Francis Bacon

Two Owls, No. 1


Graphite and oil paint on paper
Support: 270 x 340 mm
Purchased with assistance from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund, and a group of anonymous donors in memory of Mario Tazzoli 1998

Display caption

The works on paper in this display constitute the residue of one of Francis Bacon's dismembered sketchbooks. They reveal patterns of ideas and compositions which relate to paintings of the late 1950s.
The opening pages show various motifs, including falling figures comparable to the boxing images taken up elsewhere. The strange owls on two sheets relate to a complex personal iconography developed by Bacon, the religious aspects of which are powerfully suggested by the inscription on 'Two Owls, no.1': 'Collapsed image of Christ | Pool of Flesh'. Like the drawings themselves, this may be an annotation to be pursued in his paintings.

Gallery label, September 2004

Catalogue entry


Oil and pencil on white wove paper

340 x 270 (13 3/8 x 10 5/8)

Inscribed in pencil: ‘Collapsed image | of Christ | Pool of Flesh’, left

Purchased from Paul Danquah and Peter Pollock 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

Acquired from the artist (by 1961)

Francis Bacon: Working on Paper, Tate Gallery, London, Feb.-April 1999 (5, reproduced in colour)

Richard Cork, ‘I can’t draw, said Bacon’, Times, 26 Jan. 1998, p.18
Matthew Gale, ‘Points of Departure’, in Francis Bacon: Working on Paper, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1999, p.24

In 1966, Francis Bacon allowed a glimpse of the self-referential aspect of his practice. Asked about the reproductions of his own paintings in his studio, he told David Sylvester: ‘I very often find that I can work from photographs of my own works that have been done years before, and they become very suggestive.’[1] He specified that he was engaged on reconceiving an image of 1952. While photography was acknowledged as a conduit in this procedure, it is likely that drawing - a practice which he kept secret - was also a means for transformation. This conjecture tends to be supported by the acquisition from a single collection of thirty-six, hitherto unknown, sketchbook pages (T07355-T07386 and TGA 9810), together with pages from a history of boxing, a French newspaper and an inscribed book of photographs of monkeys.[2] Twenty-six of the drawings derive from a dismembered and spiral-bound sketchbook or possibly several identical such books; Two Owls, no.1, named for purposes of identification, is probably the first of the sheets. A further three sheets, which remain in private hands, have been identified.[3]

Bacon was at pains to conceal the fact that he made preparatory sketches of any kind. In 1962 he told Sylvester: ‘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.’[4] This statement appears categorical and was taken as such. However, his explanation takes on a different aspect in the light of the surviving works on paper, and sounds more like a (knowing) qualification - as ‘a kind of skeleton’ - of sketches made in the same oil paint as his canvases. His public rejection of drawing was associated with his concern to emphasise the spontaneity of his painting on canvas, which he discussed at length. By stressing the accidental, which was then central to the practice of abstract art, he maintained his technical contemporaneity at a time when preparatory drawing would appear anachronistic. Spontaneity also bore the authority of emotional immediacy in a putative outpouring onto the canvas.[5]

Several of the sketchbook pages relate to known canvases, and this has allowed them to be dated approximately to the years c.1957-61 which predate his conversations with Sylvester. This is reinforced by the circumstances of their survival. From the autumn of 1955, Bacon shared a flat at Overstrand Mansions in Battersea with Peter Pollock and Paul Danquah.[6] His studio there was photographed by Douglas Glass in 1957 and by Cecil Beaton in 1960.[7] Pollock and Danquah, as the latter has recalled, ‘respected the privacy of his studio ... [though] he was never secretive about his work’.[8] They acquired this material – which was, implicitly, given in lieu of rent - towards the end of Bacon’s period in Battersea which came to a close with his move to Reece Mews in Kensington in the autumn of 1961. The sheets had already been torn from the original sketchbook and were interleaved in the accompanying book, Introducing Monkeys.[9] Despite this suggestion of an inherent value, Danquah observed that they were not given or received with a commercial value in mind, and the artist did not consider them to be in any way comparable to his completed paintings.[10]

Bacon had made drawings even before this period, as revealed by Figure in a Landscape (Tate Gallery T07351) which is closely related to a canvas of 1952. However, the majority of other examples may be placed in the years around 1960. This is true of two sketches published by Michael Peppiatt,[11] and of a further study accompanied by a list dated ‘Jan 2nd 62’.[12] That the Tate’s thirty-six sheets are also datable to this period suggests an intense moment of activity. In particular, the limited colours used within the spiral sketchbook (black, Prussian blue, viridian green and pink) tend to reinforce the likelihood of a concentrated period of work; it is notable that this is also true of a further independent sheet: Turning Figure, c.1957-61 (Tate Gallery T07352). Stories of drawings being destroyed[13] may encourage the belief that they represent a much wider practice but the evidence is not yet secure. The artist’s imposed conditions of secrecy are contradicted by consigning papers to friends either for destruction or personal appreciation, but one result would be that the authenticity of all such works would be subject to scrutiny when they eventually became public.

There can be little doubt that the work in the spiral sketchbook would not have been considered as resolved images by Bacon himself. Some, as Richard Morphet has stated ‘carried a related charge of intense feeling and of physical immediacy’.[14] Others are ephemeral, but all provide just the insight into Bacon’s methods that he sought to suppress. Individually they offer evidence of the development of compositions which may have been made both before and after they were committed to canvas. The sequence of the sketchbook - established through comparison of pressure lines, off-prints on the reverse and other incidental details[15] - reveals the emergence of images across a series of pages. In some of these, such as Pink Crawling Figure (T07378) and associated leaves, the sequence was produced cumulatively as the artist overlaid new pages. The state of other sheets and the flexibility of the binding (which allowed each to be folded to the back) suggests that the sketchbook was not filled systematically and was submitted to rough treatment typical of the artist’s studio. Nevertheless, their survival reveals Bacon’s paintings to have been - at that time at least - far more carefully prepared than had previously been thought.

The sketchbook was set horizontally for Two Owls, no.1, with the perforations running along the top edge. The image has proved confusing, and one critic has identified it as ‘two figures suspended on ropes over a tank’.[16] In fact, it shows the two birds noted in the title. That on the right is set higher than its companion. They and their structure were drawn in pencil before both were reinforced in pink oil paint. This is the same colour used for the same birds in Two Owls, no.2 (Tate Gallery T07358) from the sketchbook. They differ in two particulars: here the framework is seen orthogonally rather than axonometrically, and the birds perch on the front rather than the back rail.

Both sketches can be related to four canvases made between 1950 and 1960. Bacon confirmed to David Boxer[17] that two owls appear on the axonometric framework set against the T-shaped cross in Fragment of a Crucifixion, 1950 (Stedelijk van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven),[18] and revealed that the foremost creature ‘is almost an owl, a sort of owl’ on which he had imposed a human mouth.[19] The outline of the birds in the background takes a form closely comparable to the pair in the sketches. The birds amongst branches in another painting, Owls, 1956 (private collection),[20] are clearer still, with one raised slightly above the other just as in Two Owls, no.1; this detail betrays their source in the shot of two ‘Newly fledged long-eared owls’ in Birds of the Night (1945) by the ornithological photographer Eric Hosking.[21] Both Boxer[22] and David Mellor[23] have reported that Bacon expressed an admiration for Hosking’s work. The photograph of the long-eared owls seems to have been the model - albeit increasingly schematised - for Bacon’s subsequent images. In Painting, 1958 also known as Pope with Owls (Musée d’Art Moderne, Brussels),[24] they serve as framing upright finials on the Pope’s throne.[25] This use may be compared to an urgently handled sketch made by Bacon across the endpapers of a book which shows two owls on the back of a chair placed on a platform; confusingly, the drawing has been attributed to both c.1956 and c.1960.[26] It is only in the fourth painting, Pope No.3, 1960 (private collection)[27] that the cubic perch seen in the Tate drawings and Fragment of a Crucifixion reappears. This combines the characteristics of the two sketchbook pages, having an axonometric structure but with the owls (rather more like cockatoos in appearance) on the front rail.

Bacon’s development of this curious theme may best be explored by reference to the third of these canvases, Painting, 1958 where the owls replace the floral finials copied from Velasquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1650 (Galleria Doria Pamphili, Rome). Rather than the owl’s association with wisdom, this transformation may have been stimulated by its predatory character as a nocturnal bird of prey and symbol of evil.[28] Related associations with fatality have been traced by Boxer (especially with recourse to Shakespeare),[29] and he has noted that the birds served as ‘a symbol of the darkness before Christ’s coming’.[30] He concludes that their conjunction with the dark backgrounds of the Pope paintings may be a deliberately satirical of ‘Christ’s emissary, traditionally associated with “The Light”’.[31] Some support for such a reading of Bacon’s subversive and aggressive reworking of the Velasquez portrait is found in the fact that the owls in Pope No.3 displace the side of meat on a similar structure in Pope No.2 (private collection).[32] In a manuscript list made by the painter in 1957, and acquired from the same source as the drawings, ‘Owls with meat in circle’ are included among potential subjects.[33] It seems feasible that the sketchbook drawings represent a link (compositionally and chronologically) between these variations.

Boxer’s symbological reading clearly points up a consistent link in Bacon’s work between the owls and religious concerns. This takes on a heightened significance in the light of the dramatic inscription which accompanies Two Owls, no.1: ‘Collapsed image | of Christ | Pool of Flesh’. Apparently written in the same pencil as the preliminary drawing (though divided from it by a bordering line), the juxtaposition implies a Christological significance for the owls which had been made more explicit in their partially concealed presence in Fragment of a Crucifixion. In both an antagonistic relationship is dramatised so that the placid image of the predatory bird appears to challenge the traditional Christian iconography of sacrifice. This seems to be echoed in the eviscerated descending bodies of Christ in Three Studies for a Crucifixion, 1962 (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York)[34] and Crucifixion, 1965 (Staatsgalerie Moderner Kunst, Munich).[35] Although denying any aspiration towards making a tragic art, Bacon would explain his imagery as recording ‘one’s own feelings about certain situations as closely to one’s own nervous system as one possibly can’.[36]

Matthew Gale
September 1998
Revised February 1999

[1] David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, 1975, revised ed. as The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, 1980, 3rd ed. 1990, 4th ed. as Interviews with Francis Bacon, 1993, p.37
[2] Ten illustrated pages from an unidentified book on boxing; Images du Monde, 27 August 1955; two photographs of works by Bacon; V.J. Stanek, Introducing Monkeys, London [c.1957]; Tate Gallery Archive 9810. For a further discussion see Matthew Gale, ‘Points of Departure’, in Francis Bacon: Working on Paper, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1999, pp.13-36
[3] These are: Lying Figure (reproduced in Gale 1999, p.25, fig.15), Figure in a Corner (ibid. p.29, fig.22), and Crawling Figure (ibid. p.30, fig.23)

[4] Sylvester 1993, pp.20-21

[5] See Gale 1999, p.35

[6] Daniel Farson, The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, London 1993, p.110 and Ronald Alley, Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné and Documentation, London 1964, p.99
[7] Douglas Glass in [?John Russell] ‘Francis Bacon’, Sunday Times, 5 May 1957, p.3; Alley 1964, p.273, see Gale 1999 frontispiece and p.15 fig.3; Richard Buckle (ed.), Self-Portrait with Friends: The Selected Diaries of Cecil Beaton, 1926-1974, London 1979, pp.321-7, see Gale 1999, p.12, fig.1
[8] Paul Danquah letter to the author, 24 May 1998, Tate Gallery catalogue files
[9] Ibid., V.J. Stanek, Introducing Monkeys, London [c.1957], Tate Gallery Archive 9810
[10] Paul Danquah in conversation with Richard Morphet, 21 July 1997, Tate Gallery cataloguing files

[11] Raised Chair with Owls and After Picasso’s Drawing of the Wounded Apollinaire, reproduced in Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, London 1996, between pp.142-3
[12] Title page of Muybridge, reproduced in Farson 1993, between pp.136-7
[13] Peppiatt 1996, p.225
[14] Richard Morphet, ‘Francis Bacon: 38 Unique Works on Paper; Four Unique Works on Paper’, National Art Collection Fund 1997 Review, London 1998, p.99

[15] Initially by Calvin Winner, Tate Gallery conservation, see also ‘Catalogue List and a Note about Sequences’ in Gale 1999, pp.70-2

[16] Richard Cork, ‘I can’t draw, said Bacon’, Times, 26 Jan.1998, p.18

[17] David W. Boxer, ‘The Early Work of Francis Bacon’, unpublished Ph.D thesis, John Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland 1975, pp.156-9
[18] Reproduced in Alley 1964, p.49, no.28 (colour) ; also reproduced in Gale 1999, p.23, fig.11
[19] Bacon interview with Boxer, August 1974, in Boxer 1975, p.159
[20] Reproduced in Alley 1964, [p.208], no.118
[21] Eric J. Hosking and Cyril W. Newberry, Birds of the Night, London 1945, p.71, pl.48; reproduced in Gale 1999, p.23, fig.10
[22] Boxer 1975, p.159, n72
[23] Reported by David Mellor, conversation with the author, 5 March 1998
[24] Reproduced in Alley 1964, [p.220], no.143
[25] Boxer 1975, p.160
[26] Raised Chair with Owls, reproduced in Peppiatt 1996, between pp.142-3 as ‘c.1956’; p.x as ‘c.1960’
[27] Reproduced in Alley 1964, [p.229], no.165; also reproduced in Gale 1999, p.24, fig.12

[28] Gertrud Schiller, Iconography of Christian Art: Vol. 2: The Passion of Jesus Christ, Gütersloh 1968, tr. Janet Seligman, London 1972, p.210
[29] Boxer 1975, pp.157-8
[30] Ibid., p.160
[31] Ibid.
[32] Repr. Alley 1964, [p.228] no.164
[33] Bacon, notes dated ‘Dec 17’ [1957], inside back cover of V.J.Stanek, Introducing Monkeys, London [c.1957], Tate Gallery archive 9810, for full trasncription see Gale 1999, pp.77-80

[34] Reproduced in Alley 1964, pp.144-5, no.201 (colour)
[35] Reproduced in Francis Bacon, exhibition catalogue, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 1996, p.40, no.43 (colour)
[36] Sylvester 1993, p.43