Sunday, 31 July 2011

Lucien Freud and me, part one

Not an a obituary or an assessment of the newly dead painter, just a recounting of an encounter. Well, one and a half encounters. Or maybe one and one-tenth.

I did once have a conversation with Lucien Freud. I can remember exactly nothing of what was said. I can, though, remember its tenor and ending. (I’m sure that says something about memory — both mine and in general. But this is not the time or place to consider that. I’ll maybe come back to it some time in the future. If I remember. Boom, boom.)

It was in the mid-1990s, in a then newly fashionable (in certain circles) bar/club/restaurant, Green Street in Mayfair. An alternative (of sorts) to the Groucho, it was — as you’d expect of somewhere favoured by Freud — a louche establishment. The chef was Peter Gordon, the pan-Asian gay New Zealander later in charge of the Sugar Club etc. Regulars included Toby Young, Jay Jopling and the whole YBA crowd.

One night, my friend Tim and myself found ourselves alone at the bar ordering a drink when Freud appeared next to us. I’d seen him there several times before. He’d put good energy into convincing another friend’s girlfriend to have lunch with him. I have two memories of what happened next, either of which might be true.

One, she agreed, he propositioned her, she was upset, her boyfriend was thrilled.

Two, she declined, her boyfriend (possibly knowing what was in store) persuaded her, she went to lunch, he suggested she pose for him (and propositioned her), she declined both offers, her boyfriend (probably thrilled by the prospect of a kind of post-modern troilism with Lucien Freud) was upset and tried to convince her to change her mind but failed.

I’d never stood so close to Freud or seen him outlined against a wall. He was tiny, I remember thinking. Astonishingly vulpine and beautifully suited. Exactly the kind of aged man you’d expect to be still propositioning young girls — he was then in his mid-seventies.

So Tim and Lucien and I talked a bit about whatever. Then the owner of the club emerged from somewhere, came over to us and greeted all three of us warmly. Then he said to Freud: ‘Lucien, I see you’ve met my friends Tim and Pete, a pair of the finest journalists in London.’

At which point, the laws of physics were ruptured. Freud disappeared in front of our eyes. He was there and then he was not there. There was no stage of transition. In the face of journalistic enquiry, he had, quite magically, de-substantiated. Why? Well, a general desire for distance from journalistic enquiry — bordering on distaste for journalism and journalists.

Oh, how conflicting it must have been for him to have enjoyed himself chatting to us then discovered we were the enemy. As it happens, neither of us had any designs beyond a chat and wouldn’t, I’m sure, have repeated anything in print — at the time, anyway.

He didn’t, of course, disappear from existence. I remember seeing him at the club, in fact. But we never had another chat.

The one-tenth of an encounter was not long after the first. It was outside the Cafe Rouge in Kensington on a Saturday lunchtime. I was eating with my friend Paul. Perhaps Freud was eatint there, too. All I remember was that he became upset about something. I have two memories of what it was, both probably false — another rejection by a young woman or a betting slip torn up and thrown down.

Whichever it was, what I do remember is that he launched himself into his car, a vintage Bentley, I think, of some distinctive colour — deep blue or perhaps powder blue. He span the wheel, u-turned in the face of oncoming traffic and disappeared up Kensington High St in the direction of Hyde Park.

This time, I didn’t see him again. Ever.

Next part two of me and Mr Freud

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