Francis Bacon (28 October 1909 – 28 April 1992) was an Irish-British figurative painter known for his bold, grotesque, emotionally charged, raw imagery. He is best known for his depictions of popes, crucifixions and portraits of close friends. His abstracted figures are typically isolated in geometrical cage like spaces, set against flat, nondescript backgrounds. Bacon said that he saw images “in series”, and his work typically focuses on a single subject for sustained periods, often in triptych or diptych formats. His output can be broadly described as sequences or variations on a single motif; beginning with the 1930s Picasso-informed Furies, moving on to the 1940s male heads isolated in rooms or geometric structures, the 1950s screaming popes, and the mid-to-late 1950s animals and lone figures, the 1960s portraits of friends, the nihilistic 1970s self-portraits, and the cooler more technical 1980s late works.
Bacon took up painting late in life, having drifted in the late 1920s and 1930s as an interior decorator, bon vivant and gambler. He said that his artistic career was delayed because he spent too long looking for subject matter that could sustain his interest. His breakthrough came with the 1944 triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, which sealed his reputation as a uniquely bleak chronicler of the human condition. From the mid-1960s he mainly produced portraits of friends and drinking companions, either as single or triptych panels. Following the suicide of his lover George Dyer in 1971 his art became more sombre, inward-looking and preoccupied with the passage of time and death. The climax of this later period is marked by masterpieces, including his 1982’s “Study for Self-Portrait” and Study for a Self-Portrait—Triptych, 1985–86.
Despite his bleak existentialist outlook, solidified in the public mind through his articulate and vivid series of interviews with David Sylvester, Bacon in person was highly engaging and charismatic, articulate, well-read and openly gay. He was a prolific artist, but nonetheless spent many of the evenings of his middle age eating, drinking and gambling in London’s Soho with like-minded friends such as Lucian Freud (though the two fell out in the mid-1970s, for reasons neither ever explained), John Deakin, Muriel Belcher, Henrietta Moraes, Daniel Farson, Tom Baker, and Jeffrey Bernard.
After Dyer’s suicide he largely distanced himself from this circle, and while his social life was still active and his passion for gambling and drinking continued, he settled into a platonic and somewhat fatherly relationship with his eventual heir, John Edwards. Robert Hughes described Bacon as “the most implacable, lyric artist in late 20th-century England, perhaps in all the world” and along with Willem de Kooning as “the most important painter of the disquieting human figure in the 50’s of the 20th century.” Francis Bacon was the subject of two Tate retrospectives and a major showing in 1971 at the Grand Palais. Since his death his reputation and market value have grown steadily, and his work is among the most acclaimed, expensive and sought-after. In the late 1990s a number of major works, previously assumed destroyed, including early 1950s popes and 1960s portraits, reemerged to set record prices at auction. In 2013 his Three Studies of Lucian Freud set the world record as the most expensive piece of art sold at auction.
The family moved house often, moving back and forth between Ireland and England several times, leading to a feeling of displacement which remained with the artist throughout his life. In 1911 the family lived in Cannycourt House near Kilcullen, County Kildare, but later moved to Westbourne Terrace in London, close to where Bacon’s father worked at the Territorial Force Records Office. They returned to Ireland after the First World War. Bacon lived with his maternal grandmother and step-grandfather, Winifred and Kerry Supple, at Farmleigh, Abbeyleix, County Laois, although the rest of the family again moved to Straffan Lodge near Naas, County Kildare.
As a child Bacon was shy and enjoyed dressing up. This, coupled with his effeminate manner, upset his father. A story emerged in 1992 of his father having had Francis horsewhipped by their grooms. In 1924 his parents moved to Gloucestershire, first to Prescott House in Gotherington, then Linton Hall near the border with Herefordshire. At a fancy-dress party at the Firth family home, Cavendish Hall in Suffolk, Francis dressed as a flapper with an Eton crop, beaded dress, lipstick, high heels, and a long cigarette holder. In 1926, the family moved back to Straffan Lodge, His sister, Ianthe, twelve years his junior, recalled that Bacon made drawings of ladies with cloche hats and long cigarette holders. Later that year, Francis was thrown out of Straffan Lodge following an incident in which his father found him admiring himself in front of a large mirror draped in his mother’s underwear.
London, Berlin and Paris
In 1927 Bacon moved to Berlin, where he saw Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, later catalysts of his artistic imagination. Bacon spent two months in Berlin, though Harcourt-Smith left after one – “He soon got tired of me, of course, and went off with a woman … I didn’t really know what to do, so I hung on for a while, and then, since I’d managed to keep a bit of money, I decided to go to Paris.” Bacon then spent the next year and a half in Paris. He met Yvonne Bocquentin, pianist and connoisseur, at the opening of an exhibition. Aware of his own need to learn French, Bacon lived for three months with Madame Bocquentin and her family at their house near Chantilly. He travelled into Paris to visit the city’s art galleries. At the Château de Chantilly (Musée Condé) he saw Nicolas Poussin’s Massacre of the Innocents, a painting which he often referred to in his own later work. From Chantilly, he went to an exhibition that inspired him to take up painting.
Return to London
In 1929 while working at the telephone exchange at the Bath Club on Dover Street, he met Eric Hall, who became his patron and lover in an often torturous and abusive relationship. Bacon left the Queensberry Mews West studio in 1931 and had no settled space for some years. Bacon probably shared a studio with Roy de Maistre, circa 1931/32, at Carlyle Studios (just off the Kings Road) in Chelsea. Portrait (1932) and Portrait (c. 1931–32) both show a round-faced youth with diseased skin (painted after Bacon saw Ibsen’s Ghosts), and date from a brief stay in a studio on the Fulham Road.
Decorator of furniture and rugs
A baby in a carriage falling down the “Odessa Steps” in Battleship Potemkin (1925)
In January 1937, at Thomas Agnew and Sons, 43 Old Bond Street, London, Bacon exhibited in a group show, Young British Painters, which included Graham Sutherland, Victor Pasmore and Roy de Maistre. Eric Hall, also a friend of Jerry Agnew, organised the show; Agnew’s was then known for shows of Old Master paintings. Four works by Bacon were shown: Figures in a Garden (1936), purchased by Diana Watson; Abstraction, and Abstraction from the Human Form, known from magazine photographs. They prefigure Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) in alternatively representing a tripod structure (Abstraction), bared teeth (Abstraction from the Human Form), and both being biomorphic in form. Seated Figure is lost.
On 1 June 1940 Bacon’s father died. Bacon was named sole Trustee/Executor of his father’s will, which requested the funeral be as “private and simple as possible”. Unfit for active wartime service, Francis volunteered for civil defence and worked full-time in the ARP (Air Raid Precautions) rescue service; the fine dust of bombed London worsened his asthma and he was discharged. At the height of the Blitz, Eric Hall rented a cottage for Bacon and himself at Bedales Lodge in Steep, near Petersfield, Hampshire. Figure Getting Out of a Car (ca. 1939/1940) was painted here but is known only from an early 1946 photograph taken by Peter Rose Pulham. The photograph was taken shortly before the canvas was painted over by Bacon and retitled Landscape with Car. An ancestor to the biomorphic form of the central panel of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944), the composition was suggested by a photograph of Hitler getting out of a car at one of the Nuremberg rallies. Bacon claims to have “copied the car and not much else”.
Returning from Hampshire at the latter part of 1943, Bacon and Hall took the ground floor of 7 Cromwell Place, South Kensington, John Everett Millais’ old house and studio. High vaulted and north lit, its roof was recently bombed – Bacon was able to adapt a large old billiard room at the back of the house as his studio. Nanny Lightfoot, lacking an alternative location, slept on the kitchen table. Illicit roulette parties were held there, organised by Bacon with the assistance of Hall, to the financial benefit of both.
Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944. Oil and pastel on Sundeala board. Tate Britain, London
Painting (1946) was shown in several group shows including in the British section of Exposition internationale d’art moderne (18 November – 28 December 1946) at the Musée National d’Art Moderne, for which Bacon travelled to Paris. Within a fortnight of the sale of Painting (1946) to the Hanover Gallery Bacon used the proceeds to decamp from London to Monte Carlo. After staying at a succession of hotels and flats, including the Hôtel de Ré, Bacon settled in a large villa, La Frontalière, in the hills above the town. Hall and Lightfoot would come to stay. Bacon spent much of the next few years in Monte Carlo apart from short visits to London. From Monte Carlo, Bacon wrote to Graham Sutherland and Erica Brausen. His letters to Brausen show he painted there, but no paintings are known to survive. Bacon said he became “obsessed” with the Casino de Monte Carlo, where he would “spend whole days.” Falling in debt from gambling here, he was unable to afford a new canvas. This compelled him to paint on the raw, unprimed side of his previous work, a practice he kept throughout his life.
In 1948, Painting (1946) sold to Alfred Barr for the Museum of Modern Art in New York for £240. Bacon wrote to Sutherland asking that he apply fixative to the patches of pastel on Painting (1946) before it was shipped to New York. Painting (1946) is now too fragile to be moved from MoMA for exhibition elsewhere. At least one visit to Paris in 1946 brought Bacon into more immediate contact with French postwar painting and Left Bank ideas such as Existentialism. He had, by this time, embarked on his lifelong friendship with Isabel Rawsthorne, a painter closely involved with Giacometti and the Left Bank set. They shared many interests including ethnography and classical literature.
The following year he wrote of another exhibition: “Three large new canvases by Bacon prove him once more to be the most astonishingly sinister artist in England, and one of the most original”. Head II is, for Bacon, very thickly painted, one of few instances when he had been able to ‘rescue’ a painting after it had become overworked and the weave of the canvas clogged (as happened with two abandoned works on canvas from the Head series, from 1949, also in the 1949 Hanover show). The arrow, or pointer, motif in Head II is taken from the book Positioning in Radiography by Kathleen Clara Clark, 1939.
Head VI is Bacon’s first surviving engagement with Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (three ‘popes’ were painted in Monte Carlo in 1946 but were destroyed). The Cobalt Violet mozzetta, crimson in Velázquez’s painting, may reflect Bacon’s use of printed reproductions of the painting. Bacon said that although he admired “the magnificent colour” of the Velázquez, Velázquez “wanted to make it as much like a Titian as possible but, in a curious way he cooled Titian”, that is, made Titian more accessible to contemporary audiences.
In 1948 he met John Minton, a regular at Muriel’s, as were the painters Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, Patrick Swift and the Vogue photographer, John Deakin. In 1950, Bacon met the art critic David Sylvester, then best known for his writing on Henry Moore and Alberto Giacometti. Sylvester had admired and written about Bacon since 1948. Bacon’s artistic inclinations in the 1950s moved towards his abstracted figures which were typically isolated in geometrical cage-like spaces, and set against flat, nondescript backgrounds. Bacon said that he saw images “in series”, and his work typically focused more on a single subject for sustained periods, often in triptych or diptych formats. Although his decisions might have been driven by the fact that in the 50s he tended to produce group works for specific showings, usually leaving things to the last minute, there is significant development in his aesthetic choices during the 1950s which influenced his artistic preference for the represented content in his paintings.
Three Studies for a Portrait of Henrietta Moraes, 1963
On 30 April 1951, Jessie Lightfoot, his childhood nanny, died at Cromwell Place. Bacon was gambling in Nice when he learned of her death. She had been his closest companion, joining him in London on his return from Paris, and lived with him and Eric Alden at Queensberry Mews West, and later with him and Eric Hall at the cottage near Petersfield, in Monte Carlo and at Cromwell Place. Stricken, Bacon sold the 7 Cromwell Place apartment.
In 1958 he joined the Marlborough Fine Art gallery, and from then until 1992, Marlborough was his sole dealer. In return for signing a 10-year contract, Marlborough advanced him money against current and future paintings, with the price of each determined by its size. A painting measuring 20 inches by 24 inches was valued at £165 ($462), while one of 65 inches by 78 inches was valued at £420 ($1,176); these were sizes Bacon favoured. According to the contract, the painter would try to supply the gallery with £3,500 ($9,800) worth of pictures each year.
Triptych, May–June 1973, oil on canvas, 198 × 147 cm. Collection of Esther Grether
As Bacon’s work moved from the extreme subject matter of his early paintings to portraits of friends in the mid-1960s, Dyer became a dominating presence in the artist’s work. Bacon’s treatment of his lover in these canvases emphasised his subject’s physicality while remaining uncharacteristically tender. More than any other of the artist’s close friends portrayed during this period, Dyer came to feel inseparable from his effigies. The paintings gave him stature, a raison d’etre, and offered meaning to what Bacon described as Dyer’s “brief interlude between life and death”. Many critics have cited Dyer’s portraits as favourites, including Michel Leiris and Lawrence Gowing. Yet as Dyer’s novelty diminished within Bacon’s circle of sophisticated intellectuals, the younger man became increasingly bitter and ill at ease. Although Dyer welcomed the attention the paintings brought him, he did not pretend to understand or even like them. “All that money an’ I fink they’re reely ‘orrible”, he observed with choked pride.
Dyer abandoned crime but soon descended into alcoholism. Bacon’s money attracted hangers-on for massive benders around London’s Soho. Withdrawn and reserved when sober, Dyer was highly animated and aggressive when drunk, and often attempted to “pull a Bacon” by buying large rounds and paying for expensive dinners for his wide circle. Dyer’s erratic behaviour inevitably wore thin – with his cronies, with Bacon, and with Bacon’s friends. Most of Bacon’s art world associates regarded Dyer as a nuisance – an intrusion into the world of high culture to which their Bacon belonged. Dyer reacted by becoming increasingly needy and dependent. By 1971, he was drinking alone and only in occasional contact with his former lover.
In October 1971, Dyer joined Bacon in Paris for the opening of the artist’s retrospective at the Grand Palais. The show was the high point of Bacon’s career to date, and he was now described as Britain’s “greatest living painter”. Dyer was a desperate man, and although he was “allowed” to attend, he was well aware that he was slipping out of the picture. To draw Bacon’s attention, he planted cannabis in his flat and phoned the police, and attempted suicide on a number of occasions. On the eve of the Paris exhibition, Bacon and Dyer shared a hotel room, but Bacon was forced escape in disgust to the room of gallery employee Terry Danziger-Miles, as Dyer was entertaining an Arab rent boy with “smelly feet”. When Bacon returned to his room the next morning, together with Danziger-Miles and Valerie Beston, they discovered Dyer in the bathroom dead, sat on the toilet. With the agreement of the hotel manager, the party agreed not to announce the death for two days.
Bacon spent the following day surrounded by people eager to meet him. In mid-evening of the following day he was “informed” that Dyer had taken an overdose of barbiturates and was dead. Bacon continued with the retrospective and displayed powers of self-control “to which few of us could aspire”, according to Russell. Bacon was deeply affected by the loss of Dyer, and had recently lost four other friends and his nanny. From this point, death haunted his life and work. Though outwardly stoic at the time, he was inwardly broken. He did not express his feelings to critics, but later admitted to friends that “daemons, disaster and loss” now stalked him as if his own version of the Eumenides (Greek for The Furies). Bacon spent the remainder of his stay in Paris attending to promotional activities and funeral arrangements. He returned to London later that week to comfort Dyer’s family.
During the funeral many of Dyer’s friends, including hardened East-End criminals, broke down in tears. As the coffin was lowered into the grave one friend was overcome and screamed “you bloody fool!” Bacon remained stoic during the proceedings, but in the following months suffered an emotional and physical breakdown. Deeply affected, over the following two years he painted a number of single canvas portraits of Dyer, and the three highly regarded “Black Triptychs”, each of which details moments immediately before and after Dyer’s suicide.
In February 2018, portraits of Dyer by Bacon and by Lucian Freud were exhibited side-by-side for the first time, at the Ordovas Gallery, in Savile Row, London.
Study for a Self-Portrait—Triptych, 1985–86, Marlborough Fine Art, London
He died of a heart attack on 28 April 1992; attempts to resuscitate him having failed. He had bequeathed his estate (then valued at £11 million) to John Edwards and Brian Clark, executors. In 1998 the director of the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin secured the donation of the contents of Bacon’s chaotic studio at 7 Reece Mews, South Kensington. The contents of his studio were moved and reconstructed in the gallery.
A collection of drawings, some consisting of little more than scribbles given by Bacon to his driver and handyman Barry Joule, possibly to be destroyed, surfaced in 1998, when Joule handed them over to the Tate Gallery. According to Joule the items were given as a gift. Their artistic and commercial value proved negligible but they provided some insight into Bacon’s imagination and his thinking, in the early stages of conceiving a finished work. Today most of the works are in the Hugh Lane in Dublin.