Portrait of Lucian Freud sets Bacon's single panel painting record at US$52.8m

On 29 June, Sotheby’s staged a special Jubilee auction to celebrate Her Majesty’s 70th anniversary on the Throne, featuring British art across 400 years.

The sale achieved a sale total of £72.3 million (around US$87.6 million) with a sell-through rate of 78 per cent. Amongst 34 lots offered, 8 were unsold – including two highlight lots, David Hockney’s Woldgate Woods II, 16 & 17 May, 2006 and Banksy’s Turf War, which carried the second and third highest pre-sale low estimates at £10,000,000 and £4,000,000 respectively.

Though the sale saw relatively lukewarm reception among bidders, record was set for British figurative painter Francis Bacon, whose Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud – unseen in public for 57 years – fetched £43.3 million (US$52.8 million) to become the most expensive single panel painting by the artist.

Lot 10 | Francis Bacon | Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud, Oil on canvas
Created in May 1964
198 x 147.5 cm
Provenance (Amended by The Value):

  • Marlborough Fine Art Ltd., London
  • The Hon. Colin Tennant, London 
  • Galleria Galatea, Turin
  • Private Collection, Europe
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1982-83
  • Property of an European Collector

Estimate upon request (expected to fetch above £35 million)
Hammer Price: £37,500,000
Sold: £43,336,000 (US$52.8 million)

The auctioneer, Oliver Barker, started the bidding at £32 million. With tepid response in the saleroom, the price climbed steadily in £1 million increments. The bidding battle was between two telephone bidders represented by Tom Eddison, Director, Contemporary Art and Mark Poltimore, Deputy Chairman, Europe. It was Poltimore who won the lot for his client with paddle number 15.

After fees, it garnerd £43.3 million (US$52.8 million), setting an auction record for any single panel painting by Bacon and also the most valuable work of art sold at auction in London this season. Bacon's previous record for single panel painting was set by Portrait of George Dyer Talking, which fetched £42.1 million at Christie's London in 2014.

Mark Poltimore who the lot for his client with paddle number 15

Portrait of George Dyer Talking fetched £42.1 million at Christie's London in 2014

Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud, where Bacon illustrates his once best friend and rival, was originally conceived as the central panel of a large-scale triptych. Shortly after it was created, it was separated by the artist into three individual works shortly. All three panels were hung together as part of a travelling exhibition to Hamburg and Stockholm.

Today, the left-hand panel resides in a private collection, while the right-hand work belongs to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. As for the present painting, it was shown in Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, Dublin from 1945 to 1965. Ever since, the work has remained in private collection and unseen in public for 57 years.

Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud was originally the central panel of a large-scale triptych

All three panels were hung together in an exhibition in Moderna Museet, Stockholm

The friendship of two giants of post-war British figurative painter, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, started in London in 1944. On their first encounter, the two sparked an instant friendship and has since enjoyed a famously intense relationship that lasted over 40 years.

The pair was said to be ‘inseparable’ when they were the closest during the 1950s and 1960s, dining and drinking together almost every night in Soho’s restaurants, bars and clubs. Freud’s ex-wife, Lady Caroline Blackwood, recalled having to sit with Bacon for dinner nearly every day throughout their short six-year marriage between 1953 and 1959.  

Apart from the beer and skittles, they pair spent time in each other’s west London studios and subject their works to intense scrutiny, sometimes giving harsh criticism to their closest friend. As Bacon later said, “Who can I tear to pieces, if not my friends? If they were not my friends, I could not do such violence to them.”

Francis Bacon (left) and Lucian Freud (right)

Although their visual styles differed considerably throughout their respective oeuvres, both artists were deeply committed to human figure. While Bacon was renowned for working quickly, often using photographs as an inspiration, Freud worked slowly – notoriously demanding months of his sitter’s time – and painted exclusively from life.

They painted for each other on multiple occasions over the years: Freud executed his first portrait of Bacon in 1952; the second, however, remained unfinished. As for Bacon, Freud had become a recurrent and one of the most significant subjects of his works in the 1960s, a period of great artistic confidence during which he produced some of his finest portraits. 

His first portrait of Freud was created in 1951, and he had then painted him no less than 16 times. In these Freud portraits, his primary source material was from the black-and-white photographs taken by their mutual friend John Deakin.

Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud is based on John Deakin's photograph

Unfortunately, the two eventually fell out in the 1980s, when Bacon was to enjoy global recognition. At one instance, Bacon blasted Freud’s latest works as “ridiculously” and Freud, in return, caustically labeled Bacon’s paintings from the 1980s “ghastly”. 

Despite publicly rejecting each other’s friendship, Bacon had kept the Freud photographs taken by Deakin with him for the rest of his life, and they were rediscovered torn, crumpled and splattered with paint in his studio following his death – but even so, the photos are of such great personal significance that he would not abandon them. And Freud, had kept an early Bacon painting Two Figures on his bedroom wall for most of his life. 

Created in 1964, Study for Portrait of Lucian captured Freud sitting on a bed, with his arms outstretched, fists clenched, and white sleeves rolled up above the elbows. Compared to the other large-scale portraits from the period, the painting shows Freud at his most confident, in a threatening pose with chest bare and body open, and his face confronting the viewer with an intense gaze.

Also based on the Deakin photographs is the large triptych Three Studies of Lucian Freud, which was sold for US$142.1 million at Christie’s New York – brieftly setting the then record for most expensive artwork ever sold at auction and is still now the auction record for Bacon.

Three Studies of Lucian Freud, sold for a record US$142.1 million in 2013

Lot 3 | Flora Yukhnovich | Boucher's Flesh, Oil on linen
Created in 2017
215 x 180 cm

  • Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner

Estimate: £200,000 - 300,000
Hammer Price: £1,900,000
Sold: £2,334,000 (around US$2.83 million)

Alongside Bacon, the highlight of the sale was on Flora Yukhnovich. As soon as the auctioneer opened the bidding at £120,000, bids streamed in from the specialists across both London and Hong Kong salerooms. Within a minute, the price reached £450,000 – it was when a telephone bidder placed an ambitious bidding of £1 million.

After 9 more bids, the hammer was down at £1.9 million and sold for £2.3 million with fees to the client with paddle number 32, represented by Julian Dawes, Modern Art, Americas.

One of the emerging artists, Flroa Yukhnovich made her auction debut in 2021. In the same year, she caught the attention of international art world when her Pretty Little Thing passed the US$1 million benchmark at Philips, selling well beyond its high estimate by 15 times.

Since then, the artist has again and again pulled off impressive results at auctions. Currently, her auction record is at £2.69 million (around US$3.26 million), achieved by Warm, Wet ‘N’ Wild sold at Sotheby’s London in March 2022.

Flroa Yukhnovich

Wet ‘N’ Wild sold for £2.69 million at Sotheby’s London in March 2022

Born in 1990, the London-based artist studied traditional portrait painting at Heatherley School of Fine Art. After graduation, she developed her semi-abstract style at City & Guilds of London Art School, where she obtained her Master’s degree in Fine Art.

In her artistic journey, Yukhnovich found herself deeply resonated with Rococo – especially those works by Rococo giants such as Jean-Honoré Fragonard and François Boucher. As the artist puts, “To me, rococo feels like something I already know. I feel like the things I grew up surrounded by or that were advertised to me have a rococo feeling about them.”

Her works are acclaimed for channelling the sumptuous French and Italian Rococo through a contemporary lens. With references ranging from Old Masters to popular culture, her dreamy-coloured canvases are filled with energetic abstract brushstrokes, bringing the traditional paintings a new life. And the present lot, Boucher's Flesh, is her reinterpretation of Bocher’s The Kidnapping of Europe created in 1747.

Bocher’s The Kidnapping of Europe created in 1747

The second and third most expensive lots of the sale:

Lot 8 | Frank Auerbach | Head of Gerda Boehm, Oil on board
Created in 1965
44.5 x 37 cm

  • Marlborough Fine Art, London
  • David Niven, Château-d'Œx
  • Private Collection
  • Sotheby’s London, 2 July 1992, lot 61 (consigned by the above)
  • Private Collection 
  • Christie's London, 26 May 1995, lot 281
  • David Bowie Collection (acquired directly from the above) 
  • Sotheby's London, Bowie/Collector Part I, 10 November 2016, lot 18 (consigned by the above) 
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: £2,000,000 - 3,000,000
Hammer Price: £3,400,000
Sold: £4,149,000 (around US$5.03 million)

Lot 5 | Dame Barbara Hepworth | Elegy, Painted beechwood
Created in 1945, the present work is unique
48.5 x 39 cm

  • Alex. Reid & Lefevre, London, where acquired by Mr & Mrs S. Kaye, Cookham, Berkshire, October 1946
  • Gimpel Fils, London
  • McCrory Corporation, New York
  • Private Collection, Los Angeles, where acquired by the previous owner
  • Their sale, Sotheby's, London, 25 June 2008, lot 26, where acquired by the present owner

Estimate: £1,700,000 - 2,500,000
Hammer Price: £2,100,000
Sold: £2,576,000 (around US$3.12 million)

Other Highlight Lots:

Lot 1 | John Constable, R.A. | Cloud Study, Oil on paper, laid on canvas
Suffolk 1776 - 1837 Hampstead
15.2 x 21 cm

  • By descent to the artist's grandson, Hugh Goulding Constable (1868–1949)
  • From whom acquired by Leggatt Bros., London, by October 1899
  • With Ackerman and Johnson, London, circa 1960s
  • From whom acquired by the present owners

Estimate: £100,000 - 150,000
Hammer Price: £580,000
Sold: £730,800 (around US$886,000)

Lot 4 | Pauline Boty | With Love to Jean-Paul Belmondo, Oil on canvas
Created in 1962
152.5 x 122 cm
Provenance (Amened by the Value):

  • The Artist’s Estate
  • Whitford Fine Art, London, where acquired by the present owner in November 1999
  • Property from a French Private Collection

Estimate: £500,000 - 800,000
Hammer Price: £950,000
Sold: £1,159,500 (around US$1.46 million)

Lot 9 | Lynette Yiadom-Boakye | Nearer than Kith, Further from Kind, Oil on linen
Created in 2018
Each: 110.5 x 60.5 cm

  • Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: £400,000 - 600,000
Hammer Price: £980,000
Sold: £1,220,800 (around US$1.48 million)

Auction Details:
Auction House: Sotheby's London
Sale: British Art: The Jubilee Auction
Date: 29 June 2022 
Number of Lots: 34
Sold: 26
Unsold: 8
Sale Rate: 78%
Sale Total: £72,304,000 (around US$87.6 million)