Offered at Sotheby’s evening sale of British Art on June 29 (billed as ‘The Jubilee Auction’), the 6ft 6in x 4ft 10in (1.98 x 1.48m) oil on canvas from 1964 had an unpublished estimate reportedly in excess of £34m. It was the subject of an irrevocable bid, meaning it was always bound to sell on the night, and was duly knocked down at £37.5m (£43.3m with premium).
While Bacon triptychs have fetched more, Sotheby’s said the price was an auction record for a single panel by the artist. This was true in terms of premium-inclusive prices but not when using hammer prices for which the highest individual price is the £37.6m (£42.2m with premium) for Portrait of George Dyer Talking that sold at Christie’s in 2014.
The vendor of Sotheby’s picture was a European collector who acquired it in 1982-83. The painting, which was titled Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud, had in fact originally been part of a triptych itself with each section showing Freud sitting in a different pose.
The three canvases became separated after it had last been exhibited publicly at Dublin’s Municipal Gallery of Modern Art in 1965 with this central panel being sold to British collector Colin Tennant (the 3rd Baron Glenconner) with the two side panels later ending up in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and a private collection respectively.
Friendship and rivalry
Combining two titans of the art market, the portrait explored the “great friendship and epochal rivalry” between Bacon and Freud “that lasted from 1944 until the apex of their artistic sparring in the mid-1980s”, according to Sotheby’s catalogue.
The two men had originally been introduced by the painter Graham Sutherland and became close friends towards the end of the Second World War. Regularly visiting each other’s west London studio, they spent a lengthy period frequenting the drinking dens of Soho, sometimes joined by other members of a bohemian set that included the likes of artist Frank Auerbach, photographer John Deakin and model Henrietta Moraes.
Indeed the three canvases that comprise Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud were based on a group of Deakin’s photos of Freud taken in Bacon’s studio.
Bacon produced no fewer than 14 portraits of Freud between 1964-71, all of which were based on Deakin images which themselves were found torn, crumpled and spattered with paint in Bacon’s studio after he died.