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Francis Bacon

Mystery over who made the “Francis Bacon” rugs

New research poses more questions than answers over possible attributions for items that were withdrawn from March sale

The announcement that two very rare hand-knotted rugs, designed by the artist Francis Bacon, had turned up in a saleroom near Salisbury generated widespread media excitement last February; excitement that rapidly turned to disappointment with the news they had been withdrawn by their consignor shortly before Netherhampton’s 12 March auction. The two rugs —featuring a distinctive green, angular, crosshatch design and signed boldly “Francis Bacon”—carried estimates of £50,000-£80,000.

The Art Newspaper has now seen research that raises questions about the attribution of these rugs. The technical examination by carpet experts Clive Rogers, of Clive Rogers Oriental Rugs, and Jean Manuel de Noronha, a Paris-based researcher, will be published in the December issue of the specialist carpet magazine Hali under the title “The Rugs of the Young Francis Bacon”.

The research has been timed to coincide with a rare showing of rugs known to be by Bacon at London’s Tate Britain (26 October-late February, 2010), allowing for comparison.

Bacon only made rugs and furniture for a very short period in the late 1920s—in his late teens—before turning to painting. His rugs and furniture were shown in exhibitions in 1929 and 1930, but this aspect of his work is rarely studied. According to Rogers and other experts, only seven rugs are known to be currently in existence, including one in the V&A and the three due to show at the Tate.

However—drawing on photographs of Bacon’s Queensbury Mews West studio, published in 1930 in Studio Magazine, and drawings and paintings of the studio by the Australian artist Roy de Maistre—Rogers and De Noronha’s study shows evidence of at least six more.

However, none of the rugs pictured in Studio Magazine or by De Maistre correspond with the two Netherhampton rugs, nor with a third, almost identical (but unsigned) rug in private hands, which has since appeared and been shown to Rogers. All three are narrower than the seven currently accepted as Bacons, at around 6ft x 3ft, as opposed to 7ft x 4ft.

Their place of manufacture is also a mystery: the authors state that “all three have the patina and structure of period products” but have difficulty attributing them to the Wilton Carpet factory at Wilton, near Salisbury, which has been clearly established as the maker of the seven known Bacon rugs. The authors’ research shows that the three green rugs are likely to have been made in England or Ireland but associations to either Bacon or one of Wilton’s rural satellites is problematic.

Perhaps the most intriguing finding of the research is about the design. The three “new” green rugs appear almost identical in pattern to a much larger carpet in a pinkish colourway, which has appeared three times at auction in Continental Europe. On each occasion (Sotheby’s Monaco, 23 April 1989; Boisgirard, 29 March 1990; Sotheby’s Monaco, 11 December 1995) that piece was attributed to the famous Paris-based Brazilian textile artist/rugmaker Ivan Da Silva Bruhn, probably around 1927.

However, the three green rugs are unlike Da Silva Bruhn’s construction, if similar in design. The authors note that Bacon spent time in Paris from 1927/28 and that his rugs do show the influence of Paris-based artist-makers including Eileen Gray and Fernand Léger. But so far, all the accepted Bacons “are unique”, they say, and there is no evidence of him copying directly from other textile artists.

Dr Ian Bennett, the carpet expert at Netherhampton’s, declined to comment, except to say that, in light of the new evidence, he “no longer believes the rugs to be by Bacon”.