At the Museum of London

Peter Campbell

The market in new paintings is exceptionally skittish. Creative Quarters,[*] an entirely agreeable and pleasingly discursive exhibition at the Museum of London until 15 July, maps the way money – in the form of cheap rents and unpredictable fashions – causes the artist herd to migrate back and forth across an ever-expanding city. Over the centuries cheapness drew the young and ill-fed members of the troop to Soho and Fitzrovia; scenery as well as low rents directed them to Hampstead and Chelsea; in living memory square feet at knock-down prices tempted them to Hoxton (Creative Quarters identifies the studio furthest east before our own time as that of Hans Holbein, who was in Cornhill in 1532). Skint artists, rather surprisingly, usually improve property values, and thus price themselves out of the very districts they have made fashionable. ‘Studio flat’ – words which try to give bohemian dash to minimal accommodation – was the last legacy of departed painters to the Chelsea streets they made desirable.

The herd’s fat kine – those who made a financial success of the job – had different decisions to make. In the 17th century Van Dyck had a house at Blackfriars close to the river – convenient for Charles I, who would drop down by barge. In the 18th century portrait painters edged west to be closer to their clients – in a view of Leicester Square in 1753 one can spot the obelisks outside the house of Sir Joshua Reynolds on one side and the gilded bust of Van Dyck above Hogarth’s door on the other. By the middle of the 19th century painters were making the fashion as much as following it. Millais put up a grand, if conventional mansion in Knightsbridge and Watts led the way to Holland Park, where Lord Leighton turned to brick for his richly decorated studio house – seeming to imply that Belgravian stucco isn’t honest enough for an artist. The house E.W. Godwin built for Whistler in Tite Street was as aesthetically sophisticated as Whistler’s own paintings – he had to sell it when the costs of the Ruskin libel trial ruined him.

Changes of address mirror changes in status. The guild practices of the Painter-Stainers Company could not stand up to imported talent enjoying royal protection. Much later, when Reynolds’s campaign to make painting a gentlemanly profession had succeeded and the progress from apprentice to master had long been replaced by an Academic training, students living the bohemian life (which entered the English imagination most forcefully via Trilby’s French setting) could make early alliances against received notions of good art – as the Pre-Raphaelites and, in their time, followers and friends of Sickert did. These groupings had their geographical correlatives. The painters who gathered around Sickert produced pictures of London north and east of Regent’s Park which make no concessions to the conventionally picturesque. Sickert’s own interiors, in which sweltering summer air seems to stifle couples on the edge of acts of violence, can, even now, make the name Camden Town oppressive. William Rothenstein said that he had known many poor studios in Paris, but that Sickert’s ‘genius for discovering the dreariest house and the most forbidding rooms in which to work’ was still ‘a source of wonder and amusement’ to him. Harold Gilman’s Tea in a Bedsitter could illustrate any number of Wellsian fictions about the lives of New Women.

There have always been clubs and pubs where artists gather, but if you put the figures in the picture (thought to be by Zoffany) of the Life Room at the Saint Martin’s Academy around 1760 into modern dress you would guess it was a gathering of amateurs or an evening class. At that time established painters were more likely to want to keep their hand in, and as well as formal sessions, there were sketching clubs which met in private houses or took holiday excursions together. In the 20th century this kind of collective effort can be found in the Euston Road School, set up in Fitzroy Street in 1937, but the map of Soho in the 1950s shows nine meeting places – the Colony Room, the Gargoyle, the French House and so on – and only two schools. Artists were talking together but working alone.

Of all 20th-century London artists’ houses 7 Reece Mews, where Francis Bacon lived and worked for 30 years, is the most notorious. The room which served as a studio has now been reconstructed in the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art in Dublin; a photographic record made after Bacon died gives a fair idea of what the jacket copy says was ‘a heroic statement, a work of art in its own right, created over many years to distil and give form to his aesthetic intentions’.[†] This may seem hyperbolical, for the clutter and mess in the studio are at first sight not so different from a run-down student flat or a long-stay rooming house. But there is a pleasing wilfulness in the refusal of an artist whose first career had been interior decoration to make improvements. The unshaded light bulbs remind you that the scene here is the one evoked by many of the paintings of variously distorted figures in cruelly lit interiors. The only drawback is that some of the photographs are lit for detail and fail to re-create the effect of a single, unforgiving light source. But the detail is, of course, of the greatest interest. What may, as years pass, establish the piles of paper as being of their time is the large number of black and white photographic prints they contain. Black and white pictures – from Muybridge action sequences and Eisenstein film stills to the photographs he used as a basis for portraits – were a primary source for Bacon. The new, digital world is making them as artefactually dated as engraved illustrations in books. The spontaneous generation of mice from damp straw has ceased to be credible but the preservation of Bacon’s rubbish is such an odd move that it is hard not to feel that someone somewhere believes that art may rise again from this rich, mouldering compost.

[*] The catalogue, Artists’ London: Holbein to Hirst by Kit Wedd, is published by Merrell (160 pp., £25, 30 March, 1 85894 141 5).

[†] 7 Reece Mews: Francis Bacon’s Studio by Perry Ogden (Thames and Hudson, 120 pp., £14.95, 24 May, 0 500 51034 2).