Erica Brausen, who becomes Bacon’s first art dealer in 1948, gives him a London exhibition in 1949 at the Hanover Gallery alongside Robin Ironside.
In the same year, Bacon completes Head VI, one of his earliest surviving paintings of the Pope series, mainly inspired by Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X. He is soon considered, if only by an informed minority, as Britain’s leading avant-garde painter.
In January 1951, Bacon visits his mother who now lives in South Rhodesia. He stays there for four months to spend time with his mother and sisters. There he visits Kruger National Park and is fascinated by wild animal movement and behaviour. Images of wildlife and landscape later filtered into his work. On his way back from South Africa, Bacon makes a stopover in Cairo, where he greatly enjoys ancient Egyptian art.
In 1952, Bacon engages in an intense and destructive relationship with Peter Lacy, an ex RAF pilot. Lacy is to remain the one great love in Bacon’s life.
From the late 1940s, Bacon embarks on some of his major themes: he paints his series on Popes, on Men in Blue and on primates but also the portraits after William Blake, his landscapes inspired by the French Riviera and his first self-portraits. Thanks to the Hanover Gallery, his work is exhibited in France, Italy and the USA and, in 1955, the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London mounts the first Bacon retrospective.
The backgrounds of some paintings from the early 1950s, including flattened strips of coast road with palm trees, echo coloured picture-postcards of Monte Carlo. In March 1957, Bacon exhibits his Van Gogh series at the Hanover Gallery in London. These paintings, inspired by Van Gogh’s The Painter on the Road to Tarascon (1888), announce a more vibrant palette and bolder brushstrokes than has characterised his hitherto generally quite sombre oeuvre.