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Francis Bacon’s Portraits from Life

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Date: c.1562. Artist: unknown.
Location: Gorhambury Estate, St Albans, Hertfordshire
Medium: oil on board.
Provenance: never sold
Image credit: Unknown

Paintings of babies were not uncommon among the families of the Elizabethan elite. Francis’s first portrait, however, is charged with symbolism verging on the mystical. Why would a child less than two years old be depicted as holding in his right hand an apple, the pre-eminent symbol of the knowledge of good and evil? And why is his other hand placed in a superior position directly over his heart? Other than representations of the infant Christ, how many other paintings of children are composed with such deliberate esoteric symbolism? What is more, the picture contains a secret. In his book, “Dedication to the Light” (1984), Peter Dawkins exposes the significance of the two miniature portrait pendants suspended on two gold chains, one hiding the other. Dawkins’ close examination of the pendants concludes that they hint at Francis’s royal parentage – that he was indeed the legitimate progeny of Robert Dudley and Elizabeth I. Two versions of this mysterious portrait exist: the original which resides at Gorhambury House, and a copy which is in the Clark Art Institute Collection in Williamstown, Massachusetts. The Clark’s copy is of interest because of its fuller framing of the figure of the child. In comparison, the Gorhambury portrait appears to have been excessively cropped. However, in terms of facial likeness, as well as the image inscribed on the upper pendant, only the original Gorhambury portrait can be relied upon. Sadly, only low resolution digital images of this highly significant painting are available. The Clark Art Institute’s version of the picture can be seen here: