paintbrushes francis bacon christie'sThe lyrics from a Joni Mitchell song – “I am a lonely painter, I live in a box of paints” – came to mind when I saw the photo above in a story about Christie’s’ “Out of the Ordinary Sale” held in London last month. No run-of-the-mill paintbrushes these, they once belonged to the British figurative artist Francis Bacon (1909-1992), and commanded over $50,000 at the auction, nearly twice their initial estimate. (A mere piddling, of course, compared to the prices for anything Bacon-related; a triptych of his sold for $37 million in just seven minutes at a Sotheby’s event in 2011.)

The brushes were purportedly used for Bacon’s studies of fellow painter and friend Lucian Freud, from 1969 — and obviously worth more than the can of beans they happened to be placed in. But, puns aside, I can’t help but find some symbolism in the starkness of those paintbrushes, and how in the simplest of ways they visually capture so much that is true about the genesis of the creative process.

They led me to the image below, of Bacon’s Reece Mews studio in the London suburb of South Kensington, which was dismantled and now permanently recreated at the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin. What an amazing mess it was: as chaotic and convoluted as any of the creations that brought the artist so much acclaim. And there, in front of the mirror, the nondescript instruments that set everything in motion in the first place… awaiting the strokes of genius from a solitary painter, living in a box of paints.

studio london artist francis bacon

(Photo / top: Julian Simmonds)

[Postscript: Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud (1969) was bought for $142.4 million at a Christie’s event on November 12, 2013, making the triptych the most expensive artwork to ever be sold at auction.]