Lot 15
  • 15

Francis Bacon

15,000,000 - 20,000,000 GBP
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  • Three Studies for Portrait of George Dyer (on Light Ground)
  • oil on canvas, in three parts
  • each: 35.5 by 30cm.; 14 by 12in.
  • Executed in 1964.


Marlborough Fine Art, Ltd., London

Galerie Claude Bernard, Paris (acquired from the above in 1965)

Odyssia Skouras, New York

Galleria Galatea, Turin

Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 1970


London, Marlborough Fine Art, Ltd., Francis Bacon: Recent Paintings, 1965, n.p., no. 1, illustrated in colour

Paris, Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais; and Dusseldorf, Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, Francis Bacon: Rétrospective, 1971-72, p. 125, no. 53, illustrated

Lugano, Museo d’Arte Moderna, Francis Bacon, 1993, n.p., no. 33, illustrated in colour

London, Marlborough Fine Art, Ltd., Francis Bacon: Small Portrait Studies, 1993, n.p., no. 4, illustrated in colour

New Haven, The Yale Center for British Art; Minneapolis, The Minneapolis Insitute of Arts; San Francisco, The Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco; and Fort Worth, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Francis Bacon: A Retrospective Exhibition, 1999, p. 137, illustrated in colour

Milan, Palazzo Reale, Bacon, 2008, pp. 126-27, no. 34, illustrated in colour


John Russell, Francis Bacon, London 1971, n.p., no. 65, illustrated

Lorenza Trucchi, Francis Bacon, London 1976, n.p., no. 100, illustrated in colour

John Russell, Francis Bacon, London 1979, p. 84, no. 36, illustrated in colour

Michel Leiris, Francis Bacon: Full Face and in Profile, New York 1983, n.p., no. 24, illustrated in colour

Michel Leiris, Francis Bacon, Paris 1987, n.p., no. 23, illustrated in colour

Milan Kundera, Bacon: Portraits and Self-Portraits, London 1996, pp. 22-25, illustrated in colour

Giles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, London 2005, pp. 41 and 105 (text), no. 34


Colour:The colours in the catalogue illustration are fairly accurate although the overall tonality is slightly brighter and more vibrant in the original. Condition:This work is in very good condition. There is evidence of minor frame rubbing in places to the extreme edges from the original frame which are only visible when the work is unframed. No restoration is apparent when examined under ultra-violet light.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

"A compact and chunky force of nature, with a vivid and highly unparsonical turn of phrase, he embodied a pent-up energy... a spirit of mischief, touched at times by melancholia... his wild humour, his sense of life as a gamble and the alarm system that had been bred into him from boyhood... George Dyer will live for ever in the iconography of the English face."

John Russell, Francis Bacon, London 1993, pp. 160-65.

Within the grand theatre of Francis Bacon’s life and work, George Dyer inhabits a position of tremendous importance. Appearing in over forty paintings, with as many created following his death as executed during his lifetime, Dyer wields a power unlike any other. His portrayal spans the full extent of human drama: at once vulnerable, brooding, romantic, absurd, heroic and tortured Bacon’s painterly incarnations traverse the sublime to the ridiculous. Painted within the first year of their meeting, Three Studies for Portrait of George Dyer (on Light Ground) materialised at the height of Bacon’s affection and infatuation with his new lover. Charged with desire and framed within a serene pale ground, this mutating and vibrant portrait combines masterfully scumbled, scraped and diffused handling of paint with arresting intensity and consummate psychological depth. Importantly, there is only one other named work of George Dyer that precedes the moment of Three Studies for Portrait of George Dyer (on Light Ground)’s execution: this is the first 14 by 12 inch format triptych dated to the very end of 1963. Between 1963 and 1969, a furiously busy moment in his career, Bacon would paint only five triptychs of Dyer in this intimate scale: even though he would obsessively continue to paint Dyer’s likeness after his death, Bacon never again returned to a portrayal of Dyer in this close and highly psychological format after 1969.  As a result, these extraordinarily rare small portraits of Dyer represent a life-force that with his passing, were never to return. An exceptional work therefore that possesses an equally exceptional exhibition history, Three Studies for Portrait of George Dyer (on Light Ground) was hand chosen by the artist for inclusion in the single most important exhibition in Bacon’s lifetime, the grand scale retrospective held at the Grand Palais in 1971 (an accolade only previously afforded to Pablo Picasso among living painters). Sadly, this apogee in Bacon’s career would be the catalyst for Dyer’s inevitable demise. On the eve of the opening he committed suicide. In death, Dyer was exalted to the status of Romantic archetype, recurring incessantly in Bacon’s work despite of his absence from life. Conversely, painted within months of their first meeting, Three Studies for Portrait of George Dyer (on Light Ground) exudes passion and vitality, a fervent masterpiece in which Dyer emerges from Bacon’s bravura painterly marks as a force that is indelibly alive. Perhaps most significantly of all, it is in this work that we see for the very first time the characteristic profile that would become a powerful leitmotif in Bacon’s painting; the very first time in which John Deakin’s famous source images of George Dyer (found ripped, torn and paint splattered among the detritus of 7 Reece Mews) palpably and incontrovertibly emerge through Bacon’s dramatic painterly marks.

This extraordinary triptych illustrates a seismic shift in Bacon’s methodology at the beginning of the 1960s: moving away from emblematic forms – such as those extrapolated from Velazquez’s Pope, Muybridge’s figures in motion, Van Gogh, and Eisenstein – the impetus to harness abstract forces and emanations beyond the realm of appearance yet staunchly anchored to the figure, began to consume Bacon’s practice. Realising the need for a physical armature upon which to hang this ‘energy’ and ‘living quality’, Bacon turned to his inner social circle. Alongside Dyer, the ensuing deluge of likenesses after Isabel Rawsthorne, Lucian Freud, Muriel Belcher and Henrietta Moraes acted as the predominant physical catalysts for Bacon’s translation of an inner bodily reality. In early 1964 Bacon commissioned his drinking partner, friend and Vogue photographer, John Deakin to photograph Dyer and the other protagonists of his Soho enclave and in so doing was provided with an instant repository of visual cue cards. The ensuing years would deliver a host of astonishing paintings in which the impact of Deakin’s photographs is made remarkably manifest; at the end of his life Bacon still possessed more than three hundred of his friend's images. Having already established a practice of reconstituting and melding photographic source imagery – from books, photographs and magazines – with memory traces and imagination, Bacon had long disposed of the need to paint from life. As he told David Sylvester, "I've had photographs taken for portraits because I very much prefer working from the photographs... It's true to say I couldn't attempt to do a portrait from photographs of somebody I don't know. But, if I both know them and have photographs of them, I find it easier to work than actually having their presence in the room" (Francis Bacon quoted in: David Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, London 2000, p. 40). Bacon’s use of Deakin’s photos represents a coming together of the artist’s two methological tenets: source material and psychological familiarity. By the early 1960s, Bacon’s subjects were the people he knew best, and by wielding pictorial invention and drawing from the catalogue of photographs taken by Deakin, he produced some of the most arresting portraits of the Twentieth Century.

The present work represents one of the very first incarnations that expresses the critical importance of Deakin’s photos. In Three Studies for Portrait of George Dyer (on Light Ground) three of Deakin’s images of Dyer bear striking correspondences to the individual canvases. Where Bacon famously, though somewhat disingenuously, affirmed that he never made preparatory drawings, in many ways Deakin’s photographs – and the violent manipulation enacted upon them by the artist – take the place of such phantom provisional studies. In Deakin’s photos Dyer stands on a street in Soho, captured facing left, centre and right. When examining each canvas of Three Studies for Portrait of George Dyer (on Light Ground) in view of these images, it is clear that they provided the essential armature for Bacon to hang the incredible impressions and pulsations that emanated from George Dyer. The congruence of the shirt collar, the line of Dyer’s shoulders, and the turn of each head finds remarkable correlation in each panel of this triptych. Utterly indebted to these invaluable documents, Three Studies for Portrait of George Dyer (on Light Ground) is the work in which the famous muzzle-like profile arrives for the very first time in full force.

Born in 1934, George Dyer was twenty-nine when he first met Francis Bacon, who at the time was almost fifty-four. The story of their meeting is legendary: Dyer first made Bacon’s acquaintance when he broke into 7 Reece Mews through the famous skylight.  This was the autumn of 1963; by the middle of 1964 Dyer was firmly established as Bacon’s live-in companion, lover and muse. From London's East End, Dyer was a semi-literate man who possessed a criminal record. Having served spells in Borstal and then in prison for cases of theft and petty crime, Dyer was a crook (albeit a hopeless one) and outlaw whose unaffected character greatly appealed to a man who constantly strove for subversion and the ‘violence’ of existence. Bacon found Dyer, who was physically fit and possessed a stocky build, immensely attractive. His uncomplicated demeanor was a refreshing palliative to the verbose grandiosity of Bacon’s sometimes sophisticated social circles. Nonetheless, the ensuing years witnessed the progressively disastrous collision of their personalities: the artist’s intellectualism pitted against his muse’s rough innocence resulted in a highly charged, impassioned and tempestuous affair that ultimately was to end in disaster.

Dated to the first half of 1964 (according to the Bacon Estate the work was first photographed in August of that year), this triptych was born of Bacon’s intense desire for and enchantment with George Dyer. Like a sequence of film stills, Dyer’s likeness eloquently unfolds from left to right, moving from asymmetrical three-quarter turn into full profile and ending with a frontal yet evasive final image. In contrast to the first small scale triptych of Dyer from late 1963, in which his highly wrought and twisted features emerge in green and purple like a spectre from deepest shadow, the present work is of an entirely different character altogether. There is a nimbleness of execution here that is enlivening and entirely fresh. Painterly sweeps punctuated by paroxysmal marks and contrasting gestures are deployed with commanding facility: structural shadows counterbalance exclamatory blows of thick white impasto all of which merge into the sfmuato caress of diffused orange. Limiting his palette to only three or four individual pigments – red/orange, black, white and a hint of inky blue – Bacon exercised seemingly effortless control and a deft formal economy. Worked up areas of loaded paint and viscid texture perform in concert with sketched outlines and gauze-like serpentine lines. Of these dramatic gestures it is the white brushwork that injects formal power into these paintings: with a wide brush Bacon has pushed, pummelled and even flung painterly matter onto canvas. From the structural sweep of the jaw in the central panel, the riot of daubed highlights of the right, through to the eruption of flicked impasto above the mouth in the left portrait, these violent painterly marks are mediated by the collage-like starched white collar. Typically dressed in immaculate and sober suits – gangster-chic made stylish in the 1960s by the Kray twins – Dyer’s suit collar provides a satisfying formal achor to each canvas; an almost Matissean cut-out clarity that echoes Bacon’s physical manipulation and cutting up of Deakin’s photographs. Where the unifying light ground was applied as an intermediary stage – marks that define Dyer’s features travel both underneath and over the top of this uniform backdrop – Dyer’s shoulders are delineated purely by raw canvas and provisional black brushwork. As a symposium of virtuoso expression, this triptych is a perfect balance of chaotic immediacy and syncopated rhythm that finds very few parallels within Bacon’s pantheon of small portrait studies. Unlike the Tel Aviv triptych from 1964 – a work with a prominently pink ground that finds later recapitulation in the last 14 by 12 inch triptych from 1969 – the present piece represents a bravura performance for which a repeat recital was utterly redundant.

Remarkable for its clean vibrancy, the light ground of the present work is singular within the corpus of small portrait of Dyer. Alternately, this background treatment sets it in alignment with the larger body of ‘narrative’ canvases situated in anonymous rooms, particularly those created during Dyer’s induction into Bacon’s life. Works such as Portrait of George Dyer Crouching (1967) and Three Studies in a Room (1964): though he is not mentioned in the title, the latter is most likely the first full-figure depiction of Dyer. While sharing this engagement with his epic canvases, the rareness of the present work lies in the manner in which Bacon very deliberately painted the background. Bacon was a compulsive revisionist and very often traces of differently hued layers are visible underneath the final background coat. Close examination of the individual canvases of Three Studies for Portrait of George Dyer (on Light Ground) however, reveals no such underpainting. Instead, the fawn-like tone follows closely the extemporaneous articulation of Dyer’s head and shoulders, leaving areas of grazed pigment that reveal the raw canvas beneath. Against this purposeful background, the interplay and great choreography of brushmarks in white and orange posit this as a work of extraordinary elegance, a real tribute to a man for whom Bacon’s enamour was fresh and enlivening.

An intensely amorous response to Dyer’s looks is undoubtedly redolent in this work; these three portraits relay unbridled enthusiasm for the contours and landscape of his physiognomy, with the middle canvas capturing an almost Napoleonic swagger. The release of white impasto prevalent in the first panel is prophetic of later works from this period in which heavy streaks of white paint flare across the canvas. A convulsive and dicey exercise of throwing paint to counter the contorting twist of his brushwork, this formal invention has been likened to impassioned moments of libidinal expulsion; eruptions that underline the extraordinary suspension between tension and collapse, frustration and fulfilment that in turn echo the impact of George Dyer on Bacon’s life; it is in the portraits of Dyer that this painterly effect appears most frequently and fluently. Dyer’s downward spiralling propensity for turbulent fits of violent self-pity was tolerated, for the most part, by Bacon’s tremendous ardour for his looks. Deeply set eyes, closely cropped hair, a prominent nose and masculine but pleasingly regular features were complemented by a muscular physique. Dyer had, to quote Michael Peppiatt, “the air of a man who could land a decisive punch” (Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, London 2008, p. 259). The span of broad shoulders advertised across the width of each canvas finds alternate celebration in the extraordinary triptych of 1970, Three Studies of the Male Back. Described as "that hymn to George Dyer's virility" by David Sylvester, this work features the well-defined silhouette and round shouldered posture synonymous with John Deakin's famous photographs of Dyer seated in Bacon's studio in his underpants (David Sylvester, op. cit., p. 134).

With little sense of purpose, except to live vicariously through his own painted effigy, Dyer became increasingly listless – an aimlessness that in turn exacerbated worsening alcoholism, erratic behaviour and the onset of depression. Over the years, Bacon became progressively more impatient and unsympathetic; his masochistic proclivities unfulfilled by a dependent partner prone to displays of helplessness. During the late 1960s this impatience and frustration found expression in Bacon’s work via an increasingly cruel assault on Dyer’s likeness. Take for example Portrait of George Dyer in a Mirror (1968) in which a reflection of Dyer’s face is cleaved in two while its corporeal anchor is reduced to a body atoped with a stump in place for the head. Or Two Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer from the same year in which our protagonist is accompanied by a miniature, violently pulled-apart and deformed simulacrum pinned in place to a black void. Dyer even appears as a clown-like figure in the brilliant yet absurdist portrayal Portrait of George Dyer Riding a Bicycle (1966). The undoing of his muse via a fissured corporeal jumble in these large canvases intensifies with the progression of the decade.

Towards the end of the decade this already unsteady companionship became destructively marred by Dyer's alcoholism and waning sense of purpose in Bacon's shadow. Indeed, the 1960s were the defining decade for Francis Bacon, and by the start of the next, the artist was at the very height of his fame: honoured as he was with a one man show at Paris’ prestigious Grand Palais. Bacon had inadvertently fuelled the younger man's paranoia of inadequacy by providing his 'kept' existence, and on the eve of the opening in Paris, Dyer died from an overdose of barbiturates. Found slumped on the lavatory in their hotel room at the Hôtel des Saints-Péres, this tragic event, to which Bacon initially reacted with a somewhat callous stoicism – continuing the mill of press interviews, dinners and social events seemingly unaffected – had a profound and lasting impact. The degree to which Bacon was consumed by loss and guilt would find equal measure only in the posthumous paintings of Dyer. Collectively known as the Black Triptychs, these harrowing epic eulogies powerfully speak of the tragic emotion that remained with Bacon for the rest of his life: "Time does not heal. There isn't an hour of the day that I don't think about him" (Francis Bacon quoted in: Exhibition Catalogue, Lugano, Lugano Museo d'Arte Moderna, Francis Bacon, 1993, sv. 44). Overwhelmingly direct and melancholic, these masterpieces relive the tragic-drama of Dyer’s final hours in the hotel suite in Paris. He is re-vivified as a ghostly spectre or writhing into an incomprehensible tangle of movement that approaches annihilation. Gone is Bacon’s impatience with Dyer as a burden: in death the painter casts him as paradigmatic ideal, an echo of the devotional portraits executed during the first years of their relationship; Bacon’s amorous tributes to Dyer’s strong looks and athletic physique.

Though Bacon’s first great love, Peter Lacy, profoundly affected Bacon’s life, it was George Dyer who had the most significant and important effect on Bacon’s work. He described Dyer as the ‘most beautiful man he had ever met’, and his presence is at once the most pervasive, libidinal and inventive of Bacon’s entire oeuvre. The creative fecundity of these seminal years – both the decade prior to and following 1971 – is predominantly owing to the abiding and consuming impact of George Dyer. Painted obsessively, Dyer’s likeness utterly dominates Bacon’s production: as strongly present in this triptych, George Dyer fuelled the tortured and extraordinary powers of an artist at the height of his imaginative and technical powers.