Three years later, in 1961, he took over 7 Reece Mews, a converted coach house in South Kensington, just around the corner from his old studio at Cromwell place. The first floor studio was to be the most important room in the artist’s life. Over the years it became an overwhelmingly cluttered space with vibrant daubs and accretions of paint on the walls and doors. Its layers of dust, debris and toxic pigments could only have exacerbated his chronic asthma. In later life, despite occasionally acquiring new and more spacious places to work, he always returned to this awkward but familiar room. The studio became Bacon’s complete visual world. Its heaps of torn photographs, fragments of illustrations and artist’s catalogues provided nearly all of his visual sources. He had all but given up painting from life.
Within months of moving into Reece Mews, he produced his first large-scale triptych, Three Studies for a Crucifixion, 1962 (198.2 × 144.8 cm). He readily admitted that it was painted during an unusually booze-fuelled fortnight, a working method that rarely delivered results, but in this case liberated him. Throughout the next three decades Bacon used large-scale triptychs to address some of his grandest and most ambitious subjects.
Three Studies for a Crucifixion was included along with 90 other works in a major retrospective at the Tate Gallery in May that year. The show established his preeminence among contemporary British painters but also marked a time of personal loss. On the opening day, amidst telegrams of congratulation, one message informed him of the death of Peter Lacy in Tangier. He had parted company with Lacy some years before, and his death from drink had not been difficult to predict, yet Bacon was nonetheless deeply affected. In 1963 he painted the dark and ambiguous Landscape near Malabata, Tangier in memory of Lacy’s final resting place.
Towards the end of 1963 a new man entered Bacon’s life. George Dyer was a dapper Eastender with a petty criminal past and a tough look that belied a depressive and insecure nature. Mainly through the medium of John Deakin’s photographs, Dyer became a recurrent subject of Bacon’s paintings in the 1960s.
Photography itself became an indispensable means to Bacon’s expressive ends. Deakin’s photographs of other close friends, Henrietta Moraes, Isabel Rawsthorne, Lucian Freud and Muriel Belcher allowed the artist to capture the vitality of his subjects while keeping a critical distance. He would twist their features and practice his ‘injuries’ without having to contend with the judgment of the sitter (a problem he encountered at least once in the 1950s). Through photographs and other reproductions he could continually expand his repertory of attitudes and poses but return again to the source that inspired him. He didn’t simply confine his interest to what an image contained; he was keenly receptive to its physical state. The origins of certain painterly distortions in his canvases can be found in the tears, creases and paint accretions on prints and book pages littered across the studio floor. As Bacon himself remarked, ‘don’t forget I look at everything.’
Bacon looked at everything and was all the more critical as a result. Other painters, notably Abstract Expressionists, got short shrift or a withering rebuke. One living artist for whom he had great respect was the Swiss sculptor and draughtsman, Alberto Giacometti, though Bacon’s approval was largely confined to his drawings. The two met several times during preparations for Giacometti’s retrospective in the Tate in 1965 but Giacometti’s death, the following year, left little time for their friendship to develop.
Bacon excelled as an artist during this period. From the opening years of the decade, he achieved a new level of virtuosity in paint. Passages of bravura brushwork and whipped up impasto were combined with delicate impressions of corduroy and cloth, and trails of paint squeezed directly from the tube. His backgrounds were frequently composed of bright, flat expanses of colour, and his larger compositions displayed a tireless invention. The effect could be, by turns, playful (George Dyer Riding a Bicycle, 1967) or menacing (Triptych Inspired by T S Eliot’s Poem ‘Sweeney Agonistes,’ 1967). In 1968 the artist went to New York for the first time, to an exhibition of his recent paintings at the Marlborough Gallery. While American critical opinion remained divided over the artist, the twenty works sold within a week. The show included some of his latest portraits of Dyer, replete with a host of visual puns and games, but the relationship itself was running out of fun. The strains had been there for some time. Dyer’s lack of purpose and worsening alcoholism, his sporadic suicide bids, the frequency and savagery of the rows and Bacon’s thwarted attempts to persuade him to live outside London (Dyer always returned) all told.