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John Edwards - Francis Bacon and Reece Mews

Soon after I met Francis Bacon in 1976 he invited me to Reece Mews. ‘People think I live grandly you know, but in fact I live in a dump.’ By the time I’d climbed up the steep, wooden stairs, guided by the rope banister, I could see he was right. ‘You ain’t ‘alf lamping it* a bit Francis,’ I thought to myself. I was shocked.

He opened a bottle of champagne, probably vintage Krug, and I stayed the night. He slept on the couch, and I slept on the old circular bed. It was an odd, bottle green colour, with the headboard spattered with paint. The sofa, too, had paint stains all over it. We called its colour ‘Belcher’s Green’ because it reminded him of his paintings of Muriel Belcher.

As we sat at the dining table in the bedsitting room, I noticed the door to his studio was ajar. Through the gap I saw an unbelievable mess. In fact the chaos was much worse in those days than it was later on. I’m naturally tidy so was puzzled by the sight of dozens of small canvases, all with holes cut into them, all over the floor and mixed up with hundreds of photographs, books and bits of cloth. ‘I’ve been meaning to tidy up in here for a long time,’ he said, ‘but never seem to get round to it.’ I volunteered to help. ‘Well, if you could, that would be wonderful. I’d gladly pay you.’

A week later, I went in and filled about ten dustbin bags with newspaper cuttings, magazines, old books and tins of old paint hardened by the years and beyond use. Everything was covered with a fine orange and pink dust. I later learned that this was the raw pigment he liked so much, but which, because he was asthmatic, was so damaging to his health.

The studio had become so messy and chaotic that he couldn’t move around to paint properly, and he was delighted with the tidy up as it gave him a new freedom of movement. He seemed genuinely thrilled. He was so pleased that, in order to make even more space, he asked me to continue the process by destroying about twenty large canvases, many of which looked finished to me. I slashed them all into tiny bits with a Stanley knife. He insisted on this because in the past people had stolen discarded bits from the dustbin outside. The smaller canvases, ‘postage stamps’ as he called them, he destroyed himself. Even with all this editing down, each year he still managed to produce a substantial number of big paintings with which he was satisfied.

There were always hundreds of books in the studio, the kitchen-bathroom and the bedsitting room. Boxes upon boxes of letters and photographs were piled up everywhere. He liked to keep 10 x 8” transparencies of all his old paintings, but those went missing soon after his death.

Every now and then I would clear out obvious rubbish to make extra room for him. Miss Beston from the Marlborough Gallery would also often come round and clean up when he was away, but that always ended up with him not being able to find things. ‘Oh! I can’t find a thing!’ he’d shout. His own mess had some kind of order that he understood, and he could generally find what he wanted.

Francis wouldn’t allow anyone to smoke in the studio, but I must confess that I sometimes did. He had a fear of fire and was terrified at the prospect of the studio, with all its turpentine, dry paper and wood, going up in smoke. He allowed only his closest friends into the studio. They would often ask him why he didn’t clear it out totally or build another floor on top to give himself more space, but he told me that he feared that that would be far too big an interruption to his working days. He never made any attempt to change the building in any way.

(* ‘Lamping it’ is Cockney rhyming slang for ‘living like a tramp’)

John Edwards