Francis Bacon: In Camera, Compton Verney, Warwickshire

A show that promises discovery of the private artist finds a man simply in thrall to the photograph

Thankfully, this country-house exhibition is not "Francis Bacon on Camera" – yet another show of black-and-white headshots of the troubled painter – although there are a handful of him on holiday in Athens, in front of a photographer's shop in Soho, or posing in his leather jacket, as was his wont.

No, this is Francis Bacon: In Camera, which translates from the Latin as "in chamber" or "in private". Of course, we already know much of what the notoriously boozy bohemian did behind closed doors, precisely because there was invariably a camera lens pointing at him, recording his every mood and love.

Over and above his friends, models and relationships, photography was Bacon's primary painterly muse. Indeed, so many newspaper scraps, crumpled photos and magazine cuttings have been excavated from the mounds of detritus left on the floor of his old Kensington studio, that scholars have been piecing together, almost frame by frame, the specific photographic references for each painting.

In many ways, the studio was his "camera" – a private chamber of experimentation – where he allowed no one to observe or document him while painting (not even his sitters were allowed to watch after the 1963 triple portrait of Henrietta Moraes, included in this display). Yet Bacon's famously cluttered workspace in Reece Mews is now also his most public bequest, left to us not only in imagery – more of those posed portraits by Cecil Beaton, Henri Cartier-Bresson and others – but in the physical remnants of the studio, now installed permanently at the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin, from where much of this show's fascinatingly decrepit stuff has come.

What, then, is this exhibition about? "Francis Bacon and his Chamber of Secrets", or "Bacon the Photo-copier"? In Dubling, this show was titled A Terrible Beauty, which gets us no nearer the truth. It's hard to be clear-eyed about an artist who was so full of his own myth. Better to dive headlong into the material and see which Bacon emerges.

Among the 1,500 photos found in the hoard of paint pots, slashed canvases, postcards and records, a key source was always going to be the early motion-capture stills of Eadweard Muybridge, whom Bacon rated on a par with Michelangelo for his treatment of the human body.

It's never a bad time to look at Muybridge (he'll be getting the full museum treatment later this year at Tate Britain) and the pages ripped from his book, The Human Figure in Motion, were pored over obsessively by Bacon, who spattered them with paint as he placed these wrestling, shadowboxing or exercising nudes centre-stage in his paintings. The sweeping leg in one unfinished work, (Figure with Raised Arm, 1949) suggests that Bacon might have been searching for something in-between Muybridge's sequential snaps that not even the Victorian's rapid shutter could catch: an image, not of motion, but in perpetual motion.

Previously I'd assumed that Bacon's smeared, mangled faces, with their sliding jaws and torqued cheeks, were his approximations of a photographic blur – reproducing the moment when a head swivels or waggles too vigorously to be stilled. Yet these disfigurements (seen in portraits of Moraes, as well as Bacon's lovers John Edwards and Peter Lacy) seem to follow almost precisely the creases, crops, folds and crumples that Bacon, perhaps accidentally, perhaps not, inflicted on his photos, often underfoot on the studio floor.

There's still more of the man and his myth to contend with in the scores of macho bullfighting, footballing and wildlife shots that made their way into other paintings. But even if no fresh view of Bacon surfaces from this soup of influence, then at least he is gradually being seen in a less dazzling, more illuminating light than before. His skewed vision had to come from somewhere – it wasn't an accident of his subconscious as he often claimed. In fact, Bacon eventually began to cannibalise his own images, deconstructing his face from photos, and repainting versions of previous works once they'd been photographed. He, like the child or tribesman who first sees the fixative settle their image for ever, was simply in thrall to the photograph. That was his dirty little secret.

Compton Verney, Warwickshire, to 20 June (01926 645500)

Ossian Ward is visual arts editor of Time Out

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders