On Fire by Jonathan Griffin

Tank _summer 16_books _106

Paperback, 96 pages
Publisher: Paper Monument (October 2015)
ISBN: 9780979757563
Language: English
Selected by Tank

The potent, pyrophoric cocktail of linseed oil and turpentine, when left on balled-up rags at the end of the painter’s day, can create the perfect storm, or rather perfect inferno, in an artist’s studio. In On Fire, Jonathan Griffin takes a look at the effects of studio fires on the practices of ten contemporary artists, including Anthony Pearson, Kate Ruggeri and John Riepenhoff. It’s an insightful, unusual and strangely gripping take on fire – both tragic and transformative – while Griffin’s prose is lucid, sensitive and informed.


It is reassuring to know that in our day-to-day lives there are very few substances that are liable, apropos of nothing, suddenly to burst into flames. Linseed oil, however, when soaked into cotton fabric, is one of them. As a consequence, artists’ studios have been burning to the ground with unnatural frequency for centuries.

When added to paint from the tube, linseed oil extends colours, produces a glossy finish, and leaves a tough skin that resists cracking. As a medium, it can slow down the drying process – keeping paintings workable for longer – but it can also speed it up, depending on its concentration. Technically, it is classified as a “drying oil”, that is, one that oxidises to form a hard polymer. It contains no water, so it does not evaporate, nor does it need heat to dry. The oxidation is a chemical reaction, one that is accelerated by metal salts added during the oil’s manufacture. If a rag is heavily soaked in linseed oil and scrunched up in a heat-kindling ball, autoxidation can take place so vigorously that it causes the fabric to catch alight. If solvents – say, mineral spirits or turpentine – happen to be present too, the hot little bundle rapidly grows into a furious inferno.

“If all that changes slowly may be explained by life, all that changes quickly is explained by fire,” wrote philosopher Gaston Bachelard1. Fire, according to one view, is antithetical to life. Life is crawling, life is incremental, life progresses at the clicking pace of the clock and the calendar. Fire, on the other hand, is a whooshing irruption in time. It is a reversal, a hole torn in space, a system crash, and a memory loss.

The artists in this book have all experienced the sudden destruction by fire of the places in which they worked. Self-combusting linseed oil was the cause in only a couple of cases; for artists in the 21st century, Armageddon is more likely to descend in the form of shoddy electricals or a studio’s proximity to negligently operated light industry. For each of these artists there was an instant when time spun on its axles, when they realised that the tiny refuge of safety and freedom that they had won for themselves was gone. It would take months and years, resources and resolve to claim it back. But in the process, something unexpected and valuable – career-altering, in many cases – was revealed to them about the stakes and the possible rewards of their lives as artists.

Fire is not only the enemy of life. As Bachelard spent most of his book The Psychoanalysis of Fire pointing out, it is deeply ingrained in our consciousness as a symbol of vitality, reverie, sexuality, purity, and growth. “It is cooking and it is apocalypse,” he wrote. In evolutionary terms, fire allowed early humans to extend their waking hours beyond nightfall; it kept them warm and it scared off predators. By cooking food, energy could be absorbed more quickly into the body, thus reducing the proportion of the day taken up by hunting and gathering, allowing for other ways of passing the time. Like, for example, developing language and making art.

Half a century later, the German writer W.G. Sebald also acknowledged fire’s fundamental importance for the development of human culture. “Our spread over the earth was fuelled by reducing the higher species of vegetation to charcoal, by incessantly burning whatever would burn,” he wrote in The Rings of Saturn.


[1] Gaston Bachelard, 1884-1962, was a French philosopher working in the fields of poetics and the philosophy of science. The Psychoanalysis of Fire (1938) is one of his most famous works.