Among David Dawson’s portraits of Lucian Freud to be exhibited at Sotheby’s this summer, is this photograph of him later in his career.
LONDON - Sotheby’s puts Lucian Freud on the walls in New Bond Street this Olympic August in. The Beatons portray a 1940s and 50s fuzzy-haired Freud with meaningful, predatory gaze, sometimes seen with School of London layabouts like Francis Bacon and Frank Auerbach. The Dawsons capture the other end of his life, mostly in the studio where Dawson worked as Freud’s assistant from the early 1990s. None show Freud smiling.
Why not? I ask David Dawson, questioning him on the Freud behind the caricature. Did he never smile?
“In the studio, all the time,” Dawson responds. He was constantly laughing and telling jokes. Don’t you see a twinkle in his eye?”
I ask about the mask. Freud, seen in public but rarely heard, in later life wore an expression unwelcoming to the world. It conveyed to strangers “keep your distance,” “too busy,” “go away.” Is that what it meant?
“Yes and no,” says David Dawson. “He did not like to be snapped by press photographers. An important reason was that camera flashes hurt his eyes.”
David Dawson at the exhibition of his photographs of the late artist Lucian Freud at Sotheby's in London.
But was this the only reason for his unsmiling gaze? Dawson denies that he was “managing his image," like Posh Spice attempting gravitas. "Lucian would not think that way. What he was very highly interested in was privacy. He preserved it as much as he could. It was his quality of life.”
So the face he leaves in the public memory was wholly devoid of “image”? David Dawson pauses. “Painting was central to his image. To paint in the way he did, he could not deviate from a narrow line of concentration. His unchanging ambition was to make the best painting ever.”
Freud, as Dawson tells it–and David is a very opposite personality to the Lucian seen in his photographs, free, friendly, relaxed–was also concerned that his life might get in front of his art in the public eye. There was a soap opera in the making, though it was not made. Freud exceeded Picasso as the father of fourteen children; his wives and mistresses are uncounted.
“He knew that the artist’s life can be a work of art as much as the product. He was very actively concerned not to stir that up. He wanted the paintings to be at the forefront, to be seen by people. He went about that by trying himself to be inconspicuous. I do not know how successful he was at that in the last ten years. Lucian the man had become a legend.”
Every portrait proclaims Freud’s interest in people. But that interest is forensic, truth-seeking, less interested in the masks on faces and the personalities we act in society, than in the raw undisguisable truth of the torso. Some pictures exude a chill in Freud’s gaze, a lack of emotion.
Did he really like people?
"The women he knew when he was young were still his friends at the end of his life. His intimacy with those he loved was palpable and fearless.” And you? “He gave you a wonderful feeling of ‘at ease,’ of ‘just being.’ I felt enormous freedom in his company.”
Lucian Freud famously dismissed suggestions that he illustrated in art the enquiries of his grandfather Sigmund Freud. At least in jest, he pooh-poohed psychoanalysis. But few of us escape the long shadow of our families.
Portrait of The Hound (2011), Freud’s unfinished painting of David Dawson, was a key work in the recent show at the National Portrait Gallery, London.
I ask David if he can or if he wants to escape the long shadow of Lucian. He was everyday in the studio, painted by Freud nearly 20 times, trusted for years to snap what he liked, enthralled by what he saw and heard (and almost never cropping the images you see in this show).
For David Dawson the photographer, “there isn’t a life after Lucian,” he declares. For the David Dawson who prefers painting to photography, who’s been townscaping for two decades the views from his window on Ladbroke Grove and on the journey to Freud’s studio in Kensington Church Street, there’s certainly a life. He investigates in portraits the attraction between human beings. “Conceptually, it’s very interesting,” he remarks.
As for that long shadow, “I’m not worried about it at the moment. I had a rich life with Lucian.”
GODFREY BARKER IS AN ARTS COLUMNIST AND THE ARTS CORRESPONDENT FOR THE EVENING STANDARD, BBC AND BBC WORLD SERVICE.
[This article originally appeared in Sotheby's at Auction. To subscribe click here.]