Should Bacon be labelled Irish or British?

The Irish-born artist Francis Bacon once more goes to auction as a 'British icon', writes MICHAEL PARSONS

The Irish-born artist Francis Bacon once more goes to auction as a 'British icon', writes MICHAEL PARSONS

‘No, he is not an Irishman. He was born in Ireland; but being born in a stable does not make a man a horse.” Daniel O’Connell’s alleged quip certainly put the boot into the the Duke of Wellington, the Irish-born general who led the British to a famous victory to a famous victory over Napoleon at Waterloo. The Duke was, indeed, born in Ireland but like many children of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy was sent off to school in England – Eton, of course – and later pursued a career in the British army.

The “nationality” of a more recent Anglo-Irish figure, the 20th-century painter Francis Bacon (1909-1992) is also open to question.

He was born in Dublin and spent his childhood in Kildare but left Ireland as a teenager and spent the rest of his life in London where he became one of the most acclaimed, and now most expensive, artists of the modern era. But there’s no hint of Irish influence in his paintings and, in the international art market, Francis Bacon is classified as a British artist. This week, some more of his fiercely expensive paintings were sold at auction in London.


At Sotheby’s on Tuesday evening, his oil-on-canvas triptych – three-panel painting – titled Three Studies For A Self-Portrait sold, within estimate, for £13.7 million (€15.9 million). The painting dates from 1980, when the artist was aged 71, and is one of many self-portraits he made.

Asked why, he replied, according to a catalogue note: “People have been dying around me like flies and I’ve had nobody else to paint but myself. I loathe my own face and I’ve done self-portraits because I’ve had nothing else to do”.

Sotheby’s said the triptych was “acquired by a German collector, Jürgen Hall,who will generously loan the work to a major international institution”.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Hall is “a tobacco tycoon who lives near Cologne”.

Painting once owned by U2

Also of Irish interest at Sotheby’s was a painting, formerly owned by U2, by 1980s American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and confusingly titled Untitled (Pecho/Oreja).

It was acquired by U2 in 1989 for an unknown sum and hung in their recording studio in Dublin.

They sold it in 2008 for £5 million (€5.8 million) and this week it changed hands again for £6.8 million (€7.9 million).

Basquiat, who started out as a graffiti artist in New York, died aged 27 of a heroin overdose in 1988 and a Sotheby’s catalogue note described him as “one of the most unique and innovative artistic voices of the 20th century”.

Another side of Bacon

On Wednesday evening in London, Francis Bacon – billed as a “British icon” was back on the menu – this time at Christie’s – where his Man in Blue VI, catalogued as “a stirring and profoundly perceptive portrait of existential, postwar Europe”, sold for £4.9 million (€5.7 million).

The auction, featuring “some of the most celebrated British masters of the 20th century”, also included an “early masterpiece” by British artist Damien Hirst (born 1965) – a sheep suspended in a formaldehyde-filled tank – titled Away From The Flock (Divided), which sold for £1.9 million (€2.2 million).

Dublin art auction

Today, in Dublin, art of a rather more affordable variety, and probably of greater appeal to Irish buyers, goes on view at the Clyde Court hotel, formerly the Berkeley Court, in Ballsbridge for three days ahead of auctioneer Morgan O’Driscoll’s sale on Monday evening .

More than 200 paintings will go under the hammer, including a horse-racing scene by the equestrian artist Peter Curling titled The Country Winner (€15,000- €20,000) and a watercolour titled Study Of A Gentleman by Sir Frederick William Burton (€3,000-€4,000). Burton (1816-1900) is the Co Clare-born artist whose Hellelil and Hildebrand,The Meeting on the Turret Stairs was last year voted Ireland’s favourite painting in the RTÉ competition and currently adorns kitchens throughout Ireland as the image illustrating February in the FBD/National Gallery of Ireland 2013 calendar.

The auction has a wide selection of paintings in all price ranges and among other artists are William Conor, Gerard Dillon, Harry Kernoff, Graham Knuttel, Mark O’Neill, Markey Robinson and Ivan Sutton.