Not to be confused with the former Chancellor of England, Francis Bacon (the artist) was a British painter who achieved international acclaim with his dark but poignant renderings of figures. Often set on steely, cage-like ground, his subjects were largely abstracted and isolated victims of Bacon’s bleak interpretation of the human condition.
Born in Dublin, Ireland, in October of 1909, Bacon grew up in a wealthy family descended from the cultured aristocracy of Old England. His father, Captain Anthony Bacon, was a racehorse trainer believed to be a direct relation of Sir Nicholas Bacon, brother of the artist’s namesake. His mother, Christina Winifred Firth, was heiress to a Sheffield steel and coal mine business, while his great-great-grandmother was a known lover of Romantic poet Lord Byron.
Bacon’s childhood was dominated by violent conflicts with his father who, according to varying reports, was physically abusive and intolerant of the artist’s budding homosexuality. His nanny Jessie Lightfoot played a pivotal role in raising the young boy and sought to protect him from his father’s ire. Bacon’s shyness and effeminacy created friction between father and son, and it has been reported that the Captain went so far as to order a groom to horsewhip the boy. He was finally disowned when his father caught him admiring himself in the mirror clothed only in his mother’s underwear.
The end of 1926 found Bacon in London, dodging rent, reading philosophy and living on the £3 a week budget his mother’s trust fund allowed him. He supplemented his income with petty theft and domestic service but remained restless and bored. He worked briefly as a secretary at a women’s boutique but was fired after an altercation with the owner. He drifted through London’s homosexual underbelly, often ensnaring a rich older man to temporarily finance him. One such gentleman was a relative of his mother’s, named Harcourt-Smith, who in 1927 took Bacon to Germany and exposed him to the decadent, baroque lifestyle of Berlin.
Having saved some of the money Harcourt-Smith had lavished upon his lover, Bacon moved to Paris for the next year and a half. Almost upon his arrival, he encountered French pianist Yvonne Bocquentin at an exhibition opening and moved into her house in Chantilly for three months. He spent this time learning French, reading and visiting cinemas and galleries in the city. It was in Paris that he saw Nicolas Poussin’s The Massacre of the Innocents, a work to which he later often referred. After seeing an exhibition of Picasso’s drawings in 1927, Bacon was inspired to develop his own career as an artist. In the autumn of that year, once he had mastered the language, Bacon moved out of Chantilly to the Hotel Delambre in Montparnasse, where he lived alone for the remainder of his time in France.
Life in London
Moving back to London in late 1928, he took up work as an interior designer, converting a garage in South Kensington into his studio. He advertised himself in local newspapers as a ‘gentleman’s companion’ and made the acquaintance of a cousin of Douglas Cooper’s, whose collection of modern art was thought to be the finest in England. The gentleman approached Cooper to foster Bacon’s developing talent in furniture and interior design and was successful in commissioning some work for the fledgling craftsman. It was this fortunate connection that allowed Bacon a foothold into the legitimate art world.
In the winter of 1929, Bacon staged his first exhibition – of a collection of rugs and furniture, along with his earliest known surviving painting Watercolour. The reception of Bacon’s work was largely positive; he received commissions for furniture and was featured in various design publications. Throughout the 1930s, Bacon mounted several exhibitions of his works, and was speculated to have shared a studio with Australian artist Roy de Maistre, who would later become a close friend and mentor.
His breakthrough came in 1944 with the triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, a painterly distortion of faces with open mouths, motifs that would recur in his later works. The painting gained public traction, and was later donated to the Tate Gallery in 1953.
From the 1950s to the end of his career in the early ’90s, the unwavering theme of his art was the loneliness and isolation of the individual. His compositions usually involved a single figure in a boxed-in interior, almost as if trapped in eternity.
Bacon died of a heart attack on April 28, 1992, in Madrid, Spain. His entire estate was bequeathed to his long-time friend John Edwards, who donated the contents of the artist’s studio to the Hugh Lane gallery in Dublin. The same studio has since been reconstructed inside the gallery.
Date of Birth: October 28, 1909
Date of Death: April 28, 1992
Place of Birth: Dublin, Ireland
Occupation: Painter, Interior Designer
Movement: Modernist Art
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