INTERVIEW: David Dawson on how hard work kept Freud fit
Wild meat, game, gambling and good quality jazz also kept Lucian on his feet all day and every day
Lucian Freud: A Life begins with childhood snapshots and ends with rarely seen photographs of the artist made in his studio in the last weeks of his life. In between, the life of one of the most important artists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is vividly documented - through family photos, in images of the painter in his studio with some of his most celebrated sitters and in portraits by his peers.
One dramatic photo, of a paint spattered, balletic Freud, stripped to the waist, dominates the opening spread of the book. Taken by David Dawson, Freud's sitter and assistant for the last twenty years of his life, and now director of the Lucian Freud archive, it depicts a painter at the height of his considerable powers.
We recently caught up with David Dawson to talk about life with Lucian. This second story emanating from our chat focuses on Freud's fitness and how it enabled his incredible workrate during the last two decades of his life.
In the photo that opens the book Freud looks aged but incredibly fit. How did he keep himself in shape? Well he was careful. He kept his weight down. He stood up all day painting. He wasn’t a drinker really. He drank Claret but he didn’t drink much. And he ate well.
He was too bright and energised to worry about pedestrian things like dieting and all that crap. But he was also aware that, standing on his feet all day; if he was carrying an extra couple of pounds he would know it. He’d eat a lot of protein in the form of wild meat, game and fish. And that was it. He was on his feet all day painting, and running up and down the stairs.
So how did he unwind? He didn’t really. He didn’t need to unwind, he just lived his life how he wanted to live. Listening to a little bit of jazz - he was great friends with Jools Holland. But he’d always eat in good restaurants - The Wolseley, and Clarks, which he used every day. He’d always sit in the inner bit in the Wolseley. The bit in the middle in the top right corner. It’s always the pivotal people who are in the corner. Whatever restaurant was at its best at the time that’s where he’d be. Wiltons was a great old school favourite of his, too.
Just how hard did he work? Seven days a week, every day of the year. He really put the hours in. He would work all morning, rest in the afternoon and work again until one in the morning. He would maybe see one or two people in the afternoon and then occasionally have drinks with someone in the evening. Not often though. He would put his painting first. And it was only him who touched the canvas. I didn’t touch the canvases at all. Every brush mark on his canvases is his. A lot of other contemporary artists get assistants to do things.
How did he know when he was finished for the day? The trick with painting is never to totally fuck it up. That’s what you’ve got to learn as a painter. Just leave the painting in a good place for when you come back to it. So he just worked as much as he could do and when he knew it was in a good place he’d stop.
I suppose the relaxation after painting would be to go and have a dinner somewhere and look at other people. I mean be with the sitter but then just watch other people in the restaurant. If you were the main model he just wanted to know everything about you and be with you and do everything with you.
Had the gambling subsided by the time you got to him? I think in his forties and fifties he was much wilder, running around the bookies. He’d gamble everything away until he had absolutely nothing and then he’d paint again. He was in a different headspace. Gambling wasn’t a sport for him it was a release, it was everything.
But it was only the horses, it wasn’t the tables, really. By the time I got to know him I could see he was going into full on painting. Every now and again he’d look at the horses on the TV and he’d be on the phone putting some money down on things. But by the time I knew him you could see he was into non-stop working.
He wouldn’t be happy putting a tenner on, would he? Hell no! We’re talking vast amounts - vast! His paintings had begun increasing in value and he had too much money and couldn’t get rid of it. I think it was because he could not put ridiculously large sums of money on a horse anymore that he eventually just stopped. He had this amazing control over his willpower. He thought the only way to be was to try and push your will power – and that’s how he painted.
Did age affect him? No. I never ever thought, oh I’m hanging out with an old man. He was like a young mate. I know it’s a bit silly to say that. Lucian was very young-minded and, again, he looked good. He was light on his feet, he had good balance he jumped around. He wasn’t crotchety with an old stick, or overweight. Age didn’t mean anything it was literally just numbers for him.
Towards the end did he ever talk about mortality? No. Death was just something that happens, something that just gets in the way. He was here to paint and he was interested in this world. He wasn’t interested in any abstract thinking of what goes beyond. And that's what his work is about, it’s about the most remarkable things in this world. That’s exactly what his work is. For him really dying got in the way. It was a bit annoying.
There must have come a point when you knew his day were numbered? Yeah, I was with him every day and the doctors were there and stuff. And at some point you realise, Ah you’re on that journey now, here we go.
You’ve got to die of something haven’t you? And it was nice that we kept him at home. It was the best way you can do it. He just went to bed and he got weaker and weaker. I just kept talking about painting to him, saying things like 'let’s go and do a bit more on Eli,' (the final painting that features Dawson and the dog Eli.)
And he said he didn’t feel very well. 'Let’s have a rest then.' It was about life. We’re not religious. We don’t need any of that stuff. Lucian taught me how to live. That’s the job of a painter, to show people how to live.
Lucian Freud: A Life is a beautiful visual biography of the British painter, told through his own words, unpublished private photographs, and painted portraits. This unprecedented look at the private life of Lucian Freud begins with childhood snapshots and ends with rarely seen photographs made in his studio in the last weeks of his life. In between, the life of one of the most important artists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is vividly documented - through family photos, in images of the painter in his studio with some of his most celebrated sitters, and in portraits by his peers. Get Lucian Freud: A Life here.