I/Eye: On Photography

Gayford and Dawson on Freud: Man with a Blue Scarf

Posted in Other Photographers, portraits by Sheila Newbery on October 21, 2010
Lucian Freud in his Studio by David Dawson, painter & photographer

Lucian Freud in his Studio by David Dawson, painter & photographer

I’m lucky enough to live in a city where the public library acquisitions department is quick on its feet and brought me Man with a Blue Scarf before I’d begun to feel impatient — in any serious way — about its lack. (I think I may even have been the first to check it out.) If you’re at all interested in portraiture, this is a book to linger over. Not the least because in addition to Martin Gayford’s ruminations — in fact, a sort of diary — about sitting for his portrait by Lucian Freud, you, reader, will be given that extra je ne sais quoi, unheralded in reviews but spot-on with precisely the kind of satisfaction you might search for in vain in hundreds of accounts of the artist at work: beautifully substantive portraits of studio life by David Dawson. Dawson is, among other things, Freud’s long-time assistant, so the complete familiarity with the studio milieu that these photographs convey is devoid of self-conscious veneration. Rather, they’re a  a view of Freud in his element, with a thorough understanding of what that element is — marked by a well-informed, low-key visual humor and love for the business-at-hand.

To be painted by Freud is to engage in a sustained,  potentially months-long conversation with the artist (punctuated, of course, by the inevitable pauses), a process that may culminate in a completed portrait or, more unnervingly for a subject, in a creative dead-end: abandonment. The design of the  Thames & Hudson volume thoughtfully engages these facts: the plates are modest in scale, but impeccably reproduced on a warm white matte paper, and they make their contribution to Gayford’s musings much as a good friend companionably joins a conversation. The  diary, and the portrait sitting itself, come to life out of Gayford’s affection for and fascination with portraiture — and, specifically, with the quality of Freud’s intensely curious, intensely focused attention.

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