Lucian Freud indicates a low leather chair and I sit down. “Does that pose seem reasonably natural?” he asks, “I try to impose my ideas on my sitters as little as possible”. It’s a cold late autumn day and, I am wearing a tweed jacket and a royal blue scarf. Perhaps, I suggest I could keep the scarf on for the picture.
LF agrees, but on certain points it soon turns out his will is law. I had thought that perhaps I could read while sitting, and had brought a book along with me, but no. “I don’t think I’m going to allow you to do that. I already see other possibilities.” He must have registered them almost instantly.
At this point LF makes chalk marks on the floor boards around the legs of the chair so that each time I come to the studio, we can replace it in precisely the same position with reference to the overhead light and his easel. Behind, he positions a battered black folding screen: the backdrop to my head.
Then he searches around for a suitably-sized canvas amongst the various ones leaning against the studio wall. The first he finds is discarded as it has a dent, which he says would sooner or later cause the paint to flake off. Then LF fishes another out of the corner and sets to work immediately, drawing in charcoal.
So it begins. This is how hour after hour will be spent, stretching for months into the future. Sitting in a pool of light in the dark studio, I start to muse and observe.
I have long been convinced that Freud is the real thing: a truly great painter living among us. When one afternoon over tea I – very tentatively – mentioned to him that if he wanted to paint me I would be able to find the time to sit, my motive was partly the standard one of portrait sitters: an assertion of my own existence. For various reasons, I was feeling rather down and being painted by Freud seemed a good way to push back against circumstances.
The other reason was a curiosity to see how it was done. After years of writing, talking and thinking about art, I was attracted by the prospect of watching a painting grow; being on the inside of the process. Even so, when I made that modest proposal, I didn’t really expect him to accept. Probably, I thought, Freud would say something politely non-committal on the lines of “That’s a nice idea, perhaps one day”. Instead, he responded by saying, “Could you manage an evening next week?”
I had known him for quite some time before that day, getting on for a decade. We had talked for many hours as friends, and as artist and critic. I had eaten innumerable meals in his company; together we had visited exhibitions and listened to jazz concerts. Dozens of times I had visited his studios, to look at recently finished pictures and work in progress. This, however, was different. This time, I was not looking at the picture, but being it – or at least its starting-point.