John Rosser's odyssey with Francis Bacon

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The Independent Culture

A retrospective exhibit, which opens today at Ebury Galleries, called "Sleeping with Francis Bacon" displays the life work of John Rosser. The title alludes to the friendship between Rosser and Francis Bacon and the mystery of a forgotten canvas rather than any clandestine affair. The paintings on display are a mix of oil and watercolours of landscapes, gardens and figures.

During the early 1950s Rosser lived the bohemian life of an itinerant artist soaking up the atmosphere at Ronnie Scott's Jazz club and frequenting the Colony Room alongside Francis Bacon. Their meeting resulted in a potentially very lucrative friendship for Rosser and an engaging mystery still to be solved in Bacon’s gift of a canvas to Rosser.

Bacon preferred to paint on the rough side of a canvas, the un-primed side. He painted a study of a business man on the rough side of one canvas then threw it to one side, thinking it inadequate. Knowing Rosser was short of materials Bacon gave him the unwanted canvas. At this time, Rosser was living a fairly simple lifestyle, working and living in the old Meadow Studios which was part of Eric Von Herkomers School in Busby, Hertfordshire. This meant some nights were spent on the cold concrete floor of the studio, using the large canvas as a blanket. Until that is, Rosser painted a large landscape, "The Path at Meadows Studios", on the smooth side of the canvas, the correct side for painters.

The location of the canvas is currently unknown and remains a mystery. It could be sitting in someone’s private collection, unaware of its potential value. Its last known sighting was in 1956 when Rosser held a one man show at the Watford Public Library. An old art school friend came by and he ended up giving the big landscape to her. She didn't know Bacon's "business man" was on the other side and to date seems to remain completely unaware of the hidden painting.

If you recognise the image above, the "smooth side" of the original painting, perhaps take a look on the "rough side" - you might have a Bacon original on your hands.

Sleeping with Francis Bacon, An Odyssey by John Rosser, 28 April - 2 May, at the John Adams Fine Art, Ebury Galleries, 200 Ebury Street, London, SW1W 8UN.