Bacon’s ‘lost’ painting of pope and lover could shatter records at auction
Canvas with tragic history was last seen in public in 1972 and is estimated to sell for more than £60m
A PAINTING by Francis Bacon that was hidden away for 45 years is expected to become the most expensive artwork sold in Europe when it goes under the hammer next month.
Carrying an estimate in the region of £60 million, Study of Red Pope 1962, Second version 1971 unites two subjects that obsessed Bacon during his career: his lover, George Dyer, and the figure of Pope Innocent X.
The canvas has been in a private collection for more than four decades and never loaned. It was shown at the Bacon retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1971, and in Düsseldorf the next year, before disappearing from view.
The painting foretells a tragedy. Bacon produced it for the Grand Palais show, and Dyer accompanied him to Paris for the opening. The unlikely couple – the older artist and the young, East End crook – had met in a Soho pub and their relationship was tempestuous.
Dyer insisted on being invited to the Paris show, but the artist had little time to spend with him in the days leading up to the opening. Two days before the October opening, Dyer took an overdose and was found dead in his hotel bathroom.
A grief-stricken Bacon carried on with the show. He said later: “If I’d have stayed with him rather than going to see about the exhibition, he would be here now. But I didn’t and he’s dead.”
The painting will be sold at Christie’s, London, on Oct 6. Christie’s believes it could surpass the European record for a work of art sold at auction: £65 million for Giacometti’s Walking Man bronze in 2010. The hammer price for that work was £58million, with the final figure including buyer’s premium.
If the Bacon painting achieves its £60 million estimate, it will fetch around £67 million with premium added. Francis Outred, Christie’s head of post-war and contemporary art, hailed the painting as “quite simply art history”. He said: “It is a tragic premonition which unites Bacon’s two greatest muses, the Pope and George Dyer, for the first and only time.”
Dyer is depicted as the Pope’s reflection. The papal figure is based on the Velázquez portrait of Innocent X that inspired many Bacon works, including a 1962 painting that Bacon had hoped to exhibit at the Grand Palais.
However, the owner of that work turned him down, and Bacon embarked on this second version in April 1971.
Katharine Arnold, senior specialist at Christie’s, said: “Bacon described himself as almost having a boyhood crush on the painting by Velázquez. And he definitely had a crush, or something more powerful, on George Dyer.
“The painting is very intense. There must have been friction in their relationship at this point, and I’m sure the pressure in the lead up to the exhibition must have had an impact on Dyer as well.
“There are two sash cords in the picture, as if to turn off a light – it’s almost prophetic. It has this sense of the dramatic. The wall on the right looks blue on first glance, but then you see the reflection of the red.”
The painting was acquired by the family of the present owner in 1973.
It will not be the most expensive Bacon painting ever sold. That record is held by Three Studies of Lucian Freud, a triptych that went for £89million in New York in 2014.
Francis Bacon’s Study of Red Pope 1962, Second version 1971, unseen in public for 45 years, is presented by Christie’s