This iconic portrait by Sam Walsh is of the infamous, Irish-born painter, Francis Bacon (1909-92). Now considered one of Britain’s most influential painters, Bacon achieved notoriety for his angst-ridden and disturbing paintings of screaming faces, and beaten and distorted bodies. His studio, literally excavated after his death in 1992, exposed layer upon layer of paint and paper, including especially commissioned photographs taken of his lover George Dyer (1934-71) and others in his social circle by the Wirral-born photographer John Deakin (1912-72). These photographs often served as the basis for his paintings.
Walsh, also born in Ireland, was one of Liverpool’s foremost painters of the late Twentieth Century. He was best known for his uncompromising, close-up and large-scale portraits, through which he aimed to reflect the personality of the sitter. In this portrait, it is Bacon's unique approach to expressing sexual desire through paint that Walsh sought to capture. As Walsh recalled: “Although the technique (loose style of painting) relates to the gestural style of painting of the American fifties… the image content belongs more to ‘pop’. This was no accident… I thought the technique (big brush, gestural paint marks) would suit a bacon image. The fleshy appearance of the paint I thought reminded one of Bacon’s own work”. Like Bacon whose work he much admired, Walsh painted his portraits directly from photographs. Walsh isolated Bacon’s face, already simplified by the camera, on a stark white background to heighten the affect of his expressive gestural brushstrokes and emphasise the sensuality of the flesh. The success of this work inspired Walsh to create a whole series of large head portraits, in the same style, of other people he admired such as the gay writer, William Boroughs.
Walsh’s handling of the portrait hints at Bacon’s preoccupation with same-sex sadomasochism. Though it has only recently been acknowledged, Bacon frequently referenced homosexual desire and sexual violence in his own paintings of his lovers, sex between other men and naked wounded flesh. Even his famous painting Two Figures (1953), for example, which pictures a man raping another man, has rarely been recognised as a direct representation of sexual violence. In Walsh’s portrait, Bacon’s right eye is noticeably blurred, whilst the left remains in focus. Though this was a device that Walsh came to use in other works to create a focal point in the image, it also probably references the way that Bacon aggressively smudged his lover’s faces beyond recognition in his portraits of them. It more specifically recalls the facial disfigurement that Bacon suffered at the hand of his former lover Peter Lacy. Bacon and Lacy had an intense sadomasochistic relationship. Their tumultous relationship culminated in Bacon having to have his right eye stitched back into place after Lyre threw him through a glass window during a rage.
Walsh painted this picture on hardboard tacked to wooden battens for rigidity - the preferred paint support at this time when lack of money governed his choice of materials. His paints appear to be a mixture of household paint and cheap student-quality oils. His technique of thinning down paint to gain his desired effects has led in later years to flaking surfaces, causing significant problems for conservators. In this portrait Walsh applied a large expanse of white ground that doubled as the background. Then, with a broad brush, loaded with oil paint diluted to the consistency of a wash, he created the scumbled and dripping appearance that so effectively conveys the character of Bacon and his own highly individual vision.