Tony Bevan



Not on display

Tony Bevan born 1951
Acrylic paint on canvas
Support: 2586 × 3610 × 42 mm
Purchased with assistance from Evelyn, Lady Downshire's Trust Fund 1995


Head 1995 is a large, horizontally oriented figurative painting by the British artist Tony Bevan. The work depicts the left side of a man’s head that is positioned in the bottom-centre of the composition and is tilted backward, is if seen from below. Only the face, left ear and jawline are visible, with the neck truncated just below the chin. The subject is set against a solid purple background, the upper part of which he seems to stare up towards with a blank expression. The face and head are extremely craggy and gnarled in their appearance, an effect that is achieved by the heavy interconnecting red and black lines that cover it. These seem to indicate either the internal physiological systems of the body or a series of injuries sustained by the subject. Head is signed and numbered by the artist three times on the reverse.

Bevan made Head in 1995 in his studio in Deptford in south London. It is one of a series of head portraits produced by the artist in the mid-1990s (see, for example, Head 1994, Tate P77866, and Portrait Head and Neck 1994, Tate P77865). The painting was executed on a medium-weight cotton canvas that the artist shrank and sprayed with an acrylic sizing medium. Unlike traditional opaque canvas primers, used to smooth and unify the support’s surface before painting, the sizing medium used by Bevan is unconventionally clear and glossy and emphasises the cloth’s original weave and texture. Bevan also makes his own paint by grinding pigments together and suspending them in an acrylic medium similar to the one he uses for sizing his canvases. He began work on Head 1995 by making preliminary studies in charcoal, after which he drew the image in charcoal onto the canvas while it was still wet with the sizing medium so that the dark lines would be absorbed into the canvas’s fibres. The painting was positioned flat on the floor of his studio in order to be painted, with the artist working on his hands and knees, and it was only placed loosely onto a stretcher once complete. As the drying time of acrylic paint is significantly faster than oil, Bevan works quickly to execute paintings such as Head 1995, and he often uses a combination of brushes and his hands to move the paint around. Due to the artist’s dynamic and rapid style of working, large clumps of powdered pigment are adhered to the surface of the painting and create a matt and textured finish to the work while small areas of canvas are also left exposed.

Writing in 1998 about Bevan’s head paintings, the art historian Marco Livingstone commented:

The human head, and specifically his own, has been Tony Bevan’s most obsessive subject during the 90s, endlessly rephrased and reinvented on a colossal scale that allows the viewer no escape from the confrontation. Of all the images at the disposal of a figurative artist it is the one with the greatest potential of speaking of the human spirit and the full range of emotions.
(Livingstone 1998, accessed 13 August 2015 p.5)

As Livingstone suggests, Bevan’s head paintings are often self-portraits, yet they are not necessarily made from life. According to the curator Catherine Kinley, the artist works from a number of composite sources, including traditional portrait painting, and his is portraiture of many different kinds – psychological, social and political as well as representational (see Richard Morphet, unpublished Board note presented to Tate Gallery Trustees, April 1995, Tate Acquisition File, Tony Bevan, PC10.1).

Bevan’s heads are often presented in a shallow space, with the face shown frontally and with a rough paint surface that gives the appearance of granularity to the skin, and all these elements combine, Kinley argues, to present an unsettling image. However, she acknowledges that Bevan regards his portraits as non-figurative and describes his head works as ‘containers for many things’. Making marks within these containers, she argues, ‘is not to represent the appearance of a head, as to find things within it and, as it were, within himself’ (quoted in Richard Morphet, unpublished Board note presented to Tate Gallery Trustees, April 1995, Tate Acquisition File, Tony Bevan, PC10.1).

Further reading
Marco Livingstone, ‘The Spirit Beneath the Skin’, in Tony Bevan, exhibition catalogue, Michael Hue-Williams, London 1998, pp. 5–12, reproduced pl.69.
Sue Hubbard, ‘Tony Bevan’, in Tony Bevan: New Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Ben Brown Fine Arts, London 2008,,cntnt01,detail,0&cntnt01articleid=221&cntnt01returnid=58, accessed 13 August 2015.
Tony Bevan, Tony Bevan: Self Portraits, exhibition catalogue, National Portrait Gallery, London 2011, reproduced p.31.

Judith Wilkinson
August 2015

Supported by Christie’s.

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Technique and condition

The painting was executed on a single piece of medium-weight cotton duck canvas, which is stretched over a 23-membered softwood expandable stretcher and attached with wire staples at the rear. The artist carried out preliminary drawing in charcoal and the stretched canvas was then prepared with an unpigmented acrylic emulsion size, which was sprayed on both front and back faces and has resulted in a very stiff fabric. However, the canvas was then taken off the stretcher for the painting stage and only re-stretched after the painting had been completed. The paint layers extend right to the top and bottom edges, whereas the left and right edges have been slightly lengthened by the addition of thin strips of black 'strip lining' cloth. The end of the original canvas and the start of this black cloth are visible on the painting's left edge. The original dimensions of the work would therefore have been slightly higher and slightly narrower.

The paint was mixed up by the artist using dry pigment powders, which were added to the same acrylic emulsion medium that had been used to prepare the canvas and applied to the (unpigmented) primed canvas laying horizontal on floor. A variety of brushes were used, although sometimes the artist's hand was used to push the paint around. The purple background colour does not extend beneath the head and is the thinnest area of paint used, the canvas being visible through it in many places. The head appears to have a black paint under much of it, possibly used over the charcoal drawing to reinforce the composition. The paint was applied in a very bold and vigorous manner, with each brushstroke still clearly visible. Although the paint was layered over dried existing layers in many areas, much use was also made of wet-in-wet technique, which would have had to occur very rapidly due to the relatively fast drying time of the acrylic medium. The paint used for the head is very varied in terms of its texture and gloss. There are very large clumps of pigment still apparent in many areas, often over 5mm in diameter. Where pigment has collected the surface tends to be more matt, typically at the edge of each brushstroke. According to the artist, the head took 2-3 months to complete.

The painting is in excellent condition. Although the canvas is fairly floppy, the fabric is very stiff due to the acrylic sizing layers, and subsequently far less likely to cause problems to the paint layers from banging against the rear stretcher bars. This slackness is also a feature that the artist wants and so no attempts have been made to tighten it up. However, with the artist's consent, it has been agreed to frame the painting in a simple 'L-section' frame. This will provide a far greater level of rigidity and protection to the painting and is currently being constructed at Tate.

Tom Learner
August 2000

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