I had never heard of Lucian Freud until the early nineties when my great friend Leigh Bowery started sitting for him. I then kept seeing articles and references to him and realised that he was something special, so when Leigh decided to put the idea into Lucian’s head to paint me I was happy to go along with it.
On the day I was to start, Leigh came round to my flat first and made me practise stripping off. When I arrived at Lucian’s he fed me a huge bulb of roasted garlic and then laid me out on the hard floorboards with only a dirty old pillow hidden beneath my back for a bit of comfort. As I lay there in agony, with a draft blowing on me from under the door, I really thought that I wouldn’t be able to bear it. But I’m not really the type to give things up so I persevered and worked out the best way to ignore the pain was to get Lucian to chat as he was one of the most interesting people I had ever met.
His reminiscences from the past and his take on the modern day were hilarious. I loved it when he told me how he had met Judy Garland and she had ‘a very weak handshake’. He had no idea of technology and confessed to me it was as much as he could do to turn the electric light on.
It makes me laugh when people ask ‘were you able to see the painting before he finished?’, as each one was at least six feet wide and facing me as he painted it. I was in the very privileged position of seeing the portrait from the first stroke to the last. He didn’t always work in the same way, sometimes doing a watery sketch of the whole picture or else he would start on the head and almost complete it before doing anything else.
Often the picture might grow bigger than the canvas so he would have to send it away to get the whole frame stretched. Props such as my Caterpillar boots and an aluminium bucket started off in the paintings and were then painted over.
As well as the joy of seeing a great painter at work, I always looked forward to the lunches; either Lucian would cook some delicious food or we would go to a swanky restaurant. That was my favourite because, although I am nosey, Lucian’s nosiness knew no bounds and he would almost jump out of his seat if someone caught his attention and would stare at them with his scary piercing eyes and then give me some caustic comment about them.
People also ask me how exciting was it when we were doing Benefit Supervisor Sleeping but I always let them down and say it was just like going to work, it wasn’t as if as soon as I arrived a fanfare of trumpets would sound and Lucian would announce ‘Let work begin on the most expensive painting in the world’.
However I am forever grateful for being allowed to lie on those agonising old floorboards and as for that grubby old pillow, it has featured in paintings in its own right and I like to think of my DNA being mixed with all the other models that had the honour of sitting for Lucian.
Sue Tilley, Manager at DWP and life model