Lucian Freud purchased Bacon’s ‘Two Figures’ (1953) for the bargain basement price of £80 from art critic David Sylvester. It is claimed that Freud stashed it away and refused to allow the work to be seen in public to deliberately incense Bacon. Freud “put his jealousy knife into Francis as he never, ever allowed this important picture to be borrowed”, Bacon’s friend, Barry Joule told the Observer.
The story of the artists’ bitter enmity has come to light through recordings of conversations between Bacon and Joule. Bacon is said to have authorised the recordings but asked that Joule wait 12 years after his death before sharing them with the public. The two men developed a friendship after Bacon saw Joule repairing a neighbour’s television aerial near his studio in South Kensington. Bacon invited Joule over for champagne and their friendship endured until the artist died in 1992.
The recordings paint a picture of a complex friendship between Freud and Bacon soured by an estrangement neither artist ever fully explained. They met in the mid-1940s and admired each other’s work but eventually ceased speaking. On one of the tapes, Bacon described a Freud painting acquired by Charles Saatchi as “ghastly” and “ridiculous”. Yet, Joule believes the artists’ friendship fell victim to Freud’s jealousy of Bacon. “He cut Francis off completely, much to Francis’s surprise, and never, ever relented”, Joule explained.
The sale of ‘Two Figures’ further stoked the flames of their tumultuous relationship. Painted in a garage near Henley-on-Thames rented by Peter Lacy, Bacon’s former lover, the piece was said to be inspired by a photograph by Eadweard Muybridge of two men wrestling. After it failed to sell at auction, Freud bought it and kept it out sight to spite Bacon. Freud even refused to loan it to the Tate when it exhibited a retrospective of Bacon’s work in 1985.
Perhaps a new exhibition ‘All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life’ opening at Tate Britain on 28 February will shed further light on this elusive artistic rivalry.