Francis Bacon (28 October 1909 – 28 April 1992) was an Irish-born British figurative painter known for his bold, graphic and emotionally raw imagery. Bacon's painterly but abstract figures typically appear isolated in glass or steel geometrical cages set against flat, nondescript backgrounds. He began painting during his early 20s and worked only sporadically until his mid 30s. Before this time he drifted, earning his living as an interior decorator and designer of furniture and rugs. Later, he admitted that his career was delayed because he had spent too long looking for a subject that would sustain his interest. His breakthrough came with the 1944 triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, and it was this work and his heads and figures of the late 1940s through to the mid 1950s that sealed his reputation as a notably bleak chronicler of the human condition.
From the mid 1960s, Bacon mainly produced portrait heads of friends. He often said in interviews that he saw images "in series", and his artistic output often saw him focus on single themes for sustained periods including his crucifixion, Papal heads, and later single and triptych heads series. He began by painting variations on the Crucifixion and later focused on half-human, half-grotesque portraits, best exemplified by the 1949 "Heads in a Room" series. Following the 1971 suicide of his lover George Dyer, Bacon's art became more personal, inward looking and preoccupied with themes and motifs of death. The climax of this late period came with his 1982 "Study for Self-Portrait", and his late masterpiece Study for a Self Portrait -Triptych, 1985-86.
Despite his existentialist outlook on life expressed through his paintings, Bacon always appeared to be a bon vivant, spending much of his middle and later life eating, drinking and gambling in London's Soho with Lucian Freud, John Deakin, Daniel Farson, Patrick Swift, Jeffrey Bernard, Muriel Belcher and Henrietta Moraes, among others. Following Dyer's death he distanced himself from this circle and became less involved with rough trade to settle in a platonic relationship with his eventual heir, John Edwards. Since his death in 1992, Bacon's reputation has steadily grown. Despite Margaret Thatcher having famously described him as "that man who paints those dreadful pictures", he was the subject of two major Tate retrospectives during his lifetime and received a third in 2008. Bacon always professed not to depend on preparatory works and was resolute that he never drew. Yet since his death, a number of sketches have emerged and although the Tate recognised them as canon, they have not yet been acknowledged as such by the art market. In addition, in the late 1990s, several presumed destroyed major works, including Popes from the early 1950s and Heads from the 1960s, surfaced on the art market, some of which are considered equal to any of his "official" output.
Francis Bacon was born in Dublin at 63 Lower Baggot Street, to parents of British descent. Captain Anthony Edward Mortimer ("Eddy") Bacon, his father, was a veteran of the Boer War who became a racehorse trainer. Christina Winifred "Winnie" Firth, his mother, was an heiress to a Sheffield steel business and coal mine. It is believed that his father was a direct descendant of Sir Nicholas Bacon, the elder half-brother of Sir Francis Bacon, the Elizabethan statesman, philosopher and essayist. His beautiful great-great-grandmother, Lady Charlotte Harley, was intimately acquainted with Lord Byron, who called her "Ianthe", so much so that he dedicated his famous poem, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, to her. When Bacon's paternal grandfather was given the chance to revive the family title of Lord Oxford by Queen Victoria, he refused for financial reasons.
He had an older brother, Harley, five years his senior, two younger sisters, Ianthe and Winifred, and a younger brother, Edward. He was raised by the family nanny, a woman from Cornwall, Jessie Lightfoot. Known by Francis as 'Nanny Lightfoot', she would continue to play a key role in the artist's development even after his exile by Captain Bacon. During Bacon's early years, before he found fame with his first masterpiece, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion in 1945, he continually drifted throughout rental homes in England, accompanied by Lightfoot. Bacon created his own Mother within Lightfoot, using her as a filler for the lack of a maternal figure in his childhood. Lightfoot, despite her age, was said to sleep on the kitchen table, as there was not a spare bed in their accommodation. The family shifted houses often, moving back and forth between Ireland and England several times during this period, leading to a feeling of displacement that would remain with the artist throughout his life. In 1911 the family lived in Cannycourt House near Kilcullen, County Kildare, but later moved to Westbourne Terrace, London, close to where Bacon's father worked at the Territorial Force Records Office.
On returning to Ireland after World War I, Bacon was sent to live for a time with his maternal grandmother and step-grandfather, Winifred and Kerry Supple, at Farmleigh, Abbeyleix, County Laois, though they soon moved again to Straffan Lodge near Naas, County Kildare, his mother's birthplace. Although shy, he enjoyed dressing up. This, coupled with his effeminate manner, often enraged his father and created a distance between them. A story emerged in 1992 of his father having had Francis horsewhipped by their groom. In 1924 his parents moved to Gloucestershire, first to Prescott House in Gotherington, then to Linton Hall, situated near the border with Herefordshire. Francis spent eighteen months boarding at Dean Close School, Cheltenham, from the third term of 1924 until April 1926. This was to be his only brush with a formal education as he quit the school right before he was to be expelled.
At a fancy-dress party at the Firth family house of Cavendish Hall, Suffolk, Francis dressed up 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 banished from 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
Bacon spent the autumn and winter of 1926 in London, with the help of an allowance of £3 a week from his mother's trust fund, living on his instincts, simply 'drifting', and reading Nietzsche. When he was broke, Bacon found that by the simple expedient of rent-dodging and petty theft, he could manage a reasonable economy. To supplement his income, he briefly tried his hand at domestic service, but although he enjoyed cooking, he quickly became bored and resigned. He was sacked from a telephone answering position at a shop selling women's clothes in Poland Street, Soho, after writing a poison pen letter to the owner.
Early on he was aware that he was able to attract a certain type of rich man, a fact he was quick to take advantage of, having developed a taste for good food and wine. One of the men was an ex-army friend of his father, another breeder of racehorses, named Harcourt-Smith. Bacon later claimed that his father had asked this friend to take him 'in-hand' and 'make a man of him'. Francis had a difficult relationship with his father, once admitting to being sexually attracted to him. In 1927, Bacon was taken by Harcourt-Smith to the opulent, decadent, "wide open" Berlin of the Weimar Republic, where they stayed together at the Hotel Adlon. Bacon likely saw Fritz Lang's Metropolis around this time.
Bacon spent two months in Berlin, though Harcourt-Smith left after just 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 to which he was often to refer in his own later work. From Chantilly, he went to an exhibition that was largely to inspire him to take up painting. His visit to a 1927 exhibition of 106 drawings by Picasso at the Galerie Paul Rosenberg, Paris, aroused his artistic interest, and he often took the train into Paris five or more times a week to see shows and art exhibitions. Bacon saw Abel Gance's epic silent film Napoléon at the Paris Opéra when it premiered in April 1927. From the autumn of 1927, Bacon stayed at the Paris Hôtel Delambre in Montparnasse.
Return to London
Bacon returned to London late in 1928 or early 1929, and started work as an interior designer. He took a studio at 17 Queensberry Mews West, South Kensington, and shared the upper floor with Eric Alden – later to become his first collector – and his childhood nanny, Jessie Lightfoot. Bacon advertised himself as a "gentleman's companion" in The Times, on the front page (then reserved for personal messages and insertions). Among the many answers carefully vetted by Nanny Lightfoot was one from an elderly cousin of Douglas Cooper, at that time owner of one of the finest collections of modern art in England. The gentleman, having paid Bacon for his services, found him part-time work as a telephone operator in a London club and further sought Cooper's help in promoting Bacon's developing skill as a designer of furniture and interiors. Cooper also commissioned a desk from Bacon in battleship grey around this time.
In 1929 he met Eric Hall at the Bath Club, Dover Street, where Bacon was working at the telephone exchange. Hall was to be both patron and lover to Bacon, in an often torturous relationship. The first show in the winter of 1929, at Queensberry Mews, was of Bacon's carpet rugs and furniture, and may have included Painted screen (ca. 1929–1930) and Watercolour (1929). Watercolour (1929) his earliest surviving painting, seems to have evolved from his rug designs, in turn influenced by the paintings and tapestries of Jean Lurçat. Sydney Butler (daughter of Samuel Courtauld and wife of Rab Butler) commissioned a glass and steel table and a set of stools for the dining room of her Smith Square house.... Bacon's Queensberry Mews studio was featured in the August 1930 issue of The Studio magazine, in a double page article entitled "The 1930 Look in British Decoration". The piece showed work including a large round mirror, some rugs and tubular steel and glass furniture largely influenced by the International Style, Marcel Breuer, Le Corbusier/Charlotte Perriand and Eileen Gray.
He returned to Germany in 1930. A dramatic studio portrait taken of Bacon by Helmar Lerski, a Swiss photographer and cinematographer, probably dates from this visit. Bacon was later to tell Stephen Spender that he had been very impressed by the work of a photographer who had produced striking effects using mirrors and natural light filtered through screens, but that he could not remember the artist's name. Later that year Francis Bacon met Roy de Maistre, an Australian painter who was to become a close friend and mentor. De Maistre's circle included Graham Sutherland, Henry Moore, Patrick White and Douglas Cooper. A second exhibition was held between 4–22 November at 17 Queensberry Mews. Alongside de Maistre and Jean Sheppeard, Bacon showed four paintings and one print. Gouache (1929) may be the piece titled as A Brick Wall in the hand-list. Painting (1929–1930) (probably the work listed as Tree by the Sea) is Bacon's earliest surviving oil painting. Both were bought by Alden. The two other paintings (Self-portrait and Two Brothers) and print (Dark Child in an edition of three) are now lost.
Bacon left the Queensberry Mews West studio in 1931, and was not to have a 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 (ca. 1931–1932) (the latter bought by Diana Watson) 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. In 1932, Bacon was commissioned by Gladys MacDermot, an Irish woman who had lived in Australia, to redesign much of the decoration and furniture of her flat at 98 Ridgmount Gardens in Bloomsbury. Bacon recalled that she was "always filling me up with food".
Bacon visited Paris in 1935, purchasing there a second-hand book on diseases of the mouth containing high quality hand-coloured plates of both open mouths and oral interiors, which haunted and obsessed him for the remainder of his life. In 1935 he saw Eisenstein's The Battleship Potemkin, the scene of the nurse screaming on the Odessa steps later becoming a major theme in his paintings, with the angularity of Eisenstein's image often combined with the thick red palette of his recently purchased medical tome.
In winter of 1935–36, Roland Penrose and Herbert Read, making a first selection for the International Surrealist Exhibition, visited his studio at 71 Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea, saw "three or four large canvases including one with a grandfather clock," but found his work "insufficiently surreal to be included in the show". Bacon claimed Penrose told him "Mr. Bacon, don't you realise a lot has happened in painting since the Impressionists?" In 1936 or 1937 Bacon moved from 71 Royal Hospital Road to the top floor of 1 Glebe Place, Chelsea, which Eric Hall had rented. The following year, White moved to the top two floors of the building where de Maistre now had his studio, on Eccleston Street, and commissioned from Bacon, who was by now a friend, a writing desk (with wide drawers and a red linoleum top). White also bought the glass and steel dining table from Rab and Sydney Butler.
In January 1937, at Thomas Agnew and Sons, 43 Old Bond Street, London, Bacon was 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 variously having a tripod structure (Abstraction), bared teeth (Abstraction from the Human Form), and both being biomorphic in form); Seated Figure is lost entirely.
On 1 June 1940 Bacon's father died. Bacon was named sole Trustee/Executor of his father's will, which requested that the funeral be as "private and simple as possible". Unfit for active wartime service, Bacon volunteered for civil defence and worked full-time in the ARP (Air Raid Precautions) rescue service. But 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, 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 (taken shortly before it 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, it had had its roof recently bombed – Bacon was able to adapt a large old billiard room at the back of the house as his own studio. Nanny Lightfoot, lacking an alternative location, slept on the kitchen table. Illicit roulette parties were held there, organised by Bacon with assistance by Hall, to the financial benefit of both.
Bacon returned to London and Cromwell Place to paint, late in 1948. Head I was shown at the Summer Exhibition at the Redfern gallery from July to September 1948. By the end of 1948 Erica Brausen, who had advanced Bacon money for works, left the Redfern Gallery. Brausen had found private capital to start her own gallery in Mayfair. In the spring, Bacon's Head I was displayed at her new Hanover Gallery (and was noted by Wyndham Lewis, as a preview of the main show, in an exhibition review of 12 May 1949). Held between 8 November and 10 December 1949 at the Hanover Gallery, Francis Bacon: Paintings; Robert Ironside: Coloured Drawings, was his first professional one-man show (Robert Ironside's watercolours were on an upper floor). A series of six paintings Head I to Head VI, with Study from the Human Body (1949) and Study for Portrait (1949) formed the core of the show with four other paintings by Bacon.
Bacon's paintings attracted the support of Wyndham Lewis writing in The Listener. "The Hanover Show is of exceptional importance. Of the younger painters none actually paints so beautifully as Francis Bacon", Lewis wrote, adding: "Bacon is one of the most powerful artists in Europe today and he is perfectly in tune with his time". 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".
Well, I was living once down in Monte Carlo and I had lost all my money, and, I had no canvases left and so, the few I had I just turned them, and I found that the, that the, what is called the wrong side, the unprimed side of the canvas worked for me very much better. So I've always used them. So it was just by chance that I had no money to buy canvases with." – Excerpt from an interview with Melvyn Bragg in Francis Bacon (1985), for the South Bank Show for London Weekend Television.
Head II is, for Bacon, very thickly painted, this was one of very few instances when he had been able to 'rescue' a painting after it had become overworked and the weave of the canvas clogged. The arrow, or pointer, motif in Head II is taken from the book Positioning in Radiography by Kathleen Clara Clark, 1939.
Head VI was Bacon's first surviving engagement with Velázquez's great 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 later said that, although he admired "the magnificent color" of the Velázquez, Velázquez "wanted to make it as much like a Titian as possible but, in a curious way he cooled Titian".
The Colony Room was a private drinking club at 41 Dean Street, Soho, also known as Muriel's after Muriel Belcher, the formidable proprietor. Belcher, who had run a club called the Music-box in Leicester Square during the war, had secured a 3 pm – 11pm drinking licence for the Colony Room bar as a private-members club (public houses had to, by law, close at 2:30 pm). Bacon was a founding member, and joined the day after its opening in 1948. He was 'adopted' by Belcher as a 'daughter', and was allowed free drinks and £10 a week to bring in friends and rich patrons. It was here that Bacon became friends with Lady Rose McLaren.
Bacon met the painter and illustrator John Minton in 1948. Minton was soon to become a regular at Muriel's, as were the painters Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, Patrick Swift, Timothy Behrens, Michael Andrews, the two Roberts, Colquhoun and MacBride (all of whom were involved with Swift's ‘X’ magazine), and above all the sometime Vogue photographer, John Deakin. In 1950, Bacon met the art critic David Sylvester, then best known for his writing on Henry Moore and praise for Alberto Giacometti's work. Sylvester had admired and written about his work (first writing about Bacon for a French periodical, L'Age nouveau, in 1948) but had erroneously perceived it to be a form of Expressionism. Head I, in particular, at the 1949 Hanover Gallery show, was, for Sylvester, proof of Bacon's importance as a painter. John Minton left for the West Indies in September 1950. Aware that Bacon was in need of money, Minton asked him to take over his post as a tutor at the school of painting at the Royal College of Art. On condition that he did no formal teaching, Bacon agreed. So for three months, he was on hand to talk to the students for two days a week.
In 1960 Bacon met the then young Irish painter Reginald Gray who painted a small egg tempera on wood portrait of Bacon. The work was the first portrait of Bacon to enter The National Portrait Gallery, London, when, in 1975, it was gifted to the Gallery by the collector Aubrey Beese. By 1950, Bacon's affair with Eric Hall had come to an end – he no longer appears on the electoral register with Bacon and Jessie Lightfoot at 7 Cromwell Place, but Hall remained a loyal patron, friend and supporter. During November 1950, Bacon visited his mother in South Africa, which suited his asthma.
Bacon was impressed by the African landscapes and wildlife, and took photographs in Kruger National Park. On his return journey he spent a few days in Cairo, and wrote to Erica Brausen of his intent to visit Karnak and Luxor, and then via Alexandria to Marseilles. The visit confirmed his belief in the supremacy of Egyptian art, embodied by the Sphinx. He returned in the spring of 1951. On 30 April 1951, Jessie Lightfoot, Bacon's childhood nurse, died at Cromwell Place. Bacon was gambling in Nice when he learned of her death. Lightfoot was Bacon's closest companion and had joined 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.
Later life and death
In 1974, Bacon met John Edwards, another young man from the East End, with whom he formed one of his most enduring friendships. While holidaying in Madrid in 1992, Bacon was admitted to the Handmaids of Maria, a private clinic, where he was cared for by Sister Mercedes. His chronic asthma, which had plagued him all his life, had developed into a respiratory condition and he could not talk or breathe very well. He died of cardiac arrest on 28 April 1992, attempts to resuscitate him having failed. He bequeathed his entire estate (then valued at £11 million) to John Edwards. Edwards, in turn, donated the contents of Francis Bacon's chaotic studio at 7 Reece Mews, South Kensington, to the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin. Bacon's studio contents were moved and the studio carefully reconstructed in the gallery. Additionally draft materials, perhaps intended for destruction, were bequeathed to Barry Joule who later forwarded most of the materials to create the Barry Joule Archive in Dublin with other parts of the collection given later to the Tate museum.
The tiny and cramped nature of Bacon's London studio and apartment were subjected to some critical analysis in an article in The Guardian by Aida Edemariam. She claims Bacon being frequently locked screaming for hours in a cupboard as a young boy, by a nanny, formed the basis of his preference for working in cramped conditions and his unwillingness to work in a larger space. The article states: "That cupboard", Bacon apparently said years later, "was the making of me".