The mystery of Francis Bacon and Peter Watson

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UPDATE: Queer Saint: The Cultured Life of Peter Watson) is published 2 April 2015. Preorder it now!

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On the very weekend I sent off the completed manuscript of Queer Saint: the Cultured Life of Peter Watson to our publisher, my co-author Adrian was called up by The Observer for comment on a controversial exhibition of paintings by Francis Bacon that took place in 1955 – an exhibition organised by Peter Watson, who was a major financial supporter of Bacon in his early years – a show so deliberately provocative, it was visited by the police …

PW by Beaton early 50s

Peter Watson by Cecil Beaton, c. 1950. (Besides being a patron of artists including Bacon, Lucian Freud and John Craxton, Watson was the object of a lifelong unrequited passion from Cecil Beaton.)

The story is about an exhibition which took place at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (of which Watson was a founder) in 1955. It was small – only about a dozen paintings – but was significant because it was Bacon’s first retrospective, marking the moment when he ceased being merely a brilliant young painter and took up his place a landmark in the history of modern art.


The Observer article, out today, picks up the story:

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A hunt has begun to uncover the truth about painter Francis Bacon’s controversial first solo show at a public gallery, put on in London in 1955. It is a search for missing information that is already casting new light on the career of Britain’s most influential modern artist.

While art historians have established a few bare facts – that the police were called in to examine the art, that a key erotic picture was excluded from the official list of exhibits, and that a year later the gay man [Peter Watson] who organised the show with Bacon was found dead – no further records or photographs survive.

“This really is the show that time forgot,” said Gregor Muir, director of the Institute of Contemporary Art, the venue for the first Bacon retrospective, staged 60 years ago in January. “It was clearly an important moment for art in London and Bacon was already recognised as a contemporary talent, he had shown with Lucian Freud and Ben Nicholson at the Venice Biennale, but when we wanted to find out more we hit a brick wall. There was just nothing there.”

At the end of last year Muir and his colleagues at the ICA were putting together a history of the gallery’s first 20 years, taking it up to the late 1960s. The Bacon show was clearly a significant event and the disturbing paintings shown, including some of his famous studies of “screaming popes” alongside some studies of nameless businessmen in dark suits, suggested to Muir that the show was more intentionally provocative than had been understood.

Bacon, who was born in Dublin in 1909, lived in London. He made the selection of paintings and then hung them in the ICA’s Dover Street building in collaboration with his friend and benefactor, Peter Watson.

“The holy grail that we are looking for is a photograph of the way the gallery looked,” said Muir, who is planning a small display about the “lost” show for early next year, “but we would also like to hear from anyone who may have seen it. They would be quite old by now, of course. The gallery at Dover Street had a glass side and we believe the Pope paintings were hung opposite the paintings of the businessmen. They have exactly the same poses as the popes. The composition is indistinguishable.”

The missing painting, not recorded in the catalogue, is the key, Muir believes. “It was a study of two men wrestling in the grass. Wrestling was popular among the gay community in London, where homosexuality was still illegal, of course. I believe this picture, coupled with the juxtaposition of the popes and the businessmen, was a coded message. Watson and Bacon seem to have deliberately put on a very ‘queer’ show indeed.”

The police visited the show to examine the picture of the wrestling men and verify it did not depict an illegal act. “We are still in the process of trying to find out more,” said Muir. “Watson and Bacon clearly wanted to do something very provocative.”


Read the rest of the article here.

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© Jeremy Dronfield 2017