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Contemporary Art

Life with Lucian Freud

As a major publication spanning the complete works of Lucian Freud's career is published by Phaidon, we sat down with the editor, David Dawson — Freud's studio assistant, sitter and trusted friend — to discuss the book, life in the studio and the artist's legacy.

You’re very well known for being one of Lucian Freud’s models, but your relationship was obviously much more than that; you worked as his studio assistant and were a very close friend. Can you talk about the experience of life in his world?

David Dawson: I met him in around 1990. I was in the Royal College of Art and I had a part-time job with the art dealer James Kirkman. James took me to meet Lucian at his house and studio in Holland Park. From that day, Lucian and myself got on immediately and would speak on the phone everyday — he was really good fun to be around. Sometimes he would ask if I would run an errand, then it grew from there. He would ask me to come round to the studio, and I would organise the paint and prime the canvases; and it naturally evolved from that. It became a very strong working friendship and developed in a rather organic way. It wasn’t planned, it’s just how things happened.

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Lucian Freud, Reflection with Two children (Self-portrait), 1965. © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images; photography by John Riddy.

This remarkable publication is the definitive work on Freud’s life and work. What has working on the book allowed you to express that perhaps hasn’t been explored before?

It’s the most comprehensive overview of all his work so far, because it is complete. All the other publications were done when he was alive, so there were always one or two paintings that he had completed after publication. It also includes many things which haven’t yet been seen. Furthermore, it explores all aspects of his working methods; drawing, etching, painting; and I was very keen to sort of give a rhythm of how he worked.

Quite often he would do etchings after he’d painted someone’s portrait, because he then felt he knew the person’s face very well. He felt he could then make an etching very freely with all that information still in his head; and putting it in a graphic work that was much freer. Lucian worked every single day of his life, he was an artist that put many hours into his work; so I wanted that dedication to come across in the book as well.

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Volumes 1 and 2 of Lucian Freud, Martin Gayford, Edited by David Dawson and Mark Holborn.

You were in a very unique position to watch him at work in the studio daily. Was there anything about his creative process that surprised you?

His level of concentration. From crossing the threshold of the studio — the door to which was always kept shut — you felt he was really striving to make the best painting he could, and something historically important and ambitious. You always felt this intense level of concentration and a sense of real purpose in the studio. The quality of the work was just so high that it really took your breath away, it made all the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end when you suddenly saw these great, significant works being completed.

What was the studio like? — both the space and the objects in it.

If you were the model, there was only you and Lucian, that were ever in the studio; the door was closed, so it was a very safe, warm environment. There was no coming and going, no toing and froing of people; it was a still, concentrated, quiet place — and that was quite magical.

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Letters from Lucian Freud to Stephen Spender, 1940 and circa 1939-40.

The relationship between an artist and their model is one that’s fascinated people for hundreds of years – probably longer. What was it like to sit for Lucian Freud?

It was electric, because he was very interested in everything. If he was interested in you, that immediately gave you a certain amount of enjoyment coupled with the fact he was amazingly good company. He would tell jokes and recite funny limericks; he had a fantastic memory for poetry, so could reel off pretty much all of The Ancient Mariner. Lucian would always keep the model thoroughly entertained. But when he was concentrating on painting, it would go very still and very quiet. You’d have this natural ebb and flow of conversation, and then quietness.

How long were the sessions when you would sit for him?

It was either a day or night painting, so in either natural light or electric light. If it was a day, you’d start at seven thirty and work through to lunchtime; and then if it was an evening you’d start at six in the evening and work all the evening until midnight or one in the morning. You’d have three to four sessions a week, and then another sitter would do the other through the seven days.

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Lucian Freud, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, 1995. © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images; photography by John Riddy.

So it was quite an intense process?

Incredibly. And this would go on for months; so you had no sense or concept of time. You couldn’t look at your watch, you couldn’t think like that, you had to give in to it and just be. You could never ask when it would finish, because that’s not the point. It was like a time warp in that you had to just exist, and it would take a minimum of 12 months sometimes 18 months or two years, four times a week, and we would just talk. But that was the brilliance of Lucian; he really listened to what it was you were saying, and wouldn’t pass judgement on it. He was a great listener as well as a great conversationalist.

Could you talk about how the collaboration with Martin Gayford came about and how the project was initiated? I know that he also sat for Lucian.

I think the book Martin wrote about sitting for Lucian is a really accurate account of what the experience is like. He is really great writer on art so I was very keen to get Martin involved in this project. And he felt he still had something else to say about Lucian – so this was the perfect opportunity to write one strong, establishing essay at the beginning of the book, and then one on each decade. Each decade has its own moment, and Martin has produced a very clear, precise overview. We have chosen one iconic work for each section which we think sums up that period of time for Lucian.

When you go through the book, you begin to see the relationships that Lucian was having, and how these sitters came in and out of his life. You’d see a cluster of paintings of one person, then that would end, and then there would be a cluster of another person. You saw some portraits in the 1950s, and that person would reappear again in the 1980s. It is a very good overview of the people that were involved in Lucian’s life, and how they came in and out of it, through paint.

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Volume 2 of Lucian Freud, featuring Self-portrait: Reflection (2002). © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images; photography by John Riddy.

You are an artist yourself. What did working alongside him teach you about painting?

What I drew from him was a commitment and belief in yourself. It was also about finding your own language in paint. I’ve never wanted my work to look like Lucian’s, but watching him paint, and his decision making, and his choice of composition fed in to my practice. Because the paintings he did of me were large, the painting was always side on to me so I could see the front of the canvas and I could see every brush mark he made; that was brilliant. That was an internal way of learning, as I was quietly observing.

What do you feel when you look back at the finished works of yourself?

A lot of memories come flooding from when the painting was being made, that I’d forgotten about. I know it’s completely me, but it’s somehow a distant version of me. There’s one at Tate Britain in the All Too Human show, which I hadn’t seen it for six or seven years, and they always take me by surprise.

You are now the director of the Lucien Freud archive. What do you feel is your responsibility in terms of his legacy?

Just to make the paintings look as best they can, and that they are placed in the right context. Pretty simple really – it’s how Lucien worked. I try to follow on from the decisions he made, and the ethos he lived by.

Lucian Freud, by Martin Gayford and David Dawson, edited by Mark Holborn is published by Phaidon, and available to purchase here. All images courtesy of Phaidon.

David Dawson and Martin Gayford will appear in conversation at Art Out Loud on Saturday 22 September. The literary festival, which takes place at Chatsworth House is sponsored by Sotheby's.

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