Order from Chaos

Conservator Mary McGrath on moving Francis Bacon’s studio from London to Dublin, one piece at a time

Francis Bacon’s studio — originally at 7 Reece Mews, in London, reassembled in
Dublin; photograph: Perry Ogden; collection: Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane;
© The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved, DACS

In 1998, six years after painter Francis Bacon’s death, Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane obtained possession of Bacon’s artist studio, where he created many of his most famous paintings. It was a major score for the arts community in Dublin, where Bacon was born in 1909. There was just one problem: The studio was in London.

Artist studios had been "recreated" before, but Bacon’s studio was particularly challenging. Every surface seemed covered with paint or piled high with photographs, scraps of paper, slashed canvases, books and other ephemera — more than 7,000 objects in all. Preserving its chaotic integrity would take creativity.

Conservator Mary McGrath was tasked with overseeing the whole painstaking process. Archaeologists were brought in; paint-covered walls were removed, crated and shipped like giant abstract canvases; even the original dust was removed, catalogued and transposed. Below, she talks with Christie’s about the unique way she came to know one of the 20th Century’s most important and enigmatic artists.

This must have been the sort of project about which one says, "That’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever worked on."

Yes, it is. It’s certainly the most important thing I ever worked on. It’s of world importance, whereas most of the things [I had worked on] were of parochial importance. And the fact that it worked out well made it even better.

Why did you feel the need to bring in archaeologists? I understand it was a fairly unprecedented move.

Well, when we first looked at the studio, everything seemed to be thrown in a heap. And then once we looked at it for a period of time, we realized that, in fact, there was a certain amount of order behind the chaos. What was important was to remove the pieces so that the context of each piece could be recorded. And its context — that is, the other pieces that were in contact with it — ought to be recorded so that it would be possible retrospectively to figure out how many of the pieces were used as source material in any given painting.

If you can imagine your average archaeological dig as below ground, we took the ground level as the highest point of the detritus in the studio and gradually worked down from there.

How would you describe the studio to someone who hasn’t seen it?

It was two rooms knocked into one — 24 feet long by 12 feet wide by about 8 feet high. And then the drop ceiling had been taken out, so that it had an A-line ceiling with a skylight. The easel was placed in such a way that the light from the morning sun lit up the easel. Bacon used to work in the morning until lunch time. And then he’d stop and go off and have lunch with his friends. So, the easel was surrounded by piles of materials and source materials and photographs. And behind these, there were a whole lot of boxes from wine and champagne that Bacon was known to like. He always liked the good brands of wine and the good brands of champagne. He was a, bon viveur but he was a very dedicated artist and even if he was out late the night before, he would be back at his easel early in the morning working.

Francis Bacon, Study for Portrait of Pope Innocent X after Velasquez,
lithograph in colors, printed in 1989 on Arches paper, signed in pencil;
© The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS 2013.

You mentioned that it was chaotic.

Well, it was pretty chaotic. But, on the other hand, it was clean. And there was no evidence of mice or anything like that. There was a pervasive smell of oil paint. So, when you went into the room you could imagine that someone had been painting there not long before. John Edwards said that when we recreated the studio in Dublin and he walked into the studio, he got exactly the same smell and the same atmosphere as had been in London.

What was it like for you personally to go through the effects of this brilliant man who had died six years before?

We all had different feelings about it. First of all, we knew from John Edwards that Bacon would not have particularly liked it himself, that he was a very private person. We decided that if it was going to be done, we wanted to do it as best we could, and as respectfully as we could, and to give every piece the same importance, whether it was a scrap of paper, or a book with a drawing in it, or a slashed canvas. In this way, we salved our conscience — by doing things the best we could for the studio.

Still I can imagine there was a bittersweet or even a sad mood pervading the work at times.

Well, it was in one way. But in another way, it was a celebration of a life. And it was something that Bacon had left behind that was a very personal thing. In a lot of the interviews he did, he said he did various things, whereas his studio proves that he did something entirely different. We were finding things for the first time and we were also finding out how he achieved the various effects on his paintings. He would use a comb or a woolen sock to apply paint. So the interest, I think, overcame the sadness.

You said you found things that contradicted his interviews. What comes to mind?

Well, he always said he never did any drawing. But we found lots of drawings in books and things like that — where he would do a sketch on a flyleaf of a book or on a page torn out of a copy book, . He always gave the impression that the painting emerged fully formed; in actual fact, he did a lot of preparatory work beforehand.

Anything else strike you as entirely new to what we thought we knew about Bacon?

His source material was very interesting. He didn’t paint from life, he painted from photographs. So, if he wanted to paint a sitter he would have one of his photographic friends come and take photographs, and then he would work from the photograph in isolation in the studio. Frequently he folded the photograph which gave a distorted view of the image as we see in his paintings. Beforehand, I think it was thought that a lot of people sat for him.

What about in terms of personality? What emerged as you sifted through so much material?

The paint on the wall was very exciting. The color combinations were very, very vivid and there are lots of illustrations of the door, for example, and the walls, where he tried out all his colors. And he obviously had an excited way of painting. Because the ceiling of the room had paint on it where he loaded up his paintbrush, and flung his arm around to land the paint on the painting. That was something that gave his personality away. Also, we found x-rays — we found all different sorts of things that gave us a very human view of how he achieved his end results. It was a very personal art, and the studio was very personal to Bacon.

Conservator, Mary McGrath; image courtesy of Mary McGrath

With all the scraps of paper and odds and ends in there, how does the gallery keep it tidy?

Very few people actually go in there. And it has all sorts of filters on it to keep the air clean in there. And we took light levels in the studio in London and we recreated those same light levels on a sort of cloudy morning, mid-morning. Those are the lights that we have in the studio at the moment with the light source coming from the window. It gives you the idea of where the light came when Bacon was working — it came from over his shoulder.

We swept up the dust at the end, and when we were [putting everything back together] in Dublin we put down the dust before we put down any of the other things. When John Edwards came here and said, "This could be in London," we felt that we had actually achieved something pretty special.

Christie’s is selling the complete collection of Bacon’s graphic works in an online-only auction, from Oct. 22 through Nov. 5.