Man With a Blue Scarf: on Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud

Man With a Blue Scarf: on Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud
Martin Gayford
Thames & Hudson, 248pp, £18.95

The older Lucian Freud gets - he will be 88 in a few months' time - the more generous he is about giving interviews and the more revealing those interviews are. But never before has he agreed to the publication of a piece of writing as extensive and telling as Martin Gayford's new book. From November 2003 to July 2004, Gayford sat to Freud for roughly 80 hours (40 sittings of approximately two hours each) for an oil portrait measuring 26 by 20 inches. Man With a Blue Scarf is based on diary entries made once each sitting and the subsequent dinner at one of Freud's favourite London restaurants - eating together being an integral part of the ritual of getting to know his sitters - were finished.

On one level, the book is an invaluable first-hand account of what it feels like to be painted by Freud. Gayford specialises in the kind of biography that focuses on a particular aspect of an artist's life, having written studies of Constable's long courtship of Maria Bicknell and of Van Gogh's brief, turbulent partnership with Gauguin. He compares the experience of being painted by Freud to a marriage, confessing: "I am spending more time with LF than with anyone except my wife and children, and more time just talking than with anyone at all."

In other words, far from remaining submissive, the sitter is expected to play an active part in the relationship. What interests Gayford is the shifting dynamics of this intense, intimate process and how they affect the portrait.

Time and memory are important themes. Freud has no clearer idea than Gayford whether the sittings will continue for weeks, months or a year. "Each painting," he says, "is an exploration into unknown territory." The author notices with alarm how his portrait sometimes seems to stand still, or even go backwards; at other times it evolves quickly, changing in min­ute, subtle ways according to his own moods. This leads Gayford to question whether human identity can ever be fixed in a single image. The end result is a kind of synthesis of his myriad facial expressions, as well as - to his dismay - of more obvious signs of ageing, every muscular twitch or centimetre of sagging flesh scrutinised, remembered and re-created in paint by the gimlet-eyed Freud.

Gayford realises in turn that Freud, too, "looks rather different from one sitting to the next", wondering if this explains why his self-portraits are very unlike each other. Freud's reply is characteristic: "Partly it is, yes, but partly also to do with not wanting to have a signature." Avoidance of a formula or method has been the only guiding principle of Freud's artistic career. Gayford remarks how idiosyncratic his way of painting is, with little or no preliminary underdrawing, the artist slowly working outwards from a "blob" in the middle of the canvas. Anything resembling a "composition" is suspect: "LF dislikes art that looks too much like art, and paintings that are too smoothly put together." For Freud, Poussin as well as most of Italian painting fall into this category, with the exception of Titian, whom he reveres, especially the two late Diana pictures owned by the National Gallery in London and the National Gallery of Scotland. "They have what every good picture has to have," he tells Gayford, "a little bit of poison . . . a sense of mortality."

Thus, on another level, the book is a sustained reflection on the art of painting. It is also an affectionate portrait, in words, of the artist. Gayford marvels at the sheer physical stamina required to maintain a schedule of sittings that would exhaust most people half Freud's age. There are some unintentionally comic moments. When Gayford wonders whether his portrait has affinities with a small head of David Hockney, Freud corrects him, saying that it is linked in his mind with the painting of the back end of a skewbald mare which he has recently finished at a stables in north London. At dinner one evening, after a long silence, Gayford asks Freud what he is thinking. He answers: "I was thinking about your ear."

Some 20 colour photographs by David Dawson, Freud's trusted assistant, are reproduced in the book. They vividly document life in the studio - the daily round of sitters, including Dawson himself and his whippet; night portraits, executed under brilliant electric light, alternating with daylight portraits; canvases in various stages of completion; the grotto-like interior of paint-encrusted walls, battered furniture and piled rags. Taken together, Gayford's observations and Dawson's photos provide a unique insight into the working habits of the greatest living painter of the human frame in all its infinite variety.

Richard Calvocoressi is director of the Henry Moore Foundation and co-author of "Lucian Freud on Paper" (Jonathan Cape, £50)

This article first appeared in the 27 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter