I’ve been reading Martin Gayford’s account of having his portrait painted by Lucian Freud – Man with a Blue Scarf. Gayford – whose previous book, A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney I described in an earlier post as one of the best books on art that I have read – has done it again, this time telling of the 40 times he sat for Lucian Freud between November 2003 and July 2004. The result was the portrait ‘Man with a Blue Scarf’ that I saw earlier this year when it was included in Lucian Freud: Portraits, the major retrospective of Freud’s life’s work as a portraitist.
For the lay reader, Gayford has an easy, accessible style, free from the obfuscations of much art world discourse. Naturally, Gayford is interested in Freud’s method of tackling a portrait (which is highly unusual) and in what it feels like to sit for a portrait over an extended period of time. But, like the Hockney book, this becomes a sustained reflection on the art of painting by both artist and interlocutor, a record of their conversations and the writer’s inner thought. The book provides a unique and fascinating insight into the working habits of a great painter of the human form in all its boundless variety.
Gayford, an art critic and writer, had known Freud for several years when one afternoon, over a cup of tea, he tentatively suggested that Freud might like to paint him:
After years of writing, talking and thinking about art, I was attracted by the prospect of watching a painting grow; being on the inside of the process. Even so, when I made that modest proposal, I didn’t really expect LF to accept. Probably, I thought he would say something politely noncommittal along the lines of, ‘That’s a nice idea, perhaps one day.’ Instead, he responded by saying, ‘Could you manage an evening next week?’
This was how it began: the intense experience – ‘somewhere between transcendental meditation and a visit to the barber’s’ – of turning up at Freud’s studio, posing for several hours, and going out for a meal afterwards (one of the rituals of sitting for Freud was to be taken for a meal). What follows is a kind of journal, each entry dated, of the sessions in which the portrait grew.
There are observations of Freud’s painting technique, about what it’s like to sit for a portrait and worry whether it will turn out looking like you too much or too little – and whether Freud might decide (as he sometimes did) that the painting is going nowhere and abandon it. What makes the book so interesting and worthwhile is that, although there were periods of silent intensity, for much of the time conversation flourished and we learn a great deal about Freud’s likes and dislikes in art (‘the awful Mona Lisa‘; Gabriel Rossetti ‘the nearest painting can get to bad breath’) and exchanges of opinion between Freud and Gayford about writers and painters.
Their conversation embraces reminiscences about the rich variety of people Freud had known: from Greta Garbo to Auden and Picasso, the Kray twins (and their even more terrifying associate Eddie the Killer who committed entirely motiveless murders: Freud thought about painting him, but decided against it after Eddie said to him, ‘You’re a strange bloke, Lu. You never tell me where you live’). There are plenty more entertaining anecdotes, like the one about Freud having to step in when Francis Bacon drunkenly heckled Princess Margaret while she sang, accompanied on piano by Noël Coward.
This is the first entry in Gayford’s journal, dated 28 November 2003, 6.30 pm:
Lucian Freud indicates a low leather chair and I sit down. “Does that pose seem reasonably natural?” he asks, “I try to impose my ideas on my sitters as little as possible”. It’s a cold late autumn day and, I am wearing a tweed jacket and a royal blue scarf. Perhaps, I suggest I could keep the scarf on for the picture.
LF agrees, but on certain points it soon turns out his will is law. I had thought that perhaps I could read while sitting, and had brought a book along with me, but no. “I don’t think I’m going to allow you to do that. I already see other possibilities.” He must have registered them almost instantly.
At this point LF makes chalk marks on the floor boards around the legs of the chair so that each time I come to the studio, we can replace it in precisely the same position with reference to the overhead light and his easel. Behind, he positions a battered black folding screen: the backdrop to my head.
Then he searches around for a suitably-sized canvas amongst the various ones leaning against the studio wall. The first he finds is discarded as it has a dent, which he says would sooner or later cause the paint to flake off. Then LF fishes another out of the corner and sets to work immediately, drawing in charcoal.
So it begins. This is how hour after hour will be spent, stretching for months into the future. Sitting in a pool of light in the dark studio, I start to muse and observe.
I have long been convinced that Freud is the real thing: a truly great painter living among us. When one afternoon over tea I – very tentatively – mentioned to him that if he wanted to paint me I would be able to find the time to sit, my motive was partly the standard one of portrait sitters: an assertion of my own existence. For various reasons, I was feeling rather down and being painted by Freud seemed a good way to push back against circumstances.
The other reason was a curiosity to see how it was done. After years of writing, talking and thinking about art, I was attracted by the prospect of watching a painting grow; being on the inside of the process. Even so, when I made that modest proposal, I didn’t really expect him to accept. Probably, I thought, Freud would say something politely non-committal on the lines of “That’s a nice idea, perhaps one day”. Instead, he responded by saying, “Could you manage an evening next week?”
I had known him for quite some time before that day, getting on for a decade. We had talked for many hours as friends, and as artist and critic. I had eaten innumerable meals in his company; together we had visited exhibitions and listened to jazz concerts. Dozens of times I had visited his studios, to look at recently finished pictures and work in progress. This, however, was different. This time, I was not looking at the picture, but being it – or at least its starting-point.
Gayford observes closely how Freud works: the way he has of seeming to dance as he works, muttering to himself, moving towards the application of a stroke of paint, and then pulling back like a horse rearing at his own looming shadow. He notes how Freud doesn’t,begin the portrait with an outline of the face. He begins where he begins, almost randomly, with a little dab of detail on the canvas. Then, little by little, it widens out, but not in any predictable way. Gayford is fascinating by this modus operandi: it’s as if Freud is making it up as he goes along.
Freud has no clearer idea than Gayford whether the sittings will continue for weeks, months or a year. ‘Each painting,’ he says, ‘is an exploration into unknown territory’. Gayford sometimes notices with alarm how his portrait seems to stand still, or even go backwards, while at other times it evolves quickly, changing in minute, subtle ways:
For several sittings the portrait has not seemed to change very much, although it has been constantly strengthening and adjusting. At the end of the last session my mouth suddenly appeared, if only as a thin red line. This was an indication that Lucian was ready to move down from the frontier – roughly across my face from my upper lip – at which work had halted a couple of weeks before, like an army held up in its advance.
Now , at last, things do move onwards. My whole mouth appears and, to my surprise, seems almost to be smiling – a very unusual expression for a Freud sitter. This image, as it gradually appears, is becoming a sort of alter ego. It is also a revelation of how LF sees me, or to be more precise, what possibilities he sees in me to make a picture.
Gayford muses whether human identity can ever be fixed in a single image. In the end, his portrait is a kind of synthesis of his myriad facial expressions, as well as – to his dismay – of more obvious signs of ageing, every muscular twitch or centimetre of sagging flesh scrutinised, remembered and re-created in paint by the sharp-eyed Freud.
Even in the short-term, painting is always a matter of memory. LF looks very closely at me, making a measuring gesture, then he turns to the canvas and puts in a mark – or, just as possibly, stops at the last moment, reconsiders and observes again. Sometimes he wipes out what he has done with a piece of cotton wool or cloth. There is an interval, however short, between the observation and the act of painting, then another pause for consideration. During that time, the original sight has been passed through LF’s eyes, nervous system and mind, then he has contemplated in relation to all the other notations he has made. This process is repeated hundreds, indeed thousands, of times. Thus a painted image, certainly one by LF, is different in nature from an instantaneous image such as a photograph. David Hockney puts it like this: the painting of him by LF has over a hundred hours ‘layered into it’ and with them innumerable visual sensations and thoughts.
I once devoted a post to Lucian Freud’s portraits of dogs, so I was interested to read about the discussions that took place between Gayford and Freud on the subject of animals. In one entry, Gayford observes:
LF has a conception of life that embraces the human and the animal as aspects of the same thing. ‘When I’m painting people in clothes I’m always thinking very much of naked people, or animals dressed.’ Some of his most memorable pictures are of people and animals – generally their owners – together: Girl With a White Dog (1950-51), Guy and Speck (1980-81). In Double Portrait (1985-6) paws and hands, whippet legs and forearms, doggy and female noses are juxtaposed in an intimate mesh, giving a powerful sense of shared existence.
While Freud was painting Gayford’s portrait, in another studio he was also working on a painting of his assistant David Dawson lying naked on a bed with his dog Eli. They have several conversations about animals, and Gayford notes that, while Freud is extremely interested in animals, ‘it would not be quite accurate to call him an animal lover’. It’s more a question of Freud having strong reactions to distinct animal personalities (just as he had to humans).
For horses he has a deep affinity, but cats, for example he finds irritating. ‘I don’t like their chichi affected air of independence, nor the way that they come and sit on your lap with an air of “Now you may stroke me”.’
Dogs he has often depicted, and owned. The late Pluto was a sitter for a number of works over the years, both paintings and etchings, with and without human companions. Now Eli, David Dawson’s dog – a relation of Pluto’s – is an equally frequent model.
A year before the sittings, Freud had painted small picture depicting the patch of his back garden where Pluto is buried – a few leaves, the little wooden grave marker that David Dawson painted Pluto’s name on: ‘I was rather excited by that painting because it’s almost of absolutely nothing, so how the actual paint went down has just never been as important.’
During a conversation about human ageing, Gayford recalls the etching which Freud made of Pluto when the dog was old, arthritic, losing its sight and close to death. Freud added a hand, almost disembodied like the hand of God in medieval art, because he felt the creature needed company.
The book will be especially valued for Gayford’s fascinating observations of the way that Freud went about his craft. So, for instance, on 3 December 2003 he writes:
LF has worked standing up since a moment in Paris in the 1950s, before which he always sat down. This makes his working procedure, which may involve three sittings a day and as much as ten hours’ work, quite an arduous one for a man of very nearly eighty-one (his birthday is in five days’ time, on the eighth). LF makes green tea and we talk for a while, then we go upstairs to the studio and the sitting begins.
This is the first moment when paint will actually go on the canvas. There is, it emerges, a preliminary ritual when LF is using pigment. First, he rummages around and finds a palette, thickly encrusted with worms and gouts of dried pigment. Then he spends a considerable amount of time carefully cleaning a zone at the bottom left near the thumbhole. There follows more casting around for suitable brushes and tubes of paint that lie around in mounds on a portable trolley and on top of a cupboard near the wall. From the pile ofold ragged sheets in the corner of the studio he selects a clean section, tears off a square and tucks it into his waistband, like a very informal butcher or baker.
These rags are another element in the arrangement of the studio. They lie around in piles in the corners of the room. In a couple of paintings of a decade and a half ago, two nudes of the same model entitled Standing by the Rags (1988-89) and Lying by the Rags (1989-90), they are an important part of the visual architecture, billowing like the clouds in a scene of saints in heaven by Titian or Veronese, but real. When LF lived in Paddington, at one point he lodged above a rag-and-bone shop, ‘and I discovered the rags were of great use to me’. They’ve been part of his equipment, and the furnishings ofhis studios, ever since.
The rag-apron is used for wiping brushes and occasionally the palette knife. The larger palette scrapings are wiped on the walls, where they radiate in areas, and on the doorframe. Blobs of pigment have been trodden into the floor and telephone numbers and cryptic words scribbled on the plaster. [...] The effect of the paint-smeared interior is very much like certain kinds ofabstract painting, or – changing the metaphor – a nest which LF has slowly, almost accidentally, constructed through the routines of his work. The walls themselves, apart from the starbursts and crusting of vigorously trowelled paint, are washed in a neutral brown.
Outside the studio, up and down the stairs, little patches and speckles of stray pigment also proliferate It is a strange effect in this otherwise perfect mid-eighteenth-century house; one that LF accepts, I presume, because it humanizes – personalizes – the spaces. ‘Sometimes someone goes to the bathroomupstairs, and I quite like the way they leave traces.’
There is a great deal more in this fascinating and entertaining book. The index includes an entry, which may be unique in the history of indexing, for ‘eggs, personalities of’, that refers back to a conversation about a still-life by Freud of some eggs. Freud said that painting it he ‘discovered that on close examination each showed distinct personal traits’.
On 4 July 2004 Man With a Blue Scarf is finished and Gayford writes that it is, in part
A painting of my own fascination with the whole process of being painted. I see that intensity of interest in the picture. It’s me looking at him looking at me. [...] There are many elements caught in this image: time, passing moods, feelings. It’s a record of all those hours of conversation, and of just silently being together in this room.
But it’s not quite over: ‘After a gap of a month, and a holiday, we began all over again on an etching. But it was not the same …’
Portrait Head, as the etching came to be called, turned out to be a very different kind of portrait revealing Gayford contemplative and tense, whereas the painting ‘was a social portrait – me looking outwards, engaged with my surroundings’.
In July 2011, six years after the final sitting and two years since Gayford wrote the final words of this book, Lucian Freud died. For this 2012 paperback edition, Gayford adds an Afterword which includes this eulogy for the artist:
His had been an epic life, full of achievement. I shall miss him – his wit, his presence, his intelligence – tremendously. But because he was an artist, and an extraordinary one, quite a lot of his thought and his feelings survive, embedded in his paintings. I continue to think about them, and particularly – of course – the two he made of me.
Martin Gayford’s portrait was one of those exhibited earlier this year in the National Portrait Gallery’s tremendous show, Lucian Freud: Portraits. It was displayed next to the portrait of Andrew Parker Bowles titled The Brigadier, which Freud had just finished when he began Gayford’s portrait, and opposite Freud’s portrait of David Hockney, whose conversations with Gayford are recorded in his book A Bigger Message.
- Man with a Blue Scarf: review by Laura Cummings, The Observer
- Man with a Blue Scarf: links to reviews (Martin Gayford website)
- Martin Gayford on Lucian Freud ‘Portraits’: 200percentmag.com accompanied Gayford to view his portrait in the exhibition (April 2012)
- Lucian Freud: dogged portraitist
- Lucian Freud Portraits: Painted Life
- Hockney’s Bigger Message: hand, eye and heart: post about Martin Gayford’s earlier book