Bacon's landscape of violent love and loss could sell for US$19m in London

One of the major British painters of the post-World War II period, Francis Bacon is widely recognized for his iconic, violently distorted portraits of scathed and traumatized humanity. 

In the upcoming London sales in March, Christie's offers a rare landscape by the figurative titan, Landscape near Malabata, Tangier (1963), the place where his great love Peter Lacy was laid to rest. Packed with the emotional intensity Bacon is celebrated for, it is a tribute to their passionate yet turbulent relationship in a singular image of grief, desire and longing.

Once belonged to celebrated children's literature author Roald Dahl, it was last auctioned in 1985 when it set an artist record for Bacon at US$517,000. Unseen in the market for nearly four decades, the piece is now expected to fetch between £15 and 20 million (US$18.8 - 25 million) and has already been backed by a third-party guarantee. 

Lot 17 | Francis Bacon (1909-1992) | Landscape near Malabata, Tangier, Oil on canvas
Painted in 1963
198.1 x 144.8 cm

  • Marlborough Fine Art Ltd., London
  • Roald Dahl Collection, Great Missenden
  • Patricia Neal Collection, Great Missenden and New York
  • Her sale, Sotheby’s New York, 2 May 1985, lot 58
  • Ivor Braka Collection, London
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2000

Estimate: £15,000,000 - 20,000,000 (US$18.8 - 25 million)

Auction House: Christie's London
Sale: 20th/21st Century: London Evening Sale
Date and Time: 7 March 2024 | 5 pm (London local time)

Francis Bacon and Peter Lacy first met in 1952. Some trace their first encounter to the artist's beloved Colony Room in Soho; others suggest they might have met at Careless Talk, where Lacy worked as a pianist.

At either place, the two hit it off almost immediately. Bacon recalled, "I'd never really fallen in love with anyone until then; he had this extraordinary physique – even his calves were beautiful. And he could be wonderful company."

Beneath this exterior, however, Lacy was a troubled man, a former pilot who had served during the Second World War. Both of them were tempestuous, volatile characters, and their intense relationship was fuelled by a turbulent mixture of passion, infatuation, violence and hysteria.

On one occasion, Lacy hurled Bacon’s clothes off the side of a ship in anger; on another, he reportedly pushed the artist out of a window. Bacon confessed, though, "I couldn't live without him, and I couldn't live without him," and later lamented, "Being in love in that way, being absolutely physically obsessed by someone, is like an illness. It's like a disease, a disease so ghastly I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy." 

Francis Bacon (left) and Peter Lacy (right) had a turbulent yet passionate relationship

Ever restless and dissatisfied with his life in London, Lacy moved to Tangier in 1955. While their affair had already reached boiling point, Bacon made frequent and extended trips to visit him every summer, and they continued their uneasy liaison abroad. 

With its glistening sun, lively expatriate community and liberal gay scene, the northern Moroccan city quickly became Bacon's favourite exotic retreat.

During these stints in Morocco, Bacon was particularly prolific, writing to his dealer Erica Brausen – founder of Hanover Gallery in London: "I hope to come back with about 20 or 25 paintings early in October … I feel full of work and believe I may do a few really good paintings now."

Those paintings, which reflected their tortured affair, include the intensely emotional Pope with Owls (1958), which sold for US$33 million at Phillips New York in 2021. The majority of the other canvases, however, were destroyed by Bacon, who, on one evening, was clouded by anger and determined to eliminate his memories of Lacy. 

Francis Bacon visited Peter Lacy in Tangier every summer from 1955 to 1961

Francis Bacon | Pope with Owls (1958) | Sold: US$33,000,000, Phillips New York, 2021

Despite its liberal climate, Tangier ultimately proved fatal to Lacy. On 24 May 1962, the official opening day of his first retrospective, held at Tate Gallery in London, Bacon had sent Lacy a telegram in Tangier with news of the show's success.

The answering telegram shattered him: Lacy was dead. In the grips of alcoholism, his beloved one passed away at just 46 years old. Trapped in the abyss of grief, Bacon chose to portray him as he remembered him. 

One famous posthumous painting of Lacy is Study for Portrait of P.L. (1962), which is now in a private European collection. As for this Landscape near Malabate, Tangier (1963), the artist depicts the landscape where Lacy was laid to rest instead – it was a place he had undoubtedly visited with him and a site to which he would return after his death. 

Francis Bacon | Study For Portrait of P.L. (1962) | Private Collection, Europe 

A portrait of love and loss capturing the inevitable circularity that eventually returns flesh to earth, it is one of Bacon's most prominently exhibited paintings, among which was his career-defining retrospective at the Grand Palais, Paris in 1971. 

The show was a triumph for him, but was also marked by tragedy. Less than thirty-six hours before its opening, George Dyer – his lover after Lacy – was found dead in their hotel room. At that moment, in a cruel twist of fate, history seemed to repeat itself, and Bacon later concluded, "After all, I’ve had a very unfortunate life, because all the people I’ve been really fond of have died. And you don’t stop thinking about them; time doesn’t heal."

The present lot

Shortly after the creation of Landscape near Malabata, Tangier, it was unveiled at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and featured in the pages of Vogue. 

Not long after, it was acquired by Roald Dahl – renowned author of popular children's literature – and his wife, the American actress Patricia Neal. 

Buoyed by the triumphant professional and financial success of the publication of James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dahl bought four other Bacon canvases between 1964 and 1968, including the landmark Three Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer (1963). 

The present work last hit the market in 1985, setting the artist's then-auction record at US$517,000 at Sotheby's New York. Now, Bacon's record stands at a staggering US$142.4 million, set by Three Studies of Lucian Freud (1969) when it was sold at Christie's New York in 2013, reportedly to  Elaine Wynn, ex-wife of billionaire casino mogul Steve Wynn.

Francis Bacon | Three Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer (1963) | Sold: US$51,760,000, Christie's New York, 2017

Francis Bacon | Three Studies of Lucian Freud (1969) | Sold: US$142,405,000, Christie's New York, 2013