Christie’s is honoured to present two works by Lucian Freud from the collection of B.J. Eastwood. Freud became acquainted with Eastwood, along with his great friend and erstwhile business partner Alfie McLean—for a time Freud’s personal bookmaker, and depicted by the artist in several portraits of the mid-1970s—through a mutual passion for horseracing. Beyond his successful bookmaking enterprise, Eastwood became best-known to the public as the manager of six world champion boxers, including Barry McGuigan, at whose world title fight Freud had a ringside seat in 1985. Drawn to the thrill of big wins and heavy losses, Freud followed sport with the same intensity he brought to his art, and was fascinated by the men who made it their business. ‘It is like galloping or jumping through fire,’ he said, ‘sort of beyond what is sensible but it makes you feel alive’ (L. Freud, quoted in G. Greig, Breakfast with Lucian, London 2013, p. 198). B.J. Eastwood’s superb collection of Sporting and Irish pictures will be sold at Christie’s King Street on Friday 9 July.
The painter must give a completely free rein to any feeling or sensations he may have and reject nothing to which he is naturally drawn”
A Plate of Prawns is a still-life of bright immediacy. Painted on a holiday to the estate of Freud’s friend Lady Jane Willoughby in the Scottish Highlands, it pictures a catch of prawns from the nearby coast, freshly cooked and ready to be enjoyed. Taking a top-down view, Freud depicts the shellfish heaped in the perfect circle of a white plate, haloed against a pale yellow tablecloth. With the same uncompromising exactitude he brings to human subjects, he paints every prawn as an individual: they are of varying sizes, with nuanced tones of scarlet, coral and ivory glinting through their translucent shells, and each dotted with a beady black eye. The effect recalls Freud’s later description of his intricate garden study Two Plants (1977-80, Tate Gallery) as ‘lots of little portraits of leaves’ (L. Freud, quoted in W. Feaver, The Lives of Lucian Freud: Fame 1968-2011, London 2019, p. 112). Rather than a still-life, the picture almost becomes a group portrait. Executed in 1958, it marks a point at which the hard-lined quality of Freud’s early practice began to yield to a more fleshy, visceral approach: the soft licks of paint that define the prawns’ legs, and the raised impasto of the plate’s grey rim, see the emergence of the brisk physicality that would define his brushwork over the following decades.
Talking of painting people without their clothing, Freud once said that ‘One of the most exciting things is seeing through the skin, to the blood and veins and markings’ (L. Freud, quoted in W. Feaver, ‘Seeing through the skin’, The Guardian, 18 May 2002). Just such a piercing appetite is manifest in A Plate of Prawns. Not just each prawn’s physical existence but what seems to be its very essence is exposed, reborn from reality in paint, and preserved there, forever, for our delight. Their vivid realism is amplified by the painting’s composition, which sets prawns and plate flush to the canvas as if under a microscope: Freud spoke of an ‘involuntary magnification’ as he zoned in on details that interested him, and here the circular platter echoes the forensic focus of his gaze, creating a hallucinatory ocular arena.
The longer you look at an object, the more abstract it becomes, and, ironically, the more real”
‘If you look at Chardin’s animals,’ Freud claimed, ‘they’re absolute portraits. It’s to do with the individuality and the intensity of the regard and the focus on the specific. So I think portraiture is an attitude. Painting things as symbols and rhetoric and so on doesn’t interest me’ (L. Freud, quoted in S. Smee, ‘A Late-Night Conversation with Lucian Freud,’ in Freud at Work, New York 2006, p. 33). It is this hyper-specific attention that makes Freud’s early still-lifes so unforgettable, and his direct, unsentimental captivation with creatures so crucial a part of his artistic development. Among his celebrated early depictions of plants and taxidermied animals, the fruits of the sea emerge as something of a personal motif for Freud: landmark examples include the dried whiting in Still Life with Aloe (1949), and the superb duo of Still Life with Squid and Sea Urchin (1949, Harris Museum, Preston).
Beyond its formal fascination, the plate of prawns also reflects the place of seafood at the centre of Freud’s social life. William Feaver and Martin Gayford both recall lunches of prawns, mussels, and mackerel with the artist; for the last fifteen years of his life, he ate regularly at Sally Clarke’s restaurant near his studio in Holland Park, where, she says, ‘he would always choose fish—whichever fish was on the menu. He was very interested in food and I think he was a good cook himself’ (S. Clarke, ‘Lucian Freud remembered by Sally Clarke’, The Guardian, 11 December 2011). Perhaps most famously, a staged 1963 photograph by John Deakin captured Freud with Tim Behrens, Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach and Francis Bacon in Wheeler’s oyster bar, assembling the ‘School of London’ in one of their favourite Soho haunts. Even as it asserts his singular genius, A Plate of Prawns gestures towards Freud’s place in this creative milieu: it is an exquisite picture of life savoured to the full.
Lot Essay Header Image: The present lot (detail).