CLARE SHENSTONE (born 1948)
Francis Bacon No 4 (Anxious Francis) (United Kingdom, 1980)
Oil on canvas
Michael Parkin Gallery, London, Clare Shenstone - Portraits of Francis Bacon, September 1998
Lynton, Clare Shenstone Portraits of Francis Bacon, Michael Parkin Gallery, 1998
London, Michael Parkin Gallery, Clare Shenstone - Portraits of Francis Bacon, October-November 1998, illustrated plate 4
Norwich, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Clare Shenstone: Portraits of an Intimate Acquaintance, 30th July – 8th September 2002, catalogue number 8, illustrated page 37
Description / Expertise
The story is remarkable enough. Clare Shenstone got her MA at the Royal College of Art. One day she was told that `a distinguished visitor' had been looking at her degree show - all of heads - and had left his telephone number. She phoned: it was Francis Bacon, who said `I love your work'. She said she greatly admired his; indeed, her MA thesis had been on one of his portraits of George Dyer. He wanted to buy a particular head, Janet. Not long after he phoned to ask whether Shenstone would do a portrait of him. During the first sitting, at his place in Reece Mews, he told her that since Lucian Freud had taken two years over his Bacon portrait, Shenstone might in all fairness take as long.
What followed was typical Shenstone. She stalks her subjects relentlessly through her work, trying to know them completely, their inner and outer histories and being, using all sorts of visual means to hold them and continuing her investigation as long as possible - in some instances for decades, even after the 'sitter' has died. Sketches, more finished drawings, oil paintings: to the usual range she adds her own invention of relief heads, made with remarkable skill to extraordinarily convincing effect - to picture the individual in yet another aspect but also to enlarge, she says, the possibilities of image-making. Janet had been her first attempt at what she calls her `cloth heads'. She was fascinated by the Turin Shroud, the way it contains and half reveals a presence, and the urge in her was not so much to make a portrait - in this instance, of a family friend - as to see whether she could take cloth and transubstantiate it into a living image.
Over two years she made more than fifty studies of Bacon: oil sketches, developed oil paintings, a gouache and a pastel, many sketches and drawings in pencil and in conté crayon, as well as the relief heads, with and without colour. Sizes vary, from a few inches to about five feet in height. More important, as her methods vary so does the visual character of the result: she evades style or anything like a brand image lest it draws a veil of artifice between the representation and her understanding of the subject. She spent a great deal of time with Bacon, indoors and out, and worked also from photographs that she took and from the life-mask made by Clive Barker.
Bacon bought one of the relief heads. It appears to have disappeared since his death; perhaps this exhibition of a selection of Shenstone's other Bacons, coinciding as it does with the National Portrait Gallery's opening display of a large conté drawing they recently acquired, will bring it to light. Meanwhile, there is only a photograph of it.
Amazing as is the history of this intense relationship, so is the range of the results: Shenstone's pictorial record of the looking and thinking, her knowing him yet never quite knowing him, her awe and admiration together with the developing intimacy, the care, the pity. Francis Bacon hid himself in may a self-portrait. Lucian Freud's portrait of him pins him down to dive beneath the skin. Clare Shenstone's litany of portraits catches many Bacons and reflects many Shenstones - in short documents in unique fashion the coming together of two human beings, two painters, he in his seventies, she in her twenties and their visual dialogue. Likenesses are not merely caught. The good portrait comes out of regard and memory as much as looking; rather than capturing a moment it embodies experience, distilled by time and the processes employed in realising it.