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Tuesday 23 January 2018

Eamon Carr: Bringing home Bacon

STILL LIFE: The world’s most expensive artist – and his studio’s in Dublin

Irish-born artist Francis Bacon is seen in this undated handout picture from the Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin
Irish-born artist Francis Bacon is seen in this undated handout picture from the Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin
Bacon portrait fetches £90m
File photo dated 30/9/70 of artist Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon

Eamon Carr

When a three paneled painting by Francis Bacon – born in Baggot Street and raised on a farm outside Abbeyleix – made history this week by becoming the most expensive painting ever sold at auction, few realised that sitting in the centre of Dublin is the artist's studio.

As Barbara Dawson, director of the Hugh Lane Gallery points out, “We have the definitive archive on Francis Bacon.”

Once regarded as “sinister” and hopelessly avant garde,  Bacon's challenging and uncompromising work,  has since seen him hailed as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.

If the man (born in 1909) was alive today he'd be a major international celebrity, hounded by fans and stalked by paparrazi.

It was very different back in the 1970s when I spent a few hours in the man's company and completely ignored him.

Do I regret it? Of course I do. In the sixties,  his canvases of haunted, screaming figures and mutilated bodies resembling animal carcasses, made a lasting impression on me when,  as a schoolboy,  I visited an exhibition of his work at the Municipal gallery.

Those visceral works made fashionable Abstract art and the chirpy work of the Pop Art brigade seem like children's cartoons.

There were just four of us in the Colony Room Club, a regular Soho haunt of Bacon. The barman was one. I was running around town with the writer who's now called Brixton Key and we had other stuff on our minds.

So I ignored the middle-aged queen who'd been regularly whipped as a child. I admit I was somewhat intimidated by his reputation, concerned in a naive bourgeois way that the violence in his paintings probably mirrored a dangerous and turbulent Bohemian social life.

However,  the man who once declared, “Champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends”, was on good behaviour, holding court from a barstool.

Fast forward a few decades and I found myself being royally entertained by the stories of conservator Mary McGrath, the woman who supervised the transfer from London to Dublin of Bacon's studio in South Kensington.

Yes. Today, Bacon's studio, together with its contents, is situated in Parnell Square. For growing legions of art lovers, historians and cultural commentators from around the world, this resource is akin to the Holy Grail of the art world.

Since his death in 1992, Bacon's stock has continued to rise dramatically. At Christie's in New York, when the hammer came down and fees were added, his triptych painting Three Studies of Lucian Freud changed hands for $142.4 million (€105.9m). And the Dublin-born painter had knocked Edvard Munch, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso and the rest of the heavyweights out of the park.

Getting it moved, lock, stock and two smoking barrels full of what seemed like household rubbish, to Dublin was a stunning achievement. Surveying the gaff for the first time, Mary McGrath was astonished. Bacon had famously said, “I just love living in chaos.” But this was extraordinary.

The studio resembled a rubbish tip, with layers and layers of discarded materials piled across the paint splattered room.

McGrath arranged for archeologists to assist her team of curators as every item was mapped, tagged and bagged for posterity.

Newspaper cuttings, old photographs, books, magazines, notes, drawings, slashed canvases (discarded pieces were often stolen from his dustbins) and artists' materials were unearthed.

More puzzling were items of paint-encrusted clothing which experts now believe were used by Bacon to create patterned effects on his canvases.

Amid the library of reference books, ranging through art, cookery and photography, were hundreds of photographs all of which are now a subject of fascination for tourists and scholars.

“We have photographs which are quite possibly the studies of Lucien Freud that he painted the triptych from,” says Dolores Fogarty of the Hugh Lane Gallery.

Since director Barbara Dawson secured a donation of the studio from Bacon's heir John Edwards and presented it to the public in 2001, the database of over 7,000 items has made Parnell Square an essential port-of-call for art historians and academics from all over the world.

“It's a priority for the Gallery to have it open,” says Dolores Fogarty. “We know how much people, particularly from overseas, want to see it. People travel especially to see it.”

Having lived in London most of his life, Bacon had no great affinity with his Irishness. But, according to his heir John Edwards, if he'd known his studio was to wind up in Dublin he'd have “roared with laughter.”

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