9, reproduced p.47.
Supported by Christie’s.