Magazine cutting of unidentified men from Francis Bacons archive two men in suits walking along the sea front
Magazine cutting of unidentified men from Francis Bacon’s archive

In his first visit to the Tate archive, Travis Elborough finds his mind going pleasurably adrift over a photograph of two unidentified men by the seaside found amid Francis Bacon’s archives.

In a seaside town, pleasure, or at least its less blatantly sensual cousin, leisure, is the business. If asked to imagine a picture of an English seaside scene, I suspect that few of us would put two large men in heavy-looking dark suits in the frame. Or, for that matter, slap bang in the middle of a promenade. And yet here they are in this photograph – an image loosed from a magazine, perhaps for its very incongruity, by Francis Bacon and now in the Tate Archive.

Yellowing and on paper so scratched it appeared cat-clawed rather than dog-eared, this clipping was tucked inside a file labelled ‘Portraits, political’. It was lurking below a photo of Stalin daubed in red paint. Disconcertingly, that pigmentation concentrated, accidentally or otherwise, around the Soviet leader’s eyes, aroused thoughts of David Bowie circa Aladdin Sane. Apart from a faint green smear, the suit men had been spared such ornamentation. Possibly Bacon felt them surreal enough not to bother – there is a whiff of Magritte’s La Reproduction Interdite c.1937 about the backs of those heads after all. Though, I’ll admit, the effect is somewhat undermined by the pudginess of those necks.

Since there is no supporting information and their faces can’t be seen, who they are or what business they have here – both at the beach and among Bacon’s papers – remains pleasingly indeterminate. That uncertainty is a distinct boon to anyone, like myself, who finds entertaining wayward, or patently absurd, speculations a good way to pass an hour or so. And, surely, if we look at an artist’s ephemera, it is to speculate – did doodle X lead to masterpiece Y?

With Bacon, a consummate scavenger, a man for whom a single still from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin served as faithfully as the Vim and boot polish he put to work on his teeth and hair, the ratpickings hold a particular, maybe even slightly prurient, fascination. I remembered that John Deakin, bibulous snapper-inresidence to Bacon’s Colony Room court, had died after a bender in Brighton. Did this seafront tableau summon up any memories of Deakin for Bacon? Or did he have ghosts of an altogether different kind in mind?

Looking at the sheer hulking mass of the figures, the breadth of shoulders, the volume of cloth seemingly deployed on the trousers, that odd concertina-like bunching at the knee, they give off a certain physical and… well, frankly, Baconesque menace. They are meaty in every sense of the word. At first glance I thought they were overdressed. But taking in the old codger in the deckchair on the left, kitted out in the droopy flat cap and long winter overcoat, I started to wonder if the reverse could be true. The idea that they might have forgone warmer clobber now made them seem all the more sinister to me.

Suddenly they’d become Goldberg and McCann, the seaside guest house henchmen from Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party. Or Ronnie and Reggie Kray down for the day. Off season. In a hurry. With people to see. But, no, that briefcase didn’t quite fit. Bow-shaped with a brassy clasp, it was a carrier better suited to manila files than sawn-off shotguns. This was a bag for the bureaucrat. The kind of bag the snug-bar-hogging bigwigs of Piltdown in Tony Hancock’s The Punch and Judy Man might use. A bag where a you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours building contract for a new marina could easily be stowed. Business for pleasure, you see. The usual distinctions, Bacon’s little scrapbook offering had conspired to remind me again, tend to go adrift whenever you are by the sea.

Travis Elborough is the author of The Bus We Loved and The Long-player Goodbye. He is currently writing a book about the English seaside