'I am only interested in painting the actual person; in doing a painting of them, not in using them for an ulterior end of art. For me, to use someone doing something not native to them would be wrong' (L. Freud quoted in R. Hughes, Lucian Freud Paintings, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London 1988, p. 20).
Painted in 1988-1989, Man in a String Chair is a portrait of Freud's friend, the gambling magnate Victor Chandler. Since his youth, Freud has been fascinated by horses and they have increasingly featured in his paintings. This love of horses has led the artist to meeting a wide and varied group of people at various stages of his life, some of whom have sat for him, become friends and clients (as with a number of bookmakers) and some have become amongst his most important collectors. This varied group of people includes the Dukes of Devonshire, Andrew Parker Bowles, a retired jockey named "Guy" who features in several paintings with his dog Speck, the "Big Man" who appears in a number of paintings throughout Freud's career both on his own and with his two sons, and many others ranging from Queen Elizabeth II to figures from the London underworld.
Fascinated by horses ever since his uncle Martin took him riding in the Prater in Vienna as a little boy, Freud would later, when at school in Devon, be found sleeping in the stables so as to be close to the animals, and reportedly preferred being in their company to attending lessons. One of his earliest surviving works is the sculpture of a horse that he completed when he was 15 years old and since then he has painted numerous equestrian pictures. These include several drawings made in the stables of the Household Cavalry where he first met Andrew Parker Bowles about 20 years ago and his recent portraits of Grey Gelding, 2003 and Skewbald Mare, 2004. Freud's love of all things equestrian continues today as he revealed in a recent conversation when he confessed that his greatest hero was neither Titian nor Velázquez but the jockey Lester Piggott.
Freud's love of horses and his well documented love of risk have often combined in the form of gambling, sometimes to an unfortunate degree. In a recent interview, Freud admitted, "When I gambled, I never stopped until I had lost everything, and afterwards I had - after a moment of feeling stupid, as one does when one loses - a sense of exhilaration that now I could get back to my work with no distractions" (Freud, quoted in M. Gayford, 'Freud Laid Bare', at www.telegraph.co.uk/arts). It is through this love of horses and of betting on them that the artist became intimately acquainted with a number of bookmakers who have subsequently have sat for him, and in the process become friends and collectors of his work.
Victor Chandler's success, popularity and fairness in the gaming world have led him to his being nicknamed the "Gentleman bookmaker". First introduced to the artist in 1979 by a mutual friend, Freud became Chandler's client as well as a friend and in turn Chandler became incredibly interested in Freud's work, buying two of his paintings during this early period. Chandler fascinated Freud and when, in 1988, he asked him if he would sit for him for a small half-length portrait, Chandler jumped at the chance. Between 1988 and 1989, Chandler sat for Freud in his studio as often as three times a week in sessions that began in the evening and would often last for up to six hours at a time. What had begun life as a head and shoulder depiction took almost two years to complete and resulted in this powerful full-length portrait Man in a String Chair. As Chandler recalls, "after about two months work on the picture Lucian decided that it was developing into a bigger picture than originally intended and changed it to its current size extending the canvas". These long sittings resulted in a great friendship between Freud and Chandler who began to meet on a regular basis for over a decade. Two out of the three evenings after the sittings they would go out together for dinner, sometimes joined by other sitters, friends or family. During these sittings they talked "of everything from racing, gossip, painters, paintings, books", Freud would, Chandler remembers, "on occasions recite poetry and quote from books" or "go silent if the picture was going badly and would even frighten me on occasions by suddenly jumping backwards and shouting if he felt he had made a mistake".
Freud's portraits are the result of a long and intense collaboration between the artist and the sitter. The process of being scrutinised by this famously pedantic and fastidious painter over a period of 30, 50 or 100 sessions requires a large degree of trust. This is why almost all of Freud models are not professional models but his close friends, children, siblings or lovers. Almost the only way that the artist can get a "model" to sit for him is to involve them in the process. On this particular occasion, Chandler was asked to bring to Freud's studio a selection of casual clothes for him to select. The clothes that Chandler wears in Man in a String Chair were those chosen by Freud for him. It is interesting to see that Freud selected very ordinary and straightforward attire, clothing that both represented the sitter and which resulted in a very straightforward and natural pose. 'If I'm putting someone in a picture, I like to feel that they've fallen asleep there or they have elbowed their way in' Freud has said. 'That way, they are there not to make the picture easy on the eye or more pleasant, but they are occupying the space of the picture and I am recording them' (W. Feaver, The Observer 17 May 1998).
In this very natural and unaffected portrait of Victor Chandler, Freud continues the longstanding tradition of the portrait painting of patrons but with the roles somewhat reversed. While Freud still continues the practice of painting his patrons, it is largely he and not they, who determines the nature of the portrait. Freud decides on the size, setting and clothing, whilst the pose is arrived at through a process of trial and error and is usually agreed upon by the mutual consent of both artist and sitter. This applies even on the rare occasions when, due to his need to face gambling debts, Freud portraits have actually been commissioned from the sitter. 'People go on about how to be commissioned is in some way to be trammelled or harnessed or limited...it's a very romantic idea. Whatever an artist does, they think they're commissioning themselves' (L. Freud quoted in W. Feaver, Lucian Freud, exh. cat, Tate Gallery, London 2002, p. 34).
Like most of Freud's work, Man in a String Chair was not a commissioned portrait but was painted at Freud's own instigation. It is however very much in the tradition of commissioned portraits of gentlemen patrons than runs throughout the history of European art from the early 18th Century to the present day. In this full length portrait of his friend Victor Chandler, Freud presents a complete opposite to the grandiose and self aggrandising portraits that patrons have demanded of themselves throughout history. Freud presents Victor Chandler dressed in an extremely ordinary, almost non- descript attire, reclining comfortably, at ease both with himself and his surroundings. It is in the accuracy of its understatement that Man in a String Chair is outstanding, representing the world of today with a deeply objective and unaffected accuracy. Just as the portraits by
Gainsborough, Ingres and Manet captured the characters and atmosphere of their respective eras, so Man in a String Chair succeeds both as a frank and perceptive portrait and as a timeless representation of our modern age.