The Skeletons in Francis Bacon’s Studio

Francis Bacon's Studio at 7 Reece Mews, London, 1998. Photo: Perry Ogden

© THE ESTATE OF FRANCIS BACON. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. / DACS, LONDON / ARS, NY 2020
Francis Bacon's Studio at 7 Reece Mews, London, 1998. Photo: Perry Ogden.
What the artist’s chaotic workspace reveals about the mind of this modern master.

What the artist’s chaotic workspace reveals about the mind of this modern master.

© THE ESTATE OF FRANCIS BACON. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. / DACS, LONDON / ARS, NY 2020

Francis Bacon Studio, 7 Reece Mews, London, 1998 [Source photographs found in the artist's studio]. Photo: Perry Ogden

“Chaos, for me, breeds images.”

Francis Bacon

One of the paramount painters of the twentieth century, Francis Bacon is famous for his scandalous canvases of screaming popes, frightening crucifixions, and twisted faces in his portraits of friends and lovers. Widely collected by major museums and a top seller at auction, the Irish-born Englishman was an obsessive, gifted genius who lived for love and art until he took his last breath at age eighty-two in 1992. His greatest, most puzzling work of all, however, might be the chaotic London studio that he occupied for more than thirty years.

"It was his image machine and where the paintings emerged from, and all the steps leading up to that," said Martin Harrison, editor of Bacon's catalogue raisonné, in a video for the 2009 exhibition A Terrible Beauty, which he co-curated at the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin. "It was a very productive mess for him. I mean, he liked it like that."

Donated to the Irish museum by the Bacon estate six years after his death, the small, messy studio contained over 7000 items, which have since provided insight into the enigmatic artist's unique working method. Cataloged by a team of archeologists, conservators, and curators before being shipped to Dublin for reconstruction, the studio held a couple of thousand art supplies, hundreds of books and catalogues, 1500 photographs, more than 1000 images torn from magazines, 100 slashed canvases, 70 drawings, and loads of empty champagne cartons piled in the corner of the room.

Recalling her first viewing of Bacon's studio at 7 Reece Mews in the South Kensington neighborhood of London some years later, Hugh Lane Gallery director Barbara Dawson said, "It was like walking into the artist's head—books and papers and photographs strewn about the floor, slashed canvases on the shelves, all of these paintbrushes—a latter-day Egyptian tomb, in a way."

Bacon worked in the studio, which had once been the hayloft of a stable for a coach house, but he never organized it—instead it evolved around him. He used the door and walls to mix his colors and left trails of paint across the ceiling when throwing it on his canvases. When working, he positioned himself under the skylight with his painting supplies to his right, photographic source materials on the floor to his left, and the easel in front of him. While painting, he faced a round pitted mirror, which made the space seem larger and afforded a reflected image of the artist at work—his only studio companion.

"I've been here for years—about twenty-three or more," Bacon told ITV's The South Bank Show host Melvyn Bragg, when he visited the studio in 1985. "It's kind of a dump that nobody else would want, but I can work here. These are a few of my abstract pictures here [pointing to the splotches of paint on the door and surrounding walls] because I use the walls and things to test the colors out on. I've tried to clean it up, but I work much better in chaos. I couldn't work if it was a beautifully tidy studio. It would be absolutely impossible for me. Chaos, for me, breeds images."

© THE ESTATE OF FRANCIS BACON. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. / DACS, LONDON / ARS, NY 2020

Francis Bacon's studio at 7 Reece Mews, London, 1998. Photo: Perry Ogden

Bacon made some of his best paintings in the studio. After occupying it in 1961, a spare aesthetic evolved, which placed a lone figure or pair of figures on a painted background of one or two colors. That year's painting Paralytic Child Walking on All Fours (from Muybridge), which was featured in his 2009 retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is a prime example of this stylistic shift. Based on a nineteenth-century Eadweard Muybridge photograph, it focuses on a child walking like an animal in a sparse plane, a vision that expressed Bacon's existentialist belief that we are the same as animals, living life without a predetermined nature.

The following year, Bacon painted Three Studies for a Crucifixion, the first triptych he had made in twenty years, which put him back on the path to paint many more. The riveting painting—which symbolically captures Hitler and Himmler pushing people into the gas chamber; a contorted, bullet-ridden body on a bed; and Christ as an irreverent slab of beef, sliding down the cross—was made for his 1962 retrospective at the Tate Gallery and offered a powerful response to the American abstract painters, who dominated the international art scene at the time and worked on a similarly grand scale.

The 1960s and '70s are arguably Bacon's most productive years. He enlisted Vogue photographer John Deakin to photograph his coarse, creative group of friends, preferring to paint them from pictures, as he saw fit, in the solitude of his shambolic studio. Bacon crumpled and folded the photos to get new, distorted perspectives on the models' faces, perhaps both seeing them and preferring them in their usual drunken states at the bar.

He painted portraits of Henrietta Moraes, a lover of Lucian Freud; Isabel Rawsthorne, a painter who had also modeled for Alberto Giacometti and Pablo Picasso; George Dyer, his own longtime lover, who committed suicide on the eve of the artist's celebrated 1972 retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris; and Murial Belcher, the owner of the Colony Room, his main haunt since the private drinking club first opened in 1949. When he was still a struggling artist yet a bit of a rising star, Belcher gave him a free tab and £10 a week to bring round his pals and encourage them to drink.

© THE ESTATE OF FRANCIS BACON. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. / DACS, LONDON / ARS, NY 2020

Francis Bacon's studio at 7 Reece Mews, London, 1998. Photo: Perry Ogden

"Bacon had turned to photographs, rather than drawing from life, when making the figures and John Deakin's photographs became crucial working documents for Bacon when painting," Jessica O'Donnell, Hugh Lane Gallery's collections curator, shared in the 2009 video for A Terrible Beauty. "They have been torn, manipulated, and folded. In a way, they've been transformed into proprietary sketches by Bacon when working because he used all of these folds, manipulations, and tears, which he found arousing because they suggested new pictorial ideas."

Bacon preferred painting the people he knew from the pubs—including John Edwards, an uneducated Cockney, whom he named as heir to his multi-million-dollar estate—from photographs and memory. A self-taught artist, Bacon had learned by trial and error, which is why he was often destroying his false starts. He would begin a painting with an overall image that he didn't want to define but rather work towards. A lifelong gambler, he relied on chance, intuition, and accidents to capture the real world—what he called the violence of life—in the hope of creating a sensation, of hitting a nerve.

"In his painting, he would gamble everything on the next brushstroke," legendary art historian Sir John Richardson, who befriended Bacon in 1946, stated in the 2017 BBC documentary Francis Bacon: A Brush with Violence. Likewise, in the same televised biography British bad-boy artist Damien Hirst, who owns Bacon's seminal Crucifixion painting from 1933, declared "It's always going to be exciting to see someone in that situation. It's like watching someone walking the tightrope to see if they succeed or fall."

Bacon described his precarious process—in one of the many interviews he did with critic and curator David Sylvester—in this way: "I'm thinking of nothing at that moment but of how hopelessly impossible this thing is to achieve, and by making these marks, about which I don't know how they will behave, suddenly there comes something which your instinct seizes on as being for a moment the thing by which it could begin to develop." And he summed it up by adding, "I want an ordered image, but I want it to come about by chance."

“I’m thinking of nothing at that moment but of how hopelessly impossible this thing is to achieve, and by making these marks, about which I don't know how they will behave, suddenly there comes something which your instinct seizes on as being for a moment the thing by which it could begin to develop.” —Francis Bacon

Many artists would define the practice of making art as a process of going from chaos to order, but in Bacon's case his messy, festering studio remained a fertile ground for continuous creation. Like a primordial soup, the accumulation of life in reproductive form found in the studio was the genesis of the artist's next work of art. "This mess is rather like my mind," Bacon was known to have said. "It may be a good image of what goes on inside me."

Even if it didn't offer a clear idea of what he was thinking, the excavation of the studio certainly provided insight into what inspired the artist. Books on diseases of the mouth and on how to position patients when taking X-rays; reproductions of Muybridge photos of people and animals in motion and Diego Velázquez's 1650 canvas Portrait of Pope Innocent X, which Bacon considered one of the greatest paintings of all time and obsessively referenced in some fifty paintings; and photographs of rumored lover John Edwards and friend and wildlife photographer Peter Beard, whom Bacon painted at least nine times.

Studying the studio also revealed a contradiction in the artist's self-promoted mythology. In multiple interviews he said that he didn't make drawings (and at least once he even admitted that he couldn't draw), while stating that he sketched out a preliminary image directly on the canvas; but the drawings and sketches found on the studio floor and tucked away in various books showed that this statement was not totally true. Like most artists, when he had an idea for a new painting, he initially put it down on paper. "I work in a kind of haze," Bacon told Sylvester. "I don't want the work to be hazy, but I work in a kind of haze of sensations and feelings and ideas that come to me and that I try to crystalize."

Another detail of his methodology exposed in the studio was how much he relied on images of his past paintings to motivate and help define newer ones, with photos of earlier canvases and triptychs found pinned to the studio walls and buried in the rubble of papers on the floor. Equally important to baring his process of producing a painting were the slashed canvases that he discarded at various stages of development, which then later revealed their step-by-step creation.

© THE ESTATE OF FRANCIS BACON. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. / DACS, LONDON / ARS, NY 2020

Francis Bacon's studio at 7 Reece Mews, London, 1998. Photo: Perry Ogden

And, although he had previously talked about his preference for working from photographs when painting portraits, which was the exact opposite of his friend and fellow painter Lucian Freud's process of having his subjects sit for months, Bacon's paint-covered fingerprints found on the surfaces of so many of the photos in the studio show just how important they actually were to capturing the psyche of the subject in another medium.

"What's been amazing about looking through the studio content is that we have very clear evidence of exactly where his ideas came from," Joanna Shephard, a conservator at the Hugh Lane Gallery expressed in the 2009 video for A Terrible Beauty. "Often the person is manipulated in quite a radical way, but sometimes you can see a clear parallel because he has taken that photo and used it in its crumpled state—like it fell on the floor and he walked on it for years or deliberately folded it and would take that and reproduce it in a painting."

Can an artist's studio become an actual artwork? Only time will tell. On public view at the Hugh Lane Gallery since 2001, Bacon's last studio has become an obscure object of observation. Consisting of a series of rooms designed by David Chipperfield that house the studio, a small cinema screening Melvyn Bragg's interview with Bacon, a micro-gallery with touch-screen interactive terminals to allow visitors to explore the studio contents, and a gallery of unfinished paintings that had never been previously exhibited, it's a unique installation—one which shows that great art can be made in the even the humblest conditions.

"I have a very optimistic nature, but I'm optimistic about nothing because I don't believe in anything," Bacon told critic Richard Cork in one of his last interviews, which was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4's Kaleidoscope on August 17, 1991. "I never have believed in anything, and yet I do remember when it came to me that life had no meaning except through certain things people had done through their inventions or their images or the amazing things that they had done—but that life itself has no other meaning than that."

About the Author

Paul Laster

Paul Laster is an artist, critic, curator, editor, and lecturer. He is a contributing editor at ArtAsiaPacific and Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art and writer for Time Out New York, Galerie Magazine, Harper’s Bazaar Arabia, Architectural Digest, Cultured, Garage Magazine, Ocula, ArtPulse, Observer, Conceptual Fine Arts and Glasstire. He was Artkrush’s founding editor, started The Daily Beast's art section and was art editor of Russell Simmons’ Oneworld Magazine, as well as an Adjunct Curator of Photography at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, now MoMA PS1.

Subscribe to our free e-letter!

Webform

Latest News

Sophia Narrett Sews the Seeds of Love, One Thread at a Time
Creating colorful narratives about erotic encounters from needle and thread,…
Made in Connecticut: Celebrating 25 Years of the CT Art Trail
The Connecticut Art Trail is celebrating twenty-five years of guiding art…
Radical Tradition: American Quilts and Social Change
Disrupting our expectations of quilts as objects that provide warmth and…
Toulouse-Lautrec Leads Impressive Christie's 20th Century Sale
The top lot of the night was Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec’s Pierreuse, which…
The Masterpieces Rarely Seen Outside Buckingham Palace
For the first time in forty-five years, the Royal Collection is being rehung in…