Peter Watson, Francis Bacon and the ICA

Adrian Clark

24 Mar 2015
Adrian Clark on Francis Bacon's first ICA show, the significance of his relationship to Peter Watson and his escapades in Monte Carlo.

Writer and biographer Adrian Clark discusses Francis Bacon's first ICA show, the significance of his relationship to wealthy patron Peter Watson and his escapades in Monte Carlo.

It was inevitable that Francis Bacon would come into the orbit of Peter Watson (1908-1956), the wealthy gay art patron who helped many aspiring British artists with the hard cash they needed to survive in the bleak post-war years. Lucian Freud, John Craxton, Robert Colquhoun and Robert Macbryde had benefited from Watson's money and Bacon needed more money than most to feed his taste for excessive gambling and socialising.

Watson's money had contributed to Bacon's lifestyle in Monte Carlo in the 1940s, sometimes unknowingly. On one occasion, Bacon was said to have climbed up a drainpipe and entered the hotel room of Norman Fowler, Watson's boyfriend, stealing the enormous sum of £300 which Watson had given Fowler as spending money. This paid for a bit more gambling and champagne.

It was not just as a source of cash that Watson helped artists though; he was capable of being far more influential than that. His support also went well beyond the mere act of buying pictures from young artists, although he also did that where he liked their work. In the case of Bacon, he owned at least one work by him (although he seems to have lost this when he made the mistake of giving it back to the artist for retouching and never saw it again) but his real support was given in other ways. He was that extremely rare thing in the 20th century British art world: a patron rather than a collector.

Watson owned the influential cultural journal called Horizon, which was published from late 1939 to late 1949. Although he had installed Cyril Connolly as its literary editor, he kept the decisions as to which art pieces to include to himself. This gave Watson a lot of power to promote the work of artists he favoured, either by commissioning articles about them or by reproducing their work in the pages of the magazine.

Francis Bacon, Two Figures in the Grass, 1954. © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved / DACS 2015.

Since he paid for everything, he was able to decide how many illustrations were included. In the very last edition of Horizon, in December 1949, he published the first ever piece of substantive art criticism of Bacon (outside the context of an exhibition review) with a thoughtful piece by Robert Melville.  

Watson's artistic interests were moving to the ICA in the second half of the 1940s and, again, his money gave him a powerful voice when it came to promoting artists. Many ICA exhibitions of artists' work in the early 1950s were selected by Watson, such as those of Matta and Wifredo Lam. In 1954, he lobbied as a member of the relevant committees within the ICA to have Bacon's first ever retrospective show held there.  

Following Bacon's appearance alongside Ben Nicholson and Lucian Freud on behalf of the UK at the Venice Biennale in 1954 (whose selection committee had included Roland Penrose and Herbert Read of the ICA), the idea of him being given a London retrospective had been considered at length by the Tate, but had ultimately been rejected.

Bacon was certainly a long way from being everybody's cup of tea in the art world at this time. But Watson and the ICA had a bigger vision and more freedom of action than the more traditional art institutions, and it was decided to proceed with what would undoubtedly be a controversial show of Bacon's sometimes morbidly terrifying and sexually challenging pictures. Watson organised the loans on behalf of the ICA, writing to all the owners of the chosen pictures, most, if not all, of whom were his friends, and arranged for Max Clarac-Sérou, a French gallery proprietor, to write the catalogue introduction, translating it himself. He probably also arranged for fellow Old Etonian art patron, Sir Colin Anderson, to open the show at the private view. 

The show opened at the ICA in Dover Street in early 1955. Just over a year later Watson was dead at the age of 47. ■

FB55 runs 24 March - 17 May 2015, an archival display of Francis Bacon’s show held at ICA's former premises on Dover Street in 1955.

On 10 April, Adrian Clark discusses Peter Watson with Charlie Porter, marking the publication of his book Queer Saint: The Cultured Life of Peter Watson, co-authored by Jeremy Bronfield (John Blake, 2015).