‘Greedy, tricky and lacking politeness’: Francis Bacon’s contempt for the Marlborough Gallery

<span>Francis Bacon told his friend Barry Joule about his tense relationship with the Marlborough Gallery.</span><span>Photograph: Barry Joule</span>
Francis Bacon told his friend Barry Joule about his tense relationship with the Marlborough Gallery.Photograph: Barry Joule

As one of Britain’s foremost painters it is perhaps unsurprising that Francis Bacon could display an artistic temperament. But the depth of his loathing for his own art dealers at the Marlborough Gallery in London has been revealed through previously unheard tape recordings.

In a conversation with a friend in 1982, the artist can be heard dismissing them as “greedy” and “tricky”, as well as lacking “a certain politeness” towards him.

Bacon is one of the country’s most celebrated artists. He once confided to another friend: “When I die, my paintings won’t be worth anything, I’ll be forgotten.” He could not have been more wrong. His 1969 portrait Three Studies of Lucian Freud, sold in 2013 for a record £89m.

Yet he did not feel appreciated by his dealers, the tapes reveal. When his friend suggests that the Marlborough wants him just “slaving away, producing paintings for them non-stop and … keeping you prisoner in a quiet, shut-off place”, Bacon exclaims: “Yes.”

Such was his anger that he planned to hold back one of his latest paintings from them: “They will never see that.”

In discussing his latest exhibition at the Marlborough, which had marked all his paintings as sold, Bacon says: “You can never trust them. They say they have sold things they have not. They buy them themselves, you see – you never know with them.”

The friend to whom he was confiding his frustration was Barry Joule, who lived near Bacon’s studio in South Kensington, London. In 1978, they had struck up a friendship that continued until the artist’s death in 1992. They holidayed together and the artist agreed to him recording a series of their conversations, signing a statement that Joule could use the material 12 years after his death.

Earlier this year, the Marlborough Gallery confirmed that it will close in June. It was founded by the late Frank Lloyd and Harry Fischer in 1946, who turned it into one of the world’s most important galleries. But, despite acclaimed exhibitions, its record was not unblemished. In the 1970s, it emerged that trustees of Mark Rothko’s estate had sold paintings to the gallery for far less than the market value. Lloyd was later convicted of tampering with evidence in connection with the case.

When Joule asks Bacon whether Lloyd was buying the paintings himself, the artist replies: “Yes. You never know with them – they are a very tricky gallery.”

Irritated that Lloyd had phoned him repeatedly from Nassau, the Bahamas, trying to get him to move to the tax haven, Bacon jokes: “Can you imagine anything more ridiculous than me prancing around on the sand of a Bahamas beach?”

In the recordings, Bacon can also be heard reading passages from a letter from a former Marlborough employee who had moved overseas: “He writes… ‘The only time I have regretted not being at the Marlborough was when I looked at your catalogue and I realised I had a peculiar desire to see your new exhibition, but could not’ … He goes on to say, ‘I don’t know why you stay with that pack of thieves’.”

Elsewhere in their conversation, Joule tells Bacon that he has heard from US friends that his Marlborough New York exhibition is causing a stir and is packed every day. Bacon replies: “That is why it would have been quite interesting to have heard from them [the Marlborough], just what the reactions were … This is the thing of simple courtesy – a certain politeness.”

Joule told the Guardian that most of Bacon’s criticisms of the Marlborough are “pretty damning” and that, while coming “very close to walking away from them for good”, he “could run hot and cold” with them: “Yet Francis never left them for well over 30 years. I have to think that some of his paintings that were sold outside UK jurisdiction – mainly Switzerland with no tax paid – that maybe this was used as pressure on him, should he wish to quit Frank Lloyd and co.”

He recalled Bacon’s bitter battle in 1987 with the Marlborough over his proposed exhibition in Moscow, which was staged the following year to great success, despite their strong objections: “He very nearly quit them in 1987. They strenuously did not want it to happen and tried very hard to stop it. The recorded Bacon outrage is some the strongest I ever heard from the painter’s lips.”

Referring to one of the Marlborough directors, Bacon recalls mentioning Russia to her: “[She said] ‘you must be mad’. I said, ‘I am certainly not mad’. She said, ‘Marlborough will never lend’. And I said, ‘I shall have plenty of my own stuff by then.’”

When Joule applauds his response, saying that the Marlborough want “100% control” over him, Bacon says: “They are so greedy.”

The Guardian approached the Marlborough for comment.