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First research project sponsored by the MB Art Foundation: Francis Bacon – The Wivenhoe Chapter

First research project sponsored by the MB Art Foundation: Francis Bacon – The Wivenhoe Chapter


The art historian Katharina Günther was the first recipient of the MB Art Foundation Scholarship. She undertook a twelve-month research project analysing a collection of hitherto un-researched material associated with Francis Bacon. The project aimed to deepen the understanding of the relationship between Bacon and the artist Denis Wirth-Miller.

The Wivenhoe Chapter – Francis Bacon and Denis Wirth-Miller

By Katharina Günther

Bacon Scholar

Denis Wirth-Miller, Study for Dog in Movement, c.1953/54 MB Art Collection
Picture Post Magazine, 29 September 1951, pp. 16 and 17, ‘Racing on Sufferance’ by Denzil Batchelor. MB Art Collection

An eclectic set of over 250 pieces of hitherto unseen and unstudied artist's working material from the MB Art Collection – books, magazines and torn out pages, some paint-splattered, some overpainted and some mounted on cardboard supports, with imagery on topics ranging from bodybuilding to botany, formed the starting point for the first research project initiated and funded by The Francis Bacon MB Art Foundation. The creative sources of inspiration were unearthed from a small studio in the rural town of Wivenhoe, Essex, owned by the painter Denis Wirth-Miller whose close bond with Francis Bacon is virtually forgotten today.

Francis Bacon, Man with Dog, 1953
Denis Wirth-Miller's studio in Wivenhoe, 2014. Photo: Ben Harrison MB Art Collection

Sharing a passion for gambling, travelling and cookery, the two men were best friends from the late 1940s until Bacon's death in 1992. Although it was lasting and steady, the most striking characteristic of their friendship appears to have been its fiery nature. Wirth-Miller and his partner Richard Chopping lived in an old merchant's house overlooking the Colne estuary since 1944. Bacon frequently visited his friend not only to enjoy his hospitality but also to work in Wirth-Miller's studio at The Store House. Fragments of an early version of Three Studies of Lucian Freud, 1969 found in the studio after Wirth-Miller's death and today held by the MB Art Collection bear testimony to Bacon's activities there. Wirth-Miller was an artist himself who later in his life was best known for his paintings of the local landscape. Stimulated by the encounters with Bacon, he experimented with his famous friend's subjects and style and in the mid-1950s, produced a series of dog paintings in the manner of Bacon's Study of a Dog, 1952 and Man with Dog, 1953. Even though he retired from painting in the late 1970s, he kept his studio, which has remained largely untouched since his death in 2010.

Fragment of leaf from Eadweard Muybridge, The Human Figure in Motion, London: Chapman & Hall 1901, p.215: ‘Some Phases in a Wrestling Match’. MB Art Collectio
Mounted fragment from TIME The Weekly Newspaper Atlantic Overseas Edition June 13, 1949, p. 16. Tom Doxsee on trial for murder. MB Art Collection

During the course of one year, the items were thoroughly studied and carefully evaluated with the intention of gaining a better understanding of the material itself, the two men's relationship to it and Bacon's largely obscure activities in the East Anglian countryside. The chaotic arrangement of a myriad of images in Wivenhoe is highly evocative of the knee-deep layers of printed matter Bacon accumulated at his atelier at 7 Reece Mews, London. At first sight, the pictures of humans and animals in movement, street scenes and reproductions of artworks in The Store House strongly resemble the battered and tattered leaves which Bacon used as formal starting points for his painted imagery. Yet, meticulous comparative research with the contents of Reece Mews indicate that they were used by Wirth-Miller alone. Moreover, the direct pictorial sources for his dog paintings were found amongst the detritus.

With its strong resemblance to his London studio, the overall set-up of Wirth-Miller's Wivenhoe atelier must have been to Bacon's liking. For almost 25 years, he shared the small, cluttered space with Wirth-Miller on a regular basis until in 1975, Bacon bought his own property close to his friend's house. In the working environment provided by Wirth-Miller, Bacon had found an artistic home away from home.

In January 2015, the preliminary results of the project were presented as "Tearing One Another Apart: Denis Wirth-Miller and Francis Bacon" at the 103rd annual conference of the College Art Association of America in New York.

Torn leaf (Plate 148) from A.G. Tansley, The British Islands and Their Vegetation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, first impression 1939, fourth impression 1965. ‘Active Ammophiletum’. MB Art Collection
Torn leaf, folded, from Illustrated Magazine, August 28 1954, pp. 49 and 50, leaf torn from magazine. ''Taming' lions – the game of death', pp. 49-54, Illustrated Book Choice, part two excerpts from book: Oskar Koenig, Pori Tupu, Michael Joseph: London 1954. MB Art Collection