Peter Beard - Photographs New York Thursday, October 7, 2021 | Phillips
  • "I was at one of his openings at the Marlborough Gallery in London. I simply said, ‘Hi – Peter Beard.’ He said, ‘I know who you are.’" —Peter Beard, on his first encounter with Francis Bacon

    Epic in scale and masterful in execution, Peter Beard’s study of the interior of Francis Bacon’s London studio documents the creation of one of Bacon’s masterpieces and illuminates the deep friendship between the two artists. Beard’s panoramic image consists of three consecutive exposures on a strip of enlarged 35mm film and captures the central panel of Bacon’s lauded Triptych, 1976. The left frame of Beard’s photograph shows the painting at an early stage, with its principal figures in place but not yet fully realized. The right frame shows the panel nearing completion. The central frame of Beard’s image is devoted to a cabinet in Bacon’s studio on which are displayed numerous portraits of Bacon’s recently deceased lover, George Dyer, and the life mask of poet and artist William Blake. Taken as a whole, Beard’s multi-panel photograph is a meditation on the passage of time and the inevitability of death, as well as on the potential of the artistic process to overcome mortality.


    Prometheus figure with vultures feeding . . . Bacon Studio @ 7 Reece Mews, London SW7 (detail)

    The young photographer first met Bacon in 1967 in London at an opening of the painter’s work at Marlborough Gallery. Beard was enormously flattered to find that Bacon was aware of his 1965 book, The End of the Game, and the two found they had much in common. Thus began a remarkably fruitful artistic friendship played out in person and through mailed correspondence, in painted canvases and photographic prints. At the core of their relationship was a fascination with the paradoxical power of images to document and mystify. Bacon posed for Beard’s camera countless times and he appears, both blurred and clearly delineated, in many of Beard’s multi-image photographic works. Beard became a favorite subject for Bacon and appears in numerous paintings. In some, Beard’s handsome features are instantly recognizable, in others they are burred and abstracted through Bacon’s distinctive technique. In 1972, Beard recorded a series of conversations with Bacon that became known as the Dead Elephant Interviews which elicited some of Bacon’s most articulate and thoughtful statements on his art. Excerpts were published in the catalogue for Bacon’s 1975 Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition.


    Prometheus figure with vultures feeding . . . Bacon Studio @ 7 Reece Mews, London SW7 (detail)

    Bacon began work on Triptych, 1976, in his Reece Mews studio in 1976, intending it to be the centerpiece of his planned 1977 exhibition at Galerie Claude Bernard in Paris. The triptych is now regarded as one of the principal masterpieces of Bacon’s oeuvre and incorporates dark existential themes all orchestrated with Bacon’s characteristic mastery. The menacing presence of the large bird-like creatures is a reference to the myth of Prometheus who, after stealing fire for the benefit of mankind, was repeatedly tortured by a vulture sent by Zeus. Beard’s inscription on this photograph addresses this directly: 'Prometheus figure with vulture feeding.' Not shown are the triptych’s flanking panels, one of which is based upon a self-portrait by Beard with a shaved head. Triptych, 1976 -- and by extension Beard’s photograph -- serves as a metaphor for the injury and indifference visited upon the visionary artist by a cruel and uncaring world. When Triptych was sold at auction in 2008 for $86 million, it became the most expensive piece of Contemporary art to date.


    Prometheus figure with vultures feeding . . . Bacon Studio @ 7 Reece Mews, London SW7 (detail)

    Beard characteristically embellished this photograph with inscriptions and collaged elements. Compared to other works his additions here are restrained but gather even more strength for their controlled application. Beard’s text provides a commentary on the development of the painting, with its references to Prometheus, vultures, and the departed George Dyer. Under the final image, Beard notes that his photograph shows the painting’s progress 'several days later' and that, in its more advanced state, a new vulture has appeared: 'vulture crapping on journals, a reference to the papers newly painted beneath the central figure, and possibly to Beard’s own obsessive diary-keeping. The collaged elements are characterized by Beard’s puckish sense of humor. A tiny skull and crossbones has been added to the left portion, with the bones replaced by crossed golf tees. In the left portion, a small picture of a model with a radiant smile has been applied, trompe-l’oeil style, to the side of one of the many cans of paint littering Beard’s studio. Beard’s most painterly addition is the graceful sweep of white pigment droplets arcing across the bottom of the image, drawing a direct connection between Bacon’s paint-spattered studio and Beard’s own highly individualized multi-disciplinary process.


    Peter Beard and Francis Bacon were both larger-than-life characters whose brilliant public personas were colored with stories of exuberant excess and personal tragedy. Both shared a deep pessimism about mankind but were devoted to their art and viewed it as both redemptive and instructive. Their friendship also constituted a remarkable artistic collaboration. Bacon based paintings upon Beard’s photographs, and Beard used his images of Bacon and Bacon’s paintings in his photographic compositions. Rarely have two artists enriched each other’s work so thoroughly, as the tour-de-force photograph offered here makes abundantly clear.

    • Provenance

      The Time Is Always Now, New York, 2002

    • Exhibited

      Peter Beard: Stress & Density, Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, Madrid, 16 June - 22 August 1999; Kunst Haus Wien, Vienna, 9 September 1999 - 16 January 2000


Prometheus figure with vultures feeding . . . Bacon Studio @ 7 Reece Mews, London SW7

Unique gelatin silver print, with paint and affixed photographs and magazine clippings, executed later.
30 x 96 3/4 in. (76.2 x 245.7 cm)
Overall 33 x 99 3/4 in. (83.8 x 253.4 cm)

Signed, titled, dated and annotated in paint on the recto; The Time Is Always Now credit and 'Stress and Density' exhibition stamps on the reverse of the frame.

Full Cataloguing

$120,000 - 180,000 

Sold for $207,900

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New York Auction 7 October 2021