Rugs of the Young Francis Bacon
Clive Rogers & Jean Manuel de Noronha
Draft form of published article ( unedited )from Hali Magazine #162 Winter 2009 - text minus original images.
The coincidence of the recent consignment and scuppering withdrawal of two Art Déco style rugs ‘signed’ by the Anglo-Irish figurative painter Francis Bacon from a carpet sale near Wilton Salisbury, the subsequent appearance of an identical unsigned rug and the current Tate Britain centennial exhibition ‘ Early Francis Bacon ‘, demand that the subject of Bacon’s rugs are worthy of further investigation.
When we think of the work of Francis Bacon, we imagine grotesque meaty imagery of the sort that rips out of John Hurt’s stomach in the film Alien. Any notion of the artist taking a keen interest in soft furnishings and hankering after nice clean lines in interior decoration therefore seems rather comic. Especially given his well-earned reputation for a squalid studio and hard living. In the current exhibition ‘Early Francis Bacon’ 19 Oct. 2009 – 18 April 2010 Tate Britain are showing three rugs 4, 5 amongst other work and paintings executed from the late 1920s onward.
Born in 1909, Bacon spent an unsettled childhood/teenage years before each side of WWI, moving between family houses in the Irish Midlands and Kensington, London . In Cheltenham he received a short schooling – his only formal education. His childhood homes in mid Ireland were at Abbeyleix on the Cork to Dublin road in County Laois, and another close-by to Naas in County Kildare. Both localities in the early 20th century possessed well-known workshops making hand-knotted carpets. The support and clients numbered the large houses of the Anglo landed community. Of which Bacon’s Australian born English father was a part being a horse trainer and stud keeper. The Abbeyleix Carpet Company was founded in 1904 by Ivo, the 5th Viscount de Vesci with technical assistance from Robert Fowler the 8th Earl of Ashbrook . The Abbeyleix works were commissioned to make carpets for the Belfast-built White Star liner the Titanic and her sister ship the Olympic (see Mairead Johnston, Hidden in the Pile, 1997). Whilst at Naas , Lady Geraldine Mayo of Palmerstion with assistance from the English Kidderminster based company of Brintons started The Kildare Carpet Company in1902. Abbeyleix and Kildare merged in 1909. Clearly these were no Cottage Industries.
Despite a lack of formal schooling, the young Bacon’s background in rural Ireland and England endowed him with something the urbanity of the leisured/landed classes to whom he owes his origins. In 1927, at the age of 18, he traveled to Berlin, where he stayed at the luxurious Hotel Adlon with a family friend with to whom he was entrusted. By his own admission he did not visit to study the concepts of the New Objectivity, German Expressionism or examine Bauhaus products but rather for fun and the city’s fleshpots. Speaking no German he was nevertheless exposed to street advertising and the lurid nightlife in the Kurt Weil/Fritz Langer world of the Weimar Republic. Later that year he moved on to Paris, now abandoned, where he remained learning French for some months. References to Bacon working as a designer then are unlikely, the teenager was nevertheless absorbing the Parisian world that engulfed him
Late 1920s Paris was a teeming hothouse of artistic endeavour and decorative activity following the great Exposition Des Arts Décoratifs in 1925, which effectively marked the coming of age of the Art Déco Movement [HALI reference]. Literarily thousands of artisans were commissioned to create furnishings for the grand stores, and it would have been hard not to be affected by the explosion of new ideas. Although there is no evidence that Bacon was ever in direct contact with Picasso, Le Corbusier or Fernard Léger their influences are evident in his early rugs and furniture. It is important to understand how pervasive the Paris School of Modernism was in both painting and the decorative arts, including carpets. Indeed, many artists turned their hands to carpet design as a medium of some fashion and use. Bacon himself recognised that during these early years he had been influenced by French modernists designers or artists. He was reluctant in mentioning names but we have been able to establish stylistic correspondences with the following artists : Eileen Gray, Jean Lurçat, Fernand Léger, Ivan da Silva Bruhns and Adnet. Similarly he omitted to mention the probable profound impact of the first McKnight Kauffer and Dorn exhibition of modernist rugs woven by Wilton Royal Carpet Factory at Arthur Tooth & Sons Gallery, London, in January and February 1929. On this occasion the Studio Magazine interviewed Kauffer and many of the concepts explained in the article can be applied to Bacon as well ( Not to be confused with The later ‘1930 Look in British Decoration ‘ also published in the Studio magazine this time on Bacon ILLUSTRATION STUDIO PHOTO)
Returning back to in London in 1928-29 and establishing himself a stable/garage in Queensbury Mews West, South Kensington. Bacon initiated a career supplying art furnishing works for interior decoration. Commissioning both rugs ( which we believe came first ), furniture and possibly objects all of will have taken a few months presumably whilst these premises were converted into a purposeful studio/gallery /home. In the spring of 1929 he already started to show his work into what must have amounted to a rolling exhibition at home. ILLUSTRATION STUDIO PHOTO This included streamlined pared down and tubular steel furniture as well as rugs. These first ‘decorative’ works have been dismissed as ill-formed derivative Juvenilia by those solely interested in his painting. Later he himself described his efforts as poor imitations of the generic Cubist style. He destroyed or disposed of much of it, including paintings. Quite how the 19 year old financed the venture is interesting since it required capital to convert and commission the rugs and furniture etc, which it seems did not make a return or meet with any great success. A situation not helped by the Crash of October 1929. Eric Alden a wealthier , older man who lived with him became his first collector in 1929 and must have provided assistance. The three rugs currently at the Tate are all credited with the Alden provenance. Other supporting men included Geoffry Gilbey a racing correspondent and Eric Hall the manager of the large and still fashionable Department store of Peter Jones in Chelsea. Bacon even advertised himself as a ‘ Gentleman’s Companion ‘. That way he met an elderly cousin Douglas Cooper who apparently had one of the country’s finest Modern Art collections at the time. It was Cooper that helped Bacon find a job working at a Bath Club in Mayfair where he met Eric Hall. In 1930 the Australian Roi (later Roy) de Maistre, a capable professional artist working in a range of styles, appeared on the scene to collaborate and must have taught Bacon some basic painting skills. 1
Bacon was obliged to produce artwork rug designs for the Wilton Royal Carpet Company who were commissioned. Wilton was in several rural sites but the principal Mill was just opposite their former patron The Earl of Pembroke’s ,Wilton House, near Salisbury in Wiltshire. The modernist works of London based artists Marion Dorn and Edward McNight-Kauffer were also produced in Wilton’s branded ‘ Wessex ’ range of hand knotted rugs probably predating Bacon’s. The American couple having visited France in 1925 seem almost certain to have given Bacon this influential lead. The Wilton rugs of all three are in this period are structurally the same all share bold signatures in bold capital letters. In Bacon’s case his whole name although one exception carrying initials only( TATE ILL?) Wilton’s London office at 3 Paternoster Square must have proved a convenient location to discuss and arrange projects. These orders were most probably initiated in gouache by the artist to be turned into carpet weaving cartoons or point papers by Wilton who had their own drafting team. The vertical plane arrangements ( portrait rather than horizon ) for such gouache works shows the rigour of rug design as are the early paintings of Bacon and the screen on display at the Tate. We believe several gouache working cards were included in the 1975 Brighton exhibition ‘British Carpets and Designs: the Modernist Rug 1928-1938’ a second following show featuring Bacon’s work never materialised so it is unlikely that the Brighton gouaches could have been by Bacon. These gouaches are now likely destroyed along with much of the Wilton archive.
The rugs designed by Bacon reflect a diversity of influences. In the beginning we estimate that Bacon made a clear separation between the commercial and artistic occupations. But during and after 1930 this attitude seems to have changed in light of two illustrations. The first is published in Roy de Maistre biography (2nd vol., The English Years 1930-1968, Heather Johnson) pages 47 and presents Roy’s Studio in Eccleston Street. At the feet of a Bacon’s sofa lies a rug that shows curvilinear motifs that recalls the Picasso Cruxifiction published in the Cahiers des Arts. The second interesting photo is presently exposed at the Tate and was published in 1933 in Sphere, vol 132. It can be related directly with Roy de Maistre painting Still Life 1933, now in the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. It shows on the background a largepainting of a Guitar and its player treated in a cubist form. This is the first time that we find both a painting and a rug from Bacon.
De Maistre painted an interior view of Bacon’s studio around 1930 showing furniture and rugs 1, and another of a rug and furniture 2, which correspond to photographs published in Studio magazine that year. There may have been a couple of other collaborative exhibitions held elsewhere in London in 1930 with De Maistre and other artists. Some of the material may even have reached de Maistre’s Australian homeland since he helped market Bacon’s rugs among his circle. Certainly De Maistre’s paintings prove to be a reliably accurate recording of Bacon’s rugs showing lost and known pieces.
Currently we assumed there are just seven surviving Bacon rugs, all in the same 7’ x 4’ foot format, all from Wilton. We can speculate that the entire Bacon corpus comprised of fewer than twenty rugs, including the seven known survivors and another seven (perhaps one in a different size), shown in contemporary paintings and publications. The last published in January 1933 in the Sphere publication. All of Bacon’s rugs appear unique in design as one offs. We have not seen any duplication within the Wilton group. Two from De Maistre’s painting of the Studio interior ( ILLUST ) and one surviving at V&A may form a small sub group of pared down designs with a limited mushroom type palette.
In addition to the main mill Wilton had four other rural rug weaving centres where hand-knotted rugs were made, at Fordingbridge in Hampshire, nearby Downton with Mere and Tisbury, all in Wiltshire. In 1935 the small Downton workshop, some ten miles south of Wilton was closed. Perhaps this might have been where the small format ‘Art’ production of individual ‘Wessex’ pieces were woven. The hand-knotting section although prestigious had become a loss-making sector for Wilton. The rural satellites closing before and just after WW11. Finally weaving its final great handmade commission for Guildford Cathedral in 1959. The structural elements of the Cathedral carpet remaining close to that of Bacon, Dorn and Mckight Kauffer over the intervening 30 or so years.
In March 2009, two almost identical narrow rugs of different lengths with the prominent signature ‘FRANCIS BACON’ 6, were consigned to the bimonthly carpet sale at Southern Counties Auctioneers’ Netherhampton Saleroom as it happens 2 miles from Wilton. Measuring 5’5” x 3’ (lot 1864) and 7’4” x 3’ (lot 1865) they were catalogued ‘en suite’ by Netherhampton’s former-Sotheby’s expert, Dr. Ian Bennett. He speculated that they might have been among Bacon’s earliest works, perhaps even from 1929, an attribution and dating that was tacitly validated in correspondence with Francis Bacon Foundation [HALI reference see lit ref]. Bennett has since revised his thinking in the light of further research and fresh evidence.
Both rugs were withdrawn two days before the sale by the owner, a Portobello Road lady rug dealer. Apparently she become alarmed by widespread discussion of their potential high value and feared a possible conspiracy. Her now famous retort to the astonished Bennett, “Who is Francis Bacon darling?”, has since entered the folk lore. Her two rugs have yet to reappear on the market. Just a month later another rug of identical design 7, of the same 3’ loom width, and distinctive odd green, appeared from a London private collection. The only differences were that this other rug was unsigned, and, at 6ft, was between the two Netherhampton rugs. All three share the same structure and patina of period products say 1920 - 1950. All three claim to have been found in London.
So what are we to make of the three narrow rugs with identical designs supposed to be by Bacon? Shortly after the aborted Netherhampton sale, research in France identified the design as being one attributed to Ivan Da Silva Bruhns, ( re HALI 105 ) and bearing his signature 8. By 1925 Da Bruhns already had his own French weaving atelier.
The structure of the three ‘Bacon’ rugs differs from Da Bruhn’s oeuvre, and the fact that their dimensions are best expressed in Imperial rather than Metric measure makes a Continental origin doubtful. They share some aspects of Wilton’s weaving style, including very regulated knotting ( ‘Wessex’ rugs typically have 5 x 5 knots per inch, whilst the group in question have 4 x 4 ), single cable selvedges and flat tabby-weave ends folded over and sewn down on the back. Their foundation yarns, knotting technique, pile and handle are significantly different from what we know to be Bacon’s work from Wilton, and there is something very odd about their construction – the pitch is very mechanical, somewhat heavy but very distinctive.
Could these be hybrids from Eire? In 1903, The Earl of Ashbrooke in the Irish Midlands patented a switching levered tool for hooking rugs and put the method into production at Abbey Leix . Records of carpet production in the new Irish Republic are much less clear for the 1920s, in contrast to that of the Edwardian era. In Mairead Johnston’s book there is an enticing reference to a possible shortlived revival of the Kildare Carpet Company at Naas in the 1920s. There was definitely no assistance from Brinton’s at this time, as their fomer English partners had ceased making handknotted rugs altogether in 1920. The possibity that these three narrow green rugs were made during a brief revival at Naas or Abbeyleix during the 1920s, using this hooking method on open warps therefore seems most doubtful. We have examined four other large carpets, one in our possession, which are in identical weaving construction albeit in florid quasi Savonnerie styles. In common with the three in question all known examples of this group have appeared within the British Isles. The most recent being from Karel Weijand’s stock sold as lot 131 at Christie’s London on 8th October 2009 measuring 21 x 10ft 6” catalogued as Donegal. Indeed the Killybegs ( Donegal ) does seem the strongest case. Tattersall in1934 reports in regard to Donegal “ about 16 knots per sq. inch is usual ( as the case above ) He also goes on to state “ the Donegal and Wilton factories are the only ones that make hand-knotted carpets on a commercial scale”.
Another improbable possiblity is Kauffer and Dorn’s other carpet maker, Jean Orage, a notable craftswoman who, worked with many of the leading designers of the day and previously from William Morris & Company’s Merton Abbey works. Orage had woven artist-designed rugs for exhibition in Paris in 1925 at a time when British artists were thought to be somewhat behind their Continental contemporaries. The person in charge of carpet production at her small-scale workshop in Chelsea was described as a “wild red haired Irish lady” but that seems the only possible Eire connection.
In all probability this group of carpets belong to Ireland’s Donegal. Even Killybegs in Donegal had it’s earlier satellites just like Wilton in the 1930s. Clearly we are dealing with a major manufacturer using large looms after the Alexander Morton Donegal era when the Ushak weaving style seems to have altered. We are still unable to integrate the three green abstract rugs into Bacon’s oeuvre, as too many elements do not correspond. The question remains open, and the search continues to positively identify the workshop or satellite - where and when they were made and if indeed they relate to Francis Bacon at all.
CLIVE ROGERS is a UK based dealer in antique rugs who coined the term ‘Modernist Rug’ in connection with his influential revival work with natural dyes in Turkey,Brighton and London in the early 1980s.
JEAN MANUEL De NORONHA is a Paris-based private researcher who publishes a regular English language blog, The Carpet Index, on the subject of 20th century carpets. http://thecarpetindex.blogspot.com
• Andrew Sinclair, Francis Bacon: his life and violent times, New York: Crown Publishers Inc., 1993,
• Heather Johnson, Roy de Maistre: the English years 1930-1968, Sydney: Craftsman House,
• Burlington Magazine, vol. CXXXVIII, no. 1117, April 1996, pp. 254, 255
• Studio Magazine The 1930 Look in British Decoration, London August 1930
• Wilton Archive - Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre, Chippenham, UK
• A History of British Carpets C.E.C. Tattershall Published by F. Lewis Benfleet 1934
• Mairead Johnston , Hidden in the Pile - Abbey Leix Carpets 1997
• The Estate of Francis Bacon www.francis-bacon.com