In 1927, a 17-year-old Francis Bacon arrived in Paris. He had just spent two months in Berlin, a city which his father had hoped would be a corrective to the bright lights of 1920s Soho. Although Bacon would return to London just two years later, his time on the Continent had a pivotal impact on his life and work. His nascent interests in furniture and interior design were sharpened by his contact with the Bauhaus movement, as well as his exposure to French architects and designers such as Le Corbusier, Charlotte Perriand and Pierre Chareau, among others.
Late-1920s Paris was a thriving centre of cultural innovation. Bacon immersed himself in its currents, absorbing the revolutionary aesthetics of Cubism and Surrealism. He particularly admired the works of Fernand Léger and Giorgio de Chirico, as well as the paintings and tapestries of Jean Lurçat. A turning point came in the summer of 1927, when Bacon attended an exhibition of Pablo Picasso’s drawings at Galerie Paul Rosenberg and was struck by the fluid morphology of Picasso’s figures. ‘That’s when I first thought about painting’, he would later recall.
In January 1930, Bacon moved into a converted garage at 17 Queensbury Mews West, in South Kensington, London. The stylishly furbished space, which became both a showcase and source of inspiration for his work, was a far cry from the paint-splattered rooms he would later inhabit at 7 Reece Mews, just around the corner.
These six early paintings and rugs mark the start of the extraordinary career of one of the 20th century’s greatest artistic voices. All contain glimpses of Bacon’s later achievements
By this time Bacon was gaining increasing recognition, hailed
in the pages of The Studio magazine in August 1930
as one of England’s most inventive designers. But even as
he was becoming increasingly popular as a designer, he had
begun to embrace a new medium: painting.
This shift owes
much to his relationship with the Australian-born artist
Roy de Maistre, whom he had met earlier that year and who
would become a significant mentor. For Bacon, who had no
formal artistic training, de Maistre — 15 years his senior
— offered a wealth of painterly knowledge. Bacon would soon
abandon his design practice altogether, devoting himself
exclusively to the endless possibilities of pigment on canvas.
On 4 October, an exceptional group of six early works from this formative period — on loan to the Tate, London since 2009 — will be offered in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Auction at Christie’s in London. The collection bears an outstanding provenance that includes Bacon’s first patron, Eric Allden, as well as Roy de Maistre. In the 1940s, five of the works entered the family collection of Francis Elek, who met Allden around this time; he acquired the sixth following de Maistre’s death in 1968.
Among the pieces offered in this group is Bacon’s earliest surviving large-scale work, ‘Painted Screen’ (circa 1930). Comprising three painted panels connected to form a two-metre-high folding screen, it can be seen as a precursor to his celebrated triptychs.
Shot through with the influence of Picasso, Léger and de Chirico, it contains Bacon’s first large figures, anticipating the three biomorphic ‘Furies’ that would inhabit his first canvas triptych, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944). Compositionally, its geometric forms anticipate Bacon’s later embrace of architectural framing devices as a means of spotlighting his subjects.
Executed in 1929-30, ‘Painting’ (above), Bacon’s earliest surviving oil on canvas, is believed to be the only work remaining from his November 1930 studio exhibition. Perhaps most striking is its surreal, metamorphic imagery, with severed tree branches resembling truncated limbs. Like a stage prop, it sets the scene for the dialogue between the figural presence and absence that would dominate his later work.
The second artwork documented in Bacon’s catalogue raisonné, ‘Gouache’ (above) was created shortly after Bacon’s
return to London in 1929. With its series of interlocking
planes, it reflects the artist’s early fascination with interior
architecture, like ‘Painted Screen’ anticipating the
use of cubic frames.
Reflecting Bacon’s time in Paris, the
striated floorboards conjure Picasso’s representations of
guitar strings, while the leaf and Greek column recall motifs
borrowed from Léger and de Chirico. In ‘Gouache’ Bacon
combines European influences with techniques derived from
his design work: layers of pencil under-drawing are visible
beneath the fluid planes of colour.
Also offered on 4 October are three rugs designed by Bacon and made at the Royal Wilton carpet factory in 1929, from a group of just 12 extant examples. Frequently hung on the wall like paintings, their interlocking planes and angular forms fed into Bacon’s experimentation with painting during this period.
The bold geometric designs of these rugs owe much to Bacon’s
interests in Synthetic Cubism and the Bauhaus. Following
the success of the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts
Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, Bacon was also exposed
in Paris to artists such as Eileen Gray and Ivan da Silva Bruhns, who were similarly exploring carpet design during
this period. London, too, offered a wealth of inspiration,
such as the carpets and textiles of Edward McKnight Kauffer,
Marion Dorn and Evelyn Wyld, which Bacon would have seen
upon his return to England.
Taken together, these six early paintings and rugs mark the
start of the extraordinary, seven-decade career of one of
the 20th century’s greatest artistic voices. All contain
glimpses of Bacon’s later achievements: the cubic frames
that housed his screaming Popes; his 1960s portraits, with their geometric interiors; and the triptychs, in which
— through a combination of figures and screens — he would
fuse mythological and religious narratives with his own tales
of triumph and tragedy.