One of Lucian Freud’s most imposing and powerful portraits, The Brigadier captures the artist’s unique approach to portraiture. Steeped in the traditions of military portrayals, this painting of a British Brigadier is transformed into a resolutely contemporary painting by Freud’s legendary attention to detail and lucid brushstrokes. The artist’s approach is all encompassing, as every brushstroke is carefully considered and fulfills his avowed intention to create as holistic a depiction of his subject as he can. “Portrait painting has to do with people, he once said, “how they are, what they look like, the character of their presence in the room with you. You have to trust what you see and what you feel” (L. Freud, interviewed by M. Auping, “Lucian Freud in Conversation with Michael Auping,” in S. Howgate, Lucian Freud: Portraits, exh. cat., National Portrait Gallery, London, 2012, p. 208). Included in the highly acclaimed 2012 retrospective of the artist’s work organized by the National Portrait Gallery in London, The Brigadier is a rare portrayal of a clothed sitter, but is none the less powerful for it. Freud depicts Parker Bowles’ uniform with the same intensity as he does for naked flesh, offering a precise and analytical dissection of the phenomena of reality made through careful craft, painstaking observation and deliberative action. Using brushes that almost comb the paint rather than absorb it, Freud builds his work slowly across the surface into a glorious patchwork of painterly reality.
Comfortably ensconced in a well-worn leather armchair, the imposing figure of Brigadier Andrew Parker Bowles exudes an air of faded grandeur. Dressed in his ceremonial uniform as a former Commanding Officer of the Household Cavalry, the rich decoration of Parker Bowles’s livery sits in stark contrast to the dark, sparse surroundings of Lucian Freud’s studio. Set against the jet black wool of his uniform, the vibrant red stripe that runs the length of his trousers and lines the inside of his jacket together with the high collars and cuffs adorned with rich golden brocade convey the authority of the office which he held. Yet this is not the traditional portrait of a victorious general or decorated army hero, as evidenced by the unbuttoned jacked with a definite paunch extruding through the fabric. Instead, what emerges is the portrait of quiet contemplation and reflection of a life well-lived, yet also filled with regrets and a plethora of “what ifs.” This intensely personal portrait of a deeply private man demonstrates Freud’s extraordinary ability to combine the timeless with the contemporary. One of the most celebrated modern painters of the human figure, The Brigadier demonstrates the artist’s unrivalled ability to capture the essence of his subjects using only the primacy of paint.
The Brigadier is a painting of contrasts; between light and dark, between the old world order and the new, and the venerable traditions of portraiture and the rejuvenation of contemporary painting. Set against the dark backdrop of Freud’s studio the sumptuous decoration of Parker Bowles’ uniform is portrayed in resplendent detail. The delicately embroidered brocade of his dress uniform, the dramatic red stripe that adorns his trousers and the glinting row of medals that decorate his chest are all indications of the subject’s status within the upper echelons of the British Establishment. This sense of importance is heightened by the setting in which Freud places his subject. Like nearly all of his portraits, Freud paints his sitters in his studio; dark and anonymous and set against a foreboding background the luminescent detail of Parker Bowles uniform and the exacting detail of his face illuminate the entire canvas. This contrast between the impressive uniform and the dark walls and bare wooden floorboards sets up an uneasy atmosphere, one which encourages deep reflection and contemplation, thinking about the passing of history and the societal traditions which are constantly in flux in an ever changing world.
Lucian Freud met Andrew Parker Bowles through their shared love of horses. Freud loved all animals but had a particular affinity with horses, and in his capacity as Commanding Officer of the Household Cavalry Parker Bowles would occasionally lend Freud horses so that the artist could go riding through one of London’s magnificent parks. Parker Bowles recalled with fondness the artist’s abilities as an accomplished horseman, “Lucian had a remarkable affinity with animals, with dogs and horses especially” he recalled, “When he was at school at Dartington Hall, they had riding and he slept in the stables. He was fearless and loved galloping. It terrified me as he refused to wear any headgear” (A. Parker Bowles, quoted by J. McEwen, ‘My Favourite Painting: Tom Parker Bowles—The Brigadier by Lucian Freud,’ Country Life, March 19, 2014, p. 56).
Parker Bowles was unlike many of Freud’s other models who, if not close friends or members of his own family, tended to congregate in the anonymous margins of society, e.g. the performance artist Leigh Bowery or local government worker Sue Tilley. Andrew Parker Bowles however came from the other end of the social spectrum and was diametrically opposed in almost every conceivable way. Born in 1939 into the upper echelons of English society (he is a great-grandson of the 6th Earl of Macclesfield), Parker Bowles was raised at the edges of the Royal Household and was a page boy at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. In 1960, at the age of 21, he was commissioned into the Royal Horse Guards, one of the most prestigious units of the British Army, and began a distinguished career of military service. He served in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, during the height of the violent unrest between the ruling Unionists and those seeking independence from Britain, and he was an aide to the Governor of Rhodesia during that country’s transition to independence in 1979-1980. Between 1981-1983 he was the Commanding Officer of the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment (the Queen’s official bodyguard) when four soldiers and seven horses from his regiment were killed by bombs planted by members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) as they rode in London’s Hyde Park. Later in his career he was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel Commanding the Household Cavalry and Silver Stick in Waiting to Her Majesty the Queen (a largely ceremonial position as a personal bodyguard to the Royal Household), before retiring from the army as a brigadier in 1994. In addition to his army career, Parker Bowles was also a distinguished horseman and was a finisher in the 1969 Grand National on his horse, The Fossa. On a personal level, he was married for more than twenty years to Camilla Parker-Bowles, before the couple divorced and Camilla went on to marry Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales and become Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall.
For his portrait of Parker Bowles, Freud abandoned his common practice of painting his sitters naked, instead choosing to depict his subject in his dress uniform. Yet the same attention to detail which Freud lavished on the subtleties of the human skin are no less diminished by this unusual tactic and his meticulous practice is evident in the myriad array of individual brushstrokes that make up this magnificent portrait. The Brigadier was painted over an eighteen month period, during which time Parker Bowles would sit for the artist three times a week. “We’d have coffee and a croissant at Clarke’s at 8am,” Parker Bowles recalled, “and then he’d paint for four hours. He’d dart up and peer at you and dart back again. He liked to talk and had a remarkable memory for poetry and music-hall songs, but he couldn’t talk and paint, which was rather frustrating” (A. Parker Bowles, ibid.).
Freud carefully studied every inch of his subjects with intense concentration. His paint has a visceral, almost sculptural, quality to it and it is through his tactile application of pigment that Freud connected his work to the physical substance of his subjects’ bodies. “I want paint to work as flesh,” he claimed.“...I know my idea of portraiture came from dissatisfaction with portraits that resembled people. I would wish my portraits to be of the people, not like them. Not having a look of the sitter, being them. I didn’t want to get just a likeness like a mimic, but to portray them, like an actor. As far as I am concerned the paint is the person. I want it to work for me just as flesh does” (L. Freud, quoted in L. Gowing, Lucian Freud, London, 1982, pp. 190-191). Through his unflinching gaze, the artist renders his figures through swirls of oils, perfectly capturing the surface of the flesh and the rumple of clothing. Through light and modulation, rich impasto and expressionist brushstrokes, Freud builds a unique sense of physicality. As with all his sitters, what interests Freud most is seeing them dispassionately and objectively as unique examples, if not specimens, of physical animation. As Julie Radford (another of Freud’s sitters) recalled “he’ll appreciate shapes and forms and everything for the way it will go on the canvas…not as a human being but as the image” (J. Radford, quoted in L. Gowing, Lucian Freud, London, 1982, pp. 190-191).
Freud was a voracious painter and would often work on two or three paintings at once, depending on the availability of his sitters. He would often work on one painting in the morning, before going for lunch at one of his favorite restaurants and then coming back to the studio in the later afternoon to prepare for another painting session in the evening. The Brigadier is one of Freud’s ‘day paintings’ and in contrast to the softer tones of many of his ‘night paintings’ (figures such as Sue Tilley and Leigh Bowery), the strong daylight streaming in through the window of his studio accentuates the aging features of Parker Bowles’ face. The process of sitting for Freud was a long and complex one. Because of the length of time each sitting took, Freud was careful to arrive at a pose that was both visually interesting and practical—something that his sitters could sustain for the many hours they would spend together in the studio. Here, Parker Bowles is resting comfortable in the leather chair, legs crossed and right arm raised as if try to accentuate a particularly important point he was trying to make. “It’s difficult to say how a pose comes about with my portrait,” Freud admitted. “It just happens. We come to an agreement. I usually ask them to hold a pose based on something I see that seems new or odd to me. It’s usually not what they think I’m looking at. I suppose you might say we exploit each other. I am allowed to make a painting based on their presence in my studio, and they make that presence known in many different ways. …You cannot make a person stand or sit exactly as you want or as you think you want. They will do it their own way, even it is subtle. They are communicating with their body. I look for those things I haven’t seen before; what he did with the arm or that leg, trying to identify why it is different. Sometimes it takes a very long time to see it, but despite my slowness I will eventually see it” (L. Freud, interviewed by M. Auping, “Lucian Freud in Conversation with Michael Auping,” in S. Howgate, Lucian Freud: Portraits, exh. cat., National Portrait Gallery, London, 2012, p. 213).
Given the subject, this painting follows in the grand tradition of military portraits that have been popular throughout the last three hundred years. The Brigadier recalls James Jacque Tissot’s 1870 portrait of fellow guardsman, Frederick Burnaby. Burnaby’s tales of his epic rides across the Russian Steppes in winter and his battles against the Turks were both Victorian best-sellers. Yet, whereas Tissot portrays the confident, laid-back nonchalance of colonial officer at the height of the British Empire, Freud’s portrait of the equally decorated Parker Bowles becomes a much more psychologically powerful portrait of a man who’s position in life has, perhaps, become ill-at-ease with the modern twenty first century world. As the critic Richard Cork surmises “…the painting reminds us of country-house portraiture at its grandest. But Freud, as an artist, is far removed from Reynolds, Lawrence, Tissot and Sargent. He has subverted all this seeming formality by allowing us to detect that the chair is just a well- worn studio prop, with a sheet covering the faded seat. Instead of buttoning up the brigadier from his waist to his stiff gilt collar, Freud let the jacket burst open, revealing an ordinary white shirt bulging with a substantial paunch. The brigadier’s left hand, splayed on the arm of the chair, turns out to be surprisingly small, with delicate, bony fingers. But fleshiness reasserts itself in Parker Bowles’s face. Flushed and puffy, he seems the victim of too many port-fuelled military dinners. And his downcast eyes, with their drooping lids, have a look of disappointment. He appears melancholy, lost in a gloom that is deepened by the darkness of the screen behind him...” (R. Cork, New Statesman, via http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/cultural-capital/2011/07/lucian-freud-artist-portrait [accessed May 29, 2015]).
The Brigadier belongs to a series of large-scale portraits which Freud embarked upon during the last decade of his life, a body of work which includes some of his most celebrated paintings. Andrew Parker Bowles joins Sue Tilley and Leigh Bowery as one of the giants of the artist’s oeuvre. Painted when Freud was well into his 80s, the sheer scale and complexity of this particular painting would have tested the artist’s painterly abilities to the maximum, and yet the result shows that he had lost none of his prowess. Photographs taken by the painter David Dawson (Freud’s assistant and some-time sitter) show him perched precariously on top of a set of wooden steps which allowed him to reach the top of the canvas with relative ease. Unlike his compatriot Francis Bacon, who always painted from photographs, Freud always found it necessary to have his sitters present so their presence imbued the whole painting, and required his subjects to be present during each painting session, regardless of whether Freud was working on their figure or not.
Lucian Freud’s portraits, such as The Brigadier, are remarkable in that they manage to successfully encompass both the old and the new. Freud builds upon centuries of tradition to produce a very contemporary portrait. Impossibly grand, yet intensely personal, the way that Freud constructs his sitter’s likeness allows us peer into the psyche of a military man normally unused to this degree of introspection. Freud subverts the false façade of conventional portraits to produce a thoroughly modern rendition of a military man. The enthralling spell of the resplendent gold, the shiny medals and even the spurs are all undone by Freud’s casual unbuttoning of Parker Bowles’ jacket to reveal the evidence of a life well-lived. “Military portraits on the whole are slightly flattering,” the sitter admitted, “people looking their best, buffed up. You can’t pretend it is that way…this is a true portrait of how I look” (A. Parker Bowles, quoted by S. Howgate, Lucian Freud Portraits, exh. cat., National Portrait Gallery, London, 2012, p. 15).