How Cromwell Place and South Kensington Shaped Francis Bacon’s Art


Garry Scott-Irvine – Art Advisor, Cromwell Place Member and Advisor to the Francis Bacon MB Art Foundation – discusses Francis Bacon’s life in London, and what drew him to this part of South Kensington in particular.

One of the founding Members of 1-5 Cromwell Place is our buildings. Rich in cultural history, our space was designed by patron of the arts Sir Charles James Freake and home/studio to artists such as Sir John Lavery and Sir Coutts Lindsay. Across the road at 7 Cromwell Place was no different, with artist residents John Everett Millas, Emil Otto Hoppé and Francis Bacon. 

Not only does the painter’s presence loom large over South Kensington, but he spent much of his working life creating some of his most celebrated works at 7 Cromwell Place itself.

The Draw of South Kensington

When Francis Bacon left Ireland for London, it wasn’t with any grand plans of becoming an artist. “He was essentially escaping his father,” Scott-Irvine explains. “He was put under the charge of an ‘uncle,’ Cecil Harcourt-Smith, who was meant to make a man of him.” Instead, Harcourt-Smith took the young Francis to mainland Europe, first decadent Weimar Germany and then Paris. It was a trip which would have Bacon falling in love with art for the first time.

“It was during this first visit that he saw the work of Picasso at the Paul Rosenberg Gallery,” Scott-Irvine says. “The exhibition had a major impact on Bacon, and it was at this point that he decided that he would paint. Later in his artistic life, Paris was where he wanted his work to be accepted.” When Harcourt-Smith grew bored of Bacon and left him alone in Paris, Bacon befriended art connoisseur Yvonne Bocquentin. He spent the next three months at her house in Chantilly, learning French and visiting galleries.

Bacon’s time in France would prove crucial in his choice of South Kensington as a place to settle in London. When the artist arrived back in the city, he was drawn to the area because of its large French speaking community, something which made him feel at home. It was here, in the early 1930s, that Bacon met two important influences: artist and teacher Roy de Maistre, and businessman and avid collector Eric Hall. 

“Although married with children, Hall was to become Bacon’s partner and one of his biggest supporters,” Scott-Irvine says. “Hall leased Bacon’s studio at 7 Cromwell Place, and lived there with Bacon and Bacon’s nanny, Jessie Lightfoot.”


Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, Francis Bacon,1944. © Estate of Francis Bacon. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2020. Photo © Tate

The Studio on Cromwell Place

Cromwell Place has an incredibly rich artistic history. So it came to be that an art studio once owned by the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais would be taken on by another painter, one whose influence would end up being even greater.

“The studio had a cavernous moth-eaten interior and clear Northern light, which Bacon loved,” Scott-Irvine says. “It was whilst living and working there that Bacon created one of his first great works, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion.” Though Bacon was still relatively poor, he would still “entertain lavishly,” and his studio was visited by many contemporary artists and socialites of the time.

“Bacon’s studios were always chaotic,” Scott-Irvine says. “There’d be pages torn from magazines littering the floor, books on varied subjects, ranging from diseases of the mouth to art books with reproductions of some of the great master works by the likes of Velázquez.” This “detritus” would inspire Bacon’s paintings. “He couldn’t work in a sterile environment,” Scott-Irvine explains. “The disorder could help create an ‘accident.’”

I want a very ordered image, but I want it to come about by chance
Francis Bacon Artist

Jessie Lightfoot, Bacon’s nanny, was an ever-present partner in crime during the artist’s time at Cromwell Place. “I love the fact that, whilst living there, Nanny Lightfoot came to live with him,” Scott-Irvine says. “Nanny Lightfoot was one of his major emotional supports, having cared for him since his childhood.” 

The living arrangements at the studio were eccentric, to say the least. “It’s well-known that the only place available for Nanny Lightfoot to sleep was on the table in the kitchen,” Scott-Irvine explains. “As Bacon was still quite poor at that time, he would occasionally run illegal gambling nights from the studio – ‘Nanny’ would collect the coats from the guests and help serve cocktails.”

Life After Cromwell Place

It was Nanny Lightfoot’s death at the studio, in 1951, which would drive Bacon away from Cromwell Place for good. “Bacon was devastated,” Scott-Irvine says. “He couldn’t bear to live there anymore, so he sold the lease. Later he said it was one of his biggest regrets.” 

Lightfoot’s death triggered a period of instability for Bacon, and he spent several years moving around rented studios. Still, he remained in South Kensington – eventually settling a “stone’s throw” from Cromwell Place in Reece Mews, where he’d stay for 30 years until his own death in 1992.

Francis Bacon as we know him wouldn’t have existed without South Kensington, and there are several reasons that he never left, even in later life. “He was very fond of the area and knew most of the shopkeepers,” Scott-Irvine says. “There was ‘Dino’s,’ an old-fashioned Italian café which was one of his standby places to eat, and the Zetland Arms, his local pub.” 

More important to Bacon, though, was the neighbourhood’s association with art – especially the fact that he was in walking distance of the museums. “He loved to visit the V&A to look at the Muybridge photographs or the Constable sketches,” Scott-Irvine says. “And, of course, having the French Lycée there meant he could frequently hear as much French being spoken on the street as English.”

South Kensington, clearly, left an indelible mark on Francis Bacon and his work. Yet similarly, Bacon himself has left his own indelible mark on South Kensington.

Francis Bacon in his Reece Mews studio, 1977. Photo and © Carlos Freire, MB Art Collection.