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Not a Bacon, expert tells court: The debate around Bacon's drawings continues

The chairman of the artist’s catalogue raisonné committee dismisses controversial drawings as “pastiches” in UK bankruptcy hearing

The Francis Bacon Catalogue Raisonné Committee has given its first public response on the authenticity of some of the hundreds of drawings that have surfaced in Italy. There has been a long-running controversy over the works, which began to appear on the market in the 1990s, but art historians have felt inhibited about commenting on them (The Art Newspaper, December 2011, p9).

The committee chairman Martin Harrison’s response came in the form of evidence presented in a UK bankruptcy hearing at Cambridge County Court. In a written statement, he dismissed the few works he had examined as “pastiches”. He also gave verbal evidence to the court on 29 May.

According to Harrison, the total number of drawings connected with Bologna-based Cristiano Lovatelli Ravarino is now said to be “in excess of 600”. Ravarino says that he was Bacon’s lover from 1976 until the artist’s death in 1992 and that this is how he has the drawings.

Harrison stated that six drawings were submitted to the Francis Bacon Catalogue Raisonné Committee in October 2007. He said that they “bore no resemblance to the relatively few drawings securely attributed to Francis Bacon”. Harrison added that a committee member had told him that “the probable source of the drawings was likely to have been Cristiano Ravarino”.

The committee concluded unanimously that the six works were “not Francis Bacon drawings”. In his statement, Harrison explained: “Stylistically the drawings did not stand up to scrutiny. They appeared to quote from subjects associated with Bacon, but superficially and incoherently. They were pastiches, or even parodies, and profoundly disrespectful of Bacon’s authentic body of work.”

Harrison said that two further drawings were submitted by a Berlin gallery to the committee in October 2011. The director of Werkstattgalerie confirmed that the gallery had sought authentication, but had been told that the drawings were not by Bacon.

Harrison wrote in his statement that he has been “in contact with Cristiano Lovatelli Ravarino and with other associates of his who are now connected with these drawings”.

Harrison stated that Ravarino had earlier given as evidence of how he acquired the drawings a note typed on Ravarino’s own typewriter and “allegedly signed” by Bacon on 2 April 1988. Harrison then quoted from this note said to be from Bacon: “I left all my drawings to Cristiano Ravarino. I am indebted to him and Italian renaissance culture… With love.”

After further investigations, Harrison said he found evidence that Bacon had been in London on 2 April 1988. He said that he had evidence from a friend of Bacon who would be willing to testify that he had dined in the Red Pepper restaurant in Chelsea on that date.

The witness statement by Harrison concluded: “Neither I nor the committee has yet been satisfied that any of the drawings emanating from Mr Ravarino were under the hand of Francis Bacon.”

In his verbal evidence, Harrison told the court that Bacon “certainly did not draw”, in the sense of making finished drawings. Harrison questioned the idea that Bacon “suddenly makes over 600 [drawings], in the 1980s, a total higher than the total number of paintings that are left by him”.

The Art Newspaper asked Ravarino and his Bologna lawyer, Umberto Guerini, to comment on Harrison’s statements. We received a response from Millbank Solicitors, the London firm that represents Ravarino. Millbank did not wish to comment, but our understanding is that there are fundamental differences of opinion between Ravarino and Harrison on the authenticity of the drawings and on many factual matters.

Ravarino told us earlier that Bacon fell in love with him in 1976. A relationship then developed and Ravarino said that the hundreds of drawings were given to him over a 15-year period. Ravarino has said that extensive technical evidence backs up his case for authenticity.

An earlier legal case over the drawings was initiated against Ravarino in Bologna, and in 2005, the Italian judge Norberto Lenzi absolved Ravarino of one charge and ruled against proceeding with two other charges. Ravarino and his lawyer, Umberto Guerini, have stated that the Bologna court determined that “no one can say that Francis Bacon’s drawings owned by Cristiano Ravarino are fakes”.

Drawings believed to have emanated from Ravarino were shown during the Venice Biennale in 2009. Shows have since been held in Zurich, Milan, Buenos Aires, Evora (Portugal), Cento (near Ferrara) and Prague.

So far, the drawings have been accepted by a number of Italian art historians, most notably by Rome-based Raffaele Gavarro, as well as by London-based Edward Lucie-Smith.

The emergence of the Ravarino collection has again raised the question of the extent to which Bacon made drawings. Harrison, along with most Bacon experts, believes that he only did very occasional, small sketches. Ravarino, and those art historians who accept the Italian drawings, have said that he also made numerous large-scale drawings.

The Cambridge case, for which Harrison provided evidence, involved two claimants (Robert Frost and Nigel Millar) and three defendants (including David Edwards, the brother of the late John Edwards, who was Bacon’s long-term companion and the beneficiary of his will, and John Frederick Tanner). In a judgment given on 8 June, payments made by Edwards to Tanner were found to have been transactions at an undervalue under the Insolvency Act 1986, and Tanner was ordered to pay £508,000, plus costs, to Edwards’s trustee in bankruptcy, Millar. The judgment may be subject to an appeal.

Bacon the sketch artist?

Until the emergence of the Italian drawings in the 1990s, only a few accepted drawings by Bacon were known, all of which are fairly small, rough sketches. Determining the status of the Italian drawings poses a key question for the understanding of Bacon’s oeuvre. If they are by Bacon, as Ravarino says, then they show a new facet of the artist that has previously been hidden. If they are not authentic, as Harrison says, then they distort our view of his work.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Not a Bacon, expert tells court'