The subject of this exquisite small head is Garech Browne, who died in 2018. It was painted in 1956 when Garech was sixteen and when Lucian Freud was still married to Garech’s first cousin Caroline Blackwood. She introduced him to Luggala, her aunt Oonagh’s Wicklow home. Separated from Garech’s father, Lord Oranmore and Browne, Oonagh was the youngest of the three ‘Golden Guinness Girls’, iconic society beauties of the 1920s and 30s. Garech’s younger brother, Tara, was killed in a car crash in the 1960s. He was the inspiration for the Beatles’ song ‘A Day in the Life’, from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The painting was executed on the wild Wicklow estate given to Oonagh by her father and handed later to Garech. The house there is a similarly exquisite Strawberry Hill Gothic pavilion. Luggala’s wildness is just an hour’s drive from Dublin. Thackeray called the pavilion the best place for a honeymoon in the old British Isles. It has certainly seen many of these, official or otherwise.
Freud is of all major painters the least troubled by twentieth-century pictorial innovation. His masters in the 1950s were Flemish: Memling and van der Weyden. His later and larger works are inspired by another Northern master: Frans Hals. Yet he is entirely of his own time in achieving an existential, even an alienated mood. You see this at once if you hang paintings of this period near heads by his friend Francis Bacon, who painted him many times, or oil portraits by Giacometti.
The fine-brush precision of the Garech head is matched only in Freud’s work by his lost masterpiece: the 1952 small portrait head of Bacon. The writer Robert Hughes described this as having the silent intensity of a hand grenade about to go off. It was lifted from a loan exhibition in Berlin in 1988. It belongs to the Tate and is in my view the greatest disaster suffered by a national museum in the last fifty years.
An exact contemporary of mine, Garech was, since the late 1960s, one of my closest friends. The portrait captures his melancholy, contemplative and stoical disposition. He became the most important patron of the arts in Ireland of his time. He did not make donations. He wined and dined and accommodated artists incessantly. He listened to their troubles and their dreams. He bought their books and paintings and produced their music. Poets and native Irish musicians were of particular appeal. His Claddagh Records issued Kinsella, Kavanagh, Montagu, Heaney, Longley and Mahon; all poets of the first rank, as well as Beckett and MacDiarmid. He launched, too, the careers of Paddy Maloney and The Chieftains. Maloney, a great piper, played as Garech’s ashes were cast on the grey waters of Lough Tay by Luggala. Lucian Freud caught the teenage Garech visually and psychologically. Freud infected him, too, at an impressionable age, with lifelong commitment to creative people.
Lord Gowrie was London chairman of Sotheby’s 1987-94
Head of a Boy, 1956 delivers a portrait of quite remarkable emotional intensity. Executed on an intimate scale, it is at once tender, delicate, and transfixing; an exquisite testament to the superlative power of Lucian Freud’s preoccupation with the single-figure portrait that sits at the very heart of his dynamic oeuvre which spanned over seven decades. Tightly composed and painstakingly rendered, it is a masterpiece of technique and manner, encapsulating the intensity of purpose, minute observation and evenness of treatment that marked him as a master of modern figuration. Indeed, there are few better examples of Herbert Read’s acclamation that Freud was “the Ingres of Existentialism” (Herbert Read, Contemporary British Art, Harmondsworth 1951, rev. 1964, p. 35). Introspective and gazing downwards, Head of a Boy is intensely implosive. The unsparing vision with which Freud approached this portrait is characteristic of, and certainly draws comparisons to, the nineteenth-century master. And if Freud, as Robert Hughes once declared, was the world’s ‘greatest living realist painter’ then it is the single-figure subject that best afforded the artist the opportunity of displaying his unquestionably masterful ability to capture the mood and furthermore the inner essence of his sitters.
Executed with fine sable brushstrokes and a delicate colour palette, Freud’s fully frontal and squared-off portrait brilliantly captures the youthful features of its sitter and celebrates the artist's attentiveness to texture; the lustrous hair swept gently across the brow and jewel-like mottling of the almond-shaped eyes, accentuate dramatically the emotional landscape of the sitter. The subtle and continuous tempering in variations of colour and value is wrought with an observant delicacy; the pallor of delicate flesh is here articulated via a refined and persuasive stippling of warm, thin colours. This contrast between corporeal textures and minute analysis is powerfully evocative of the meticulous precision that was achieved by the Netherlandish masters of the Northern Renaissance. Albrecht Dürer’s linear precision is reflected in the hair, each strand rendered like skeins of golden filigree. Other details such as eyes, the lashes, and mouth undergo what the artist has described as ‘involuntary magnification’ - the result of highly obsessive attention to them. For these smaller pictures of the early 1950s, Freud, as Catherine Lampert notes, “set his easel so close to the subject that the surface of the painting acts as a thin barrier to what’s underneath” (Catherine Lampert in: Exh. Cat., Hazlitt Holland Hibbert, Lucian Freud Early Works 1950-58, 2008, p. 69).
Measuring only 18 by 18 cm, this painting boasts the focused scale that is consistent to works of this period; a size moreover, that bespeaks Freud’s famously piercing gaze and unyielding control over his subject. As this painting demonstrates, there is no other artist who has been able to deliver such extraordinary impact within such a small arena. Speaking of this period Freud has commented, "I felt that the only way I could work properly was using absolute maximum observation and maximum concentration. I thought that by staring at my subject matter and examining it closely I could get something from it” (Lucian Freud cited in: Exh. Cat., Venice, Museo Correr, Lucian Freud, 2005, p. 33). The intensity in Freud’s pictures during this period was in part a function of scale. Control was paramount; he wanted to convey an almost febrile absorption in his subjects so it made sense for him to work at a scale much smaller than life size. Anything larger might have meant a loss of control. Similarly, the use of fine sable brushes suited the artist's precise analysis, and he achieved some of the most exactly observed paintings of the time in this medium, such as Boy Smoking (1950-1), and Girl Reading (1952). Most comparable is the legendary painting Francis Bacon of 1952, which took between two to three months to complete. Originally intended to hang in Wheelers, the Soho fish restaurant that Bacon visited daily, it is now tragically missing having been stolen from the Nationalgalerie, Berlin in 1988 when on loan from the Tate Gallery. While Robert Hughes likened this work to having "the silent intensity of a grenade in the millisecond before it goes off", Lawrence Gowing declared it "the most even and judicious deposit of pictorial information in all his work" (Lawrence Gowing, Lucian Freud, London 1982, p. 112).
The concentrated and unusual cropping of Freud’s portraits creates a telescoping effect that draws us into his subjects. It echos the Egyptian Heads in Geschichte Aegyptens –Freud's pillow-book, his painter's companion – a tome that functioned like his Bible for sixty years. These heads have no names, no identities; as Freud’s biographer, William Feaver, notes: “two plaster heads from El-Amarna, from the workshop of Thutmose, chief sculptor to Akhenaten, the first Pharaoh to require portraits of himself to be recognizable rather than impersonally hieratic. Unidentifiable, inscrutable, unofficial, touching in their pride, worry, stoicism or indifference, the exemplary heads animate Still Life with Book, two paintings and an etching from 1991-1994 of what might appear to be a family album placed open on the bed. Besides demonstrating that anonymity does not detract from individuality, the El-Armarna heads have been talismans for Freud, sentinels of portraiture’s expressive possibilities” (William Feaver in Exh. Cat., Venice, Museo Correr, Lucian Freud, 2005, p. 36). This is something that Freud translates directly into his own work; Head of a Boy, Girl in Bed, and Woman in a Shirt, are all examples in which Freud removes the narrative of the sitter (regardless of their prominence or notoriety), to enable the viewer to concentrate on the essence of the subject.
However, it is an inescapable fact that Freud’s fascination with the portrait is restricted solely to those closest to him and his everyday life in the places he was familiar with. Indeed, he has said that “I work from people that interest me, and that I care about and think about, in rooms that I live and know” (Lucian Freud cited in: John Russell, Lucian Freud, London 1974, p. 13). Apart from his self-portraits, he has portrayed other artists (such as Francis Bacon and Frank Auerbach), friends and lovers, criminals and the aristocracy. Head of a Boy presents an entrancing window into the bond between Lucian Freud and his lifelong friend the Hon. Garech Browne – a dedicated patron of Irish music, poetry and culture, Guinness heir, and last custodian to the magical Luggala estate in Ireland.
Across the eras that narrate the history of Luggala, there is none more fabled or storied as the mid-Twentieth Century. At its centre was Oonagh – Lady Oranmore and Browne and the youngest daughter of Ernest Guinness – one of the ‘Golden Guinness Girls’ whose dazzling social circle and legendary hospitality lured an international spectrum of bright young things during the post-war era. Hollywood movie stars, actors, poets, politicians, political insurgents, artists and the aristocracy: all were in thrall to the siren call of Luggala. As described by screenwriter and film producer Michael Luke, “Nobody could keep away… Dublin intelligentsia, literati, painters, actors, scholars, hangers-on, toffs, punters, poets, social hang-gliders were attracted to Luggala as to nowhere else in Ireland – perhaps even in Europe, from where many would come. And the still centre of this exultant, exuberant chaos was Oonagh” (Robert O’Byrne, Luggala Days: The Story of a Guinness House, London and New York 2012, p. 136).
Lucian Freud first came to Ireland at the end of the 1940s during his first marriage to Kitty Garman – the daughter of sculptor Jacob Epstein. Both settled in Dublin for a time, during which they were guests at Luggala: their names can be found within the illustrious pages of Luggala’s guestbook. Before long, however, the nature of Freud’s visits to Luggala changed. In 1952, Freud eloped with Oonagh’s niece Lady Caroline Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood and they married later the following year. Freud thus became a frequent guest at Luggala, a destination that had already secured its reputation as a creative crucible frequented by a litany of raffish taste makers. It was during this period that Oonagh’s eldest son Garech, from her second marriage to Dominick Geoffrey Edward Browne, 4th Baron Oranmore and Browne, came of age and developed a friendship with the artist. In 1956, at the age of sixteen, Garech became the subject and owner of this extraordinary early masterpiece. The result is nothing short of astounding. Indeed, while seemingly placid and contemplative, this painting is laden with drama having been created at Luggala’s social height and during a potentially fractious moment in the course of Freud’s marriage to Caroline Blackwood; by 1957, barely a year after the present work was completed, they had separated.
Having resisted institutionalisation from a young age, Garech completed his school years without any official qualifications, instead preferring to nurture his love of Irish art, poetry and music. He relished live performances by musicians in his house and in turn attracted many visitors to Luggala. The visitors’ book highlights the diversity of musicians who spent time at the house from 1970: singer Dolores Keane, composer Frederick May, singers, pop and rock musicians Marianne Faithfull, Sting, Bono, The Rolling Stones, and Michael Jackson. In 1959 he founded Claddagh Records, which is credited with the revival of the Irish music genre, producing bands including The Chieftains. By the end of his life, Garech was one of Ireland’s most colourful and influential figures in the fields of art, poetry and music. However, of all the influential and famous people that frequented Luggala, “perhaps the person from whom I learned most,” explained Garech Browne, “was Lucian Freud” (Garech Browne cited in: ibid.).
Head of a Boy is at once a remarkable testament to the utter brilliance of Freud as an artist, a poignant document of an era and its notorious characters, and a tremendous tribute to Hon. Garech Browne. Following in his mother’s footsteps, Garech continued the legacy of legendary Guinness hospitality at Luggala with flamboyant aplomb whilst developing and nurturing his own love of Irish culture and its music. As friend to the late Garech Browne and frequent guest at Luggala, the late actor Sir John Hurt once uttered: “[Garech] is custodian of this valley of Luggala. He nurtures it as he nurtures Irish music and poetry… Here he collects poets and pipers, Druids, drunks, landed and stranded gentry. He likes to have his friends about him; when they die he keeps their death mask close at hand. And indeed their hands. His own likeness by Lucian Freud is a death mask of his youth” (John Hurt cited in: ibid., p. 240).
In this entrancing portrait, Freud captures an intensely private moment, and in doing so he succeeds in grasping the pure essence of humanity, a feat that lies at the core of his greater oeuvre which he achieved through a meticulous observation of the most important people in his life. Freud noted that his aim in painting was “to try and move the senses by giving an intensification of reality. Whether this can be achieved depends on how intensely the painter understands and feels for the person of his choice” (Lucian Freud, ‘Some Thoughts on Painting’, op. cit, p. 23). Throughout his renowned career Freud lived and practiced by this maxim, translating his physical circumstances, experiences, and relationships into compositions that communicate universal truths of human psychology and emotion. His corpus is replete with canvases that capture within their borders instances of intense intimacy and privacy; his work reads as a dedicated and minute study of personal human moments.
Of this extraordinary moment in time the present work by Lucian Freud speaks to both the history of Luggala, Garech Browne and the history of art, in equally important measure. It comprises a captivating nexus of spell-binding social history and crucial cultural milestones. Rarely exhibited yet well known within Freud’s historical canon, Head of a Boy (1956) unassailably broadcasts the hallmarks of a twentieth-century legend.
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