Francis Bacon. Catalogue Raisonné. 5 Volumes.

Francis Bacon. Catalogue Raisonné. 5 Volumes. The Estate of Francis Bacon 2016. pp 1537
Martin Harrison, ed. Rebecca Daniels, associate ed
ISBN 9780 95692731 6 £1,000
Review published British Art Journal Volume XVII, no 2 (2016)

Beautifully and meticulously produced, these five volumes are a magnificent work. Martin Harrison and Rebecca Daniels have laboured for many years to produce them: the result is surely a model of what a dedicated team can do if given sufficient time and resources. High quality catalogues of this type underpin the ability of scholars to study the work of a given artist seriously and in detail. The volumes are overwhelmingly scholarly and informative. Rather than seeking to contribute directly to the long-running debate about the meaning of Bacon’s work, they contribute indirectly by displaying the material which can enable objective analysis.

Martin Harrison has written extensively about Francis Bacon; he is one of the leading writers about the great artist of 20th century Britain, (who should be treated as wholly English and not Irish, despite the place of his birth; just as England does not claim Jack Yeats, born in London but thoroughly Irish in all ways). His writing on Bacon bears certain characteristics. Always thorough, he likes to base his opinions on facts and one can imagine the pleasure which the accumulation of the facts in these books must have given him. He and his associate editor must now be the most knowledgeable people in the world about Bacon’s work.

It is particularly important in the case of Bacon to establish facts about his career as an artist, as many things which are not facts intrude in his case. Over his long life in the public eye – from 1945 to his death in 1992 – Bacon spoke a great deal of nonsense. Fortunately, one does not have to wrestle with his writing because he was unable to – or chose not to – write anything much except chatty and harmless short letters to his friends. But a decision to write about him forces the writer to consider what Bacon is said to have said. Some of what we are told he said comes down to us in fabricated form. The gospel according to David Sylvester, in the published interviews, is not a transcript of what Bacon said; it is a paraphrase, tidied up for publication by the artist himself after extensive interventions by Sylvester to suit his agenda. Here is what Sylvester wrote about the structure of the published interviews:

“What is preserved here amounts to no more than about a fifth of the material in the transcripts – out of choice, not because of any arbitrary limitation on length. Furthermore, since the editing has been designed to present Bacon’s thought clearly and economically – not to provide some sort of abbreviated record of how the taped sessions happened to develop – the sequence in which things were said has been drastically rearranged. Each of the interviews, apart from the first, has been constructed from transcripts of two or more sessions, and paragraphs in these montages sometimes combine things said on two or three different days quite widely separated in time. In order to prevent the montage from looking like a montage, many of the questions have been recast or simply fabricated. The aim has been to seam together a more concise and coherent argument than ever came about when we were talking, without making it so coherent as to lose the fluid, spontaneous flavour of talk.”

The other person whose contribution to the Bacon canon needs close attention is Michel Leiris. When he “translated” Sylvester’s work into French, even Bacon was a bit surprised about the results, finding the translation “possibly better than the original”. Leiris had somehow “managed to give it a much more profound meaning than I had been able to express. It’s extraordinary: I felt myself to be much more intelligent when I read it. I didn’t think I had said such things”.

That does not mean that, in searching for facts about the artist and his thoughts, one has to ignore the record of what Bacon allegedly said, but it does mean that anyone writing from the point of view of a historian rather than, say, that of a polemicist, has to be wary of it. One also has to be extremely wary of David Sylvester’s role in Bacon studies. His motivation in promoting Francis Bacon and his work, for a very considerable period, seems to have been a mixture of admiration bordering on worship of the artist, together with an impression of wishing to promote his own career as the keeper, and to some extent creator, of Bacon’s growing reputation. My feeling is that, as artist and disciple interacted in the early days of their relationship, it dawned on the highly intelligent and loquacious artist, who could talk but not write, and whose intellectual rigour was limited by his autodidacticism, that he could use the highly intelligent, but obsequious Sylvester, who could write, to help to create for him a reputation as a serious artistic thinker which would help Bacon’s pictures sell. Bacon was no doubt aware of how other serious contemporary artists were burnishing their reputations as participants in the wider intellectual world around them by using the work of others. The catalogue for Giacometti’s first solo exhibition in New York, in 1948, had, for example, a piece by Sartre.

Bacon had all sorts of ideas about art, some of them mildly interesting and original when first aired; but he was inconsistent in his views, easily bored and, like most of us, ignorant about art which he was not particularly interested in. Moreover, he drank a lot, mixed with some rather strange people in a milieu which did not, shall we say, encourage studious reflection, and liked to show off verbally and to dominate and if necessary subjugate those listening to him. Sylvester was his route to consistency and to being taken seriously intellectually. Between them they developed some catch phrases, which I cannot bring myself to reproduce here, so tiresome has their repetition made them. Even if they ever had any deep philosophical meaning, they have become nonsensical through their repetition. Bacon was a very great artist, but not a great thinker or artistic philosopher.

Martin Harrison cannot go too far in the direction of agreeing with my analysis, but he does nod towards it. On page 44 he says “But he was a painter, not an art historian. Evidently he felt under no obligation to be consistent in his opinions, as contradictions and infelicities in his recorded remarks testify”. This lets the artist off the hook completely: he could say anything he liked, however ridiculous or inconsistent with what he had said previously, and be forgiven on that basis. Jeffrey Bernard, the sage and soak of Soho, was acute enough in his sober moments to skewer Bacon in a few words describing his conversation: “One minute Monet is a giant and four drinks later he’s absolutely ghastly”. I think that says it all about Bacon the philosopher of art.

The other thing which Martin Harrison has to cope with, and he copes with it quite brilliantly, is somehow keeping a cool head when writing about Bacon in a relatively short essay in Volume I, when the bibliography enveloping the subject is so large and so full of its own pretentious dead-ends. Harrison stays very largely factual: he is cool under fire; one would want him on one’s side in any Bacon-scholar contest. The essay has calm, logical sections on aspects of Bacon’s productions: how he painted his pictures, in what format, requiring what types of frame, how some pictures were amended and so on. I liked this approach very much. One feels that the writer knows what he is talking about and is using his heavy knowledge to make simple, powerful points. These are not the last words on Bacon the artist: they are probably (hopefully) not even Harrison’s last words; but they are careful, thoughtful words. Those interested in Bacon would do well to read them.

Now to the catalogue which fills Volumes II, III and IV. There are some choices to be made about the way such catalogues are prepared. I have had to use a number of them in my own research and one does sometimes find oneself groaning with frustration as they impinge negatively on one’s nervous system (but via the brain). They can be infuriating, especially if they skimp on, or omit, detailed provenance information. Here the work is a triumph. I hope I am allocating praise fairly if I say that I think much of this work has been done by Rebecca Daniels. I know she has slaved to verify the details supporting each entry, not taking for granted the information easily available to her in the previous catalogue raisonné of Bacon’s work, published in 1964 by Ronald Alley of the Tate, under the encouragement of the great director of the Tate, Sir John Rothenstein. That work was done relatively early in Bacon’s career and yet the current editors have been able to locate approximately 40 new works from the period it covered, which gives a hint of the extent of their original research. These have come to light, in the years following Bacon’s death, from private collections and stores where their existence had been unknown or forgotten; some of them are pictures which Alley thought had been destroyed, but which in fact survived, probably unbeknownst to the artist. New discoveries include Bacon’s first Pope (“Landscape with Pope/Dictator” of c.1946. Catalogue number 46-05).

The catalogue is significantly more professional than the 1964 work, to an extent reflecting the greater ability now to obtain and cross-check information via the internet and to obtain obscure exhibition catalogues for the more esoteric shows. Many owners and former owners have been spoken to. As a result, exhibition history and provenance information is fulsome, although the editors have not always been able to circumvent the infamous “Private Collection” entry, which so infuriates provenance researchers seeking to piece together the history of a particular collection, for example, by breaking their ability to trace the chain of descent of a picture from the artist’s studio. Each entry has a short narrative passage to give the picture’s context and background. Of course, even in a work of this stature the impression of finality in the information provided is an illusion, as more provenance information will inevitably emerge. There may have to be a second edition in the years to come. One small item which I would have preferred to see, as a practical help to hard-pressed scholars struggling to research something, is an index of names. If the user wants to look up which pictures were owned by Peter Watson or the little-known early collector Jimmy Bomford, he has no choice but to dredge his way through the provenance sections against each painting, jotting down notes as he goes. This is possible but painful.

Special mention should be made of the photographs. It is difficult to photograph and reproduce photographs of works of art in a way which ensures consistency of tone and colour and accuracy to the original marks on the canvas. There are many variables which can intervene to complicate the overall picture. To state only the most obvious, non-technical, issues, different photographers, at different times in varying light and using different film and so on will inevitably produce different images. When one knows a picture it can be astonishing to observe how different it can appear in reproductions. The nature of the paper used for the printing in the book is another source of unwelcome intervention. In this work, the illustrations are a triumph. In an attitude typifying the rigorous approach of the editors, up to date digital photographic techniques have been used to ensure that the illustrations are of the highest quality which could reasonably be achieved. Prudence Cuming Associates were used for the photography because they had photographed works for the artist during his life. The person who undertook a lot of the new photography which had to be commissioned for the catalogue was the same person who had often photographed the pictures when Bacon had originally completed them and released them from his studio. The result of all this care in seeking to achieve accuracy is, for example, that the beautiful fluid brushstrokes that sometimes characterise Bacon’s work are clear and strong in the image. Simply to take an example at random would be “Study from Portrait of Pope Innocent X by Velazquez, 1959″ (catalogue 59-10), where the clothes are gorgeously painted. The photographs also enable a study of the many different surface treatments which Bacon deployed.

Apart from various essays, Volume I contains an extremely useful chronology of Bacon’s long life. It is detailed and provides the best available starting point for those seeking to base their comments on the artist on a factual armature, although the methodology used is not apparent. Have the editors transported into the chronology every single date they are aware of, regardless of significance? Entries like “FB and the Sutherlands have dinner in Monte Carlo” (24 December 1949) or “FB in Wivenhoe” (14 February 1966) suggest by their banality an attempt at a comprehensive coverage of known dates. If that has been the approach, it shows the astonishing shortage of facts known about even an artist of Bacon’s stature, as the vast majority of days of each year are blanks. If, in fact, selections have been made, that is understandable but unclear. There will be many more dates available from research and some of them will be about people who were important to Bacon’s career.

An example of a person whose interaction with Bacon was highly significant for the artist was Peter Watson. He procured the first serious piece of art criticism on Bacon, in the final issue of Horizon, and he facilitated the first retrospective of his work at the ICA in 1955. Although there is an entry of a meeting between Bacon and Watson on 16 February 1956, there is no entry for the dinner which took place in London a few days before Watson’s death in May of the same year, when Bacon met up with Richard Chopping, Cecil Beaton and Rosamond Lehmann, but no Watson, who was prevented by illness from joining them. Similarly, Watson and Waldemar Hansen had dinner with Bacon in Monte Carlo on 9 July 1947.

Another example of a piece of information which the editors might have included if they had been aware of it relates to the house called Horsemoor Studio, which Bacon bought in 1964, from the artist Jim Page-Roberts, who had built the house for himself a few years earlier. Bacon responded to an advert in the Daily Telegraph offering the house for sale, saw it and, according to Page-Roberts, agreed to buy it immediately. It probably appealed to him because, whilst small and manageable, it had been purpose-built for an artist, with one very large picture window. Page-Roberts went down for lunch on one occasion, with Bacon and George Dyer, and was later told that the house was given to Dyer by Bacon after a heavy drinking session. The chronology picks up, presumably from the Marlborough Gallery records, that the house was acquired in 1964 and was given to Dyer on 15 October 1965, but it does not record that Bacon wrote to Page-Roberts as late as 31 March 1966 saying that he was hoping to sell the house. The fact that he was involved in decisions about the sale may suggest that the gift to Dyer was more gestural than legal.

The glory of Volume V is the bibliography. This, like the chronology, is a great thing for those who want to tackle Bacon, or more likely some aspect of him. It seeks to list all the possible sources of published information about him. The aspirant new writer on Bacon would do well to look mournfully at the length of this bibliography, and the extraordinary range of topics which have already been covered, before jumping into the same shark-infested pond. I picked up an odd omission when checking a cross-reference. On page 58 of Volume I, Martin Harrison refers to the scratchy little pieces of writing that were probably written by David Sylvester, but which were published during Bacon’s lifetime under his name. The famous piece for Matthew Smith’s 1953 retrospective is picked up in Part 1 of the bibliography, but not things like the short piece which appeared under Bacon’s name in a catalogue for a Louis le Brocquy retrospective exhibition which appeared in Dublin and then in Belfast in 1966/7, even though it is referred to on page 58. The contribution to the catalogue consists of one long sentence. It is far too ordered and crafted to have been written by Bacon, but it says things which he may have believed or said he believed (or was prepared to have said in his name). It should certainly be in any bibliography. But what carping! The bibliography alone is a major art historical achievement.

Martin Harrison and Rebecca Daniels are professional art historians in the best sense of the term. They are scholars who are keen to achieve the worthy aims of factual completeness and accuracy. They have produced a work which reflects their skills and their approach. It is a monument to a great artist’s work: he has secured the editors he deserves.