Thursday, February 28, 2013

Bacon slicer brings screaming pope to auction

A slice of Bacon: £25,000-30,000
It's fitting, perhaps, that a version of one of Francis Bacon's screaming popes should be coming under the hammer in the very month that the real Pope — Herr Ratzinger, late of Rome — is leaving office under a cloud of controversy, with some contingents screaming for him to surrender more than his papal ring and crimson pumps.

But the pope that will be offered at auction at a Surrey fine art saleroom on March 20 has had good reason to scream — because someone took a knife to him and sliced him to pieces.

This is just the latest instalment in a dismal series of events connected to the painter Francis Bacon, who is no longer around to object to the way his discarded artworks have been resurrected and commercially exploited. He may, of course, have just poured more champagne and laughed about it all the way to the Colony Club.

Back in April 2007, the Surrey auctioneers Ewbank (as they were then known) offered the 'Robertson Collection' of Francis Bacon studio throw-outs. To call it a collection is a serious misnomer, however, for the works were never 'collected' in any conventional sense. The story goes like this:

An electrician, who happened to be working at Francis Bacon's South Kensington home in 1978, 'rescued' diaries, cheque stubs and cancelled canvases by Bacon from a rubbish skip outside the building into which, he claims, Bacon was about to throw them. According to the account offered by The Daily Mail in 2007, the electrician, Mac Robertson, then 75, "persuaded the artist to let him keep some of the junk." Robertson went on to say, "I was in the right place at the right time. I had no idea that the bits and bobs Bacon was about to throw away might one day be worth a fortune."

Looking at the many surviving photographs of Bacon's studio, with its great Pyrenean slopes of sedimented detritus, it's hard to imagine the artist discarding anything, let alone the numerous contact sheets of Muybridge-like black and white photographs (above) which were a major source of inspiration. But these were also apparently destined for the skip until Robertson 'rescued' them. The haul — which included canvases that Bacon had quite literally de-faced with a Stanley knife in order to cancel them beyond redemption — went on to make £1.13 million when offered at the Ewbank Auction in April 2007. (You can see the video I shot of one of the destroyed portraits selling for £400,000 on You Tube here and my blog posts of 2007 here.)

Now another tranche of sliced-up Bacon is coming under the hammer, again at Ewbank Clarke Gammon Weller (as they are now known) in Woking, Surrey.

This time the material comes from the collection of the late Lewis Todd (1925-2006) (left), a  commercial artist who died in 2006. A Sunday painter of microscopic talent, Todd was in need of some cheap canvas on which to paint his amateur still lifes and landscapes. An acquaintance, Mr John Kesterton of the Heffer Gallery (now defunct), gave him a large canvas on which Francis Bacon had executed a study for one of his series of popes inspired by Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X. How Kesterton came to own the Bacon canvas is unclear but it seems the Heffer Gallery also supplied Bacon with artist's materials so perhaps the gallery took the canvas in exchange.

Kesterton told Todd that if he wanted to use the unpainted side of the Bacon canvas he had to slice it up first. (At that time Bacon was not the 'blue-chip' artist he has subsequently become.) Todd happily obliged before executing his own paintings on the other side — works of consummate banality which he then sold to buyers at a craft market in Cambridge.

Auctioneer Chris Ewbank, who will disperse the slashed canvases at his Burnt Common saleroom in Surrey on March 20, has said of the consignment, "It is fantastic to think that these pictures were once part of a much larger painting of historical importance." Fantastic isn't quite the word I'd have chosen, but perhaps Mr Ewbank is thinking of the buyer's premium he will reap. The collection is estimated to realise around £100,000, but if the sale generates anything like the feeding frenzy that greeted the Robertson consignment the outcome could be in seven figures.

Given the prices these things realise it is not surprising that so many mutilated Bacon works have come under the hammer since the artist's death, most of them consigned by people claiming to have been the artist's friend. Perhaps they were. After all, Bacon was an affable fellow. He it was who coined the phrase, "Champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends!"

Viewing for the sale at the Burnt Common auction rooms is on Saturday March 16 from 10am to 2pm; Monday March 18 from 10am to 5pm, Tuesday March 19, from 10am to 8pm and on the morning of the sale from 9.30-10. For further information, please contact Chris Ewbank FRICS ASFAV on 01483 223 101 or