This Thursday, March 17th, Christie’s Modern British and Irish Art sale at South Kensington will include a sketch unseen in sixty years, a market-fresh work by Francis Bacon, who became the world’s most expensive artist in 2013 when his Triptych portrait of Lucien Freud sold for £89,000,000.
So I was thrilled when my cousin Rebecca very kindly put me in touch with the daughter of the vendor of Curragh, Clare Island 1962. This painting is offered with Evening Landscape Tehidy Hospital 1961 as lot 66, a pair by the Irish painter Tony O’Malley (1913 – 2003).
(c) The Estate of Tony O’Malley, image Collect Ireland
These are estimated at £20,000 – 30,000. A fair price for such beautiful and poetic O’Malley landscapes. But they could sell for twenty-times as much or more, because the two panels were originally a single piece on which Francis Bacon painted this figure sketch. Curragh, Clare Island is the top half of the body, and Evening Landscape Tehidy Hospital is the bottom. [update: the paintings sold for £434,500]
(c) Estate of Francis Bacon/ The Estate of Tony O’Malley, image Collect Ireland
Tony O’Malley and Francis Bacon were both part of the artists’ colony at St Ives in the 1950s. In 1960 Bacon did a moonlit flit after a bust-up with his lover, and his landlady Boots Redgrave, wife of William Redgrave the sculptor, divided the studio materials he’d left behind between her artist friends. Bacon is famous for painting on the unprimed verso of his boards and canvases, so they were still perfectly good for another artist to reuse. O’Malley was given the large nude sketch panel and Bill Featherstone, a Canadian sculptor, was given another Bacon board with which he mended the roof of a henhouse. O’Malley kept his piece intact for a couple of years until, as I was told, an unscrupulous dealer suggested that he ‘complete’ the sketch and sell it as a finished work. In indignation O’Malley cut the board in half and painted the two landscapes now at sale. Elsewhere it is also suggested that O’Malley cut the panel in half because it was larger than his usual paintings. I trust the family version. It reminds me of that story of John Trumbull refusing to tap a copy of his portrait of George Washington with his brush so a dealer could sell it as an original.
O’Malley gave Curragh, Clare Island to his friend the poet Padraic Fallon – it is inscribed across Bacon’s sketch with love to Paddy from Tony Aug 1962 – and kept Evening Landscape Tehidy Hospital for himself. The two families remained friends, and recently agreed to put them in to sale together.
Bacon was famously cagey about his work, and destroyed anything that didn’t live up to his conception of his oeuvre. Surviving sketches are extremely rare. This morning I said that the only comparison I could think of for the present lot was a set of used canvases that Bacon had thrown out, which I’d seen at auction about seven years ago. Then I wondered if I was imagining this, but no, Ewbanks sold six paintings by the Cambridge artist Lewis Todd,
which had been painted on the other side of a set of cut-off sections from Bacon’s Screaming Pope. Todd found them in a skip. They sold for £38,500. And these are just fragments.
(c) Ewbanks Auctioneers
The sketch at Christies on Wednesday is Bacon in spades, a male nude with his trademark twisted flesh as a sign of inner torment. Angus Granlund Christie’s specialist suggests that the man is wearing a beaked Venetian carnival mask, so the painting packs drama as well as psychological intensity. I wish the vendors the best of luck indeed. And I admire the respect both vendors show by selling the paintings as O’Malley rather than Bacon. Rebecca’s friend said that her family usually hung their picture, with O’Malley’s landscape outwards, though on alternate Sundays the verso which her mother called ‘Half a Side of Bacon’ would be turned outwards for an airing.
Whoever buys the pair, it is unlikely that O’Malley will have such billing again. I wondered whether the artist’s board they’re painted on could be peeled apart, but this is impossible. So O’Malley will have to give up the limelight. But there are unexpected benefits. I for one hadn’t heard of him until this week, nor until today did I know anything of the Irish literary and artistic world he moved in, O’Malley’s friend the poet Padraic Fallon, or Fallon’s son Conor the sculptor and his daughter-in-law Nancy Wynne Jones. Now they are names for me to look out for, and – in Fallon’s case – to discover as a poet. His is the world that O’Malley paints. I’ve just read this superb verse by him. It is an image that Bacon might have appreciated too.
They knew it, the Totem people, the world
Inside the world, where man
For the animal.
(from Seamus Heany Padraic Fallon PN Review Vol 16 no.4 March – April 1990)