Issue 35 Dust Fall 2009

Bacon Dust

Christopher Turner

Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.
—Pablo Picasso

Several years ago, I met Francis Bacon’s cleaning lady. Bacon’s amanuensis, the art critic David Sylvester, referred me to her, as he had her to Bacon. Jean Ward, who had her grey hair swept back into a thin ponytail like a pirate’s, welcomed me to her flat on a housing estate in Tooting Beck, South London. In a raspy voice she told me about her decade working for the painter whose legendarily messy studio—layer upon layer of dust, paint, discarded imagery, champagne bottles, and other detritus—would not have provided her much of a recommendation for future jobs.

“I wasn’t daunted,” she said when recalling her first visit to 7 Reece Mews in the early 1980s, “because I had read certain things about how some artists have tidy studios and some don’t—so I wasn’t really shocked. I just looked at the nice colors on the door that he used to try out paint on.” (Bacon referred to these giant palettes as his “only abstract paintings.”) Traditionally, it was the sculptor who was necessarily slovenly for, as Leonardo da Vinci wrote in his Treatise on Painting, “his face is smeared and dusted all over with marble powder so that he looks like a baker, and he is completely covered with little chips of marble, so that he seems as if his back has been snowed on; and his house is full of splinters of stone and dust.” The painter, in contrast, “sits in front of his work in perfect comfort. He is well-dressed and handles the lightest of brushes which he dips in pleasant colours. He wears the clothes he likes; and his house is full of delightful paintings and is spotlessly clean.”1

“I live in squalor,” Bacon once boasted of his own practice, “the woman who cleans is not allowed to touch the studio. Besides, I like the dust—I set it like pastel.” Bacon’s biographer Daniel Farson reported that the artist “never had the studio in the Mews cottage cleaned because it helped him to lift up dust from the floor and apply it to the canvas when painting his sand dunes; he also rubbed his fingers along the dust and then on to the wet paint.” Bacon did this in his portrait of his patron and lover, Eric Hall: “Actually there is no paint at all on the suit apart from a very thin grey wash on which I put dust from the floor,” Bacon said of Figure in a Landscape (1945). “I thought: well, how can I make that slightly furry quality of a flannel suit? And then I suddenly thought: well, I’ll get some dust. And you can see how near it is to a decent flannel suit.”

“He definitely didn’t like anyone going into his studio, that was his domain,” Ward confirmed. “I was never allowed to clean it. Occasionally, he and John [Edwards, Bacon’s companion for the last sixteen years of his life] would get together and clean out some of the clutter;2 otherwise it would get so high that you’d have to clamber over, and he did like to stand back and look at his paintings. … All that clutter, sometimes I would expect it to start moving with cockroaches!” Bacon was proud of his disorderly studio, which was a kind of metaphor for the creative act: “I feel at home in this chaos,” he said of his workspace, “because chaos suggests images to me. … I think it may be a spur to create order.” On another occasion he explained, “I like to live among the memories and the damage.”

When Ward first met Bacon, he had no cleaning equipment, apart from the odd can of Ajax, a domestic bleach he sometimes used to powder his face. He took Ward to Harrods department store so that she could help him choose his first vacuum cleaner. To use it in the South Kensington mews garret where the artist lived and worked, Ward often had to step over a drunk Bacon when she arrived in the morning (now and again, to celebrate a particularly successful night at one of Soho’s casinos, her employer would give her a generous wad of cash). The flat, up a steep flight of stairs from the street, had an eccentric arrangement. In addition to the studio, there were two other rooms—a kitchen which also held the bath, and a small bedroom that doubled as a living room. In Perry Ogden’s photographs of Reece Mews, taken after the artist’s death, you can see that these domestic spaces, unlike the studio, were modest, simply decorated, and, thanks to Ward, spick-and-span. “The dust wasn’t good for him,” Ward told me, “sometimes he could hardly breathe. I kept it down as best I could and when he went off on trips, then I would really go to town.” Ward likes to think her cleaning “helped him to stay alive a bit longer and do more work.”

The dust that he sometimes applied to his canvases was particularly dangerous to Bacon, who suffered from asthma so badly that he was declared unfit for military service during World War II. He volunteered for civil defense instead, working for Air Raid Precautions, but the fine dust of the London Blitz aggravated his asthma and he was discharged on medical grounds. He and Eric Hall rented a cottage in Hampshire where they sat out the war. “If I hadn’t been asthmatic,” the artist once commented dryly, “I might never have gone on painting at all.”

Dust for Bacon, therefore, contained a particularly poignant existential message. “The world is just a dung heap,” Bacon told Joshua Gilder in 1980, when he was seventy-one. “It’s made up of compost of the millions and millions who have died and are blowing about. The dead are blowing in your nostrils every hour, every second you breathe in. It’s a macabre way of putting it, perhaps; but anything that’s at all accurate about life is always macabre. After all, you’re born, you die.”

Bacon was an interior decorator and furniture designer before becoming an artist. His showroom at 17 Queensberry Mews West, also in South Kensington, was photographed for an article in The Studio magazine titled “The 1930 Look in British Decoration.” It is spotless, decorated with tubular steel furniture and Modernist rugs of his design. Only the circular mirror, which later had a prominent place in the painter’s studio, provides any sense of continuity with Reece Mews. An early pen-and-wash drawing known as Corner of the Studio (1934) depicts Queensberry Mews, making it one of Bacon’s first subjects, and it was here that he held the first exhibition of his paintings. Bacon thought that his previous career as a designer-decorator detracted from his prestige as a painter; his later messy workspace might be seen as an attempt to escape this past, even though the disarray itself can be understood as a form of décor.

It was while viewing an exhibition of Picasso’s paintings in Paris in the late 1920s that Bacon decided he too would paint. Picasso was often photographed in his studio for publicity purposes, and Bacon, who also liked to pose amid his own debris, might have self-consciously imitated Picasso’s bohemian clutter. In 1932, Brassaı˙˙met Picasso at 23 rue La Boétie in Paris. “I was expecting an artist’s studio,” Brassaı˙˙wrote in Conversations with Picasso, “but it was an apartment turned pigsty … filled with piles of pictures, reams of paper, stacks of books, packages, wrapped models for sculptures, all lying helter-skelter on the floor, everything covered with a thick coating of dust. … Except for a few friends, Picasso allowed no one in. The dust could fall and settle wherever it liked, without fear of some cleaning woman’s feather duster.” Picasso lived in the apartment below, which was very much his wife Olga’s domain, “no clutter, not a speck of dust.”

Picasso, whom Jean Cocteau called “the king of rag-pickers” because he never threw anything away, told Brassaı˙˙that his favorite outfit had been a grey suit because it best matched the dust (perhaps Bacon had this in mind when he painted Eric Hall). “I always forbade anyone to clean my studio,” Picasso said, “because I used to rely on dust for my protection … Dust was my ally. When I noticed that here and there the dust had disappeared, I would know at once that someone had been meddling with my things.”

Jean Ward was cleaning Reece Mews on 28 April 1992 when Bacon died of a heart attack in Madrid, age eighty-two. “I didn’t often switch the radio on but I did that morning. … It came over that he had passed away. I was half way through and I thought, well what do I do now? I was really upset, but I thought I’d better finish what I was doing.” After that, the studio sat empty, a shrine to its former occupant. “I kept on cleaning for a couple of years, once a month, after John inherited it. What used to worry me was that a few mice found their way into the studio. I had to inform them to watch that, because if they were hoping to keep anything, the mice would soon eat their way through and there’d be nothing left.”

In 1998, 7 Reece Mews, where Bacon had worked for thirty-one years, was dismantled by a team of archaeologists and transported in its entirety to Dublin, the city where Bacon was born but which he left at the age of seventeen, never to return. This was somewhat ironic given Bacon’s ambivalent relationship to Ireland: his friend, Lady Caroline Blackwood, who was married to Lucian Freud, once said that Bacon “developed a neurotic attack of asthma on the plane whenever he tried to get there.” Every time she tried to broach the subject of his traumatic childhood “he became agitated … he started to tug at the collar of his shirt as if he were trying to loosen some kind of noose which he found asphyxiating; for a moment he resembled the agonized figures in his paintings whose faces turn a truly dangerous shade of indigo purple.” In Dublin, the studio was reassembled as a permanent installation in the city’s Hugh Lane Gallery. Everything appears exactly as Bacon left it, including the dust.

Blaze O’Connor, one of the archaeologists who painstakingly reconstructed the studio (repositioning every scrap of paper, paint-smeared cashmere jumper, dog-eared book, and discarded tube of paint and brush), recalled: “The films of dust that lay upon the surfaces of the long shelves at the back of the studio were carefully curated. These ephemeral contexts had been lovingly but scientifically bagged, their precise provenance labeled, and archived along with all the thousands of other physical remnants.” These samples—“dust, fluff, minute and unidentifiable fragments”—were then painstakingly returned to their correct respective shelves.

After the London studio had been carefully emptied and its contents packed for shipping, the archaeologists had swept up all the remaining dust from the floor and put it in a bag that was simply labeled “Bacon dust.” The bag—which, like one of Ward’s Hoover bags, must have included Bacon’s own sloughed skin—was scattered like ashes over the final installation.

  1. Cited in Sigmund Freud, Leonard da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1990), p. 10
  2. In 1978, Barry Joule—Bacon’s handyman, chauffeur, and drinking partner—rescued three sacks of studio trash including unfinished canvases, diaries, and imagery culled from newspapers, books, and magazines that had been over-painted in ink and crayon. The so-called Barry Joule Archive is now in the Tate’s collection.

Christopher Turner is an editor of Cabinet. His book, Adventures in the Orgasmatron: How the Sexual Revolution Came To America, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.


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