Francis Bacon (28 October 1909 – 28 April 1992) was an Irish-born British figurative painter known for his bold, graphic and emotionally raw imagery. His painterly but abstracted figures typically appear isolated in glass or steel geometrical cages, set against flat, nondescript backgrounds. Bacon began painting during his early 20s and worked only sporadically until his mid-30s. Unsure of his ability as a painter, he drifted and earned his living as an interior decorator and the designer of furniture, rugs and bathroom tiles. 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 which sealed his reputation as a uniquely bleak chronicler of the human condition.
He often said in interviews that he saw images “in series”, and his artistic output typically focused on a single subject or format for sustained periods. His output can be crudely drawn as consisting of sequences or variations on a single motif; beginning with the 1940s male heads isolated in rooms, the early 1950s screaming popes, and mid to late 1950s animals and lone figures suspended in geometric structures. These were followed by his early 1960s modern variations of the crucifixion in the triptych format. From the mid-1960s to early 1970s, Bacon mainly produced strikingly compassionate portraits of friends, either as single or triptych panels. Following the 1971 suicide of his lover George Dyer, his art became more personal, inward looking and preoccupied with themes and motifs of death. The climax of this period came with his 1982 “Study for Self-Portrait”, and his late masterpiece Study for a Self Portrait -Triptych, 1985-86. Despite his bleak existentialist outlook, solidified in the public mind through his articulate and vivid set of interviews with David Sylvester, Bacon in person was a bon vivant and notably and unapologetically gay. A prolific artist, he nonetheless spent many of the evenings of his middle age eating, drinking and gambling in London’s Soho with friends such as Lucian Freud, John Deakin, Muriel Belcher, Henrietta Moraes, Daniel Farson 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 continued, he settled into a platonic relationship with his eventual heir, John Edwards.
During his lifetime, Bacon was equally reviled and acclaimed. Margaret Thatcher described him as “that man who paints those dreadful pictures”, and he was the subject of two Tate retrospectives and a major showing in 1971 at the Grand Palais in Paris. Since his death, his reputation and market value has steadily grown. In the late 1990s a number of major works previously assumed to have been destroyed, including popes from the early 1950s and portraits from the 1960s, surfaced on the art market and set record prices at auction. On 12 November 2013 his painting Three Studies of Lucian Freud set the record as the most expensive piece of art by British subject ever auctioned, selling for $142,405,000,
Francis Bacon was born in a nursing home in the heart of old Georgian Dublin at 63 Lower Baggot Street, to parents of English descent. His father, Captain Anthony Edward Mortimer (“Eddy”) Bacon was born in Adelaide, South Australia to an English father and an Australian mother. He was a veteran of the Boer War who became a racehorse trainer and his mother, Christina Winifred “Winnie” Firth was heiress to a Sheffield steel business and coal mine. It is believed his father was a direct descendant of Sir Nicholas Bacon, elder half-brother of Sir Francis Bacon, the Elizabethan statesman, philosopher and essayist. His great-great-grandmother, Lady Charlotte Harley, was intimately acquainted with Lord Byron, who called her “Ianthe”, and dedicated his poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, to her. When Bacon’s paternal grandfather was given the chance to revive the 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, Jessie Lightfoot, a woman from Cornwall, known by Francis as ‘Nanny Lightfoot’ who continued 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 drifted through rented homes in England, accompanied by Lightfoot.
Lightfoot became a mother figure for Bacon. Despite her age, she was said to sleep on the kitchen table, as there was no spare bed in their accommodation. In the 1940s, she aided him in keeping gambling houses in London. The family shifted houses often, moving back and forth between Ireland and England several times during this period, leading to a feeling of displacement 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.
On returning to Ireland after World War I, Bacon was sent to live 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, 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 Linton Hall near the border with Herefordshire. Francis spent 18 months boarding at Dean Close School, Cheltenham, from the third term of 1924 until April 1926. This was his only brush with formal education as he quit the school before he was expelled.
At a fancy-dress party at the Firth family home, Cavendish Hall in 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 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
Bacon spent late 1926 in London, with an allowance of £3 a week from his mother’s trust fund, living on his instincts, ‘drifting’, and reading Nietzsche. When he was broke, Bacon found that by the 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 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. Bacon found himself drifting through London’s homosexual underworld.
Early on he was aware that he was able to attract a certain type of rich man, something he was quick to take advantage of, having developed a taste for good food and wine. One was a relative of Winnie, another breeder of racehorses, Harcourt-Smith, who was renowned for his manliness. Bacon claimed his father had asked this “uncle” 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, and Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin which he credits as the key catalysts on his own 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. His visit to a 1927 exhibition of 106 drawings by Picasso at the Galerie Paul Rosenberg in Paris, aroused his artistic interest, and he 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 premièred 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 – who became 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, 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 sought Cooper’s help in promoting Bacon’s developing skill as a designer of furniture and interiors. Cooper commissioned a desk from Bacon in battleship grey around this time.
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 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) his earliest surviving painting, which 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.
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 (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’s Crucifixion, 1933, was his first painting to attract public attention. It was a considerable achievement for a young, semi-trained artist. Crucifixion was rigorously monochromatic and vaporously photographic. The imagery is based on work Three Dancers (1925) by Pablo Picasso and has become known as the bone figure which resembles a bat-like creature in X-ray. This first major painting was not well received by the public which caused Bacon to quit painting for nearly a decade, and to destroy most of his early works (which he had a habit of doing).
Bacon visited Paris in 1935 where he bought a secondhand 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 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 had his studio, on Eccleston Street, and commissioned from Bacon, by now a friend, a writing desk (with wide drawers and a red linoleum top). White 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 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 variously having 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, 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 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 (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, 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
Bacon considered his 1944 Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion to be his fons et origo and did not want any of his earlier works to enter his canon. Graham Sutherland saw his Painting in the Cromwell Place studio, and urged his dealer, Erica Brausen, to go to view the painting and buy it. Brausen wrote to Bacon several times, and visited his studio in early autumn 1946, buying the work for £200.
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.
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.
Bacon returned to London and Cromwell Place late in 1948. Head I was shown at the Summer Exhibition at the Redfern gallery from July to September 1948. The following spring Head I was displayed at the Hanover Gallery. Between 8 November and 10 December 1949 at the Hanover Gallery, Francis Bacon: Paintings; Robert Ironside: Coloured Drawings, was his first one-man show. It included Head I to Head VI, Study from the Human Body (1949) and Study for Portrait (1949) and four other paintings.
Bacon’s paintings attracted the support of Wyndham Lewis writing in The Listener. “The Hanover [Gallery] 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, which has since been turned into an opera by Stephen Crowe.
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 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 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 in Soho, also known as Muriel’s after Muriel Belcher, its formidable proprietor. Belcher, who had run a club called the Music-box in Leicester Square during the war, had secured a 3 – 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, joining the day after its opening in 1948. He was ‘adopted’ by Belcher as a ‘daughter’, and allowed free drinks and £10 a week to bring in friends and rich patrons. It was here that Bacon became a friend of Lady Rose McLaren.
Bacon met the painter and illustrator John Minton in 1948. Minton became a regular at Muriel’s, as were the painters Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, Patrick Swift, Timothy Behrens, Michael Andrews, the two Roberts, Colquhoun and MacBryde (all of whom were involved with Swift’s ‘X’ magazine), and the sometime Vogue photographer, John Deakin. In 1950, Bacon met the art critic David Sylvester, 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 and for three months, was on hand to talk to students for two days a week.
In 1960 Bacon met the young Irish painter Reginald Gray who painted a small egg tempera on wood portrait of him. The work was the first portrait of Bacon to enter the National Portrait Gallery in London, when it was gifted to the gallery by the collector Aubrey Beese in 1975. By 1950, Bacon’s affair with Eric Hall had come to an end – he no longer appeared on the electoral register with Bacon and Jessie Lightfoot at Cromwell Place, but 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 travel via Alexandria to Marseilles. The visit confirmed his belief in the supremacy of Egyptian art, embodied by the Sphinx. He returned in spring 1951. 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 was his 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.
Bacon met George Dyer in 1964 when, he claimed, he caught the young man breaking into his home. Dyer was about 30 years old and had grown up in the East End of London in a family steeped in crime. He had spent his life drifting between theft, juvenile detention centres and jail.
Bacon’s relationships before meeting Dyer had been with older men who were as tumultuous in temperament as the artist but had been the dominating presence. Peter Lacy, his first lover, tore the young artist’s paintings, beat him up in drunken rages, and left him on the street half-conscious.
Bacon was attracted to Dyer’s vulnerability and trusting nature. Dyer was impressed by Bacon’s self-confidence and artistic success, and Bacon acted as a protector and father figure to the insecure younger man. Dyer was, like Bacon, a borderline alcoholic and similarly took obsessive care with his appearance. Pale-faced and a chain-smoker, Dyer typically confronted his daily hangovers by drinking again. His compact and athletic build belied a docile and inwardly tortured personality. The art critic Michael Peppiatt described him as having the air of a man who could “land a decisive punch”. Their behaviours eventually overwhelmed their affair, and by 1970, Bacon was merely providing Dyer with enough money to stay more or less permanently drunk.
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 allowed him to attract hangers-on who accompanied him on massive benders around London’s Soho. Withdrawn and reserved when sober, Dyer was insuppressible 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 accompanied Bacon to 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, and Bacon spent the next day surrounded by people eager to meet him.
In mid-evening he was informed that Dyer had taken an overdose of barbiturates and was dead. Though devastated, 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. 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 brutally details moments immediately before and after Dyer’s suicide.
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 and Brian Clark, executor of the Estate. 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. Bacon’s studio contents were moved and the studio reconstructed in the gallery. The relocated studio opened to the public in 2001. The entire contents of the studio have been catalogued: approximately 570 books, 1,500 photographs, 100 slashed canvases, 1,300 leaves from torn books, 2,000 artist materials, and 70 drawings. Other categories include artists correspondence, magazines, newspapers and vinyl records.
A collection of drawings, some consisting of little more than scribbles given by Bacon to his driver and handyman Barry Joule to be destroyed surfaced in 1998, when Jule, against Bacon’s express wish, handed them over to the Tate Gallery. 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.
The imagery of the crucifixion weighs heavily in the work of Francis Bacon. Critic John Russell wrote that the crucifixion in Bacon’s work is a “generic name for an environment in which bodily harm is done to one or more persons and one or more other persons gather to watch”. Bacon admitted that he saw the scene as “a magnificent armature on which you can hang all types of feeling and sensation”. He believed the imagery of the crucifixion allowed him to examine “certain areas of human behaviour” in a unique way, as the armature of the theme had been accumulated by so many old masters.
Though he came to painting relatively late in life – he did not begin to paint seriously until his late 30s – crucifixion scenes can be found in his earliest works. In 1933, his patron Eric Hall commissioned a series of three paintings based on the subject. The early paintings were influenced by such old masters as Matthias Grünewald, Diego Velázquez and Rembrandt, but also by Picasso’s late 1920s/early 1930s biomorphs and the early work of the Surrealists.
Bacon called the image of a screaming mouth a catalyst for his work, and incorporated the shape of the mouth when painting the chimera. Bacon’s finding of the theme is examined in one of his first surviving works, Abstraction from the Human Form. By the early 1950s it became an obsessive concern, to the point, according to art critic and Bacon biographer Michael Peppiatt, “it would be no exaggeration to say that, if one could really explain the origins and implications of this scream, one would be far closer to understanding the whole art of Francis Bacon.”
The inspiration for the recurring motif of screaming mouths in many Bacons of the late 1940s and early 1950s was drawn from a number of sources, including medical text books, the works of Matthias Grünewald and photographic stills of the nurse in the Odessa Steps scene in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent The Battleship Potemkin. Bacon saw the film in 1935, and viewed it frequently thereafter.
In his studio, he kept a photographic still of the scene which showed a close-up of the nurse’s head screaming in panic and terror and with broken pince-nez spectacles hanging from her blood-stained face. He referred to the image throughout his career, using it as a source of inspiration. One can relate this particular image to that of Nanny Lightfoot, as she, like the wounded nurse, wore the same oval spectacles.
Fictional accounts of his life
Bacon’s Soho life was portrayed by John Maybury, with Derek Jacobi as Bacon and Daniel Craig as George Dyer (and with Tilda Swinton as Muriel Belcher), in the film Love Is the Devil (1998), based on Daniel Farson’s 1993 biography The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon.
Janice Law’s Fires of London provides a fictionalised account of Bacon’s life and incidents during the Blitz.
Bacon’s first retrospective was held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, in 1955. He was given a solo show at the São Paulo Bienal in 1959. In 1962, the Tate Gallery in London, organised a retrospective, a modified version of which travelled to Mannheim, Turin, Zurich, and Amsterdam. Other important exhibitions of his work were held at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 1963 and the Grand Palais in Paris in 1971; paintings from 1968 to 1974 were exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 1975. Retrospectives were held at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1989–90 and at the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris, in 1996.
Another major retrospective of Bacon’s work opened in September 2008 at Tate Britain, billed as the largest retrospective of his work ever mounted, containing around 60 works. In January 2009, it travelled to the Prado Gallery in Madrid, Spain, where it was exhibited until April 2009 and then to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, “where it ended in the summer of 2009”.
Francis Bacon MB Art Foundation
The Francis Bacon MB Art Foundation, housed at the Villa Elise in Monaco, was inaugurated by Albert II, Prince of Monaco, on 28 October 2014, the 105th anniversary of the artist’s birth. The non-profit organization was established by the Swiss-Lebanese property developer Majid Boustany, a devotee of Bacon since encountering his Bacon’s triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) at Tate Britain and spending years collecting 2,000 items relating to the artist. The Francis Bacon Estate was initially wary of the project, but later art historian Martin Harrison, editor of the definitive Bacon Catalogue Raisonné, joined the foundation’s board.
Works on paper
In 1998 the Tate Gallery purchased 42 works on paper from the 1950s and 1960s in gouache, oil paint, ink, ballpoint pen and pencil from Paul Danquah and Peter Pollock, friends of the artist, and the estate of Sir Stephen Spender.
In 1947, artist Graham Sutherland connected Bacon with Erica Brausen, who represented Bacon for twelve years. Despite this, Bacon did not mount a one-man show in Brausen’s Hanover Gallery until 1949. 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.
In 1999, England’s High Court ruled that Marlborough Fine Art had to be replaced by a new independent representative for the Bacon estate. The estate moved its business to Faggionato Fine Arts in Europe and Tony Shafrazi in New York. That same year, the estate sued Marlborough UK and Marlborough International, Vaduz, charging them with wrongfully exploiting Bacon in a relationship that was manifestly disadvantageous to him until his death in 1992, and to his estate. The suit alleged Marlborough in London grossly underpaid Bacon for his works and resold them through its Liechtenstein branch at much higher prices. It contended that Marlborough never supplied a complete accounting of Bacon’s works and sales and that Marlborough handled some works it has never accounted for. The suit was dropped in early 2002 when both sides agreed to pay their own costs and Marlborough released all its documents about Bacon. In 2003, the estate was handed to a four-person trust based on Jersey.
The Popes and large triptychs command the highest prices at auction. By 1989 Bacon was the most expensive living artist after one of his triptychs sold at Sotheby’s for over $6 million. In 2007, actress Sophia Loren consigned Study for Portrait II (1956) from the estate of her late husband Carlo Ponti at Christie’s;it was auctioned for the record price of £14.2 million ($27.5 million).
On 14 May 2008, the Triptych, 1976, sold at Sotheby’s for €55.465 million ($86.28 million), a record for the artist and the highest price paid for a postwar work of art at auction at the time. On 13 November 2013, Three Studies of Lucian Freud sold at Christie’s New York for $142.4 million, surpassing both of Triptych, 1976 ’ s records, and more importantly claiming the record for highest auction price of a work of art, a title previously held by the fourth version of Edvard Munch’s Scream