The 16-year-old Bacon went to London with no clear idea of what he wanted to do. During the autumn and winter of 1926 he simply drifted, kept afloat by a modest (£3 a week) allowance from his mother a series of odd jobs and furtive encounters with older men. ‘I can’t say I was what’s called moral when I was young,’ he recalled, and he certainly had few qualms about engaging in petty theft or riffling through the pockets of a casual pick-up.
Bacon’s father made one final attempt to influence his son’s life and it was exceedingly inept. He arranged for Francis to accompany a friend and relation on his wife’s side, a certain Harcourt-Smith, on a trip to Berlin in the spring of 1927. Eddy Bacon seems to have hoped that the ultra-masculine Harcourt-Smith would iron out his son’s effeminacy. Instead the sexually voracious guardian took advantage of his charge, a turn-around Bacon later recounted with considerable mirth.
Berlin was Bacon’s first overwhelming cultural experience. He savoured its opulence, experienced at first hand in the Hotel Adlon, and its squalor, felt in the poverty of the surrounding streets. The erotic life of the city was startlingly uninhibited and artistically it thrived with new developments in architecture, painting and cinema. It may have been in Berlin that Bacon first saw Battleship Potemkin (1925) by the Soviet filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein. Its full impact on the young man would not surface for several decades.
The omnivorous guardian soon moved on, and the future artist remained in the city for two months, before departing for Paris. Despite his recollections of being painfully shy, Bacon had the peculiar knack of meeting people who could help him develop his talents. One was Yvonne Bocquentin, a sophisticated connoisseur whom he met at an exhibition opening, a hint that he was already taking an interest in the visual arts. The Bocquentins offered Bacon a room in their house near Chantilly, where Bacon also took his first lessons in French. His three months in Chantilly left him with one indelible memory. It was of Nicholas Poussin’s painting, The Massacre of the Innocents, c.1628-29, Château de Chantilly (Musée Condé), and its portrayal of a screaming mother trying to protect her infant. In Bacon’s mind it was ‘probably the best human cry ever painted,’ a precocious sign of his obsession with a single image by another artist.
Bacon seems to have considered becoming an artist only after attending an exhibition of drawings by Picasso at the Galerie Paul Rosenberg in the summer of 1927. The drawings were varied in period and content but Picasso’s imaginative mastery of line struck a deep chord. Bacon began making drawings and watercolours himself, apparently without formal guidance. Having moved to a bohemian hotel in Montparnasse, he had ample opportunity to visit exhibitions by Picabia, de Chirico and Soutine and to view the latest releases at the cinema. Towards the end of 1928, he had resolved to return to London and undertook a brief but surprising enterprise.