Bacon became an interior decorator and furniture designer, setting himself up in a studio at 17 Queensberry Mews West, South Kensington. The pieces he devised were ingenious variations on the modernist language of chrome-plated steel and glass pioneered by designers such as Marcel Breuer, Le Corbusier and Eileen Gray. The sources of Bacon’s technical knowledge and, indeed, the identity of the manufacturer are still unknown; his rugs were made at the Royal Wilton Carpet factory. By August 1930, Bacon had caught the attention of The Studio magazine, which presented his designs as examples of the ‘1930 Look in British Decoration’. He even managed to sell a few pieces, though they largely remained within a small circle of friends and occasional patrons.
The man who secured the majority of Bacon’s commissions was an Australian Post-Cubist painter, Roy de Maistre. He also guided the fledgling artist in his first steps in oil painting, and by November 1930 Bacon was ready to mount a modest exhibition of paintings and rugs in Queensberry Mews, together with works by de Maistre and the actress/portraitist, Jean Shepeard. Among Bacon’s earliest patrons was Eric Hall, a well-off married man and pillar of the community, who continued an intimate affair with the artist for over 15 years. Despite such rapid progress, Bacon found it difficult to make a living from either his furniture or his paintings.
In 1933 he moved to 71 Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea. His domestic arrangements were decidedly eccentric. Over the next twenty years he shared various living quarters with his old nanny, Jessie Lightfoot, who could also be light with her fingers when their funds ran short.
At the age of 23, Bacon painted his first truly original work, entitled Crucifixion, 1933. It was a small spectral painting clearly indebted to the biomorphs of Picasso. At this stage, he no longer considered himself a designer (a career he subsequently and unjustly disparaged), but enjoyed some initial success as an artist. In April 1933 he exhibited as part of a group show at the Mayor Gallery, and in the same year Crucifixion, 1933 was reproduced in Herbert Read’s book, Art Now and purchased by the collector, Sir Michael Sadler. Sadler intended commissioning a portrait based on an X-ray of his skull, an idea that was incorporated into another, more colourful treatment of the Crucifixion from the same year.
After such a promising start, Bacon’s career began to falter. His one-man show of seven paintings and some five or six gouaches and drawings at the specially devised Transition Gallery in February 1934 sold poorly and received a condescending notice in The Times. In the summer of 1936 his work was rejected by the International Surrealist Exhibition in London on the grounds that it was ‘insufficiently surreal’.
The result was that Bacon’s output declined and he returned to his previous drifting life. In 1936 he moved from Royal Hospital Road to 1 Glebe place where he remained until 1943. Despite his inclusion in an exhibition of ten ‘Young British Painters’, organised by Eric Hall in January 1937, scarcely any work survives from this period. Most of it was destroyed by the artist, a pattern of ruthless self-editing that he pursued for most of his life, but particularly so during his early years.