December 20: Normally I post about photographers who are not widely known, but today marks the death in 1983 of the great Bill Brandt (*1904), and I cannot pass up the opportunity to look again at a photograph that is one of my favourites, and that of most other photographers: his 1963 Francis Bacon Walking on Primrose Hill.
Not everyone liked the portrait. Australian Sebastian Smee, critic for the Boston Globe records that Bacon hated it; though any serious portraitist knows that the sitter is invariably the worst judge! Brandt’s portraits “romanticise all the sitters in the name of art,” opined John Berger (1926–2017), while according to David Mellor (*1949), the subjects all looked as if they’d been condemned to death. Paul Delany said the “Brandtian” signature was “a certain remoteness in the subject, often tinged with melancholy”.
Portraits with this level of affect, however they are received, are rare. Brandt has eschewed the obvious device that places the artist in front of their work. Here Bacon appears in, or even as, one of his tortured figurations. The same kind of stage-like enclosure and steep space is found in the painter’s imagery of this period and in Brandt’s 1937 A Snicket in Halifax and Coal-Searcher Going Home to Jarrow.
It is constructed by cropping off nearly one third of the square-format negative at right to accelerate the perspective of the worn path into a chevron that zags into those of the grass and Bacon’s sharp leather collars. These geometries bring the whole scene, encompassing sky and distant hill, plummeting into the artist’s space immediately before us. The leaning lamp appears as if caught up in this existential collapse.
Tony Parsons, writing in his 2002 Man and Wife provides an insight that may also account for Brandt’s choice of this location;
…I watched her walking down Primrose Hill, on one of those strange little paths that abruptly crisscross the park, pointing off in completely different directions, just like the impossible choices you are forced to make as you move through your life. (p.283)
Our attention is drawn back, and back again, to the subject’s inner monologue that mounts behind glowering eyes which are intersected by the horizon yet see nothing external, not even the tousled bare trees, “trees like twisted ironwork against the cold steel sky” (as Polly Samson writes in Lying in Bed, 1999), that the telescoped perspective seems to thrust in front of them at the very edge of the frame. Those eyes are set in his odd, boxy, bull-terrier physiognomy above cruelly sensuous lips in a tautened jaw which the wrap-around light of the sky so sculpturally models and which are exaggerated by being placed at the edge of the field to be stretched by Brandt’s lens.
Bacon had been given a major retrospective at the Guggenheim in 1962 and at the Tate Gallery, in May of the year of this portrait, that established his preeminence among contemporary British painters. At the opening amongst telegrams of congratulation, he found one message from which he learned of the death of his long-estranged lover Peter Lacy in Tangier. That deeply affected him, as can be seen in his dark Landscape near Malabata, Tangier which he painted that year in memory of Lacy’s final resting place. Later in 1963, and probably after this picture was taken (it appears to be late autumn, judging by the crushed leaves fallen around the lamp), the dapper crim George Dyer entered to enliven Bacon’s romantic life.
Photography, the portraits of his friends Henrietta Moraes, Isabel Rawsthorne, Lucian Freud and Muriel Belcher by Vogue‘s John Deakin (1912–1972), but also postcards and book and newspaper illustrations, had become indispensable to Bacon in the 1960s. Scattered across his studio, ever more creased and stained with oil paint and cigarette ash, they granted him distance from the sitter, enabling him to practice his ‘injuries’ on them without their interference and judgement.
Thus the mise-en-scène of the painter set on Primrose Hill against the turbulent sky applies a visual intelligence that acknowledges and conveys the psychology of a subject caught up in momentous events.
It took some subterfuge on Brandt’s part to get Bacon to Primrose Hill, which was 2km from his flat in Belsize (he stamped his prints of this era ‘Bill Brandt, 58 Hillfield Court Belsize avenue, London, NW3‘). Nothing was left to chance despite the unreliability of the sitter. Brandt’s second wife Marjorie charmed Bacon into visiting with plenty of time to spare before the light would be right at the spot Brandt had chosen for the portrait.
Another portrait of Bacon, undated, though probably earlier and shot possibly in Brandt’s flat, exists. For the very long exposure, Bacon rests his head on his bent arm but is still slightly blurred. The distortion of the binoculars suggests that it was shot with Brandt’s wide-angle Kodak police camera (and see here) with which he had started shooting his famous distorted nudes around this time. The painter’s drinking was legendary, and that added a further dimension to the delicate task of getting him out onto Primrose Hill.
In the resultant photograph, we can gauge the available light from the fact that the lamps, important in adding a surreal touch, appear lit and are bright against the sky.
I liked the lights on Primrose Hill. They were, and still are, those old kind of Victorian street-lamps. Tall and black with a chunky glass casing at the top. Those lamps look like throwbacks to some older, lost city, the London of Sherlock Holmes and Watson, peasouper fogs and tugs on the Thames. (Tony Parsons, Man and Wife, 2002, p.228).
Bacon stares fixedly away, not into the wide-angle lens of Brandt’s recently acquired Hasselblad SW which had come out in 1957.
It’s a peculiar camera since it is contemporary with the first Nikon F SLR’s, but unlike the rest of the Hasselblad line this camera is simply an (admittedly legendary) lens with a 120 film holder hanging from the back of it…it’s a box-camera! The body is shallow because the short focal length Zeiss Biogon 38mm/f4.5 lens, giving a 90º angle of view, protrudes so far into it that there is no room for a mirror.
Undoubtedly this is a tripod shot; Bacon is walking nowhere, the need to stand stock-still for a prolonged exposure impressed on him perhaps by the failure of the earlier portrait. Brandt was relying on the measurements on the lens barrel to focus in this low light, and peered through the viewfinder perched on top to frame the image. By glancing to the left of the finder, he could consult, through a prism, a bubble level mounted on his left of the camera, to keep his camera straight. On the other side is a rather oversize shutter release and a film winder crank. There was no exposure meter, and shutter and aperture were calibrated on two rings around the lens.
Brandt had been producing picture stories and portraits for Sir Henry Thomas “Tom” Hopkinson (1905–1990), editor of Lilliput and Picture Post, but also, from 1945, for Harpers Bazaar which commissioned him for specific portraits and allowed him to print them at home in his bathroom-cum-darkroom. 1963 was the year of his third exhibition, at George Eastman House in Rochester, held 15 years after one at MoMA and nearly 30 years after his first (in Paris), but it was the first of a series of shows held early every year until his death.
Brandt’s printing style changed at this time to a grainy high contrast, to which Edward Steichen objected. Preparing a traveling exhibition of his work and writing about acquisitions for MoMA he wrote to Brandt;
Dear Bill Brandt,
This is a difficult letter to write to you.
I am sure I do not have to repeat to you how highly I esteem your work as a photographer, and the important place you have in the history of photography…I have yet to see a picture of yours that does not intrinsically have the Bill Brandt standard. But I am upset about the quality of the prints. These are not in any way up to the standard of the prints you sent us for your one-man show here. They were all prints with carefully balanced photographic quality, whereas the new prints fit more in to the character of black and white effects for newsprint production.
Dear Edward Steichen,
Thank you for your letter.. I don’t know whether you quite realise what it means to a photographer to be praised by you, so I was terribly disappointed by your criticism of the quality of the prints.
It is true that ten years ago I printed differently. But just as my way of taking pictures has changed, so has my printing also. And when, today, I am asked to produce prints of old pictures, I just cannot bear printing them in soft muddy greys any more.
I think the hard black and white effect suits my pictures better. The prints are perhaps less atmospheric but crisper and more different from colour pictures, and I don’t mind the superficial resemblance to newsprint reproduction.. This may be one of my passing fads, but I don’t think so. I feel very strongly about it.
This is a style of printing to which the Bacon portrait responds, and the photographer was never afraid to apply the edge of his straight razor, his watercolour brush and retoucher’s dye to his prints. In this version from the V&A, the effect is to intensify Bacon’s stare, and he has scratched away the benches on the horizon near the eyes and forced the sky.
On Primrose Hill, a stormy
light catches you, the last past
Master of broken marks; plasters
you against the downcast
black mass of ground and sky
scarcely lighter. The thin mast of post
put there by Brandt no
doubt, is even darker…
from Brian Louis Pearce (*1933), Storm on Primrose: For Francis Bacon from his collection The Proper Fuss: homage to place, art and people, 1996
Not far away, and perhaps around the same time as our photo was being made in 1963, a young woman at went upstairs at 23 Fitzroy Road, Primrose Hill, a house marked with a blue plaque as the erstwhile home of W B Yeats. There she placed milk and bread beside the cots of her two sleeping young children. Then she went downstairs and gassed herself in the kitchen. She was Sylvia Plath.
To Cyril Connolly (1903–1974) Bill Brandt’s Francis Bacon Walking on Primrose Hill was a “symbol of the despair of a generation”.
There’s something in that.