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Brian Clarke - Deconstruction of the Studio

Like most people who’ve read anything about Egyptology, I’ve always fantasised what it must have been like to be Harold Carter on that memorable day in 1929. What a thrill to break through into Tutankhamun’s tomb. Well, with the disassembling and reconstruction of Francis Bacon’s studio at Reece Mews I had something analogous to that.

There was the natural kind of curiosity that any artist would have to start going into this material in a kind of intense way. However, that was balanced, or tempered, on another side by the fear that one was really kind of poking around in a very intimate and private world that one had no right to be in. So, it was a confusion of feelings really.

As the archeological dig progressed we found three Bacon paintings: one was attached to another canvas, stuck face-to-face to another canvas, and we had to prise them apart. It was what looks to be a portrait of Lucian Freud. It looks like it was a very fine painting that he took too far and abandoned, but didn’t have the heart to get rid of because there were too many good passages in it. That is now in the Hugh Lane.

There was a remarkable unfinished self-portrait, which was on the easel and is strikingly good. Linear, drawn beautifully on canvas, with a brush drawn rather than painted, still at it’s structural stage. We also found a small portrait head of John Edwards which was simply on the floor—it had fallen off the wall. There was also a beautifully resolved and finished portrait head of John that had been cut from a larger canvas – just a piece of canvas, irregularly cut. 

There was a great evidence of destruction of art there. We found in the studio a large number of canvasses on their stretchers. Bacon had cut the faces out of them; he, or John under his instruction, had slashed these with a Stanley knife. I couldn’t tell you how many, but there was a large number of the small portrait heads with a kind of collar and tie at the bottom and a wisp of hair at the top, and a hole where the face should be.

John told me that on occasions when they’d had a bit to drink, they would slash the canvas and put it on the floor. Then he and Francis would actually jump and dance on it, kind of gleefully—gleeful in the destruction. This evidence of destruction is another thing that the reconstructed studio gives us. It seems destruction was a very important part of Francis’s creative process and without having methodically sifted and sorted through the studio contents we wouldn’t really know this.

John certainly thought that Francis would have laughed about the painstaking study of this whole thing and, on reflection, the experience was in a way a little bit odd.  It didn’t feel comfortable in many ways. It was a bit like coming uninvited to a post-mortem, but ultimately I’m very glad we did it. 

Brian Clarke (2006)