Artists in situ—Russell Hoban, Francis Bacon

March 17 | 2023

I was lucky enough recently to visit Dublin, including the reconstructed studio of maverick painter Francis Bacon. When Bacon died in 1992, his heir arranged for the artist’s London studio and its contents to be dismantled and reassembled in Dublin, where Bacon was born. Inevitably, the word that comes to mind upon first glimpse of the artist’s space is mess—or, more charitably, unchecked exuberance. 

Bacon’s studio is strewn with newspaper clippings, paint brushes and tins, canvases, magazines, a tarnished mirror, books stacked precariously, walls splattered with paint, naked light bulbs, even a pair of corduroy trousers. Although the arrangement evolved organically over the years according to the artist’s creative impulses and material needs, the team dismantling and reassembling the studio treated it as a fixed piece, numbering each item and documenting its precise position in the whole.

I began to wonder whether any writer of renown could rival Francis Bacon in the density and accretion of debris and objects in a work space. After much searching—many authors who’ve volunteered glimpses of their work rooms appear to be scrupulously tidy or have cleared up in advance—I happened upon Russell Hoban.

Like Bacon, Hoban was born in one place, Lansdale, Pennsylvania, and concluded his life and career elsewhere, in London, England. (As I set their names side by side, I notice, too, that the pair’s surnames are near anagrams, with a matching four letters out of five.) Hoban said of his writer’s room in a Guardian interview dated November 9, 2007:

This room is composed of tottering stacks and shaky heaps of DVDs and videos, bulging shelves of books, slithery carpets of undiscarded draft pages, and delicately balanced objects of various weight and fragility poised to fall on my head. I have often been buried under DVD slides and video-topplings and once the TV fell on me while I was trying to squeeze between it and a precarious stack.

Are the surrounds of an artist’s space random and superfluous? Inspiring and essential? Russell Hoban supplied a ready answer. The author of the children’s book The Mouse and His Child, along with the science fiction classic Riddley Walker, described the clutter in his writer’s room as no less than his “exobrain.” 

The above image suggests the kinds of items found in both artists’ spaces.