Donation a coup for Ireland

 

The donation of the contents of Francis Bacon's studio to Dublin's Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery represents a remarkable coup not only for the gallery but for the country. However, Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate Gallery, denied yesterday that the London gallery had ever been offered the studio, as had been reported over the weekend.

The notion of recreating an artist's studio in a gallery may sound slightly perverse, and in the case of many artists the exercise would be fairly pointless. A studio at its most prosaic is just a place of work, and what counts is the work done there, not the place. Some studios, however, acquire a certain mystique, and the so-called School of London painters have done rather well in the mystique stakes. There's Lucian Freud's spartan interior with its bare boards and over-stuffed couch, Frank Auerbach's crumbling, icy chamber with its outside toilet and, not least, Bacon's messy domain. The room in Reece Mews where he worked from 1961 until his death in 1992 is famously crowded and chaotic.

But it's not just, as appearances might suggest, a product of the disorder attendant on an anarchic lifestyle. It is in itself a nutritive mulch out of which blossomed the strange visions of his painterly world. Unlike Freud, Bacon preferred to paint from secondhand sources - he said the slight removal from reality of a photograph spurred him all the more to try and capture the real - and the books and photographs that litter the studio are the raw material of the paintings. So much so that a catalogue of this jumbled archive would undoubtedly shed great light on his references, his working methods and his thought.

To some extent this has already happened in the documentation of his use of an Eisenstein film still, Muybridge's The Human Figure in Motion, an old medical text book on radiography and John Deakin's photographs of Henrietta Moraes, but there is certainly much more to be learned. The primary importance of the donation is likely to reside in this material, together with the striking physical presence of the working environment, with its paint-encrusted furniture and fittings, its walls and doors pressed into service as impromptu palettes.

With the exception of a single unfinished self-portrait, the work that remained in the studio is likely to be not so much incomplete as abandoned and rejected - sometimes violently, for he was known to slash unsatisfactory paintings with a razor. That the studio is being preserved reflects well on John Edwards, the sole inheritor of Bacon's estate. At the time of the artist's death, a value of £60 million was mooted, though a much more conservative £11 million was eventually agreed. The discrepancy had to do with the unpredictability of the market value of paintings. About a year and a half later, Edwards spoke to Bacon's biographer, Andrew Sinclair. "I am going to keep the house and studio exactly as it is," he said. "I am going to live in it until I die and then donate it to the nation when I pop off. Then it's up to them what they do with it." It didn't quite work out like that, but in all essential respects he has been as good as his word.