OBSERVING INTIMATELY. David Dawson studied painting at the Chelsea School of Art and then at the Royal College of Art. Soon after completing his MA in 1991 he met Lucian Freud, becoming his studio assistant and friend for 20 years until Freud died in 2011. He was also the model for several paintings and documented the artist’s work in photographs. He is Director of the Lucian Freud Archive and until January 2023 the National Gallery in London is staging a landmark exhibition titled New Perspectives to mark the centenary of Lucian Freud’s birth in 1922.
Together with the writer Martin Gayford, David Dawson has recently published Love Lucian, The Letters of Lucian Freud 1939 -1954 with Thames & Hudson.
David Dawson, you come from Wales originally and are a painter and a photographer?
Yes, I am. I was brought up in a very remote hill farm in Wales and my enjoyment was painting and drawing as a young lad. I wanted to go out into the world and find a world for myself so I thought I’d leave the Welsh hills for a while and come to art school in London. As I graduated from the Royal College of Art and was studying painting the professor asked if I wanted a part time job with James Kirkman, who had been Lucian’s dealer for 20 or 30 years.
Then Lucian Freud asked you to work for him?
There was a fantastic relationship of art dealer and artist between James and Lucian but it was time that they parted ways and I happened to be there at that time. My passion was painting and my own work, but I found it extraordinary what Lucian was painting and I wanted to be part of Lucian’s working day. Lucian phoned and said to me, “Why don’t you just come and work directly with me?” It made more sense than me continuing with James on the art dealing side as I wasn’t interested in ever becoming an art dealer.
Was he interested in your art work?
Interested enough, but he did it in the right way, because if you’re an artist you have to find your own language and your own path. He was encouraging in a gentle way. The way Lucian worked I’d always be there first thing in the mornings and then in the evenings, so the afternoons were free. So I could continue painting, but if Lucian wanted something then I would get that organised immediately. I was helping him in various ways, but I never, ever touched his canvases. He painted everything, but I prepared. I made his life more streamlined so all he had to worry about was his painting.
Was it a big choice of yours that during this long 20 years period of your life you were close to this giant and not so focused on your own work?
It was. It blew my mind when he first took me into the studio and there was a big half-finished painting, the first painting of Leigh Bowery, on the easel. This big naked man who was a nightclub performer. I thought it was one of the greatest paintings. This was extraordinary what was happening in front of me. I wanted to see this. All throughout the time, I thought what’s happening is very, very, very special, how this man is painting. I was very happy to be involved in it. I knew I was putting him first, which as a contemporary artist probably doesn’t help me, but I was happy to witness this and be part of it. I don’t feel any regrets in any way. It’s an extraordinary body of work I watched over 20 years.
“It’s an extraordinary body of work I watched over 20 years.”
Leigh Under the Skylight, 1994 (oil on canvas). Lucian Freud (1922-2011). Private Collection.
LUCIAN FREUD ARCHIVE (BRIDGEMAN COPYRIGHT)
David Dawson, was Lucian Freud very meticulous about his paints and his canvases?
One of the first things he taught me when I walked into the studio was how to look after his canvases and to always have them balanced against the wall, never let anything jab into the backs of them because it would make a ripple effect on the surface of the canvas of the painting. He was really careful how he looked after his canvases and he really knew his paint colours as well. He knew how he could work with certain colours. He had a very precise, quite large range of colours.
How did he use the colours?
He’d hold a handheld palette and he’d mix each colour for every brushstroke almost, and then put maybe just one or two touches with his brush. Then clean that whole palette off and mix another colour. That’s partly where the slowness came in, the mixing of colours. Where the paint tubes lay was just one massive heap on a tabletop, and every now and again, he’d say, “Oh, can you just clear these up a bit?” and I’d put them in a colour code, from dark browns to greens to blues to yellows etc.. Within a day it had gone. It was just chaos again! But that was how he liked to work. He liked looking for certain tubes of paint. It gave him time to think. It slowed everything down for him.
Why did you become his model?
I’d known him for six years before he said one morning, “I’ve got an idea for quite a large painting, would you sit?” My only question was, “Naked or clothed?” He said, “Naked,” and that was it. We started, and for the first painting it was four or five mornings a week, and it became the central painting. Lucian always had four or five paintings on the go, but then as they progress one becomes the dominant painting in the studio. For the first large painting it took 18 months.
You were lying on the bed?
I was lying on the bed, naked, which for the first two or three goes you’re slightly self-conscious but then, because you’re doing a job in an artist’s studio posing on the bed for the artist to paint, your self-consciousness disappears and it’s only ever you and Lucian in the room. Lucian was really good company and it would be a natural flow of conversation. It wasn’t a monologue from Lucian. It was like he was fascinated by you; he was asking you questions all the time and then telling you funny stories so you developed this really intimate friendship, uniquely between you and him. I think every model would say the same thing but he kept everyone separate, so you didn’t really come together.
How was the work in progress?
Oh it was fascinating, and the lucky thing for me was because he chose to make large paintings I could always see the canvas being worked on. If they are smaller canvas and you’re the sitter you tend to just see the back of the canvas, but I could see him working on every painting he did of me. I could watch him making his decisions on paint colour and how he’d put it on the canvas. For me, it was the best thing. Whoever he was painting at the time he was very involved with, so it would be natural that they would go out for supper in the evenings or go out to a party or after painting at night. When Lucian was painting he was absolutely focused on you in an incredibly intense way. He was watching you and your habits, and your mannerisms and your nervous twitches. He always felt that it was much better that he knew the person really well to have a chance that the painting would be a good painting.
How did his painting of the Queen come about?
He was great friends of Robert Fellowes, who at the time was the Queen’s Private Secretary. Lord Fellowes suggested the idea, the Queen said yes, Lucian said yes, and it happened.
Why did he do such a very small painting of the Queen?
Partly to do with the practicalities of work. In painting so slowly if you had any chance at all of finishing a portrait of the Queen it needed to be fairly small, because the Queen would only give a certain amount of sittings. It would always be 2 hours, and the Queen did 19 sittings. A courtier would always be there, one of the women courtiers. I used to take my whippet in. I knew she liked dogs. They would speak a lot about horses, and they’re of the same generation so they would know people in common and horse owners and horse trainers.
Were you there when he painted David Hockney?
I was around. He admired Hockney’s mind, thought he was a great artist who really knew himself and was rather worldly, always quizzing and asking questions. Lucian’s closest friend was Frank Auerbach and every time a painting was close to finishing he would ask Auerbach in for a very early breakfast at home, and they’d both talk quite intensely and in depth, eating scrambled eggs quite often; or in the season it would be a grouse or a partridge.
“When he was younger, he would gamble everything to lose everything and then paint.”
David Dawson, Lucian Freud had a great number of children and eventually grandchildren?
It’s spoken about that he didn’t see the children so much when they were younger, but when they became teenagers a lot of them sat for paintings for him. They had their relationship with their father in the studio. He was a loving father in his way. I suppose you could say he put his painting first, but he had a lot of love for them and cared for them. He didn’t live in the same house as them, but they were very much around. The children would have his phone number, but he was the one that was phoning when it suited him.
Was his mother still alive when you were there?
No, she died before I met him. When his father died his mother went into a very strong depression, and Lucian, in his really practical, loving way, went to pick her up every day, bring her to the studio, and he painted her for seven or eight years. But then one day, he told me, his mother said, “Oh, I feel better now. So everything’s okay.” He saw her through this very dark period in her life.
Did he like to talk about his family background and about being Jewish?
He spoke fondly of his grandfather, because he was a teenager in London at the time his grandfather was here, and that bond between the teenager and the grandfather can come quite close. Isaiah Berlin came to sit and that was extraordinary, hearing them talk about Judaism. Lucian was secular, but he was very openly talking about where he comes from, his roots as being a Jew. Religion wasn’t part of him. He was of this world. He didn’t need to go towards religion in any way. Jewish was his roots and it was obvious, and he would never, ever, ever deny it, but religion didn’t play a part in it.
Did he want to be considered English?
No. He was always his own person. He still had a slight German accent, rolled his Rs. That’s what is so exciting about this book The Letters of Lucian Freud, 1939-1954. Very caring parents, and his mother kept an awful lot of his letters, so they’re all in there, all in German at the beginning and slowly become anglicised. In the 70s Lucian still spoke in German to his mother. What you get from these early letters is that the energy out of this young boy was there from the beginning, and his choices, and how he lived his life. It was the same when he was 9 years old to when he was 80 years old.
Was he interested in money?
He quite enjoyed when his prices were becoming world records. He found it amusing and rather liked that, but from him not having any money to having a lot of money didn’t seem to change him at all. He could buy great paintings with all the money, and he did, and he bought all his children houses and flats, but it didn’t change him.
It is well known that he was a gambler. Was he still gambling when you knew him?
He was still gambling when I met him. He would give me bags of money to go and stick on a horse. I was a young painter with no money and I was thinking “Oh, that would be so useful.” Losing exhilarated him. When he was younger, he would gamble everything to lose everything and then paint. It was a weird combination of energising, freeing, freeing himself up. It was something internal that that’s what he did for many years. It was mainly horses, it wasn’t the tables like Bacon.
Why did he stop?
The gambling stopped as he became richer. When I first met him, he was still putting on very creative big bets; he would do these amazing combinations. I was with him once and he won £1,000,000 in one bet. He’d win, but he was in debt for millions so if you’ve won a million it would shorten the debt but it was still a debt. Later, when he had money, he couldn’t gamble all his money away so he just stopped and never gambled again. It was irrelevant. He had the most extraordinary willpower. He had it as a young boy and he willed his life and shaped it the way he wanted it.
Was he moody?
No, never moody. He had the most impeccable manners. He contained it. The day Leigh Bowery died was the day I saw him cry. Leigh meant an awful lot to him and we weren’t aware that he was ill, and then suddenly he just went downhill very quickly. It was all a bit of a shock.
What about his friendship with Francis Bacon?
Bacon shaped his life as a young painter enormously, but after 20 or so years they drifted apart. A number of little things caused an ending of friendship. Once Francis wanted to borrow one of the paintings back, The Buggers, and Lucian wouldn’t lend it to an exhibition and that spoilt things, and then it just deteriorated. Then Francis took a swipe at him for accepting an honour by the Queen. Lucian also lost a little bit of respect, thought Francis’s paintings had gone off a bit, didn’t have the punch or the potency that his earlier work did. Lucian didn’t really believe in the later work as much and Francis would pick up on that.
How did he manage to be friendly with very simple people, very naughty people sometimes, and at the same time be part of upper class English life?
It’s like he lived ten lives in one. As I said earlier, he never introduced people to each other. He kept everyone separate. He would compartmentalise his friendships. He had very close friendships with women that he knew when very young and continued all his life. He was very friendly with his exes. It was so touching that the last few days of Caroline Blackwood’s life she phoned Lucian up, and I could hear them talking on the phone all afternoon for the last two or three days. Just the two of them. I got out of the way, I did not want to hear what they were talking, but it was very intimate and gentle and loving. I thought it was so Lucian; and you learn from that to have this amazing intimacy.
How was Lucian’s relationship with his new dealer, William Acquavella?
After Lucian split up with James Kirkman he just continued painting. It didn’t change Lucian’s life. Without any galleries he did all these amazing paintings of Leigh Bowery, and Big Sue was starting. All these big paintings were in the studio and when David Somerset introduced Lucian to Bill Acquavella Bill came round to the studio, said, “Gee, these are fantastic” and bought the whole lot, there and then. Bill Acquavella and Lucian did everything on a handshake, and that was one of the best artist dealer relationships going. Bill and Lucian were a perfect match, at the right time. And also, they lived in different countries. Lucian just got on with what he wanted to do and how he wanted to paint. Bill thought they were fantastic works and didn’t in any way impose anything on Lucian. They became a really close friendship.
David Dawson and his father in Wales.
Photo taken by Mike Berry in 1984.
Bella, 1981 (oil on canvas). Lucian Freud (1922-2011). Private Collection.
LUCIAN FREUD ARCHIVE (BRIDGEMAN COPYRIGHT)
Bella and Esther, 1987-88 (oil on canvas). Lucian Freud (1922-2011). Private Collection.
LUCIAN FREUD ARCHIVE (BRIDGEMAN COPYRIGHT)
David Dawson, c.1998 (charcoal on paper). Lucian Freud (1922-2011). Private Collection.
LUCIAN FREUD ARCHIVE (BRIDGEMAN COPYRIGHT)
Queen Elizabeth II, 2001 (c-type photo). David Dawson (b.1960). Private Collection.
DAVID DAWSON (BRIDGEMAN COPYRIGHT)
Lucian Freud and David Hockney, 2002 (photo). David Dawson (b.1960).
DAVID DAWSON (BRIDGEMAN COPYRIGHT)
“The way he used his intelligence is exciting and unique.”
David Dawson, did Lucian Freud travel?
Occasionally, but he didn’t like travelling much when he was older, he just wanted to be in the studio every day. When the Channel Tunnel was built, we could go on the train to Paris for the day and be back in the evening and he’d be back in the studio painting, so that worked well. He had a lot of early life in Paris, and we’d go and see the Courbet, and the Constable exhibition that he was involved in choosing the paintings for, and then get the train back. We went three or four times; and then we did the show at the Pompidou.
He used to go often to the National Gallery didn’t he?
Yes, Lucian would go to the National Gallery to see how artists worked things out for themselves. I really wanted to get that idea across for this exhibition New Perspectives. He didn’t want to look at their manner of painting, but how they painted, themselves, how they worked it out. Because I was with him every day quite often I’d pop in with him; and then he did do a painting of the Chardin schoolteacher which he painted there, in front of the painting, so there was a whole few months of going in two or three times a week to paint that.
In daily life, were you eating with him?
Yes. He ate well. High quality produce, cooked simply. He would cook or we could go to close-by Clarke’s. Sally Clarke is a great cook, and he liked her. He liked the way she prepared food and his was a very, very disciplined life – routine was a major part of it. Even though he would always say he hated habit, he was the most habitual person, because if you’re painting you’re so hyped up. He’d be in the studio most of the day, and he’d do it seven days a week. He would rest in the afternoon and then start an evening painting at around 6:00 and that would go on. When he was younger it had gone to one in the morning. He was really charged up to paint. If things weren’t going well he made you nervous. He was very, very agitated. You see him struggling hard. He was really hard with himself, and there is that quote that he paints himself because he wants to know what he puts his sitters through. A nice thing to say; and it’s true.
How did his use of light work when he was working 8 hours through all different times of day, mornings and the evenings?
The morning paintings were always under daylight, then he’d rest in the afternoon, and in the evenings from 6:00 it was always with electric light. Even in the summer you’d have to wait to allow that light. The painting could never swap from one time of day to the other, it was specific to the times of day, and if you started in daylight it had to always be daylight, because the colour range for Lucian was just too extreme. He’d always have four or five paintings on the go, and the balance is that one person would come in the mornings 3 to 4 times a week, and then someone else would come in 2 to 3 times. He’d balance out the sitters and there’d be like two or three in the morning, two or three going on at night.
He always started at 8am?
He would complain if somebody was late. Punctuality was a really big deal, because he hyped himself up to get ready to paint. If you were late, it totally threw him out. I’d always go around there around 7 to 8 in the morning. It got a little bit later as he got older, understandably, but at the beginning he’d already be up and I’d be there before to set up the studio, ready for 8am sitters. He was anxious and ready to go. He built himself up, so if the sitters were late it threw him completely and he would not put up with that, they were out the door. It happened two or three times. It really threw him.
Did he go away for a holiday?
When he was younger he would move around a fair bit. You can see from the book that as soon as he gets out of London post-War he was in Paris straightaway and was going off with very grand folk around the South of France; and then he went to Greece with Johnny Craxton. But as he got more and more and more involved into this particular way of this intensity of working in the studio it was completely all encompassing and he never ever liked leaving it.
Was he concerned by his health and getting older?
Not overly. He didn’t change. He just got weaker and older, and it was an honour to be around him and help when you could. Luckily he never spent long periods in hospital. He was at home the whole time. We went into the studio every day, and it was extraordinary to see he could really function. His brain muscles for painting came back into life and he could paint, maybe only for 10 minutes but it was working. The painting that’s at the National Gallery, the last painting of me, two weeks before he died he did the last work. It was a very short span where he was, at the end, too weak to go down into the studio and he just lay in bed and passed on quietly. It was very gentle; very sad.
You keep working on his memory and are a Director of the Lucian Freud Archive?
How Lucian worked it out was that it’s myself and the lawyer who also worked very closely with Lucian; we are the two directors, so we can make decisions quite quickly. As I knew the work rather well Lucian wanted me to have the final decision as to how things evolve. All I do is through the Bridgeman Art Library, who manage copyright of images, so if there’s things I don’t particularly like, well, I can not give image rights, which stops a few things; but I don’t want to be too heavy handed on this. I don’t think it’s healthy for one person to control things. You want everyone to have their own say, but I can slightly guide things.
Your photographs are your own?
Yes, they are my copyright. Lucian said that. I published a book a few years ago and that’s probably the best photographs. Lucian really thought that first photo I took of him with David Hockney was a great photograph, and pushed it out into the newspapers and had it shown. From then on I would photograph with a little Leica automatic, point and shoot when I felt a certain interesting point in a painting. Now I paint. I still take a few photographs, but I think the subject of the photographs is much more important and I had a great subject in Lucian.
How would you describe your own painting work?
My painting is very tied up with the land in Wales where I was brought up. Formative years is what shapes you as an artist, or as a person, so I go back to the hills that I know very, very, very well and feel a connection with and start the paintings from there. I paint plein air outside in the land and bring them into London, work on them a little in London, take them back out to see.
Lucian’s landscape became the human body. Did you see him making a self-portrait?
I was around when the naked self-portrait was being painted, it was done with mirrors, so he’s already painting a mirror reflection and he’s holding a knife instead of a paintbrush. A little bit of juggling going on, but that very late self-portrait done with a woman is, I think, one of the great paintings of an older artist who’s just on the top of his abilities with paint and just letting go.
Is there a lot of difference between his work when he was young and old?
Yes, and the quality doesn’t drop. That’s what’s extraordinary as an artist. The paintings are very different. In some ways they’re very, very different. And how he approaches the paint. But that individuality and specificity of each person, object, chair is there from the beginning, and it’s there at the end. That doesn’t change.
Are the early and later works valued equally in the world’s auction houses?
Some people consider certain paintings more ambitious, or more the “real Freud”. In November there’s a great painting of Lucian’s being sold, the big “After Watteau” painting of four people on the bed in the studio that has been sold before and was always a world record price. It’s the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation selling it. That is considered one of his great paintings. When I did a monograph on him we set the book out such that we put a defining painting for each decade, and that’s another way of selecting what we think is the greatest.
Which one of his paintings did he really like?
He really liked And The Bridegroom, which is a big, big portrait of Leigh Bowery lying on the bed with his wife Nicola next to him. He thought that was one of his best. That’s one he really liked. He was in his late twenties when he did Hotel Bedroom, Caroline Blackwood lying in bed and he’s standing behind the bed; again a play of mirrors. That lives in the Beaverbrook Museum in Canada. He has done masterpieces from early on, all through his life.
What has impressed you most about his paintings?
The way he used his intelligence is exciting and unique. When you look at his paintings, it’s only Lucian that could have painted them. In his paintings he brings out a sensation that you recognize, and you wouldn’t have seen it before in humanity or in human endeavour or human relationships. He can bring out some sensation through painting that’s new; you haven’t thought about it – and then you see it. I love the way he can paint a person and an animal together, and there’s a painting of the dog with Susanna and the whippet is in her hand, and you see the way she’s got her hand like this, you see the underside of her arm and the underside of the dog’s belly; and this connection of the dog’s nose in her other hand is so intimate. People have said he painted people like animals. There’s a bit of something in that, but it’s not quite true. People are people. What was, I think, really lovely and which I still really like about his naked portraits, is that he painted the reality of that person. We seem to have this obsession that no one’s ever good enough and you have to attain to have a better body. You’re never good enough. Maybe that is coming out of a religion, this ideal that we’re never good enough and you have to improve. He knocks all that on his head, because he’s just making the most extraordinary painting that you are good enough, you are here. You’re sitting on this bed or on this chair, and you look amazing. And that is what I like.
What did he think should art be?
Art should be something, as he said, which surprises you, which defines you, which is influenced by outside events; but you will it through to make a unique painting that defines all of those aspects, that can disturb you, but the real thing is the truth from yourself, not halted or broken. You can see a truth coming out of you, through your hand, through your eyes, onto the canvas, and there’s no barriers between that so the viewer, looking at the painting, gets your truth.
Dvid Dawson, thank you very much for this conversation.
Cropped portrait of David Dawson in the studio London is copyright James Clifford Kent 2022.
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