It is only a small painting but it is a hypnotic picture that rewards endless examination. -Francis Bacon's 1967 portrait of Lucian Freud is a lesson in the use of oil paint ? saturated, stippled and laid on in thick impasto. It is Bacon at the height of his abstract-realist powers. And it also reveals a vast amount about three of the great artists of late 20th-century Britain.
The portrait was bought by the writer Roald Dahl soon after it was painted in 1967, and has been in the Dahl collection ever since. It is one of only two single portrait heads painted of Freud by Bacon; the other, painted in 1964, is in a private collection. It will not go cheaply when it is sold at Christie?s on July 1st. Last November, Bacon?s full-length, triptych picture of Freud went for $142.4m (£84m); this portrait is expected to fetch between £8m and £12m.
The friendship between Freud and Bacon is well-documented. Freud often painted Bacon and, at one point in the mid-1950s, they practically lived in each other's pockets. As Freud's then-wife, the writer Lady Caroline Blackwood, put it, "I had dinner with [Francis Bacon] nearly every night for more or less the whole of my -marriage to Lucian [from 1953 to 1958]. We also had lunch."
Less well-known is the relationship between Bacon and Roald Dahl. The master of the disturbing, distorted portrait and the master of dark, comic literature were friends for more than 20 years. And, in that time, Dahl, an unsung connoisseur of modern art, became one of Britain?s leading Bacon collectors. Dahl first came across Bacon's work in 1958 in an Arts Council show, ?Three -Masters of British Painting?, that brought together Bacon, Victor Pasmore and Dahl?s old friend, artist Matthew Smith. Instantly, Dahl recognised Bacon?s talent, calling him a ?giant of his time? with a ?blend of economy and profound emotion in [his] painting?.
Dahl had been an avid buyer of modern art ever since the Second World War, when he had been a fighter ace and intelligence officer. ?Each time I sold a short story, I would buy a picture when there was a bit more money in the bank,? Dahl once said. His tastes were wide ? from Russian avant-garde artists, Malevich, Ermilov, Goncharova and Popova, to Matisse drawings and Winston Churchill landscapes. For many years, he took a Van Gogh picture, The Potato Eaters, with him on his travels, hanging it overnight on the wall of various hotel rooms.
But it wasn?t until the 1960s ? and the financial success of James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, along with Dahl?s screenplay of You Only Live Twice ? that he could afford to really indulge his passion for Bacon?s pictures. From 1964-1968, he bought four of them.
The writer and the artist also became firm friends. They both revered Van Gogh as their favourite painter. They were both fond of lively evenings in Soho, and Dahl regularly had Bacon to dinner in his Buckinghamshire house in the 1970s and 1980s. Like Bacon, Dahl was a keen gambler ? he went to greyhound races as a young man, before turning to poker during his diplomatic spell in Washington DC, and then taking to the blackjack table on his return to London.
?They always got on,? says Luke Kelly, Dahl?s grandson and the managing director of the Dahl literary estate, ?Roald thought Bacon was a genius. When his publisher, Tom Maschler, asked him the ideal person he?d like to have to dinner, he chose Bacon. They shared opinions and they shared their liking for a drink. And I think all three men shared something as outsiders; Bacon being Irish, Freud being German and Roald being Norwegian. And they were all incredibly strong characters.?
The actress Joanna Lumley was invited to that same dinner where Maschler asked Dahl to devise his own perfect guest-list. She sat at Dahl?s right hand, and three away from Francis Bacon.
?Francis Bacon was on time, even though everyone said he?d be late and scruffy. He was marvellously, neatly dressed,? she says, ?Dahl was extraordinary: tall, very good-looking and frightening. He struck me as a kind of Viking, with slightly unfathomable qualities. I was conscious of not wanting to be an idiot. You?re always anxious that you may say something wrong to your hero. He came in to the room trailing clouds of glory.?
Dahl and Bacon shared a sense of the absurd and the contrary, too. In a letter to Dahl, Bacon ? no stranger to high living ? said his ideal last meal on earth would be two boiled eggs.
When it came to buying Bacon pictures, Dahl chose well. Among his purchases were portraits of Bacon?s great friend, the model Henrietta Moraes, and his tragic lover, George Dyer, who committed suicide in 1971.
But it is the 1967 portrait of Freud that most captivated Dahl. And you can see why ? not least in the way it reveals many of Bacon?s varied techniques for applying oil paint.
The background is a thick, saturated stippled black. To one side, Freud?s chiselled profile, with his prominent cheekbones, is faithfully observed. On the other, figurativism collides with Bacon?s characteristic semi-abstract semi-realism; tradition meets modernity. On the bottom left, the oil paint is roughly ?scumbled? to give the impression of stubble. On his forehead, the paint is laid on with thick impasto to capture the gleam of the reflected light. And his right eye is caught with a splash of impasto of titanium white paint.
Dahl sold several of his Bacons ? ?He sold one to buy the local baker a new oven,? says Kelly ? but he always held on to the Freud portrait. ?It is incredibly beautiful,? says Kelly, ?It?s incredibly strong ? with dark undercurrents. And my grandfather looked on it with reverence ? he thought Bacon was a genius. It was kept right in the -centre of the living room, against a light pink wall.?
Kelly spent a decade living with his grand-father at Gipsy House, Buckinghamshire, south east England. ?The combination of the green and the black and the white is so powerful. Even the glass is amazingly clear ? you feel like you can touch the painting.?
For all Dahl's success in writing and in collecting, in the 1960s his life was in turmoil. In 1960, his four-month-old son, Theo, suffered a severe brain injury after being struck by a New York taxi. Dahl was instrumental in developing the Wade-Dahl-Till device that helped relieve his son?s hydrocephalus. He refused any commercial interest in the patent in order to extend the device?s use as widely as possible.
In 1962, Dahl's daughter died of measles encephalitis at the age of seven. And, in 1965, his wife, the Oscar-winning actress, Patricia Neal, had three burst cerebral aneurysms. Again, Dahl was central in helping with her recovery, retraining her to walk and talk.
"He began an aggressive programme in re--accessing those parts of the brain that had been cut off," says Kelly, It would be simplistic to say that, with the Freud portrait, he was consciously going out to look at things to do with the head. But he was certainly interested in what was going on in the mind. He was interested in the fact that Lucian Freud was the grandson of -Sigmund Freud. And, with all his art-collecting, he thought it was important that you knew about the art, that you knew about the artist, that you knew about the sitter.
Dahl said as much in a 1981 interview: You cannot begin to appreciate any work of art in the true sense until you have studied the personalities involved and the struggles they had.
Those struggles were particularly intense between Freud and Bacon. After their close friendship in the 1950s, the two men drifted apart in later life, divided by artistic tensions. ?Bacon was at first the senior figure and Freud was the artist in awe,? says Kelly, ?But then the different levels of success shifted. That must have had an effect on the friendship.?
Despite the disintegration of that friendship and the death of the three men they leave a noble legacy of work behind them, not least the portrait that unites them. My grandfather was an amazing, incredibly imaginative, different person,? Kelly says. ?He was always bubbling with ideas, schemes and fun. The picture will always remind me of him. It?s a reminder that he wasn?t just a writer, spy and fighter pilot, but also a wonderful art collector.