In 2013, Francis Bacon’s painting Three Studies of Lucian Freud sold for $142 million, setting the world record (since surpassed) for the most expensive painting sold at auction. His second- and third-highest-selling paintings, one of which was sold as recently as the summer of 2020, place him firmly in the art-market ranks of Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, and other blue-chip masters. The similarities between Bacon’s three top sellers are clear. Each piece is composed of three panels and, as in much of his work, the central figures are grotesquely distorted: bodies compressed at their joints, expanded into fleshy puddles, coerced into jumbled parts. As with the best evocative art, many of Bacon’s paintings inspire discomfiting questions. Are Freud’s hands gruesomely melting or surreally clasped? Is he one- or three-legged? Is he lounging and relaxed, or is he caged, on the verge of a violent uncoiling?
These questions arise from a central tension, not just between what we might expect a portrait to look like and Bacon’s warped rendering, but between the body and the room it inhabits. Bacon’s rooms aren’t passive settings: They close in on and clash with the bodies inside them. Freud’s body, for instance, is conscribed by a rectilinear structure built around (or extending out of) a bed’s headboard. He sits on a delicate wooden chair, its casually curved legs and cane-woven bottom reminiscent of the spare chair one might keep in a closet. The simmering tension between the familiar space and the freakish, distorted figure is a quiet but major part of the work's allure. Baconian settings—which abound with doors, walls, windows, carpets, curtains, chairs, beds, and banisters—help stabilize the chaos and orient the gore. However—as the Bacon biographers Annalyn Swan and Mark Stevens explore in their sprawling new biography, Francis Bacon: Revelations—the carefully painted rooms of Bacon’s oeuvre were not the first that he designed.
Bacon, before most people had heard of him in the late 1920s and early ’30s, was briefly an interior designer. “A little-known fact that we discovered,” Swan explains in the 2017 BBC Documentary Bacon: A Brush With Violence, is that Bacon “was for three or four years part of a very important design and interior-decorating world.” He might even have studied—as the authors report in Revelations—in the workshops of such avant-garde designers as Evelyn Wyld, Elizabeth Eyre de Lanux, and Ivan da Silva Bruhns (the latter’s rugs are now auctioned for hundreds of thousands of dollars). Bacon was already sketching and painting, even as he was designing. But at age 18, he likely regarded a painting career as an intimidating, if intriguing, possibility—one that he lacked the formal training, connections, and overall artistic vision to fully indulge. The adjacent world of design was more accessible. “Bacon would only have to display an interest,” Swan and Stevens explain, and the design community would welcome him. And welcome him it did.