This picture, taken in 1977, during Ken Webb’s residency at the Royal College in London, portrays Francis Bacon’s sitting room at #7 Reese Mews, London. The photo records a rather small room containing a bentwood chair with cane back, a radiator pushed up against a mirror, and a desk upon which is a stack of books. Behind this is a cupboard of some sort backed up against an alcove in the back wall which provides shelf space for even more books. However, the most prominent feature of the photo is a floor length mirror displaying a golden reflection of the room…
in which we see…
a cameraman, steadying himself by squatting on the floor and directing his attention to a shattered area of the mirror. Behind the photographer is a partially open door upon which is hung drapery of some sort. To the photographers left is a low dresser stacked with a roll of paper, and other indeterminate objects, as well as a mirror image of the bentwood chair with the cane back situated slightly to the right of the dresser. To the far left of the photo, there appears the corner of a larger upholstered chair or couch directly facing the dresser, perhaps with the hint of someone sitting there. On the wall above the dresser we see a fantastic lyrical scribble of light and shadow for which there is no visible explanation. In front of all of these things is the excellent reflection of the radiator. Finally, at the edge of the door on the photographers right, there is a second figure, leaning slightly towards the photographer but also looking into the mirror. This, we are told, is the artist Francis Bacon.
How did Ken meet Francis Bacon and gain access to his rooms?
While partaking of a late afternoon pint with his friend Ian M. in a South Kensington pub, Ken spots Francis Bacon exiting a bus. He bolts from the bar leaving Ian to settle the bill and chases Bacon down just before he is about to enter his rooms. Employing a polite and deferential Canadian demeanour, Ken asks Mr. Bacon if he would care to engage in some sort of conversation about “art” with a couple of students from THE ROYAL COLLEGE. Bacon, somewhat taken by surprise, declines, explaining that at the moment there is a lack of consumables in his rooms, but somehow being attracted to the youngsters panache, he invites them back to his studio later in the week.
What happened next?
Despite a suspicion that Bacon’s invitation is simply a strategy to ditch the two admirers, Ken and Ian return to #17 Reese Mews several days later, and are met at the door by Francis who leads them up the narrow stairway with the rope railing to the artist’s sanctum, where they are treated to an afternoon of stimulating discussion fuelled by enough whiskey and New Castle Brown Ale to make everyone comfortable.
At some point there is a tour of the studio in which Ken and Ian get to tread on the spongy floor, and experience the particular ambience required for a painter like Francis to function. Ken recalls a characteristic work in progress on the easel and a series of holey paintings stacked around the room. The notorious chaos of the studio did not disappoint.
And what about the photo?
Upon returning to the sitting room, Ken, who has realized in advance that he will need some proof of this escapade, produces a camera and now concocts a scheme to take a photo that will include everything that is most important about the afternoon – primarily that Francis Bacon has let them in. Ken notices that the broken mirror reflects a significant portion of the room and asks permission to take the shot illustrated above. He manages to capture the golden atmosphere of the room while simultaneously documenting Bacon and himself and perhaps the smallest portion of Ken’s colleague Ian, sitting on the couch. Not wanting to appear as some sort of amateur paparazzi, Ken limits himself to one take – and what we see here is the result. The image is admittedly blurry, but considering the circumstances with the dubious lighting, the dirty broken mirror acting as an additional imprecise lens, and the fact that the photographer has perhaps been compromised by several hours of lubricated conversation, it is nonetheless, quite compelling. Perhaps one could say it can be best appreciated for its authenticity.
Ken provides additional details of the remainder of the day with Bacon – a sortie to an Italian restaurant chosen for its convenient location near an entrance to the tube, what the trio ordered for dinner and what was ordered with dinner, the consequences of rich food and ample drink, what the waiter said about that, and Francis Bacon’s response, who paid the bill, who was unable to take the tube, who hailed a cab and paid for that too, who offered the opportunity for a return visit and who acted the role of a perfect gentleman throughout the whole affair.
Two remaining questions.
Did Ken and Ian return for further enlightenment from Francis?
Ken’s answer was simply no, however one might speculate that neither of the two admirers wanted to run the risk of becoming the subject of one of Bacons future endeavours.
Francis Bacon’s sitting room and studio have been photographically documented many times and there is no doubt that we are indeed looking at the artist in his sitting room at 17 Reese Mews, as we can see if we study the background in this classic Cartier-Bresson photo from 1971.
Even so, it has occurred to me, that a critical viewer might wonder if the photographer in this case is actually Ken Webb. Although completely convinced of the story myself, it is conceivable that if someone were to discover a similar photo in one of London’s many flea markets or perhaps even while rummaging through the trash outside a certain address, that it would be easy to concoct a credible tale of an invitation to a famous artists studio and to claim that this image documents the occasion. The motive – possibly to enhance one’s reputation with colleagues or with a difficult tutor, or simply to devise an elaborate prank designed to pull the wool over the eyes.
Therefore, in the hope of setting the record straight with conclusive proof that this is indeed a completely authentic image of Ken Webb producing an early selfie in Francis Bacon’s studio, I have produced an enhanced detail of that portion of the image in
which it is plain to see…
that the image of the photographer is fragmented, obscure and unfocussed, his face totally hidden by the camera. There is indeed little to go on. But even so, perhaps there is something definite about the hands, the grip on the camera. Is it possible to make out a curious imbalance, as if one hand is a little smaller than the other, as if maybe a single digit is lacking?
Unfortunately no. Can’t tell. Too vague. Just have to go on faith.
Thanks for the story Ken.
*Walter May is a Calgary Artist and friend of Ken Webb. He has heard most of Ken’s stories and has been to the lake.
 Ken Webb?
 Bacon claims he broke the mirror when throwing a crystal ashtray at his lover George.
 Note the reflection of the array of bottles on the table to Bacon’s right.
 Some of the less satisfactory works had holes cut in the centre of the canvas in an effort to discourage burglary.
 In 1977 it was entirely reasonable for an art student to carry a 35mm camera at all times.