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I first met Lucian in 1990 at his home in Holland Park. I had just started working for James Kirkman, Lucian’s dealer at the time. The studio, where he lived, was on the top floor. After that first meeting he would phone me every morning. A couple of weeks later he invited me round again. He always kept the door from his flat to the actual studio closed but he asked me in. Two rooms had been knocked into one and a skylight had been added. There was something both worldly and grand. Because it was still and quiet, there was the feeling that something was going on with a definite sense of purpose – something to be taken very seriously. For me, the studio had relevance and vitality. It was a place that made you reflect.
When I first spent time there I thought I would never need to travel anywhere else because in this place I could find everything. It offered a perspective on one’s own circumstances.
There were two easels with large paintings on them of a naked man, Leigh Bowery, and an iron single bed with the green-and-white-striped mattress. In the corner was the sink, which I had only seen before in paintings. Two trolleys were stacked high and overflowing with tubes of paints. Cotton rags for cleaning brushes and palettes, made from discarded hotel linen, lay in mountainous piles on the studio floor beside boxes full of new and used brushes. The room smelled of genuine turpentine and linseed oil. The walls were covered in semi-dry, clotted paint scraped from his palette when he cleaned. The paint was left to dry, building up over many years like deposits of guano on rock. He also used any bare wall to scribble reminders about a particular painting, phone numbers or paint colours that were running low. I would come to check the walls as a kind of ongoing diary.
Portrait of David Dawson Holland Park, 1996
I had been seeing Lucian every morning for six years before he asked me to sit for a painting. At the first sitting Lucian said he would prefer it if I was lying on the bed and naked. His initial idea was to make the painting a group portrait and he had asked Henrietta, another painter, to sit. He also wanted to include his whippet, Pluto. He chose a tall, thin portrait canvas. When he started drawing he placed me across the canvas and asked Henrietta to stand at the foot of the bed. Within a short time he decided to paint us individually and began a fresh canvas for Henrietta. He then concentrated on my head and shoulders. Pluto was curled up under my arm and the painting became a double portrait. Lucian loved fur and skin. He always tried to catch a scene rather than compose it.
Speaking to [Freud’s friend, the art critic] Bill Feaver, Lucian had said, “If I’m putting someone in a picture I like to feel that they’ve fallen asleep there, or they’ve elbowed their own way in. They are there not to make the picture easy on the eye or more pleasant . . . ” He liked things to look awkward in the way that life looks awkward. The idea of a story didn’t bother him as he thought “everything’s a story”.
Painting the Queen
St James’s Palace, 2001
To paint the portrait of the Queen we set up an easel in a small restoration studio used for the Royal Collection in St James’s Palace. Lucian thought the light was lovely. He felt it created a sympathetic atmosphere. The Queen was very generous and cleared her calendar for the amount of time that would suit Lucian and give him every chance to complete the painting. Henrietta Edwards, a courtier, stepped in as the model when it came for the diadem to be painted. The following year he painted Henrietta’s portrait, “Woman with Eyes Closed”.
In the Prado
Bill Acquavella, whose gallery represented Lucian, would arrange certain visits and accompany us to see paintings. An exhibition at the Pompidou in Paris in 2010 inspired Lucian to revisit the city and then we went on to Madrid to see one of his favourite works, Velázquez’s “Las Meninas”, at the Prado. [The art dealer] Jay Jopling and [Rijksmuseum director of collections] Taco Dibbits arranged for Lucian to come to Amsterdam to see the Rembrandts at the time when the Rijksmuseum was closed for renovation. We also saw the Van Gogh self-portrait out of its frame, which was an extraordinary moment, but Lucian was back in his studio painting that evening.
Freud and Eli
Holland Park, 2010
He painted with an intense determination to get things right. Cautious in every statement he made, Lucian’s truthfulness was precise, always surprising, stimulating, deeply felt and thoughtful. He would fight firmly for every point he believed in and for what he asked from a work of art, never making any concession to help his painting. As a sitter you held the position of being passive, with Lucian continually encouraging you. He made you feel that you were understood by him. He could not be shocked by any confession or by anything said. He was immensely interested in other people. There was always a sense of balance around Lucian.
Photographs and text ©David Dawson 2014. Extracted from ‘A Painter’s Progress’ by David Dawson, published by Jonathan Cape on November 6 at £35
Quotation from Michael Auping, ‘Lucian Freud Portraits’, National Portrait Gallery, London, 2012, page 208