The composition and repeated pattern was executed, somewhat uniquely, originally for the purpose of a fabric design. In the 1940s, the British textile company Ascher engaged leading artists of the time such as Alexander Calder, Henry Moore and Henri Matisse and commissioned a series of design fabric. For Freud, who was possibly introduced to this concept by the patron Peter Watson, a butcher’s shop was the perfect subject. From an early age Freud maintained a profound keenness for animals, and particularly birds: "I have always been excited by birds. If you touch wild birds it's a marvelous feeling" (Lucian Freud cited in: William Feaver, 'Lucian Freud: Life into Art', in: Exh. Cat., London, Tate Britain, Lucian Freud, 2002, p. 23). Between the years of 1939 and 1942 Freud intermittently attended the programme founded by the British painters Arthur Lett-Haines and Cedric Morris, and it was the influence of the latter that profoundly impacted the artist's early style. The present work was completed when he returned to London and living in rented studios at Abercorn Place in St. John’s Wood with fellow artist John Craxton. It was in Craxton’s collection that this extraordinary work remained for over seventy years.
The composition of A Butcher’s Shop has been meticulously planned; constructed with four sheets of thick paper, each sheet connected to form the shape of a cross. A carefully laid out background is composed of lilac and ochre rectangles, which represent the white tiles that typically line the walls of a butcher’s shop. A pheasant, identifiable by the spotted markings to its body, is positioned between two dark gold forks. Below the pheasant, are sausages displayed in long curved lengths and bookended by cuts of meat. A small pastry pie is visible to the left of the coiled sausage, and below to the right what appears to be a small suckling pig wrapped in bacon. Finally, at the bottom of the repeating design, are three butcher’s hooks and a scale for weighing the food. As evident in this extraordinary work, in these early years, Freud demonstrated in only a short span, the discovery of “most of the themes that would later pre-occupy him: the vitality, even personality, of animals and plants; figures and objects viewed frontally and at close range” (Richard Calvocovessi, Ed., Exh. Cat., Edinburgh, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Lucian Freud: Early Works, 1997, p. 10).
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