Lucian Freud, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995)

Lucian Freud by the benefits supervisor who knew him best

The subject of one of the artist's most famous paintings recounts sitting for him in the mid-nineties

Out of the acres of column inches that will be devoted to Lucian Freud, who has died at the age of 88, we wonder if any will provide a more telling insight to the day-to-day life of the artist than Sue Tilley's revealing account of sitting for him in the mid-nineties.

Tilley was introduced to Freud in 1990 by Leigh Bowery, the influential performance artist and 80s mover and shaker at whose Taboo nightclub she worked as a cashier.

Tilley, who went on to become something of an art world celebrity, was the sitter for Freud's painting Benefits Advisor Sleeping which became the highest selling painting by a living artist when it sold for $33.64 million in 2008.

Tilley told the Guardian: "Lucian was the most hilarious man I'd ever met. I met him briefly at a club with [mutual friend] Leigh Bowery, and then he took me to lunch at the River Cafe. There were a group of us and he told a joke about how a whale wanks, complete with movements.

A few weeks later he asked if he could paint me. Leigh had already put the idea into his head, so it wasn't a surprise. The first picture was done at night. I'd go after work and he'd paint till 1 or 1.30 in the morning, and it was agony lying there on the floor. First Leigh was in the picture, then he went to Scotland and one of Lucian's whippets took his place.

The next three paintings were in daylight, which was better. I'd arrive, we'd have some breakfast and a chat in the kitchen - that was the bit I loved, the setting up. Lucian was a good cook: he used the best ingredients and did very little to them, gorgeous bread, gorgeous fish, cooked plainly. Then he'd say: "Sue, perhaps you could wash those dishes - I think you use that green stuff in the corner." We'd leave them to pile up. He had a cleaner who came three times a week.

He would paint with us both facing the canvas, so he'd look at me and then turn around to paint. I trained to be an art teacher, so it wasn't all new to me, but I'm very shoddy, very slapdash, and it taught me that it is real work: each painting took nine months, and he was seeking perfection right up to the moment he finished.

There was a big break between paintings because I went on holiday to India and got a tan, which he hated beyond belief: we had to wait till it was gone. Every picture he painted was to test himself, to do it in a different way.

Sometimes he was very chatty, sometimes he was very quiet - I always thought he should have been on the telly. He'd say terrible things about people, but he never saw that he was really rude. I was always a bit jealous: he did exactly as he pleased. He was funny, miserable, horrible, kind, mean, generous, every character trait mixed up in one person.

The last time I saw him was about two years ago at his birthday party, at Johnnie Shand Kydd's house. Someone told me he and I had fallen out, which I didn't know, so I was a bit nervous about seeing him. I was shaking when I went up to say hello, and had I offended him, but he said "Of course you haven't", and patted me on the head.

I was lucky to spend time with someone who cared so much, and who worked so hard. He wasn't cruel - he painted what he saw. What strikes me most is, I look at my fat ankles and my fat feet every morning and I think they look just like that painting. Even the skinny girls don't look good, do they? He painted out of love."


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