Sketches of pain

Real painters, Francis Bacon insisted, don't doodle. But he was fibbing. Charles Darwent looks at th

When Giotto was challenged to prove his genius by an emissary of Pope Benedict IX, he responded by drawing a perfect circle freehand. When Francis Bacon, never fond of being outdone, set out to prove his, he went one better and drew nothing at all. The story, put about by Bacon himself in numerous biographical interviews, was that he had no need of sissy things like preliminary sketches in creating his portraits of screaming popes or sodomic boyfriends. Such was the sulphurous nature of his genius that they appeared fully formed on canvas, as if by magic.

As with much else in the self-made myth of Francis Bacon, tales of his spontaneous working method turn out to have been something less than the truth. A small but intriguing exhibition at the Tate Gallery shows that Bacon worked on at least one sketchbook in his studio during the late 1950s and early 1960s, years that also saw his elevation to the ranks of international art stardom. Sold to the Tate Gallery last year by two ex-flatmates of Bacon's before the artist's removal to his studio at Reece Mews in 1961, the 40-odd sketches from the book - in gouache, pencil, Biro and oil paints - reveal Bacon to have been not merely an obsessive sketcher, but something of a fibber as well.

Although it is difficult to draw direct parallels between the sketches in the Tate's show and specific pictures by Bacon in the gallery's collection, the typological links are clear. One series of drawings is based on photographs of fencers by Eadweard Muybridge, the source of much of the subject matter in Bacon's paintings of the 1950s. Another appears to be of a boxer leaning on the ropes of a boxing ring - a well-known object of fascination to the painter, but one that apparently never made it as far as the canvas. (Except, perhaps, in the form of the linear boxes with which Bacon began to surround many of his finished figures at much the same time.)

As well as offering tantalising glimpses of these unknown subjects in Bacon's oeuvre, the Tate's show also reveals an unexpected dynamism in his doodling on paper. Where the power of his finished pictures lies in the worked-out, static nature of their horror - sides of dead meat, frozen screams, figures inert on a bed - the sketches show the motive means by which this stasis was reached. One set of sketches of a reclining nude has legs that begin as a squiggled blue line and then migrate around the subject's body over the course of several sketched pages, like the hands of a clock. The buttocks of another study have the kind of muscular vitality that Bacon seems studiously to have banished from his canvases.

Given the importance of these works, the Tate's show raises two questions. First, why did Bacon lie about his sketchbooks? The show's catalogue suggests that, as an untrained artist, he may have been ashamed of his inability to draw. Shame not being a virtue one automatically associates with Francis Bacon, a more likely answer may be that a fondness for drawing did not fit in with his carefully fostered image of satanic genius. In an age when spontaneity had come to be seen as an artistic end in itself, drawing and sketching were an art-market no-no. Bacon, ever sensitive to market forces, may simply have lied to keep up with the Pollocks. That he referred to his finished paintings as "studies" suggests that he recognised the value of spontaneity when he saw it.

The second question is whether the knowledge that Bacon was a closet sketcher should change the way we view him. The short answer to that one is no. Whatever their links to his finished paintings, the Tate's sketches are not miniature Bacons: they are fascinating more as artefacts than as art. And if they show that Francis Bacon did not always tell the truth about his work, anyone who finds themselves shocked by that should probably not be looking at it in the first place.

"Francis Bacon: works on paper" runs at the Tate Gallery (0171-887 8000) until 2 May

This article first appeared in the 19 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, We are richer than you think