Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud, by Martin Gayford, Thames & Hudson RRP£18.95, 256 pages
If you happen to be posing for Lucian Freud, make sure you are sitting comfortably. Freud, unlike, say, Van Gogh, who proudly completed his portrait of “L’Arlesienne” in an hour, is known to take his time, often requiring models to sit for months.
So when art critic and writer Martin Gayford arrived at Freud’s Notting Hill home for his first sitting on November 28 2003, he was all too aware of the significance of the artist’s question: “Does that pose seem reasonably natural?”
Gayford sat regularly in that exact cross-legged pose for seven months. Man with a Blue Scarf is his memoir of that period, a time characterised by a mutual fascination, camaraderie and patience. It is also a valuable insight into the artistic processes and the life of one of our greatest and most private painters.
When Gayford offered to sit for Freud, he didn’t expect the painter to agree, let alone suggest they got started the following week. Gayford had already known Freud for a decade – the two had often dined out and discussed art together. And even when assuming the formal time-honoured roles of artist and sitter, their relationship continued to be collaborative. The finished painting, like all portraits, is the product of two personalities – in this case, confined night after night, through winter and summer, tiredness and ruddy health, frustration and good humour.
When we study Freud’s portrait of Gayford, those seven months remain private, inscrutable. Gayford’s book, however, gives us the back-story behind those painstakingly applied layers of paint, revealing the emotions and thoughts of both painter and sitter.
More than anything the book is a portrait of Freud himself. We see his changing demeanour, at times “stern, eagle-like”, at others, vigorous for his 82 years. We learn of a delicious stubbornness and of certain hard-wired peccadilloes: bathing two or three times a day; an obsession with a particular white oil-paint; his insistence on standing up to paint, even in moments of exhaustion; his decision to leave the deep blue scarf until last – by which point it is summer and Gayford is sweltering in winter tweeds.
After each session is over, Freud, a proud night owl, insists on dinner, and they frequent London hotspots such as The Wolseley and St John. During these meals, Freud keeps one eye out for possible new models (he often paints strangers) and one eye on Gayford (a continuation of the observation process). He reminisces about illustrious acquaintances made over his 60-year career, from Kate Moss, whose birthday party he attended, to the cookery writer Elizabeth David. We learn that Freud likes to cook David’s “cèpes à la bordelaise” and vocalise his preference for French over Italian art. “LF dislikes art that looks too much like art,” Gayford notes, after a discussion about Caravaggio. “The awkwardness … in LF’s work is deliberate.”
Gayford, acclaimed for his book, The Yellow House, on Van Gogh and Gauguin, has a particular skill for weaving reported conversation into his own thoughts – and occasional frustrations. We sympathise when, after a session in mid-June, he “carelessly referred to the face as finished. LF responded: ‘It certainly is not’.”
When Freud puts his final marks on the canvas on July 4 2004, Gayford studies the portrait, his face somehow rendered dishevelled by the impastoed oil paint. He notes that Freud has captured Gayford’s own fascination with being painted. “I see that intensity of interest in the picture. It’s me looking at him looking at me.” And as a result, he remarks, “it also has a certain look of LF”.
That in essence is the particular alchemy of portrait painting: artist and sitter, fused for posterity. If you are choosing an artist to immortalise you or a loved one, take a good look at his or her face first.
Rebecca Rose is the FT’s acting books editor