Lucian Freud: portrait of a painter's painter

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth II

The Royal Collection © Lucian Freud

This article first appeared in the London Evening Standard 18th June 2002

Master of the Queen's Painting? Artist Laureate? No such title exists as it does for poetry or music. Yet an unofficial mantle is passed on by unspoken consensus. When Francis Bacon died in 1992 Lucian Freud was the silently elected successor.

It had not always been such a clearcut issue. The typical career of a British artist (Britpack, you have been warned) is a game of three halves, the longest of which tends to be the middle one. This extended interval can offer a decade or two in the wilderness sandwiched between early fame and late glory.

When I was an art student in the Fifties, Freud was already a wellestablished artist. His hallucinatory images of faces and figures seemed to have been painted pore by pore and thread by thread. Pictures of lovers and artist friends, specimens under his searing gaze, could already be seen in the Tate Gallery.

Yet I remember, in the early Seventies, going to Bond Street to look at his paintings of suburban gardens, a series of virtuoso inventories of the commonplace. The gallery was empty when I entered and for the hour or so I spent there I was alone. Critics had given the exhibition an almost unanimous cold shoulder and there was talk of Freud being played out. But it is in the nature of critics to suffer from convenient amnesia and, given Freud's present status, they will have forgotten those far-off days.

A few years later, at a show put on by Antony d'Offay, I made an attempt to buy Freud's picture of Frank Auerbach (who had been my teacher at Camberwell Art School), a masterpiece in which one painter concentrates on another's concentration. Well, at least I took the first step and asked the price. It was £4,000. I was (and still am) baffled as to why the Tate, for whom it would have made a fine companion piece to its early Freud painting of Francis Bacon, had not bought it.

Even more amazingly, the National Portrait Gallery had not rushed to acquire it. At the time I was too naive to know that you don't actually have to have money to hand in order to buy a work of art. Artists and dealers respond to enthusiasm and are usually willing to negotiate staggered payments. I should have persisted. Today, of course, you would have to add a couple of noughts to that price, but that is not the reason for my regret.

I still think of that painting as one of the perfect points in Freud's career when the watchmaker's precision was in balance with a new physicality of technique. The surface of paint has become more heaped and ploughed with each exhibition since then. By contrast, the artist himself, as I have met him over the years, has become more spectral. The only other person I have known with as soundless a tread and quiet a voice was Samuel Beckett.

At Freud's level of artistic dedication he is competing with history. It is a daunting sport for, unlike the athlete, the artist is running against an international field that includes famous contestants who have been dead for centuries. How well Freud is faring in this art Olympics can be gauged from a recent show at the venerable Dulwich Picture Gallery where he hung his work amid major paintings by Poussin, Rubens and Gainsborough. It looked quite at home.

What surprised me in that exhibition was a strange affinity with Van Dyck. Perhaps this was a qualifying factor that admitted Freud into another distinguished line-up of predecessors, painters of royal portraits. Freud hates to be called a portrait painter, thinking of himself rather as someone who paints pictures with humanity as their subject. But in the case of the Queen he is the subject's subject, and a portrait is how his image of the Queen is labelled in her own newly opened gallery in Buckingham Palace.

It is an oddity. Listening to what fellow guests were saying at the opening party I heard murmurs of bemused disappointment. There are problems, especially with the chin. Freud has put unkindly emphasis on an effect of local colour where the blue of the Queen's outfit is reflected upwards to suffuse the lower part of her face. Since we do not see the rest of the figure the resulting bluish chin reads as an aberration. The tiny picture as a whole is not helped by a large slab of virulent lime green in the adjacent Sutherland. All is forgiven, however, when one looks at the crown, which is a nifty piece of brushwork that Van Dyck himself would have envied.

Good artists get better in old age, and as he enters his eighties Freud seems set for a last phase that might bring us his finest work. He continues to be an intriguing presence in life as well as art. As a person, his sheer otherness is fascinating. With all respect to the rest of my colleagues, most of us could be anyone.

A glance at Lucian Freud in any gathering reassures one, however, that the received likenesses of exotic figures in the past (Paganini, Aubrey Beardsley, Baudelaire, to name three by no means at random) are likely to be true. The sharp-eyed face is that of a feline eagle, if such can be imagined. The effect of the whole person is of a pallid eminence lean and darkly dressed and with so little colour about him that he seems to have stepped out of a silent film.

Eventually, a successor will have to be found for the phantom role of Artist Laureate. Many of the painters who came to prominence in the Sixties have either run out of steam or are marketing with slight variations a successful signature commodity. A clue, however, might be found in Freud's own work. Having painted Bacon, his predecessor, and Frank Auerbach (72 and still going strong), he is currently painting David Hockney (now in his mid-sixties and once again based in London). Each could be set to succeed Freud as the Grand Old Man of British painting.

Meanwhile, Freud wears the invisible laurel wreath with great style; and long may he do so.