Art house

The late Francis Bacon's South Kensington studio may suggest a life spinning wildly out of control, but, writes Beryl Bainbridge, nothing could be further from the truth. Photographs by Perry Ogden
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In 1958, the painter Francis Bacon rented 7 Reece Mews, South Kensington, a converted space once used for the stabling of horses, conveniently close to both the tube station and the Victoria and Albert Museum. As his reputation grew and the prices paid for his paintings rocketed, he enthusiastically bought houses both in England and France, but never stayed in them for long. Invariably he gave them away and returned to the studio home he was to inhabit for the last 30 years of his life.

Few people were encouraged to call uninvited; a knocking upon the narrow entrance door, unless from the fist of a lover, brought a face to the window, lips furiously mouthing he wasn't at home. He painted from dawn until midday. Immensely sociable, he spent afternoons and far into the night frequenting pubs, restaurants and clubs. Out of working hours he dressed immaculately, ate well, spoke eloquently, descended into drunkenness and often engaged in violent sexual activity. His drinking accelerated rather than stalled his genius, his energy unimpaired.

His studio and living quarters were situated above an empty garage - he never owned a car - reached by a staircase so steep as to necessitate a rope handrail. God knows how many times, returning in the small hours, three sheets to the wind from his Soho wanderings, he fell up or down them. Once safely aloft, a landing led to a kitchen with a bath in it. To the left, the bedroom-cum-living room; no lamp shades or decorative rugs, no ornaments, just a single bed with a pink cover, an electric fan, a shattered looking glass, and a shelf of books, among them translations of the plays of Aeschylus and the poems of TS Eliot, a choice of reading erroneously taken by some to underline the tragic nature of the painter's own life. Bacon's studio, the pumping heart of the place, was on the right, and it was here that the supposed contradictions inherent in the occupant became blazingly apparent. The floor was heaped with an accumulation of newspaper cuttings, empty pots of pigment, bottles, paint-stained clothing, discarded brushes, torn postcards. It was not so much a carpet of mess as a volcanic eruption which had vomited outwards, spattering the walls and door with the pink and blue imprint of flowers. And everywhere, pinned up or trampled underfoot, photographs. A madman might have lived in this room, a tormented lunatic, submerged beneath the lumber of a life spinning out of control. But in fact, the reverse was the case. This clutter was merely the discarded debris from which Bacon crafted his superbly disciplined paintings.

Language has to be wrestled with in order to describe places, characters and emotions. The same can be said of painting with its reliance on colour and form. Photography, on the other hand, presents no such dilemma; it is mistakenly considered an inferior art, in that all the camera is capable of achieving is the fixing of an objective and external reality.

In 1931, when Bacon was 22 years old, Amedee Ozenfant's Foundations of Modern Art was translated into English. The text of the book was illustrated with photographs of disparate images. Already influenced by medical photography, Bacon was profoundly excited by such surreal juxtapositions. Later, he came across the photographic experiments of Edward Muybridge, whose black- and-white studies of wrestlers inspired the canvas entitled "Two Figures". Even a layman, no pun intended, while recognising in those lumps of pink flesh, one humped above the other, the superiority of paint over film, cannot fail to be conscious of the debt owed to the original image.

Memories escape if there are no walls to keep them trapped. In Bacon's case, it won't matter if Reece Mews is torn down - we have his paintings in museums and the detritus of his working life captured by the camera of Perry Ogden.

This extract is from the summer issue of `nest', an interiors magazine, pounds 7.95. Available from Mission (0171-792 4633) and Zwemmer (0171-379 7886). For subscription details call 0800 0130 011 and when operator answers dial 877 532 1277.