Bacon’s asthma meant that he was pronounced unfit for active service in the Second World War. He did, however, volunteer for a role in Civil Defence where he worked in ARP (Air Raid Precautions), whose duties included fire-fighting, civilian rescue and the recovery of the dead. His asthma predictably worsened amidst the rubble-strewn streets and in 1943 he resigned. Somewhat unusually for a self-professed urbanite, he stayed in a rented cottage near Petersfield in Hampshire with Eric Hall.
Bacon was intrigued by the poems of T S Eliot, whose play The Family Reunion led him to a far richer source of ideas and sensations, The Oresteia by the ancient Greek dramatist, Aeschylus. He relished the evocative translations from the trilogy in W B Stanford’s Aeschylus in his Style, an academic study he bought soon after its publication in 1942. The Oresteia’s treatment of an ill-starred family trapped within a murderous cycle of revenge and guilt exerted a curious hold over the artist. It was no more than a year or two before its inspiration began to seep into his paintings.
In late 1943 Bacon moved into the ground floor of 7 Cromwell Place, South Kensington, a house once owned by the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais. Its cavernous moth-eaten grandeur provided an appropriate backdrop for an illicit casino run by Bacon and Lightfoot. It was in this space that Bacon completed a painting that finally launched his name, a work that unnerved its first audience.
Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944 was hung in a group exhibition at the Lefevre Gallery, New Bond Street in April 1945, mere weeks before the end of the war in Europe. Figure in a Landscape, 1945 was also included but it was the Three Studies that rivetted the attention of public and critics. The triptych, with its hot orange background and stone-coloured monsters of vaguely human descent, left a lasting and disquieting impression. Despite its title, the figures were inspired by the Furies, mythical agents of revenge who pursued Orestes in Aeschylus’s tragedy. The painting was bought by Eric Hall, who later presented it to the Tate Gallery.
The following year Bacon realised a work of unparalleled ambition. Painting, 1946 came about through an unlikely series of transformations. Bacon claimed that it began as an attempt to paint a bird alighting on a field but ended as an assemblage of meat carcasses and a mutilated, almost headless man beneath an umbrella. The artist Graham Sutherland, at that time a close friend of Bacon, was greatly impressed by the work, so much so that he insisted that the dealer and artist, Erica Brausen contact Bacon immediately. She bought the work in early autumn and it was displayed in several group exhibitions, including a show of 20th century art at the Musée d’Art Moderne, Paris, in November 1946, before being acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1948. Bacon would remain with Brausen’s Hanover Gallery for the next 12 years, but did not mount a one-man show there until November 1949.
Within weeks of selling Painting, 1946, Bacon was on his way to Monte Carlo. There he gambled recklessly and sometimes with considerable success. He spent large parts of the next few years on the Côte d’Azur, often with Eric Hall. The climate eased his asthma, the nightlife catered to his desires and the landscape set him thinking. The intense, unflinching light, which impressed the artist, also made it difficult for him to paint. In fact, he scarcely completed any paintings while abroad (no works survive from 1947) and when faced with an imminent deadline, would accomplish the greater part of his work in London. This did not deter him from imploring the Sutherlands to visit and even work in Monte Carlo, which they did in 1947.
While Bacon sent letters to Brausen reassuring her that he was busy at work and, naturally, that he needed additional funds, he had next to nothing to show for himself. As his first one-man show approached, he returned to London and rapidly built up a body of work. The lack of time had a direct impact on what Bacon produced. The works were simpler, reduced with one exception to a single figure and far more focused in expression, dwelling on significant and disturbing details such as open mouths, teeth, ears and safety pins. Head I, 1948, with its restricted palette of greys and blacks established an ideal precedent for an artist now in a hurry. His subsequent works departed from it in one vital respect; they were painted on the unprimed or ‘wrong’ side of the canvas rather than on hardboard. Bacon began working in this way while still in Monte Carlo. According to Bacon, he had used up all his primed canvases and decided, perhaps out of desperation, to take one off its stretcher and try working on the other side. He found the raw canvas held the paint with more bite, enhanced its texture and allowed thinner applications to soak into the canvas. The indelibility of each mark raised the stakes, the medium’s intractability posed a rewarding challenge, and Bacon found a technique precisely attuned to his temperament. He continued painting on the unprimed side, though the reverse was always primed, till the end of his life.
One painting stood apart from its monochrome companions in the 1949 exhibition. This was Head VI, 1949, with its sensuous purple cape. It was a variation on Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1650, a theme he mined with obsessive intensity throughout the following decade and intermittently in the 1960s. His experience of the Velázquez was entirely by way of reproductions, a dependency that, far from limiting the artist, encouraged him to take extravagant licence. Another of his primary sources was a still of the Screaming Nurse from Eisenstein’s film, Battleship Potemkin, 1925. Bacon fused the scream and Pope to memorable effect in this and later works, but especially in an imposing canvas from the following year, Study after Velázquez, 1950. This was long presumed destroyed, but was recovered by the Estate of Francis Bacon nearly 50 years after it was painted.