The Francis Bacon Triptychs
‘The Obscene Mystery’ and 'Untitled Triptych', two works designed by Brian Clarke in sheet lead, gold, and stained glass, each in three parts, are major developments in the history of stained glass.
The first triptych from Brian’s involvement in the Francis Bacon trials, originally titled ‘The Triumph of Death Over The Art Market’, radically inverts the usual proportion of stained glass to lead, and transparecy to opacity, mirroring in reverse ‘Untitled Triptych’ of the same year – and, as in that work, a gold tooth is set into one of the skulls, and Brian’s calligraphic line wanders across as lead-on-lead, and over the hand-painted skulls. The technique for producing their rusty, pitted look was developed together by Brian and a German master glass-painter who came out of retirement to assist in achieving the effect. The majority of the work is made up of lead, with an irregular border of stained glass. “Bacon ‘blackmailed’ by art gallery owner, court is told” reads one of the headlines, collaged and screenprinted onto the mouthblown glass. The work is titled after the medieval and Renaissance memento mori subject 'The Triumph of Death' (over the clergy; over the laity; over the ages of the world) – below the skull in the left hand corner an upturned newspaper heading reads "The Art Market".
“The sombre triptych that memorialised Clarke’s ambivalence towards the Francis Bacon trials could be termed a modulator of darkness as much as light, since the majority of the picture field is occupied by sheet lead; against the negative black, the impact of the minimal colour passages is brilliantly intensified. The sole historical precedent for this system (and not once Clarke had in mind) is the extensive use of brown enamels favoured by certain Georgian glass-painters as a foil for dramatic chiaroscuro effects, but its renewal by Clarke is both a challenge to the imagination and a release of exciting potential.” – author Martin Harrison in his essay ‘Brian Clarke - traditions and discontinuities’ from The Journal of Stained Glass, Volume XXIX.
In the second work, ‘Untitled Triptych’, “Gallery accused of exploiting Britain’s most celebrated artist over 30 years”; “Court in Britain orders end of gallery’s ties to Francis Bacon Estate” are two headlines among the newspaper articles screenprinted onto glass and fired into its surface, a record of Brian’s involvement in the multi-year Bacon litigation, undertaken after he was made sole executor of Bacon’s estate by the High Court, bringing a case against Bacon’s former gallery. Here, the usual proportion of lead to stained glass is disrupted – the three skulls are set in a field of sheet lead, with an irregular lead border, and the wandering line of lead-on-lead or lead-on-glass has a free graphic expressiveness, divorced from the structural role of holding the glass sections in place. The skull in the right-hand panel has two gold teeth, fashioned by a dentist and fixed among the other teeth of mouthblown glass.