An Artist’s Life: Photographs of Lucian Freud by Cecil Beaton and David Dawson
Sotheby’s London, UK
Selling Exhibition: until 11th August, 2012
It’s probably fair to say that David Dawson’s photographing daily life at Lucian Freud’s studio, and beyond, had its genesis in Bruce Bernard’s photographs of the great British painter. Freud (1922-2011) and Bernard (1928-2000) had been friends since their teens. Curator and author of fine art and photography books, including his great Phaidon tome Century, Bernard (to whom, incidentally, I owe a debt with regard to my picture editing education – he was picture editor at The Sunday Times Magazine for the first couple of years I was there) sat – or more accurately, stood, in 1992 and sat in 1996 for Freud, having previously had his unusually large head immortalised by the artist in Head of Bruce Bernard, 1985. In the 1990s, Freud, famed for shunning the limelight, uncharacteristically, allowed Bernard, who had been taking photographic portraits of fellow Soho drinkers, artists and luminaries including Francis Bacon and Euan Uglow, to begin photographing him at work in his studio.
Having studied painting at the Royal College of Art – where he was a contemporary of Tracey Emin and Jake and Dinos Chapman – Dawson (b.1960) became Freud’s studio assistant in 1991. It wasn’t until some years later that Dawson – Freud by now used to have a photographer in his studio – picked up his own camera and began to record the day-to-day comings and goings and the work processes happening in front of and around him. After Bruce Bernard’s death in 2000, with unprecedented and now, exclusive, access – Bernard, in any case, having only been a visitor – Dawson was able to capture intimate moments: Freud in deep concentration, Freud applying shaving cream to his face with one of his large brushes (which, although we used it across a double-page spread in Tatler – where I was creative director – I suspect was set up, possibly at the behest of my editor-in-chief, Geordie Greig, himself a regular visitor at Freud’s studio) and to produce images that allow us to see the development of some of Freud’s later paintings.
Freud at Work, Photographs by Bruce Bernard and David Dawson was shown at Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert in 2006. Earlier this year, the same gallery showed Lucian Freud: Studio Life, Photographs by David Dawson. More recently Dawson’s image of Freud painting the Queen was selected for the Whitechapel’s exhibition of works from the Government Art Collection. A selection of Dawson’s pictures of Freud were also shown at the National Portrait Gallery in 2004. Twenty six of these, including those showing the artist painting Hockney and Queen Elizabeth II, and Frank Auerbach visiting the studio, were acquired for the gallery’s collection.
The unlikely juxtaposition of Dawson and Beaton’s photographs in this summer’s selling exhibition of limited edition prints at Sotheby’s, as much as it is revealing about Freud, provides an insight into the characters, aspirations and appetites of both photographers. Dawson comes across as a little shy and somewhat reticent, whereas, by all accounts, Beaton, who produced a prodigious number of self-portraits, was just the opposite.
Sir Cecil Beaton (1904-1980) has a staggering 1,050 portraits in the NPG collection. His career as a portrait photographer took off after meeting the Sitwells in 1926. He signed his first contract with Vogue in 1927 and was associated with the magazine throughout his life. Beaton had been in Hollywood in the 1930s, where he became obsessed with Garbo, whom he continued to photograph throughout her life. He photographed Katherine Hepburn and later Marylin Monroe, of whom he wrote: ‘She romps, she squeals with delight, she leaps on the sofa. She puts a flower stem in her mouth, puffing on a daisy as though it were a cigarette. It is an artless, impromptu, high-spirited, infectiously gay performance. It will probably end in tears.’ During WWII he worked for the Ministry of Information and afterwards took on the additional role of stage designer for film, ballet and opera. In 1965 he was awarded two oscars for his stage production of My Fair Lady. His work has appeared in countless exhibitions and books, the first of which, Beaton by James Danziger – another former Sunday Times Magazine picture editor, now running the eponymous Danziger Projects in New York – was published in 1977, the same year that Sotheby’s acquired the photographer’s estate.
Beaton’s photographs of Freud from the 1950s capture him alone, with friends, with family and with his second wife Caroline Blackwood at Coombe Priory, their Dorset retreat. Although Beaton claimed to be drawn to Freud, whom he described as ‘a true artist and a true Bohemian’ – in some of Beaton’s pictures his subject wears no tie, or if he does it’s ratty and his shirt appears somewhat creased – the painter is portrayed as a clean-shaven, well-quaffed, heroic and brooding figure with movie-star good looks. While Dawson’s photographs are not about Dawson – he often lurks in the background, content to simply tag along behind his elderly master – Beaton had other ideas. While some of his images affect reportage, each one of them is a carefully-controlled portrait. One of these in particular, makes Freud look particularly stiff and awkward as he struggles to look at the camera, in front of the lens of which, Beaton, in one of his surrealist moments, seems to have flung a cyclamen flower and a few leaves – almost definitely montaged in later – that in the final image float above the sitter’s head. At first sight, what appears to be Beaton’s least set up, least theatrical picture of Lucien Freud’s daughter, Annie, 3rd October, 195o, in which she sits on another animal’s back while stroking the nose of a zebra, comes as a refreshing surprise; then one realises that the photographer is playing his usual, for me disappointingly tiresome, games; the zebra is obviously stuffed. Not everyone is as lively as Monroe was but oh, if only Beaton could have allowed a little of the extemporaneous excitement he had captured in his shoot with her to seep into his photographing Freud – as Dawson did so successfully with Kate Moss in Having a cuddle with Kate, 2010… Mind you, some of Dawson’s pictures are more record shot than fine photography: Breakfast at Clarke’s with Stella McCartney, 2008, is just a snap, as is his picture of Bono and Freud breakfasting together. His Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach at the V&A, 2006, however, has the ease and spontaneity of a Lartigue.
Images from top
David Dawson, Having a cuddle with Kate, 2010
Cecil Beaton, Coombe Priory, Dorset, 1956
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