In 1998, a team of archaeologists and curators painstakingly moved 570 books, 1,500 photographs, 100 slashed canvases, 1,300 torn pages, 2,000 artist materials, and 70 drawings—retaining the layers of uninterrupted dust—across the sea from London to Dublin with one goal in mind: to reconstruct Francis Bacon’s studio.
“Not a single detail was overlooked,” remembers Dr Barbara Dawson, who led the project.
The aim of the project was to recreate the Irish-born painter’s working space, as it was, in order to provide a glimpse into the mind of the artist, whose genius was sometimes difficult to understand.
Bacon freewheeled his way through life, transforming the characters he encountered into the subjects of his paintings. From his Soho drinking den companions to his anguished lovers, all were translated onto the canvas. His work, both beautiful and frightening, conveyed the anxiety of the modern condition in a starkly honest fashion.
He credited his turbulent childhood in Ireland as the fuel behind his creativity. He remembered being isolated from friends and regularly beaten before he left home for good at the age of 17, when his parents refused to accept his sexuality. “Perhaps if my childhood had been happier, I would have painted bouquets of flowers,” he once quipped.
He always shunned any type of formal recognition, reportedly declining honours over the years that included a knighthood and the Order of Merit. Taken all together, Bacon’s life story resembles that of the archetypal ‘tortured artist,’ but such was not the case. In an interview with his friend, the photographer Francis Giacobetti, Bacon admitted: “I am not a pessimist. My temperament is strangely optimistic. But I am lucid.”
He declined honours not because he was an artist for art’s sake, but because he did not espouse fame for fame’s sake. That’s not to say that artistic prominence was unimportant. Quite the contrary. Bacon explained, from an artist’s perspective, “it’s vanity and also egoism, because your work is you. It’s you who sells yourself: your talent, your instinct, your techniques.”
It’s this renegade philosophy that makes his conventionally successful posthumous career all the more ironic. In 2013, his ‘Three Studies of Lucian Freud,’ painted in 1969, was sold for a record-breaking amount of $142,405,000 after only six minutes of bidding.
When Bacon’s heir, John Edwards, and his executor, Brian Clarke, donated his South Kensington studio to Dublin’s Hugh Lane Gallery, Edwards mentioned that it would have made Bacon roar with laughter.
Despite the possibility of Bacon’s bemused disapproval, admirers of the artist’s work appreciate the herculean project. Since its opening in 2001, the gallery has provided art lovers with an inside look at how Bacon worked—literally. “It’s really about understanding part of the process that makes a great painter such as Francis Bacon,” says Dr Dawson of the studio. “He drew on a vast and diverse range of material and sources as inspiration for his work which is fascinating.”
From half-annotated magazine pages to initial concept sketches, the clues to deciphering Bacon’s mind have significantly revolutionized study and exhibition of his work.
Join Dr Barbara Dawson in a private ‘after hours’ tour of his studio at the The Hugh Lane Gallery when you reserve InterContinental Dublin’s exclusive Insider Experience.