A major exhibition celebrating the achievements of Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon opens at Tate Britain next week. It holds a special interest for me, as it was my luck to work for Freud for several years from the late 1980s and we became intimate friends — despite our age difference — he was in his 60s and I was in my 20s.
The show, entitled All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life, shows their work alongside art by contemporaries including Frank Auerbach (Freud’s best friend) and RB Kitaj. Despite differences in style, these London-based artists strove to represent human forms and their surroundings in a realistic way to capture the intense and sensuous experience of life through paint.
One of my tasks for Freud was to compile a list detailing everyone who rang throughout the day, as he did not wish to be disturbed whilst working. On the morning of 28 April 1992, my phone rang incessantly — dozens of journalists desperate to speak to him about his friend Francis Bacon who had died while on holiday in Madrid. I rang Freud, who had already heard the news. He sounded very sad.
“I don’t wish to talk to someone I don’t know about a friend who is dead,” he said.
I’d met Bacon a few times in the late 1980s, but can’t claim to have ever talked to him when he was sober. He could frequently be seen walking around South Kensington wearing his trademark black leather jacket, his face fixed in an impassive, glazed expression — rather like a living waxwork.
At the time of Bacon’s death, Freud and Bacon hadn’t spoken for years. They had once been intensely close friends. For 20 years, Bacon was the most important man in Freud’s life, influencing how he thought, lived and painted. In the early days of their relationship Freud, ten years the junior, was encouraged by Bacon and hero-worshipped him. He greatly admired Bacon’s wild imagination, caustic wit and powerfully expressive way of painting large oils. It encouraged him to be more artistically adventurous and move away from meticulous, minute detail and to paint with a freer style, on a more ambitious scale — standing up, rather than sitting in a chair.
They had much in common: including a love of champagne, gambling and danger. They frequently dined together in Soho and drank the night away in rackety watering holes carousing with friends. Freud was impressed by Bacon’s carefree approach to life, and by the fact that he didn’t care what anyone else thought.
Although their styles are quite different, both clung firmly to figurative painting in the post-war years when it was distinctly unfashionable. Freud painted directly from the flesh but Bacon painted only from photographs.
They sat for each other, with Bacon’s enigmatic, powerful portraits of Freud and Freud’s intense, minutely-detailed painting of Bacon considered key works. In 1951, Freud was the first subject who was named as a sitter by Bacon, who went on to paint 19 portraits of him and some are likely to feature in the Tate’s show. Freud returned the favour, and his 1952 powerful portrait of Bacon was to become one of his best-known paintings. In 1988, it was stolen from a gallery in Berlin while on loan from The Tate and has not been seen since.
Freud’s naturalism captures the essence of the friends he painted, including their wrinkles, sagging skin and muscles, moles, pasty complexions and lumpy noses, often reclining in a state of passivity.
Bacon and Freud shared a concern with universal themes of human frailty and existence. Now, 25 years after Bacon’s death, and nearly seven since Freud’s, this exhibition of their work will heighten what is best in each.
All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life is at Tate Britain from February 28 to August 27.