A $42 Million Portrait of Lucian Freud by His Frenemy Francis Bacon, Unseen for Nearly 60 Years, Could Set a New Auction Record

The work, once the central panel of a triptych, was painted at the height of the pair's volatile friendship.

Francis Bacon, Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud (1964), estimate in excess of £34m. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

A highlight of this summer’s art season in London will be the sale of an extraordinary portrait by one of Britain’s greatest artists of the 20th century—Francis Bacon—depicting another—Lucian Freud. The painting, Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud (1964), has emerged from obscurity, unseen in public for nearly 60 years. It is to be sold by Sotheby’s in their Platinum Jubilee British art auction on 29 June, with an estimate in excess of £35 million ($42.2 million). 

The Freud portrait is the most expensive contemporary painting to be offered in London since Christie’s sold another work by Bacon, George Dyer Talking, for £42.2 million ($50.9 million) in 2014. Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud carries a pre-sale guarantee from an anonymous buyer, so the only question remaining is if it will set a new auction record.  

Bacon and Freud were introduced towards the end of World War II by the artist Graham Sutherland, and from that point on, a close, if sometimes volatile, relationship developed. Bacon first painted Freud, who was 13 years younger, in 1951; between 1964 and 1971, when the pair was closest, Bacon painted him 14 times. The Guinness brewery heiress Lady Caroline Blackwood, who was Freud’s second wife from 1953–59, said that Bacon was over for dinner “nearly every night for more or less the whole of my marriage to Lucian.” 

Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon. Courtesy of YouTube.

Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon. Courtesy of YouTube.

But in the 1970s, just before Freud achieved the critical recognition he would later enjoy, the two fell out, barely speaking to each other again. The precise reason is not known, but they were always rivals, competitive, and jealous of each other

The six-and-a-half foot Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud was painted while the two were almost inseparable, spending hours in each other’s studios. When they weren’t painting, they were usually dining and drinking together.

The painting was originally the centerpiece of a large-scale triptych, in which each panel was based on a series of black and white photographs of Freud taken in Bacon’s South Kensington studio by their close friend John Deakin, whose portrait Freud was painting at the time. 

Unlike Freud, who only painted from life and was notorious for mercilessly scrutinizing his sitters over numerous sessions during which he slowly built up an image on the canvas, Bacon liked to work fast and from photographs, so his sitters couldn’t see how he was altering and disfiguring their faces. 

Francis Bacon, Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud (1964), estimate in excess of £34m. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

By 1965, when this work was last exhibited in Dublin, the triptych had been split up and the central panel was sold to Colin Tennant, a British aristocrat. This often happens when there is a buyer for one section of a triptych only, and artists don’t always agree to it, although in this case Sotheby’s says Bacon did. 

One of the side panels from this same Bacon triptych sold at auction in New York in 1993 for $1.7 million, double its estimate, to a private collector. The other now hangs in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

The central panel, which has now re-emerged, has never come to auction before. It passed from Tennant to the Gallery Galatea in Turin, which sold works by Bacon to Gianni Agnelli, the head of Italian carmaker Fiat. Whether Agnelli, who died in 2003, bought this work is not recorded, but the present owner, whose identity has been concealed, is an intensely private European who bought the painting in the early 1980s but never exhibited it, Sotheby’s says.

Now, the auction house adds, “with all the attention around Bacon globally following the Royal Academy exhibition ‘Man and Beast’ and, of course, our activities for the Jubilee, the seller felt that our British art auction was the right platform and time to bring their work to market.”

Another triptych portrait of Freud by Bacon was made in 1969 at the Royal College of Art, after Bacon’s studio had been damaged by fire. It too was based on Deakin’s photographs and had been split into three. But in 2013, after the three panels were reunited, they were sold at Christie’s in New York where they made a record $142.4 million, the highest price at the time ever paid at auction for a painting. 

The buyer was Elaine Wynn, ex-wife of the Las Vegas casino magnate Steve Wynn, who is also a major collector. To buy it, she had to outbid several contenders, including the Korean gallery owner Hong Gyu Shin, who told reporters after that sale: “I loved that painting. Maybe one day I’ll have another chance.” This summer’s sale could be it. 


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