About the artwork
It is fitting that the picture of the month for March 2003 is a portrait of Francis Bacon. He was a key character in the bohemian world of Soho and the work of Liverpool-born photographer John Deakin. Deakin's photographs are on show at the Walker throughout February and March in the exhibition 'A Maverick Eye'. Like Deakin's photographs, Walsh's paintings form a composite portrait of the artist and his times. The cast of characters who populate his canvases are a roll call of the Liverpool's creative talent: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Adrian Henri, Maurice Cockrill, Roger McGough and George Melly.
Numerous artists and photographers captured Francis Bacon's powerful features. He achieved fame and notoriety for his disturbing, angst-ridden style and his preoccupation with bare flesh, wounds, monstrous creatures and the torment of the human condition. During the 1950s and '60s Bacon was a leading figure in the bohemian community of London's Soho. His studio, literally excavated after his death in 1992, exposed layer upon layer of paint and paper, amongst which were sandwiched the photographs taken by Deakin that were the starting point for so much of his work. It is Bacon's uniqueness and his approach towards painting that Walsh sought to capture in this portrait.
Walsh's own notes for this painting survive; “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. The one eye in this and the other heads I used to make a more focal and hypnotic point in the image.” This was one of Walsh's first large head paintings and together with portraits of Mick Jagger and General Custer, its use of free, open brushwork pairs the folk-art based content of Pop Art with a salute to Bacon's own work and imagery. Bacon became a favourite subject for Walsh throughout the '60s and '70s. Large heads like this are perhaps what Walsh is now best remembered for.
In his catalogue essay for the Walker's 1991 exhibition of Walsh's work, Adrian Henri wrote that Walsh's work is “paintings and drawings of photographs primarily, and have as much to do with the artist's perception of the increasing importance of the persona, the public image.” Walsh made painted tributes to those he admired, but, as here, also hinted at the remoteness of his sitters and the corrosive effect of glamour. Heads already captured and simplified by the camera are isolated from the world around them by the removal of irrelevant background detail.
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.
Sam Walsh was born in Enniscorthy in Ireland in 1934. He attended Dublin College of Art and in 1955 he moved to London. He spent five years drifting between jobs and playing the guitar professionally. He also produced portraits and murals and exhibited work at the ICA. In 1960 he visited Liverpool and stayed. In 1962, at the opening of their joint exhibition at London's influential Portal Gallery, Walsh and his fellow Liverpool artist Adrian Henri were introduced to Francis Bacon by the musician, painter and raconteur George Melly, who had just bought the first of several paintings by Walsh.
Walsh began a teacher-training course in Liverpool and continued to show his work around England, sharing wall space with the likes of Peter Blake, David Hockney and Patrick Hughes. At this time, Adrian Henri described him as a “portrait painter for money and an abstract painter for love.” In 1963 this painting was selected for the John Moores exhibition at the Walker. It was purchased for the collection and was later joined by 'Three Figures in a Warm Climate' (c1965) and 'Emmett Dalton in Hollywood' (1965).
The artistic influences upon Walsh were diverse and included Cranach, Klee, Bacon and Rembrandt together with Larry Rivers and Theodore Sturgeon. Although producing local and regional scenes, including landscapes, and some interiors, the human face dominated his output, paying homage to the celebrities of the day: Norma Jean Baker (Marilyn Monroe), Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, J Edgar Hoover and Mao Tse Tung. His portraits, many of them commissions, were, like this portrait of Bacon, distinctive for their up-front, cut-out treatment of the subjects' faces and for their isolation against a sparse, anonymous and ambiguous background. Stylistically, his work of this period is reminiscent of the early work of Hockney and Blake with the brash, large-scale imagery and vivid colours of the pop art movement under the influence of popular culture and commercial advertising, especially photographic ephemera.
During the 1970s, Walsh now an established talent, modified his paint-handling and adopted spray-painting .He made portraits of Simone de Beauvoir, Ivon Hitchens, Roger McGough and Adrian Henri, responses to Old Masters and a series of anthropomorphic wild animal subjects. The final decade of Walsh's life, during which he was less prolific, was still successful. He had group and two-man shows (although he exhibited less locally) and his portrait of 'Samuel Beckett' was shown at the National Portrait Gallery. He also created one of his most complex works, 'The Dinner Party' (1980), a bold and detailed assembly of sitters from all periods of his life, including his neighbour, solicitor, ex-wife, partner, bank manager, and friends and contemporaries Adrian Henri, Roger McGough and Maurice Cockrill. The composition, a series of heads posed in recessional profile along two sides of a table, was inspired by Millais's 'Isabella' in the collection of the Walker. Sam Walsh died in Liverpool in 1989 aged 55.