Virginia Verran is a painter based in London, England, whose work implies large atmospheric space incorporating small graphic details. She has exhibited and been celebrated internationally and has taught at leading institutions, including the Chelsea College of Art and Design. She represents the Bruce Bernard Estate. Photo: Dafyyd Jones
The photographer never knows quite how the best pictures are going to turn out any more than the painter does, and the best ones are very little concerned with cleverness.
—Bruce Bernard, 1999
I first met Bruce Bernard in around 1984, when I was graduating as a painter from the Chelsea School of Art, and we were close friends for the rest of his life. Over this time there were so many opportunities to discuss painting and photography and to witness Bruce’s complex relationship to his own photographs, disliking on the one hand too much praise, on the other too much silence, from the people he showed them to. Having spent much of his career as a highly regarded picture editor at the magazines of London’s Sunday Times and Independent newspapers, he had worked with many well-known photographers and had a natural humility about his own pictures, although he did have them published in those magazines from time to time and exhibited them in the 1990s. He disliked what he considered the “prize-winning image” and any kind of self-conscious vanity behind the lens.
After being in touch with Irving Penn’s studio in 1999 to request a photograph for Century, his powerful book chronicling the history of the twentieth century in photographs, Bruce had contact with Penn when he replied personally. I remember how much this meant to him. It is a pity that he didn’t see a postcard Penn sent to me in 2007, after I contacted him about Bruce; “I never set eyes on Bernard but did admire his photographs and his effect on both [Lucian] Freud and [Francis] Bacon. And his modesty. I was not aware that he ever beat his own drum, although his talent was real.”
After Bruce’s death, in 2000, I became the custodian of his work and have made his photographs available for exhibitions and publications on a regular basis. The link between painting and photography was vital for Bruce throughout his life, and the chance to bring his photographs together with paintings by the artists and friends he greatly admired in the exhibition this season at Gagosian in London is a profound one. It was brought about by the decision to release a group of photographs kept private since 1983. In 2019 I decided to print, small scale at first, six photographs of Freud, his daughter Bella, and the painter Celia Paul together, planning to show them in a small exhibition in 2020, the twentieth anniversary of Bruce’s death. This was impossible owing to the pandemic, but during the lockdown period, after making sure that Bella and Celia were happy with the idea, I made four of the photographs into editions, and these will be shown for the very first time as part of the London show. Bruce said, with characteristic modesty, in the late 1990s,
Lucian Freud, who I had known since early youth, offered me the opportunity of beginning what became a set of photographs of him, his studio and models, some of which I cannot persuade myself to feel too ashamed of. It all began with my photographing him and his daughter Bella in front of the almost completed painting Large Interior W11 (after Watteau) [1981–83] and shooting a few informal ones of them both and also the painter Celia Paul larking about a bit in the studio. Lucian was doing something frivolous with Celia Paul’s hair—a picture for which the world is not ready, and perhaps never will be.
Some now well-known photographs of Freud and his models will also be shown, including Lucian Freud Standing on His Head, with Daughter Bella, of 1983, (in which Bruce was insistent that the tip of the shoe should be in the frame when the photograph was printed) and a rare lifetime-print triptych of Leigh and Nicola Bowery posing for the painting And the Bridegroom (1993).
The photograph of Freud posing rather balletically in Lucian Freud Posing as a Henry Moore (1983) came about as an impulsive commandment from him to “Do me as a Henry Moore.” This had something to do with an intense dislike of posing formally for portraits. Bruce said, “I later came to think he may also have had someone like [Vaslav] Nijinsky in mind when he found the pose.”
Bruce photographed his friend Francis Bacon in two sessions in 1984. He had known him since 1949, finding him “endlessly interesting and amusing and remarkably thoughtful considering his limitless ambition, fundamental loneliness, and angry fixation on his own mortality and limitations as an artist.” In 1998 Bruce wrote,
I knew him over a long period, if not nearly as well as I thought I did, and feel honoured that such a considerable figure behaved like a good friend for so long.
I am glad that these photographs exist as I think they do him no dishonour as he is seen entering his last decade—as well as being perhaps the best account of his work as a mural painter.
Bruce first photographed Frank Auerbach in 1986, when the painter represented Britain in the Venice Biennale. The unusually smiling photo, which will be shown for the first time at Gagosian, brought this from Bruce:
I am pleased to have caught him laughing in my photograph as he does so very freely though hardly ever at cameras.
His insistence on an almost monastic strictness in his painterly devotions makes me think he may well be the greatest painter monk since Fra Angelico and the most uxorious since Filippo Lippi (I jest only in part).
The single color photograph of Frank is hard to date, and when I asked him years ago if the fact that he was wearing a corduroy jacket might help pin down an approximate time, he said, “Oh, I’ve been wearing that for decades.”
The later black-and-white portraits were taken in the last month of Bruce’s life, and two of them have not been shown before. The now well-known portrait of Auerbach with the rope behind his head has great intensity and pathos as the two men look into each other’s eyes. As Bruce was very weak from cancer, I was present as support for this final shoot, on Bruce’s birthday, having volunteered to go to the pub at 11 a.m. to allow the two men privacy. Soon, though, I found Frank running breathlessly into the bar to bring me back to the studio as Bruce had dropped a vital screw for the tripod and was getting anxious. Once the screw was found, and while Bruce was loading the camera, Frank and I were talking and perhaps trying to provide distraction. We both fail to remember exactly what prompted him to suddenly and dramatically launch into Philip Larkin’s “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. / They may not mean to, but they do.” He recited all three verses word-perfectly. On the rare occasions when I was in the company of Frank and Lucian at private dinners, there was scintillating exchange between them, from high to low culture in the blink of an eye—reciting both known and obscure poems, or singing music hall songs, and they were always, impressively, the full versions.
Bruce photographed Frank in various parts of the studio in that session, and I remember light-heartedness and then gravity as the pressure of what would be the final photograph grew. This is captured so movingly in this portrait.
The photographs of Bruce’s close friend Michael Andrews show an easy familiarity, with Andrews smiling and pitching his paintings at odd angles, or embracing his portrait of Bruce on the easel (one of the photographs has the portrait mischievously placed upside down). Bruce said of the painting,
Mike painted a small portrait of me in the 1980s and this gave me further insight into his painstaking purposefulness as well as making me quite like (no one else could have done that) my look of somewhat testy disdain. It states as clearly as any portrait I have seen how many times it is necessary to look at anything in order to paint it as a true study in observation, and in this case to convey it with none of what Francis Bacon, in an almost opposite but related context, called “its boredom.”
His photograph of Andrews standing in front of an early state of A View from Uamh Mhor (1990) is the photograph in which Bruce felt he properly captured him.
This exhibition will, I hope, convey the respect and sometimes palpable warmth that Bruce Bernard felt toward his painter friends and that they in turn felt toward him.
Text and artwork © Estate of Bruce Bernard (courtesy Virginia Verran)