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Issue 59

Cultural Property

The murky depths of London studios

BY Michelle Illic in Critic's Guides | 05 MAY 01

A quick question: it's the 1860s and in my Chelsea studio you'll find peacocks, a wombat, a racoon, an armadillo and the sadomasochistic, alcoholic poet Algernon Swinburne. Who am I? Answer: the Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Here's another: mine's in South Kensington, it's the 1970s and I'm surrounded by empty boxes of Krug, Taittinger, Le Mesnil and VAT 69. Who am I? Answer: Francis 'he never drank while he painted' Bacon.1

Like the pineal gland, no one knows what an artist's studio is really for, but there is an enduring suspicion that its dark secrets must somehow give direct access to its owner's psyche. The more disordered the state of the studio, the greater its potential to reveal evidence, and examining the nascent coagulations that develop there demands a degree of scrutiny somewhere between beachcombing and scatology. Nevertheless, you will never catch an artist with their trousers down; they know you're looking for clues. The 'reference material' was scattered minutes before you arrived and grubby little sketchbooks contrived to fall open at apparently rakish angles.

During the 18th century any mess would be hidden away in a back room. Potential clients would meet the artist in a studio tastefully punctuated with Classical busts and engravings of Old Masters. Only around 1800 do the first unidealized portraits of the artist in their sanctum appear, exposing the paraphernalia and processes used for their art. By 1858 we see the young genius wasting away in a garret, in Augustus Egg's self-portrait as the unsuccessful poet David Fallen. All this is made apparent in the current exhibition at the Museum of London,  'Creative Quarters: The Art World in London 1700-2000'.

Over the centuries the significance of the location and interior decoration of an artist's workplace seems to have been relatively constant, persistently nurtured by both the property and art markets. Cultural change might suggest that the artist's creative space could now be assessed in terms of file titles on a hard drive, weekly tallies of travel tickets or quality of neck tension; yet the auric glow of the artist's actual workplace has been consistently kindled. Aided by regular appearances on private view cards (where the artist colludes with the most solemn of expressions) and through estate agents art-directing easels into corners of new loft conversions, this reverence for the artist's studio is kept alive by an elaborate series of symbiotic relationships. For all concerned this could be crudely condensed into the desire to turn waste into gold. For both practical and symbolic reasons the site of creativity lies amid deprivation and squalor (or at least has to be seen to do so). The artist's relationship to these surroundings is frequently complicated and contradictory. In the late 18th century successful artists emulating the prejudices of their wealthy entrepreneurial clients had no particular concern for the urban poor but delighted in the Picturesque possibilities of rural waifs. 'Gipsies - where?' cried Gainsborough. 'My Heaven, how precious! I'll be among you! Yes! This is worth a day's march. What a delectable group!'2

Bacon professed to 'just love living in chaos', but equally he loved a good tidy-up too, if John Edwards would do it.3 In 1998 every inch of the bedsit (neat) and studio (as though struck by a tornado) was carefully moved from London and reconstructed, down to the last bit of gunk, in the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art in Dublin.

Yet many artists can now scarcely remember where their studio is, owing to increasingly full-time 'part-time' jobs, taken on in order to pay for these cold, damp broom cupboards. But relinquishing them altogether is not an option: 'I must still be an artist because I still pay for a studio.'

The last few years' obsession with property values as a major topic of conversation, coinciding with the increased profile of British artists, intersects perfectly with London's East End (meaning Shoreditch). At least, that is how it is being sold. But the colonization of 'cheap' East End property by artists has been going on for at least 40 years. Until ten years ago it was indeed relatively affordable. So the many artists who began moving there in the mid-1990s can hardly be considered pioneers, since they arrived when private and public-sector gentrification and regeneration were well under way. Someone must find it amusing that artists want to live like investment bankers who want to live like artists.

A lot of sale brochures would have to be rewritten if artists moved en masse to work in pre-fab 'potting sheds' and described them as such. But if artists become involved in marketing property then you can get into all sorts of difficulties. When in the 1780s the portrait painter George Romney attempted to move his house and studio to Hampstead from a smart and fashionable area in central London, he was 'so struck with his own description of it when He drew up an advertisement, that He resolved to continue in it.'4

1     John Edwards, 7 Reece Mews Francis Bacon's Studio, Thames & Hudson, 2001, p. 13.

2     Ephraim Hardcastle, Wine and Walnuts, London, 1820 , vol. II, pp. 234-35.

3     John Edwards, op. cit.

4     Kenneth Garlick and Angus MacIntyre (eds.), The Diary of Joseph Farington, New Haven CT and London, 1978-98, vol. III, entry for 16 December 1798, p. 1112.