From 14 November, Tate Britain presents a new BP Display of paintings by the seventeenth century British artist Nathaniel Bacon (1585-1627). This is the first solo exhibition dedicated to this unique artist. He was the earliest British-born painter to produce naturally observed still-life paintings as well as the first to produce paintings that depicted purely landscape. Only nine works by the artist survive, and Tate Britain brings together seven of these from private collections and other institutions for the exhibition.
Nathaniel Bacon is particularly known for large-scale kitchen and market scenes, dominated by still-life depictions of dead game or of enormous vegetables and fruit, accompanied by a buxom female. This type of painting was popular in the Low Countries, but not produced by any other English artist. The exhibition includes Tate’s own Cookmaid with Still Life of Vegetables and Fruit and, from the Gorhambury Estates Company collection, Cookmaid with Still Life of Birds.
For artists who worked in Britain in the early seventeenth century, few biographical details usually survive. It is seldom known, for instance, what an artist actually looked like. Nathaniel Bacon, however, was clearly interested in exploring representations of his own appearance and has left four self-portraits, three of which are included in this exhibition.
A remarkable cache of private letters that Bacon wrote to his wife Jane has also survived. These are the earliest known personal letters (as opposed to business letters) by a British artist. Unusually, it was his wife who went up to London on financial business, while he remained in Suffolk, in charge of the couple’s three young children. An affectionate husband, he writes about family life in a way wholly recognisable to a 21st-century audience. Two of the letters will be shown.
Of noble birth, Nathaniel Bacon was almost unique among his contemporaries in that he did not need to paint for money. He was also an avid gardener and is credited with breeding a special strain of pear. His contemporaries sought his advice not only on art but also on plants.
The exhibition is curated by Karen Hearn, Tate Collections curator of Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century British Art. It is supported by BP as part of its sponsorship of the BP British Art Displays. BP has supported Collection Displays at Millbank since 1991, first at the Tate Gallery and then from the opening of Tate Britain in 2000 to the present. BP’s continued support allows Tate Britain to create a broad and dynamic displays programme which explores in depth British art from 1500 to the present.