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  • Francis Bacon's Studio
  • M. G. Stephens (bio)

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Photograph: "Interior of 7 Reece Mews"

By Perry Ogden

Collection Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane

C The Estate of Francis Bacon/ All rights reserved /DACS London

[End Page 154]

Francis Bacon moved into 7 Reece Mews in 1961 and spent the next thirty years living and painting there. Reece Mews was a London block of Victorian coach houses in South Kensington, former horse stables transformed in the twentieth century into homes that, however cramped, were deemed quaint and artsy. The mews house was a small warren of rooms up a narrow flight of stairs, where some of Bacon’s finest paintings were done. At the time, he was already considered one of the greatest living artists. In 1961, the building had two floors, but the ground floor was a garage for storage. To get to [End Page 155] the living quarters, one climbed a narrow staircase so steep that a rope was strung alongside it in order to hoist oneself upwards. The top floor consisted of the studio—separated from the rest of the space by a door—and a living area with a small bedroom, a kitchen with a bathtub, and a water closet. The living space resembled a ship's quarters, with low ceilings and small windows. But the studio had high ceilings and a skylight, and it was a workable space. By contrast, the kitchen was modest, with a bathtub and a bathroom sink located in it. As to the wash closet, Bacon made it famous in several of his paintings, showing a man sitting on the toilet, looking as if he were about to throw up. The bedroom also served as a living room, where he drank in the evening with friends. The "bedsitter," as he called it, was furnished simply but also included a circular bed, which figured in many of his paintings. Bacon found the claustrophobic atmosphere to be part of its charm, almost like being inside a closet. He told the story of a nanny who had locked him in a cupboard when he was a boy.

"That cupboard was the making of me," he often said.

Reece Mews was his bolt-hole, the place where his paintings were made. It was Francis Bacon's cupboard in London.

Bacon used to say that the door and the walls to his studio were the only places where he was an abstract painter. The door, the walls and old, discarded canvases were his palettes where he mixed colors before becoming, if not realistic, then figurative on his canvases. He mixed the colors on the door, creating a profusion of pastel shapes, blotched, dripped and scumbled on. The pinks, blues, reds and greens dripped over the door frame and down the walls, appearing almost like a field of abstract flowers in bloom. But the studio suggested a space inhabited by a lonely, even desolate drinking man who had finally lost his bearings. Besides the clutter of paintbrushes and cans and artist's materials, there was an extraordinary number of photographs everywhere. The photographs were like aide-mémoire, but they also are reminiscent of the spools of tape in Samuel Beckett's play Krapp's Last Tape, in which Krapp tries to recall his forgotten past by playing back tapes he made earlier in his life. This is done despite his inability to remember the definitions of a lot of the words he used in the recordings. This sense of impending doom that the mess in the studio created was ameliorated by high ceilings. Amid the profusion of discarded objects, the room was full of an inviting light from the skylight. [End Page 156]

"I cannot work in places that are too tidy," Francis Bacon once said. "It's much easier for me to paint in a place like this, which is a mess. I don't know why, but it helps me."

Art is a game of light and shadows, and the studio was a place of such chiaroscuro. The shadows were filled with an assortment of objects: a Rembrandt pastel set, a thousand little colorful chips of crayons...


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