An extensive collection of Francis Bacon’s art will be given to France instead of to the Tate following a row between the gallery and one of the artist’s closest friends.
Barry Joule, who was Bacon’s confidant, said he is so frustrated by the Tate’s failure to exhibit an earlier donation of the artist’s work that he has cancelled plans to donate hundreds more items to the gallery.
The further donation was to have included up to 150 drawings, 10 paintings, hundreds of photographs and more than 12 hours of taped material in which the artist chatted with Joule about subjects from art to sex.
Instead, he would now like the work to go the national archives of the Centre Pompidou Paris, and has started negotiations.
Joule told the Observer: “The Tate and Britain will be missing out on part of the nation’s art history of one of their most important painters. I turn my back on the Tate for ever.”
In 2004, he gave the Tate about 1,200 sketches, photographs and documents from Bacon’s studio in what was then described as one of the most generous gifts to the gallery, worth an estimated £20m. Its announcement stated then: “Tate will undertake to study, photograph and catalogue the collection over the next three years, before displaying these items and making them available for loan.”
Joule claims he has been driven to pursue legal action against the Tate over what he describes as its failure to do justice to that collection with a proper exhibition, as initially agreed, although the Tate’s director, Maria Balshaw, wrote to him last year, reiterating the gallery’s gratitude.
He has now told the Tate they won’t receive a further gift. “The gallery’s reaction? Nothing,” he said.
Joule had lived near Bacon’s London studio, and in 1978 they struck up a friendship that continued until the artist’s death in 1992, exactly 30 years ago this month.
He spent numerous holidays with Bacon and recorded a series of their conversations: “He [Bacon] signed a statement saying I could use it 12 years after his death. Many of those conversations feature him philosophising, often with his unmistakable no-nonsense comments,” he said.
He singled out a 1991 recording that gives insights into Bacon’s dismissal of his own success. At one point, he shouts the words “I am not rich!” – even though he was by then the most famous and richest painter alive.
Joule said: “He was a self-deprecating artist who, strangely enough, never ever thought of himself as rich. Of course, he was rich, but he lived very simply. The only time he really splashed out was in expensive restaurants.”
In those recordings, Bacon talked about other artists, including Jasper Johns, dismissing his 1959 abstract painting, False Start – which had sold in 1988 for $17m (£12m) – as “such a ridiculous thing”: “It is nothing. It is just a … number of diagonal scratches going in different directions in red and blue,” Bacon said.
Joule, who now lives in France, noted Bacon’s love of Paris, although “he said he couldn’t work there because there were too many distractions”.
He previously donated about 100 Bacon drawings based on Picasso to the Musée Picasso in Paris, which exhibited them in a large Bacon-Picasso exhibition in 2005. Shortly afterwards, the French government awarded him the Chevalier de l’ordre des Arts et Lettres: “It’s the equivalent of a knighthood. I gave them one-tenth of what I gave to the Tate and they knighted me … I never got a cup of coffee out of the Tate.”
Joule’s donation to France will now include a dramatic painted head that musician David Bowie particularly liked: “Bowie had an art publishing company and personally chose what art catalogues they would publish. He immediately agreed to do the catalogue for the 2001 exhibition of my Bacon archive at the London Barbican. Bowie chose this image for the front cover. Of course the Barbican and I agreed,” he said.
He added: “Many of these Bacon images in my collection have an engaging story to tell. That art history and my intimate knowledge of Bacon will be lost to the UK.”
A Tate spokeswoman declined to comment on the gallery’s handling of the 2004 gift. Asked about Joule’s cancellation of a further gift, she said: “We can confirm we have received the letter and will be responding to it.”
• This article was amended on 18 April 2022. An earlier version referred to Bacon’s work going to “the French National Archives in the Centre Pompidou Paris”. The French National Archives and the Centre Pompidou Paris are two separate organisations; it meant to refer to the archives of the Centre Pompidou Paris. In addition, an earlier version misnamed the Chevalier de l’ordre des Arts et Lettres, as the Chevalier des Ordres des Arts et des Lettres.