I n the late autumn of 2013, I travelled to Los Angeles to visit David Hockney and sit for a portrait. Although I’d known him for years, this was the first time I’d been the model for one of his pictures, and the relationship between artist and sitter, I knew from previous experience, has its own particular characteristics. It’s not the same as chatting socially: the instant the session starts one of you becomes the viewer and the other the subject.
After a morning of sitting for David, I was searching for a memory. Somewhere before I had seen the look that he was giving me between applying one stroke of paint to his canvas and the next: an intent observant gaze over the top of his glasses. It wasn’t an expression I recognised from hundreds of hours of conversation and many meetings in Yorkshire, London and LA. But it was familiar.
Eventually I got it. This was precisely the scrutinising gaze that Lucian Freud had given him in the marvellous portrait he had painted of David over a decade before. And that in turn solved another mystery: it explained why when that Freud was first revealed to the world many of David’s circle didn’t think it was a good likeness.
This criticism, by the way, wouldn’t have bothered Lucian very much since he subscribed to Van Gogh’s dictum that a single person can provide the subject for many different portraits. He tended to treat the question of whether a certain picture was ‘like’ its subject more as an interesting but optional feature than a criterion of success or failure.
In this case however, clearly, he had caught an excellent likeness but of the sitter in a specific mode. This is a portrait by one great artist of another supreme painter. As such it belongs to a sub-genre which also includes several other works by Freud (including pictures of Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach and John Minton) and also Degas’s images of Manet. But within that category it falls into a smaller group because Hockney was observing him with the idea of producing portraits of his own. Effectively, he too was an artist at work.
So Lucian must have decided to paint Hockney in the act of sizing up him himself as a portrait subject. This fits with the understanding between the two men: that each would sit for the other. Subsequently Freud reneged on the deal, as Hockney complained at the time: "I collaborated with Lucian, but he didn't collaborate with me".
Hockney calculated that he sat to Freud for around 120 hours, always in the morning, the best time of the day for working. The Freud portrait of Hockney is a morning painting and so, by Lucian’s self-imposed rules, could not be painted at any other time of day. Afterwards, Lucian turned up to just two sittings for Hockney. On both occasions he fell asleep and on the second he complained of feeling ill and left early.
This later behaviour did not change the nature of the arrangement, though. This was intended to be an encounter between two masters of the portrait. And from the huge number of moods and expressions he would have seen on Hockney’s face during the hours of sitting, and over the years since they had first met in the 60s, Lucian selected this artist-in-the-act-of-observing look (Lucian too had certain looks movements and gestures one only saw when he was at work).
He always operated like this, choosing from everything he had noticed about a certain person, the particular aspects that he felt would suit a certain picture. Hockney’s face would have had all manner of expressions during all those hours, but the possibility of making that choice was part of the point of Lucian’s method. In that way, he could note a vast amount of information about a person, then use just what he felt would ‘help’ the picture. As Hockney puts it: “The portrait of me by Lucian Freud is a hundred and twenty hours and you see the layers". That, he argues is one reason why it's "infinitely more interesting’" than a photograph.
The picture is specific in terms of time and also place. It could only be worked on in the studio north of Holland Park where it began (and not in Freud’s other studio, half a mile away). So every day Hockney walked from his own London base in Kensington through the trees and greenery of the park. This journey had an unexpected consequence: Hockney noticed a phenomenon which he had almost forgotten.
"The first spring I saw in Britain for years - a little bit - was when Lucian Freud was painting me in 2002 and I used to walk up to his studio through Holland Park every day. I realised I hadn’t watched an English spring for 20 or more years. In California you do get springs, but they are very subtle." The more dramatic Spring of Northern Europe, of course, was to become one of Hockney’s most important themes in the years that followed.