Return to donor: Tate to deaccession Bacon archive

Posted on: July 20, 2022 by

The Tate is to take the unusual step of deaccessioning from its collection and returning to the donor material from the studio of Francis Bacon, once described as the Tate Archive’s most important acquisition ever and suggested to be worth around £20m. The Tate is one of a number of UK National Museums governed by national legislation, whose ability to dispose of items from its collection is strictly limited by the Museums and Galleries Act 1992 (“MGA 1992”).

In January 2004, the Tate announced its acquisition of an archive comprising over 1,200 items including photographic material and documents from the studio of Francis Bacon at 7 Rees Mews in Kensington. The gift was made by Barry Joule, a friend and neighbour of Bacon, who came into possession of the material shortly before the artist’s death in 1992. The Tate undertook to study, photograph and catalogue the material over the following 3 years, before displaying the items and making them available for loan. It appears that Barry Joule was to make a further gift to the Tate of a small number of items at a later date.

Whilst the precise terms of the Tate’s Archive’s accession of the collection are unknown, by August 2021 Barry Joule had become frustrated with what he saw as the Tate’s failure to adequately catalogue and exhibit the collection. The second part of his gift, including 10 paintings and 12 hours of taped material, was never made. By April 2022  he had threatened to commence legal proceedings for its return, suggesting that he would instead donate it to the Centre Pompidou Paris.

Meanwhile, in June 2021, significant doubts about the authenticity of the donated material were published in a study by Sophie Pretorius, a specialist archivist tasked by the Estate of Francis Bacon with establishing the authenticity of each item within the collection. Barry Joule consistently defended the authenticity of the material and blames hostility from the Estate for undermining its authenticity.  Nevertheless, by June 2022, the Tate had issued a statement recognising that research by art historians had raised credible doubts about the authenticity of the material and concluding that: “The material does not lend itself to any significant exhibition and any potential it held to improve the public’s understanding of Bacon’s art has been exhausted. It has therefore been considered unsuitable for retention in Tate Archive.”.

The Tate Archive is a collection of primary and secondary source material (including correspondence, sketchbooks, photographs and printed ephemera) primarily relating to British art practice, held within the Tate collection. There appears to be some ambiguity as to whether the material donated by Barry Joule to the Tate Archive is subject to the restrictions on disposal prescribed by section 4 MGA 1992.

The MGA 1992 permits the acquisition of ‘relevant objects’ that, in the opinion of the Tate’s Board of Trustees, it is desirable to add to their collection. Such ‘relevant objects’ include works of art and any documents relating to a work of art within the Tate’s collection. Once a ‘relevant object’ is vested in the Tate’s Trustees and forms part of the Tate collection, it may not be disposed of – subject to limited modifications made by the Human Tissue Act 2004 and Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act 2009 – except in the following three circumstances:

  • A transfer by way of sale, gift or exchange to another national museum listed in the MGA 1992, where the Board of Trustees feels the object would be more appropriately housed;
  • The disposal of an object which is unsuitable for retention and can be disposed of without detriment to the interests of students or other members of the public; and
  • The disposal of an object which has become useless by reason of damage, physical deterioration or infestation.


The acquisition into the Tate Archive of the material donated by Barry Joule suggests that it was regarded as primary and secondary source material and not as works of art or related documents falling within the scope of the MGA 1992. Nevertheless, the reasons given by the Tate’s Board of Trustees for the disposal suggest that it has applied the terms of the Act when concluding that doubts over the authenticity of the Barry Joule collection make it ‘unsuitable for retention’ within the Archive and that a disposal without detriment to the interests of students or other members of the public may be made, because ‘any potential it held to improve the public’s understanding of Bacon’s art has been exhausted’.

It may be that the Tate’s Board of Trustees has erred on the side of caution because the Tate’s Acquisition and Disposal policy states that ‘Any disposal must comply with the criteria and limitations’ set out in its ‘Criteria Governing Disposals’, which replicate the three circumstances set out in the MGA 1992. However, the Criteria are stated to apply to ‘works of art’ and the intention may have been for a different disposal policy to apply to material held within the Tate Archive. This is also suggested elsewhere in the Acquisition and Disposal policy, which states that the Board of Trustees will be guided by the Code of Practice on Archives for Museums and Galleries in the United Kingdom (3rd Ed. 2002). This Code appears to contain no restrictions on disposal, other than a requirement to consider the interests of the archive and to announce the disposal in certain publications.

Either way, given the potential for Bacon scholarship to evolve over time, a curatorially motivated disposal of this nature remains highly unusual. As Tate’s Board of Trustees will have been bound by the terms of the 2004 gift, it may well be that Barry Joule’s threat to commence legal proceedings for the collection’s return played a part in the Board’s decision making process.