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Brian Clarke - Detritus

The door to 7 Reece Mews was bleak, the steep staircase beyond it bleaker. A greasy rope looped to the wall helped make progress up the stairs a little easier but in the dark it was still disturbing and difficult to climb. There was an odd sweet smell, a dusty and vaguely familiar smell but unidentifiable. John reached the toilet light switch at the top, ‘Make yourself at home, I need a piss.’ The light from the bare hanging bulb fell across the landing and into the sitting room. A simple wooden table, a few cheap chairs. On the table some bottles and empty glasses, a few books. ‘Drink then?’ and on came two more bare light bulbs, not as harsh or unearthly as fluorescents but grim and miserable and too bright. The rest of the room now visible held an old sofa, a bed at the opposite end of the table and a few framed photographs of men. Some of them John. On the wall by the table a large smashed mirror repaired with Sellotape, old, discoloured and depressing. The room was not dirty, neither was it untidy. It was very simple. I was reminded of my Father. The home of a retired soldier or former prisoner. A poor man with simple needs. Incongruously the only other piece of furniture was a large and bulky chest of drawers, elaborately inlaid with brass and tortoiseshell, never polished, the ornament was only just visible but the sharp tungsten light brought it out. There were books over by the bed crammed into a small recessed bookcase but I didn’t look at them. The drink was welcome, we were drunk already but wanted more. I can’t remember what we drank, probably brandy. By now the kitchen light was on too.

The bulbs from the toilet and the kitchen both flooded warm electric light across the little landing and I could see that the stairs were indeed unusually steep and dangerous. The kitchen was frugal and very English. A working class kitchen with an oddity. It was also a bathroom. Photographs of Bacon’s paintings were drawing-pinned along the wall above the sink, some faded. There was the smell of something slightly French and expensive. The kitchen cum bathroom reinforced the retired soldier, lonely old man feeling. A calendar covered with the famous hand hung next to the wall phone. Not the calendar there when he died, a much earlier one, fifteen years younger. My phone number was scratched on it and I felt a hint of pride. I wished my name had been there too but it wasn’t. Beside the bath were banal items from the supermarket and socks hung to dry on a chair back. ‘Come in here’—and then I was in the studio. Here was the source of the unidentifiable smell. Here was the chaotic confection of detritus that was Bacon’s workplace. I had known it from photographs since I was fifteen years old, an art student in Lancashire. I was a child again. A trespasser. ‘Better put your fag out, Francis don’t like smoking in here.’ The room was small and, being night, lit only by the bare bulbs hanging from stark cables. The floor was covered deep in important looking photographs and books. Brushes in butter bean cans and rags, boxes, tubes of paint, bits of cloths, magazines. The smell was strange but sweet, a mix of linseed oil, paint, turpentine, dust and old dry paper. At first appearance it was a frenzy of chaotic and indiscriminate hoarding. It was very dense. The densest room I had known. It was violently intense and belligerent. It sucked the breath from your lungs. It was exhilarating and repulsive. It was Francis Bacon’s studio and I was a trespasser in it. John Edwards had brought Robert Fraser and me there after a night of drinking and clumsy debauchery in Soho. We had left Francis at Charlie Chester’s casino and knew he wouldn’t be back for hours. John was living in Reece Mews too at the time and enjoyed showing Bacon’s studio off to us. He was sure Francis wouldn’t mind. I was not and was glad to get out of it. I walked home that night and picked up two boys on the way and was relieved that no phone call came from Francis the next day. I never mentioned that night to Bacon. Over the next few years I visited the Mews house and Bacon many times, but never went back into the studio. Not until Francis had been dead for four years.

His death was a shock that we all expected. John went into hiding and everybody else brooded a bit and drank a lot. It seemed curious and a little unseemly that he had died in Madrid and not in Soho or South Kensington. When Warhol died it was like a murder, he was too young, too social to die. Bacon’s death seemed remote like the reporting of an event that had taken place years before. Not because he had been forgotten, far from it, but because he belonged to a time that itself had died long before he had. He came from a world where homosexuals were blackmailed, where genius got you a free drink but no indulgence and artists had little or nothing to do with the art business.

It was four years after Bacon’s death that John Edwards, now living in Florida but on a trip back to London asked me to come home with him to 7 Reece Mews. It was typically late at night and for some reason the atmosphere was celebratory. We sat at the familiar pine table and talked for hours. There was some talk of the past as I remember but more of Florida and the present. Hardly anything had changed in that room or the kitchen. The only difference I registered was the introduction of a portable television amongst the books at the foot of the bed. Presumably John’s initiative. So little, if anything, of substance had changed that the flat had the feeling that Bacon would be back soon, grumbling up the stairs with characteristic unpredictability of mood. Probably drunk. Even the books on the bedside table had not been moved, Teach Yourself About Heart Disease on top of the pile. Everything had a thin layer of dust though now. In the kitchen half used packets of salt and coffee sat old and hardened. By the bath half empty bottles of cleaning fluid and a worn bar of soap. Since 1992, John had rarely been back there but he felt comfortable and at home in it as it was. It made him think warmly of his lost friend and, without mawkishness, he enjoyed the experience of the memories triggered by the detritus left behind by Francis.

John had decided that he wanted to gift to me a lithograph triptych portrait of Bacon. He had several examples of this print, left to him as part of his legacy as the artist’s sole heir. I was touched. Being illiterate, John needed help to dedicate the print to me; I had to first write out what he wanted to say and he then inexpertly copied it on to the litho. using a thick felt tip pen that he brought through from the studio. His writing was big and out of scale with the image. When I later framed the picture I am ashamed that I covered the dedication with a mount. Since then John has died and I have removed the tactful mount to reveal John’s hand, now more important to me than the image itself. He wrote the dedication leaning the print on the landing wall. The paint spattered door to the studio was ajar. I noticed that even now, long after the swell of smoke had ceased to bother the asthmatic artist, John extinguished his cigarette before going into the little room. ‘I don’t know what to do with all this stuff, maybe I should give it to the Tate or something, what do you think?’ The lights on, once again the creative chaos revealed but this time the architect of the chaos dead. It was naked and vulnerable. The power of its destiny still there, but no longer pregnant with expectation of work. Still. Like an elephant’s corpse. Majestic and dead. In the way only smells can, the strange sweet air catapulted the memory back to the past and all its transitory half-experience. Blurred but powerful images, words with meaning but not formed into phrases, gestures about to be made and an overwhelming sense of the meaningless passage of time. The sound of paper being torn, brushes dragged over dry canvas and the blinkered singular focus of a young man devoid of self-pity trapped in a dying body. It was all there in this miserable little room. Everything I ever wanted to be was here. It was as mystical as the cell of a monastic saint and as human as excrement. This tiny upstairs bedroom of a South Kensington Mews House had been transformed through decades of organised chaos into the repository of the most ruthlessly edited and individualistic chronicle of our times. A compressed layering of images of man at his worst, his best, his most disarming and most desolate. There was nothing here that was median or banal. Old canvases leaned upon each other against the wall: the walls themselves spattered with paint and thick impasto where colours had been impatiently tested, one over the other for almost thirty years. A small table too heavy to lift because of the accumulation on it of books, paints, pages torn from magazines, photographs bonded together forever by seeping turps and linseed oil. The drawer permanently open to reveal photographs of subjects of his paintings, a male physique magazine, yellowing torn leaves from old picture posts, socks and corduroy crusty with hard paints at some time past used to clean a brush, or create a texture on a canvas. A large circular mirror that began life as part of an earlier more innocent time, when Bacon designed furniture in the manner of reactive Modernism, leant against the back wall, but was now decayed and pitted; no longer pristine and minimal, incapable of hiding the damage time had inflicted on it. A clear and easy metaphor for the transformation that the artist who created it had undergone himself. Curiously comforting in its corruption. It was the floor though that was really unforgettable. Around the perimeter thick in layers of saved ‘aide-memoires’ pages torn from art books, multiples (sometimes) of the same images from Michelangelo, Velazquez, Goya, Pharonic Egypt, John Deakin’s photographs of George Dyer, Muriel Belcher, the victims of violent crime, rotting human corpses, African animals noble in death, dictators, despots, attractive young men, movie stars, medical records of terrible decaying limbs and diseases of the mouth and portraits of himself by generations of photographers. Many had paint dirty fingerprints and purposefully plotted creases, some images mutilated by the folds held in place by Sellotape, paper clips and pins. Faces once animated by life now disfigured into complex and terrifying parodies of themselves. Some images, like the many portraits of John Edwards and George Dyer, or the picture of Ayrton Senna from the cover of the Sunday Correspondent, or the unknown soldier in a dentist’s chair surrounded by the destruction of war, were spared this treatment. For some reason, the deep layering of material gave way to a clearer open space in the centre. Room enough for a painter to stand at his easel and work. In this area, just a few square yards the floor had only a thin layer of newspaper pages but the piles that surrounded it, like the layers in an archaeological dig went back years. At the bottom (destruction level) sat piles that could only have been brought from his previous studio in Battersea. As an editor and collector of photographs (usually torn from books and magazines) he was extraordinary. Only the most intense and authentic images made their way on to his floor. Nothing that did not stimulate a powerful or violent reaction either because of its beauty or its honesty. An archive of the authentic and a library of human experience. Suffering and beauty in equal measure. The drama of the human condition at its most two dimensionally profound. Nothing as petty as pornography. Nothing as banal as symbolism. Things recorded just as they are. Stark and real. Confrontational. Strewn everywhere small canvases of the same size, once portraits now almost all with the faces, violently cut from them leaving gaping holes where friends used to be. Only hints of collars, ties on hair, or an ear to leave us guessing whom it might have been. But more none the less kept.

I made tentative pokes into the piles on the floor, unsure about disturbing the mess and still half expecting a very disapproving Bacon to storm in on me arms flailing in anger at the trespass. I still feel this.

As time passed, and well documented events plotted to combine my own life with his, I became executor of Bacon’s estate and charged solely with the responsibility, amongst other things, of deciding the future of the studio and its contents. During this period of a particularly sordid and miserable litigation against Bacon’s former gallery, I spent a great deal of time in the studio. At first nervously looking amongst the depressingly deep piles of paper for documents and photographs that might be useful in the forthcoming trial, and later out of pure curiosity. I had to do this alone to ensure minimal disturbance of the room and its contents. Over the next few years the room became very well known to me, its smell, its light and its appearance of disorder came to form a cohesive and singular experience in my memory. It was easy during this tumultuous period of litigation to forget the art at the centre of it. Visiting the studio always reminded me of this reality and I began to remove items from the floor to photocopy. After a while I began to copy both sides, because it became clear that often the reverse of a photograph or page carried marks or clues to other ideas and interests. I regularly collected the mail from 7 Reece Mews, which would accumulate in piles behind the front door—by now mostly junk mail (but in volumes) and services bills. On one occasion when I went to pick up the mail I found the charred remains of a small fire that had been started by a burning newspaper or a rag pushed through the letterbox probably by vandals. It had done no more harm than disposing of a pile of unwanted advertisements and approvals from local estate agents. However, it signaled the danger to this uninhabited and vulnerable property. John was also now anxious to refurbish the building, and use it as his when he made infrequent trips back from Thailand where he lived permanently. It was time to make a decision about the future of the studio and its contents. On the ground floor, the old stables where Bacon kept canvas stretchers and a few old belongings, there was a rotting leather suitcase with his name and address stuck to it. I decided to remove a pile of material from the floor, using the old case to carry it and take it home to study more carefully. It was clear that this material was very interesting and I became excited by it. Everything from this pile was copied in colour, verso and vecto and I began, as a sort of therapy to balance the waste and pain of the court case to plan a book of these revealing items. I had in mind a simple book, A3 in format with no text, simply and randomly reproducing the images that I had removed in the case. Later, after it had been agreed to transplant the studio in its entirety to the Hugh Lane in Dublin (Bacon’s birthplace) these items became logged in the record of the museum with the initials BC preceding the numerical identification. This indicated that they came from the studio—but via me.

I collected these images into volumes of colour photocopies and made three sets, with the originals left in the old case. I was unsure how interesting to anyone else these items might be, (difficult to imagine now since so much interest in them has been shown in recent years) and gave a set of the seven volumes of copies to David Sylvester for his comment. He was as fascinated by them as I was, particularly by the range of material and the consistency and acuity of Bacon’s ruthless editorial eye. Sylvester encouraged me to publish them in the form I had described, kindly adding that Bacon himself would have loved the result. I might still do this. However, something critical was lacking if the atmosphere of these items was to be faithfully conveyed. A book would have no smell. The tactile nature of the subjects would be lost and the confusing message hidden in the apparent randomness of material and scale would all but evaporate. The clues would in part be lost.

There is undoubtedly an absurdity in the effort that has gone into producing Detritus as an absolute and faithful facsimile of the objects as they exist. The painstaking and lengthy processes that have been employed to replicate paint drops, tears, creases, textures, ageing and smell. Life itself is absurd too. Art and the value placed upon it by society is absurd in both its transient intensity and its fickleness.

The experience of spending time in Bacon’s studio and becoming familiar with the material that inspired him altered me. I have a desire to share that remarkable moment. It can, in the absence of spatial experience only be in part, but Detritus comes very close to replicating what it was like for me, examining this material for the first time after carrying it home from Reece Mews. It comes closer that any other means I am able to imagine.

Brian Clarke