Francis Bacon

Study for Portrait on Folding Bed


Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1981 x 1473 mm
frame: 2198 x 1690 x 82 mm
Purchased 1963

Display caption

The body is often highly distorted in Bacon’s paintings. In this picture, for example, parts of the head and lower body are almost illegible. Bacon has used texture and visceral colours to describe the flesh, bone and blood of the head. The dribbles and splatters of paint are reminiscent of leaking bodily fluids, bringing attention to the physical material of the body and suggesting violence.

The art historian David Mellor has argued that such pictures share much with Walter Sickert’s Camden Town paintings of prostitutes on beds ‘where gross, abject matter was well to the fore’.

Gallery label, July 2008

Catalogue entry

Francis Bacon 1909-1992

Study for Portrait on Folding Bed 1963


Oil and sand on canvas 1981 x 1473 (78 x 58)
Inscribed on back of canvas in black oil paint ‘Study for Portrait on Folding Bed 1963’ top right

Purchased from Marlborough Fine Art Ltd., London (Grant in Aid), 1963

Francis Bacon, Marlborough Fine Art Ltd., New London Gallery, London, July-Aug. 1963 (9, repr.)
Francis Bacon, Solomon R.Guggenheim Museum, New York, Oct. 1963-Jan. 1964, Art Institute of Chicago, Jan.-Feb. 1964 (62, repr.)
Arte d’oggi nei musei, XXXII Venice Biennale, May-Oct. 1964 (London, Tate Gallery 1, repr. between pp.64 and 65, pl.III)
International Exhibition, Bosque de Cahpultepec, Mexico City, summer 1968 (no catalogue found)
Ars 69 Helsinki, Ateneum, Helsinki, Mar.-April 1969, Art Museum, Tampereen, April-May (11)
Henry Moore to Gilbert and George: Modern British Art from the Tate Gallery, Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels, Sept.-Nov. 1973, as part of Europalia 73 Great Britain (78, repr. p.84)
Peter Moores Liverpool Project 3: Body and Soul, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, Oct. 1975-Jan. 1976 (47)
Forty Years of Modern Art 1945-1985, Tate Gallery, London, Feb.-April 1986 (no number, repr. in col. p.76)
Francis Bacon: Paintings since 1944, Tate Gallery Liverpool, Feb. 1990-Jan. 1991 (no number, repr. in col. p.20)
A Ilha do Tesouro / Treasure Island, Centro de Arte Moderna, José de Azeredo Perdigão, Lisbon, Feb. - May 1997 (no number, repr. in col. p.101)
XXIV Bienal de São Paulo - Núcleo histórico: Antropogagia e Histórias de Canibalismos, Fundação Bienal, São Paulo, Oct.-Dec. 1998 (no number)

G.S. Whittet, ‘Gallery-going in London’, Studio, vol.166, July 1963, p.23, repr. p.25 (col.)
Jane Harrison, ‘Dissent on Francis Bacon’, Arts, vol.38, no.3, Dec. 1963, p.22
Tate Gallery Report 1963-4, London 1964, p.17, repr. between pp.30 and 31
Ronald Alley, Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné and Documentation, London 1964, p.152, repr. p.153, no.214 (col.)
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculptures, I, London 1964, p.24
Robert Melville, ‘Francis Bacon’, Studio, vol.168, no.855, July 1964, p.15
David W. Boxer, ‘The Early Work of Francis Bacon’, unpublished Ph.D thesis, John Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland 1975, p.107, n.169
John W. Nixon, ‘Francis Bacon: Paintings 1959-1979; Opposites and Structural Rationalism’, unpublished Ph.D thesis, University of Ulster, Belfast 1986, pp.19, 357, 560, 590-1 (no.214)

Norman Reid, The Tate Gallery, London 1969, p.175
Lorenza Trucchi, Francis Bacon, Milan 1975, trans. John Shepley, London and New York 1976, pl.88
Aspects of British Art Today, exh. cat., British Council tour of Japan 1983, p.23
Rory Snookes, ‘Relative Presences: A Roomful of Bacons at the Tate’, Apollo,
vol.134, no.357, Nov. 1991, p.35

An interesting light is shed on Francis Bacon’s methods by a debate he had with the Tate Gallery three years after Study for Portrait on Folding Bed had been completed and immediately acquired in the wake of his successful 1962 retrospective.[1] In September 1966, he expressed a desire to paint in a green carpet; it was officially noted that ‘it had always been his intention to do this but he had to release the picture before it was entirely finished for his exhibition at the Marlborough New London Gallery’.[2] The appearance of the painting makes this credible as the ground plane might accommodate the proposed detail even if the extent of unpainted canvas is comparable to other works.[3] The evidence for pressure of time is less straightforward: Bacon’s 1963 exhibition opened in July and the painting was reportedly shown as ‘an almost wet canvas’,[4] but it had reached a point of resolution and was photographed on 24 April.[5]

The Director of the Tate, Norman Reid reported the Trustees’ response to the artist in October 1966. He wrote: ‘You had twice mentioned to me that you would like to have the chance of painting the carpet in our picture “Study for a Portrait on Folding Bed” and that you regretted having to let it go in its present state.’ As a precautionary measure the ‘very sympathetic’ Trustees suggested that he and Bacon discussed the changes as they worried that ‘you might be tempted to go on and make other changes and that they would finish up with a completely different picture’.[6] It is not clear whether such a meeting took place but Bacon would claim in 1974 that ‘they [the Tate] refused’ his request to ‘take it back to lay down a carpet’.[7] The consistent reference to a carpet suggests that he wanted to cover the ground plane with a mottled patterning, such as that found in Lying Figure with Hypodermic Syringe, 1963 (private collection),[8] rather than the more defined rug of Seated Figure, 1961 (Tate Gallery T00459). In the event, no changes were made to the painting.

The issue as a whole allows a glimpse of the pressures of Bacon’s reputation. On the one hand, the fears of the Tate Trustees may have been founded on the artist’s known tendency to destroy canvases in the process of reworking. As David Sylvester suggested to the artist in 1962: ‘If people didn’t come and take them away from you, I take it, nothing would ever leave the studio; you’d go on till you’d destroyed them all.’[9] This perceived attitude, which was comparable to that of Giacometti, allowed artistic uncertainty to be equated with a broader existential struggle. On the other hand, Bacon’s claim that a detail had been foreseen is given credence by evidence that he planned his work more carefully than hitherto suspected: preparing lists of subjects (such as recently acquired by the Tate)[10] and allotting definite periods for working on given canvases.[11] The demands of his dealer, which were implicitly at the root of the discussion, appear to have upset this system and resulted in Study for Portrait on Folding Bed being hurried from the studio before completion. Bacon considered it a failure. He regretted, in particular, the oval with mechanical details in the foreground, commenting many years later ‘I wish they would burn it’.[12]

When Study for Portrait on Folding Bed was first shown in 1963, one critic could write flamboyantly: ‘the humanity of us all is flayed to the naked flesh of this amorphous figure demonaic on the bloody striped mattress.’[13] It was, by this time, commonplace to consider Bacon’s painting as as concerned with violence and this particular assessment conflates an interpretation of the body’s image with its painterly treatment, or, as Ronald Alley has commented, combined ‘the expressive violence of his distortions and his handling of paint’.[14] Both views may be suggested by the heavily worked and blackened area at the centre of the body and the vertical drips falling from it. These suggest the chance elements which Bacon claimed for his painting in his interviews with Sylvester.[15]

The setting is quite broadly painted around the central figure. The raw (reverse) side of the primed canvas provides the colour for the ground plane. The main forms appear to have been sketched first in black, which was used for the upper framework identified by Melville ‘as a transparent box’,[16] as well as in the green paint visible in the supports of the spiralling white railing. The figure and bed were completed before the flat painting of the encircling brown wall and the thicker red-brown curve at the bottom which is laid over yellow; both areas allowed some of the working splashes to be disguised. Had the proposed carpet been added these drips, and an apparently accidental stain which undulates down from the left half of the bed, could have been covered. A small oval enclosure of forms in the lower foreground echoes the energy and colouring of the figure; its is difficult to identify, apparently including a mechanism comparable to a gramophone or to the turning handle of studio easels.

In his dismissal of the painting Bacon allowed only that the ‘layout was rather good’.[17] This concession is significant in the light of James Nixon’s observation, in his geometrical analysis of Bacon’s work,[18] that ‘the linear composition is very similar to that in Study for Crouching Nude, 1952’ (Detroit Institute of Arts).[19] The space-frame, the curvatures defining the walls and floor, and the spiralling railing are all close enough to suggest a deliberate quotation. This appears to be a pragmatic re-use of what he considered to be an especially successful composition. Indeed, there are other instances of this practice: in 1959, he envisaged a painting - which may have emerged as Two Figures in a Room, 1959 (R.J. Sainsbury)[20] - consisting of a ‘man crawling on rail as in detroit [sic] picture against rock background’;[21] in 1966, he mentioned that he was using the same painting as a starting point for a new - and coincidentally failed - composition.[22]

Bacon is said to have claimed that the folding bed ‘was suggested by a photo reproduced in a Museum of Modern Art publication’.[23] Although no such source has been identified, his listing of potential subjects in 1959 included: ‘The bed of crime in centre of circular room | with carpet - non-patterned carpet’.[24] This may reflect the artist’s ideas of the cathartic effect of violent drama brought into the everyday.[25] Certainly the temporary nature and unmade state of the bed in the Tate’s painting establish it as a site of display and of squalor. In this connection, David Mellor has drawn attention to Keith Vaughan’s homoerotic barrack-room drawings as well as the concentration on prostitutes on beds in Sickert’s Camden Town paintings.[26] Noting the significance of the fact that Bacon at one time owned one of the latter,[27] David Mellor has observed that ‘it was the intimate, private body that was represented by Sickert, secreted and secreting - where gross, abject matter was well to the fore’.[28] Bacon’s displayed bodies, and especially those on beds, may be read as part of a shared iconography - in which the bed was the site of sex and crime - dismantling the ‘tradition of decorous public portraiture’.[29]

The character of Bacon’s beds has a certain continuity. The flat blue of the furniture was used in other paintings made at the same time,[30] while the blue-striped ticking of the mattress was a recurrent detail over a rather longer period. Two particular instances reinforce the reading of violence associated with the mattress: the contemporary Lying Figure with Hypodermic Syringe, 1963 (private collection)[31] and the central panel of Three Studies for a Crucifixion, 1962 (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York).[32] Bacon did not comment specifically upon the reclining figure in the triptych - being more concerned with the carcass of the right panel[33] - but he would later refer to the hypodermic ‘nailing the image more strongly into reality or appearance ... because I wanted a nailing of the flesh onto the bed’.[34] In both of these paintings the figure appears to be a female nude, whereas in Study for Portrait on Folding Bed it is apparently male and at least partially clothed: the rolled sleeves of the pinkened white shirt are bunched at the elbow. This distinction opens up possibilities for reading the figure in Bacon’s work, as Ernst van Alphen has suggested, whether it is the female as the ‘embodiment of sexual desire’[35] or the fragmentation of the male body as a ‘loss of self’.[36] Bacon’s identification of his mode of painting as an act of injury to the sitter[37] also suggests the anonymous body as ‘the object of action instead of its subject’ (in van Alphen’s formulation).[38]

The figure in Study for Portrait on Folding Bed demonstrates the way in which the density of paint was used in re-making the material quality of the body. The paint is bulked out with sand,[39] and this adds weight and texture in contrast to the smooth uniformity of the surroundings. Other techniques are in evidence. The whole area is speckled with fine black points of paint; these seem to have been relatively dry when flicked on, as they left a residue when dragged across the area of the elbow. The spots are associated with the more energetic area of black below, which is the origin of the long drips towards the base. This explosion is centred on the groin of the sitter, and may have concomitant sexual associations. Sweeps with the brush have described the positions of the legs (the sitter’s left foot is tucked under the right knee, and the right foot extended outwards) and then obscured them. They run across several white circles in the area of the legs and smaller green ones marking the toes; these appear to be made by off-printing from objects - perhaps a cork in the latter case. The energy of this paintwork is also present in the making of the shirt - pink over white with red at the collar - and especially the head. Here a variety of colours and forms combine to construct the features: red and yellow (comparable to the colouring of the base of the painting) appear in the hair and are set against lilac and purple in the ears. All combine in the face which is also overlaid with white in the forehead and the blackening of the eyes (which encouraged the description of ‘demonaic’); the bridge of the nose is marked with a spot of white squeezed straight from the tube. Although limited in area, this use of materials may be compared to the loading of paint by Bacon’s contemporaries both in Britain (such as Frank Auerbach) and in France (Giacometti, Dubuffet).

The mastering of the involuntary mark-making by ‘nailing the image ... into reality’ was essential to Bacon’s development of what has been termed by Gilles Deleuze (following J-F. Lyotard) a ‘figural’ art, in order to distinguish it from both ‘figurative’ illusion and abstraction.[40] The artist suggested to Sylvester in 1966 that adjustments to the features might become apparent in the process of painting through ‘a sort of graph’ of marks, and stated his desire ‘to be able in a portrait to make a Sahara of the appearance - to make it so like, yet seeming to have the distance of the Sahara’.[41] Extrapolating from this, Dawn Ades has commented on the ‘non-rational’ marks with which Bacon was able to ‘re-make a likeness’, so that ‘distortion, fragmentation, isolation ... are on one level the result of a pictorial battle against illustrative figuration’.[42] Like the artist himself, Deleuze has placed particular emphasis on the isolation of the individual in the paintings through the device of the rail set against and dividing it from the uniform background.[43] Although more concerned with the depiction of body as flesh than the transformation of the individual, Deleuze’s phenomenological approach allows a reading of the moving figure which ‘n’est pas seulement le corps isolé, mais le corps déformé qui s’échappe’ (is not only the isolated body, but the deformed body which escapes itself).[44] As such the painter’s practice bears comparison to the perception of the body and notions of the hysterical in the writings of his contemporaries, such as Artaud, Burroughs and Beckett.[45] In the particular case of Study for Portrait on Folding Bed such observations allow the spiralling rail to be seen as a zoning device and as a domestic furnishing which highlights the conceptual isolation and strangeness of the individual.

Matthew Gale
February 1999

[1] Francis Bacon, Tate Gallery, London, May-June 1962
[2] Tate Gallery Board Minutes, 22 Sept. 1966; reported in Art Newspaper, no.66, Jan.1997, p.13
[3] E.g. Study of a Dog, 1952, Tate Gallery N06131
[4] G.S. Whittet, ‘Gallery-going in London’, Studio, vol.166, July 1963, p.23
[5] Ronald Alley, Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné and Documentation, London 1964, p.274, no.214
[6] Reid to Bacon, 5 Oct. 1966, Tate Gallery records
[7] David W. Boxer, ‘The Early Work of Francis Bacon’, unpublished Ph.D thesis, John Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland 1975, p.107, n.169
[8] Repr. Alley 1964, [p.251], no.210
[9] 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
[10] Bacon notes in V.J. Stanek, Introducing Monkeys, London [c.1957], Tate Gallery Archive 9810
[11] E.g. Bacon’s appointment diary for 1966, private collection
[12] Melvyn Bragg, ‘Francis Bacon’, television interview, South Bank Show, London Weekend Television, 1985
[13] Whittet 1963, p.23
[14] Ronald Alley, Forty Years of Modern Art 1945-1985, exh. cat. Tate Gallery, London 1986, p.74
[15] Sylvester 1975 and 1993, pp.16-17
[16] Robert Melville, ‘Francis Bacon’, Studio, vol.168, no.855, July 1964, p.15
[17] Bragg 1985
[18] John W. Nixon, ‘Francis Bacon: Paintings 1959-1979; Opposites and Structural Rationalism’, unpublished Ph.D thesis, University of Ulster, Belfast 1986, p.590 (no.214)
[19] Repr. Alley 1964, p.57, no.37 (col.)
[20] Repr. ibid., [p.222], no.149
[21] Bacon list dated 9 Jan. [1959], on flyleaf of V.J.Stanek, Introducing Monkeys, London [c.1957], Tate Gallery Archive 9810
[22] Sylvester 1975 and 1993, p.37
[23] Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculptures, I, London 1964, p.24
[24] Bacon note, [17 Dec. 1958], index page in Stanek [c.1957] TGA 9810
[25] See Matthew Gale, ‘Points of Departure’ in Francis Bacon: Works on Paper, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1999, pp.18-19
[26] David Mellor, ‘Francis Bacon: Affinities, Contexts and the British Visual Tradition’ in Achille Bonito Oliva (ed.), Francis Bacon: Figurabile, exh. cat., Museo Correr, Venice 1993, p.100
[27] Daniel Farson, The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, London 1993, p.239
[28] Mellor 1993, p.101
[29] Ibid.
[30] E.g. Study for Self-Portrait, private collection, repr. Alley 1964, p.151, no.213 in col.
[31] Repr. Alley 1964, [p.251], no.210
[32] Repr. ibid., pp.144-5, no.201 (col.)
[33] Sylvester 1975 and 1990, p.14
[34] Ibid., p.78
[35] Ernst van Alphen, Francis Bacon and the Loss of Self, London 1992, p.174
[36] Ibid., p.186
[37] Sylvester 1975 and 1990, p.41
[38] Van Alphen, p.186
[39] Tate Gallery conservation files
[40] Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: logique de la sensation, Paris 1981, p.9
[41] Sylvester 1975 and 1990, p.56
[42] Dawn Ades, ‘Web of Images’ in Dawn Ades and Andrew Forge, Francis Bacon, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1985, pp.9-10
[43] Deleuze 1981, pp.9-11
[44] Ibid., p.18
[45] Ibid., pp.33-6