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Portrait of the Artist: The Day I Met Lucian Freud

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Lucian Freud, who died in 2011 aged 88, was almost as well known for his obsessive privacy as for the stark nudes and portraits he painted; he rarely gave interviews, refusing point-blank to be famous. But over 30 years ago, The Gloss beauty editor, Sarah Halliwell, was lucky enough to get a rare glimpse of the man behind the paintings. As a major retrospective opens in London this month, she remembers a private viewing with the artist himself …

1988 was exam year for me and, as part of Art A-level, I had to write about an artist. I’d recently been to an exhibition in London and been drawn to a portrait by a painter called Lucian Freud. When I suggested the idea, my art teacher’s reaction was deflating: “Who? What kind of stuff does he do? Is he even still alive? Why not do Rembrandt instead?” Yep, another 3,500 words on the most written-about artist who ever lived. To be fair, this was just before Freud’s paintings began to smash sale prices at auction – he was not yet a household name. But he soon would be. A retrospective of Freud’s work was opening in London’s Hayward Gallery in February. I decided from the outset that I would try and contact Freud himself. I’d love to say this was an early sign of journalistic tenacity but, really, I was just being bolshy, and trying to prove a point to the teacher. So I began my research – a laborious process from the confines of an English boarding school, pre-internet.

The Hayward studiously ignored my letters, but I also badgered magazines and newspapers that had published articles about Freud. Elle’s art director was encouraging and sent me the address of Freud’s agent, James Kirkman. Frustrated by silence from the Hayward, and with few other leads, I wrote to Kirkman and asked baldly if I could talk to Mr Freud, or at least write him a letter. “I know you must be very busy, with the ongoing exhibition and everything,” I wrote cheerfully, “but I’d be really grateful…”. He replied, fairly succinctly: “By all means write to Lucian Freud c/o me. It’s possible that you’ll get an answer, but more likely that it will be greeted with silence!” With Rembrandt looking an increasingly likely prospect, I wrote a long, enthusiastic letter to Mr Freud. “I wrote to the Guardian art critic and asked several questions about your work but he couldn’t answer them, so I hoped I could ask you instead,” I explained. I posted it, and started reading up on Dutch 17th-century portraits.

It was late February. Less than a week later, an envelope arrived for me, the writing on the front child-like and painstaking. “Dear Sarah, I’m not a very good letter-writer but, when you come to London again, we could meet and I would certainly try and answer your questions. The best times for me would be after 4.30pm or after one in the morning. Any day. If I answered your letter it would become the longest letter I have ever written. Lucian Freud.” Arranging to meet was a little complicated. To contact the outside world you had to queue for a payphone in the hall, standing in a nearby cupboard for any semblance of privacy. But now I had a date and time. And on March 10, I arrived at an imposing white stucco house in Holland Park, one of London’s poshest areas. The gaudy tales of Freud’s gambling, young mistresses and countless love-children meant that my parents back home were anxious, muttering about his “reputation”, which naturally made the whole thing even more exciting. At the pre-arranged time I rang the bell and was buzzed up. It felt like thousands of stairs to the top, and I remember seeing the artist’s legs and paint-splattered apron, a bit like a butcher’s, from beneath as I came up. I also remember him locking numerous heavy locks up and down the door once I was inside, and my heart standing still for a second. The apartment was not large, and the bare boards and sparse furnishings made it feel like Freud had just moved in – although by this time he had been there for nearly a decade. We sat in the sombre sitting room, where I tried not to gawp at the enormous Francis Bacon on the wall, or the Auerbach, or at Freud himself, and drank black coffee.

He had the pallor of someone who rarely saw daylight – pale, waxy skin, drawn tight over a sharply defined bone structure – and traces of a German accent on the softly rolled Rs; he was born in Berlin in 1922. We sat across from each other, and talked. In retrospect, of course, I kick myself for not bringing a tape recorder – but then it really wasn’t that kind of a meeting. He said the questions I’d asked were some he often asked himself. “I see very few people,” he told me, “and write very few letters – just the people I’m interested in.” He said he received a lot of letters from people “trying to be very erudite” about his work – usually journalists, he sniffed dismissively – and they didn’t interest him. He found articles about him irritating: apart from harping on about his famous grandfather they usually get things totally wrong, he said. And anyway, he didn’t want to justify his paintings.

“People say, ‘You must see so much more than me’, but I see no more than anyone else, of course. It’s just how you see the paintings, yourself, that matters.”

“I have no interest in talking about my work,” he explained. “If I have to explain my paintings I’d feel I had failed to do what I intended. The portraits must speak for themselves. And the reaction inspired should be individual not universal.” His paintings have always unsettled and unnerved people, particularly the naked portraits. But, he said, “people constantly misunderstand my intentions”. He recalled a guy with a plastic ear who wrote and said: “You’ll probably want to paint me”. “I’m not painting aberrations,” he said, emphatically, “but things and people that interest me. I paint for myself.” He described painting as an immense exertion, both emotionally and physically – even self-portraits. “You might think it’s easier to paint your own face: after all, you look at it in the mirror every day, and you are well acquainted with it,” he said. “But it’s just as difficult as any portrait, if not more so – your mood inevitably comes to bear and completely influences the overall effect, despite your original intentions.”

We talked for several hours – I remember the room grew dark, but Freud didn’t put the lights on and kept talking. And I remember him being quiet, incredibly courteous, funny, charming and, most of all, treating me as an equal though I was clearly just a gauche 17-year-old. I scrawled my impressions of him down in my notebook on the way home: “Shy, kind, intense, humorous, reticent, self-conscious, completely unpretentious.” Then we went through into his studio next door, a larger, scruffy room that was at once completely familiar: the oxblood-red leather sofa, its stuffing oozing out; the paint-daubed piles of rags; the thick gunk of brushstrokes by the door; the views over grey London rooftops. It was like stepping into one of his paintings. Electrifying. On the far wall were the sink and pipes I recognised from Interior (after Watteau), 1981-3; Freud told me he had exposed the pipes deliberately to include in this work. The studio was lined with paintings facing the wall, and he put them onto the easel in turn, asking, “What do you think of this one?” I think it was the first time that any adult had asked my opinion with such intense interest. “People say, ‘You must see so much more than me,’” he told me, “but I see no more than anyone else, of course. It’s just how you see the paintings, yourself, that matters.”

The works in progress included a self-portrait, and a larger picture of two men lying on a bed, the outer edges roughly sketched in (Two Men, 1987-8). He told me he always had seven or eight paintings on the go, with “day” ones lit from the large skylight in the roof, the “night” ones by a mega-watt bulb. “While I’m working on one,” he said, “I like to forget any others exist.” We discussed his exhibition at the Hayward and I told him I loved the bold Self Portrait of 1985, but found the elaborate gold frame distracting. “Freud agreed that perhaps this painting needed something simpler,” I noted rather importantly in my book. Strangely enough, though, later that year I went to his exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, at his invitation, and when I reached this painting, I found it had been re-framed in the most simple wood.

It was thoroughly dark by now. He led me into the kitchen to use the phone, and it was the most basic room you can imagine, with bare plaster walls, an old cooker and a kettle. “Please don’t tell anyone my address,” he asked gently as I left. “Not because I’m neurotic – but because I like my privacy.” I took the photo of him with my basic little Kodak and prayed it would come out; when it was developed I was struck how forbidding he looked – so different to how he’d seemed to me. It wasn’t until later I read how much Freud detested having his photograph taken. And that was that. We corresponded several more times after the meeting; when I wrote to thank him, he replied, “I certainly enjoyed meeting you…” and suggested I contact him when next in London. “We could go for a meal…” But time passed, I began university and didn’t get to London. I lost my nerve, I guess. With every newspaper article declaring him the world’s greatest living artist, I became more nervous about contacting him, wasting his time. I have very few regrets, but this is certainly one of them – I’ll always wonder what might have been. But as experiences go, it was unforgettable.

“Lucian Freud: The Self-portraits” is at the Royal Academy of Arts, London from October 27 2019 January 26 2020.

This article first appeared in the February 2012 edition of The Gloss Magazine.

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