Skip to content
Lucian Freud in his studio by David Dawson

By Rachel Campbell-Johnston

The west London studio of Lucian Freud: it’s the place where Kate Moss could recline without clothes on; where Leigh Bowery would pose, but without his greasepaint; where Jerry Hall was prepared to expose her swollen pregnancy; where David Hockney was the sitter not the painter. Here society beauties sprawled without genteel restraint. And Freud, like some predatory creature, observed all of them. He was watching and waiting for an inner truth to come out.

Freud stalked humanity; captured it in his paintings. His studio space was his natural habitat. It was here that, stripped of camouflage, his subjects stood revealed. It was here too that he could turn his unsparing scrutiny on himself.

This month a Royal Academy exhibition becomes the first to focus on the ruthlessly honest pictures that Freud painted of himself. He is one of the rare 20th-century artists who consistently took themselves as a subject across the years. This show, displaying more than 50 self-portraits – paintings, etchings and drawings – begins with the earliest known portrait of 1939, with the face of a 17-year-old filling the canvas. It runs to a leanly angular image that was executed 64 years later. The clear stare of the former has given way to a pouchy peer, but the scrutiny remains as intense. And in both pictures Freud seems to have the same scarf.

These portraits will capture the evolution of an artist as he moved from the exactitude of a youthful style towards an ever freer, looser and more overtly painterly technique. They will show us a human being who, through long self-contemplation, captures the frank truth about flesh as it ages. But more than that, they will offer us an insight into the artist’s psyche. Freud, as he faces up to himself with an unflinching honesty, is presented as a modern-day answer to Rembrandt.

“I always used to say to Lucian that he out to do a self-portrait show,” says David Dawson, an artist who worked for Freud as a studio assistant from the late 1980s. “Lucian would say to me, ‘You do that when I’m dead.’”

Freud, Dawson goes on to explain, was a fiercely private person. He spent most of his time sequestered in his studio. After breakfast at Clarke’s, a neighbouring restaurant where he would customarily take coffee and eat a pain aux raisins while perusing the newspapers and going through his diary, his day would be divided into two working shifts. A morning session lasted from eight to one. Then, after an afternoon nap, he would begin an evening stint at six. That could extend late into the night. “Freud’s studio,” Dawson says, “was his world.”

This is the world of which Dawson is now the custodian. On the artist’s death in 2011, at the age of 88, he left his assistant his former London home in his will. And now Dawson has invited The Times into its private spaces.

A passerby would never suspect what lies beyond the elegant three-bay façade of the terraced building on Kensington Church Street. The house, with its symmetrical pattern of sash windows, its dark paneled door with arched fanlight and old-fashioned lamp bracket, looks smartly conventional. On the morning I visit, rush-hour traffic fumes impatiently along the road, while nannies trot anxiously after children on scooters. A chartered accountant slips into his office next door. But as I climb the worn steps that lead from the pavement, life the latch of the wrought-iron gate and pass beyond the railings, I am stepping into a piece of postwar art history.

The studio is upstairs. The first floor rooms are the grandest, Dawson explains. They have the highest ceilings. The space is organized into two halves that can be partitioned by folding doors. One is the day studio, its floor-to-ceiling French windows opening out to a view of the garden, a manicured space with graveled paths and clipped hedges. It is a long way from the rubbish-dumb backyards that Freud painted from the windows of his former Paddington haunt. There is no electricity in this half of the room. Freud wanted only natural light.

The other half of the room is the night studio. The wooden shutters on the windows were always closed- except in one painting, Dawson notes; one of Hall breastfeeding. In that you can see up the slope of the opposite street and, for those in the know, recognize a single far-off figure. This space is lit by four dangling bulbs with wide metal shades. Each can be dimmed individually. The light and intensity of shadow were strictly controlled.

Both spaces are sparely furnished. “Lucian never wanted to make the studio anything more important than a working room,” Dawson says. Above the dado paneling, the plaster is raw umber. “It’s oil paint thinned down with turps and sloshed on by his stepson,” Dawson says. “Freud chose that colour because it blocks light.”

If you know Freud’s work, you will immediately recognize the furnishings: the battered old screen in one corner; the worn leather armchair bulging its woolly stuffing (“it was given to him by Freddie Ashton; I think the mice have helped themselves to it”); the simple iron bed with its plain white quilt; the encrusted paint on the walls. In an attempt to keep the floor at least relatively clean, Freud would wipe his brushes on the walls, Dawson says. A pair of scissors that he used to trim his brushes has been stabbed, for safekeeping into the dried sludge.

Heaped in corners are those stained piles of linen familiar from the Tate canvas Standing by the Rags. Freud would hook these ripped lengths of cloth through his belt like an apron, Dawson says, and wipe brushes on them, before discarding them.

Piles of twisted oil tubes lie higgledy-piggledy on a table by the easel. Hundreds of dirty brushes, their bristles all-but ossified, lie in heaps. In the corner is the store cupboard where the painter kept his stash of flake white – a pigment that was banned because it was dangerously high in lead. Freud, who loved its textural density, stockpiled. Dawson hands me a tin. I feel my arm drop at the unexpected weight. “Lucian would go for a toxicity test once a year,” Dawson says, “and then eat a lot of one vitamin - ’ve forgotten which one – which would flush the poisons out.”

Over the 30 or so years that Freud worked here, this studio became more than a mere backdrop. It was integral to the painting. “Lucian couldn’t paint the background bed or floor or wall without the sitter being there,” Dawson says. “A person’s presence affected everything. The painting was about the sitter and the sitter affected the atmosphere in the room.”

Everything, for Freud, was about the individual, Dawson explains. And that didn’t just apply to people; the grain of the wood on the dark oak floorboards, the paint stains on the walls, the piles of rags, all were made subjects in their own right. “I work from the people that interest me, and that I care about and think about, in rooms that I live in and know,” Freud once said.

When Freud died Dawson shut the doors and locked them. “It was instinctive,” he says. “It was always very quiet in this room. It is full of that stillness that comes from intense concentration; from repeatedly doing the same actions all day every day. It’s full of an atmosphere of waiting – of waiting to achieve a great painting. You need to concentrate to do that and to concentrate you need to be still and quiet.”

On the walls, a few words are scribbled. “Uniform,” for instance: a reference, Dawson explains, to the uniform that Andrew Parker Bowles wore for the painting known as The Brigadier. “Masseuse” says another. Freud had a massage once a week to ease his shoulders. Some are just shopping lists of pigments. “NYP” means Naples yellow pale. “Rust” is transparent red oxide. Others are more enigmatic. Why did he write “celibate,” I wonder aloud. Dawson laughs. “I don’t know. I don’t think he knew what that word meant. Maybe he was trying to spell it.”

Freud wrote on the walls, Dawson says, “because he found it the most efficient way to communicate with me, to tell me what he needed… Everything Lucian did had a practical purpose,” he explains. “He always kept his eye on his weight, for example, not out of vanity, but because he had to stand up all the time to paint. He would almost skit around as he worked, like a dance. We also did a lot of juicing carrots because it was good for his eyes.”

There is even a reason for what, to the outsider, might look like chaos, Dawson explains. As Freud fiddled about looking for a particular pigment among a pile of squashed tubes, or as he tried out a tone on the wall, he was using the time to think, to make decisions. “It was all part of the concentration,” Dawson says.

Freud was keen on animals. “I think he loved the idea of being a biologist.” He liked dogs, although it was Freud who had to walk them. “He loved horses. It went back to his childhood, when he was sent to school at Dartington. He couldn’t speak English and he spent most of his first two years on the farm with the horses. Late in life he rode the cobs from the nunnery on Wormwood Scrubs.”

With people, Dawson says, Freud was nonjudgmental. “He was the most open person I have come across. He had an enormous sense of human understanding – and of not being afraid of good and evil. Morals didn’t come into it. Though of course he made his own morals.”

Which were? I ask, thinking of all the sensational gossip in a new biography by William Feaver. It is full of stories of a louche, promiscuous and utterly selfish, but extremely charismatic man. Freud was a legendary seducer, said to have taken more than 500 lovers. He married twice, had two daughters by his first wife, Kitty Garman, none by his second, the society beauty Lady Caroline Blackwood, and at the least 12 by five mistresses, although some wide-eyed chatterers estimate he may have fathered as 40 and, in one year alone, had three by as many different women. “He wouldn’t be late. He wouldn’t tell lies… that’s about it for his moral code,” Dawson replies.

“He never lied to his models,” Dawson adds. “He would always openly and honestly put his work first. He never hid that. And the older he grew, the more intensely dedicated he became. It was always the painting that mattered most. Some people may have felt bereft when a canvas was finished and therefore their friendship was finished and therefore their friendship was finished. But he always made it quite clear that it was the painting that came first.”

When Freud was working, the door was always closed. “I was never in the room when he was painting someone because the painting was just between him and the sitter. In a way, he wanted to know everything about his models.”

He would watch them a bit like David Attenborough watching an animal, says Dawson, who posed for several canvases. “He wanted to try to make you feel very unselfconscious, to let you be you. It was at that point he would find the magic, that moment that would give him the spark to see what a painting could be.”

“But Freud treated all his subjects with respect,” Dawson insists, “with tenderness, even, and with a rare intuition that was ten steps ahead of everyone else.”

While Freud is often portrayed as a predatory, selfish figure, there is a flipside that is apparent in his legacy to Dawson. A friend tells me that when Freud was alive he used to sometimes worry that he was demanding too much of Dawson, that he was stopping him from doing his own work. By leaving him his studio in his will, he returned the favour that Dawson had done him in his lifetime: he set him free financially to pursue his painting career.

I will always be very grateful to him for that,” Dawson says, “to be able to paint full-time. That’s a very wonderful thing.”