Sitting for Lucian: A British Model's Memories of Freud

Sitting for Lucian: A British Model's Memories of Freud

Nicola Bowery, a former sitter for Lucian Freud during the 1990s, reflects on her friendship with the artist.

Nicola Bowery, a former sitter for Lucian Freud during the 1990s, reflects on her friendship with the artist.

Lucian Freud And the Bridegroom, 1993 (oil on canvas) / Private Collection / © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images. Featuring Nicola Bowery and her then-husband Leigh Bowery.

When I went to Lucian's studio, at the top studio flat up five flights of stairs in Holland Park, London, I always looked forward to seeing Lucian and having a good chat, usually about my previous day or nights' activities. (I was a bit of a slut in those days, but it wasn't easy being married to a gay man.) I would amuse Lucian greatly—he had a wicked sense of humor, and I like to think I do as well. I was different than the other female models he painted and more similar to the gay models. We felt very comfortable in each other's company, and we would read the ten newspapers that Lucian got delivered daily.

Just to explain about the sitting or modelling times of Lucian, he had two or three paintings on the go at the same time. And there would be day paintings and night paintings with different models. A day painting would start at 7:30 in the morning, which is when Lucian expected his models to arrive, and after a cup of green tea and maybe a croissant, the sitting sessions would begin. The modelling would last for 35 to 40 minutes before a break of 10 to 15 minutes, and this would continue until 13:00-14:00pm. Once the model would leave, Lucian would have a nap for a few hours.

Lucian would always cook us dinner of partridge, lamb chops or oysters or lobster with a green salad and a raspberry vinaigrette...

Lucian Freud Four Figures, 1991

Lucian painted every day including Saturdays and Sundays, so I, for instance, sat 3 mornings and 5-6 nights a week.

The night paintings would start between 18:30-20:30pm depending on whether it was dark enough to continue and the light was right, as in winter it got dark early, but it was more variable in the summer. Lucian would always cook us dinner of partridge, lamb chops or oysters or lobster with a green salad and a raspberry vinaigrette, followed by custard and raspberry jelly tart I can't remember the name of. Lucian thought that a well-fed model would be more docile and settled, and would sit for longer sessions at a time. These night paintings would go on until 1-2:00am, and Lucian would give us money for cabs home. A typical painting by Lucian could take 6 to 9 months for him to complete.

During the breaks we would read the many newspapers that got delivered in the morning, and Lucian would cut slices of cheese from huge blocks of stilton or parmesan or Gouda for us to eat. At the time that Leigh Bowery and I were posing for And the Bridegroom (1993), Lucian also painting Bruce Bernard, so even though we didn't meet at that point I saw the painting of him develop and I got to know a little about him. When I saw the etching of Bruce Bernard taped to cardboard in the bin full of newspapers, I immediately asked Lucian why he had thrown it...he was dismissive of it but said I could have it if I wanted, so I took it home with me and got it framed.

Lucian Freud Head of Bruce Bernard, 1985

When I met Bruce Bernard, I was very impressed by him; he was a gentle soul, shy and unassuming, and Lucian trusted him completely, allowing Bruce to take photographs of him working, sometimes naked, as well as us models in our poses. He was one of three people allowed to photograph Lucian as Lucian hated publicity.

It occurs to me that maybe Lucian deliberately left [items and artworks] on show for me to have.

Lucian Freud The artist's palette, c. 2000

Lucian always had a pile of hospital sheets in the studio that he would rip up into bits so that he could wipe his paint brushes as he painted. Leigh, my husband of the time, used to take these rags home with him and cut them into squares and then sew them together to make curtains, duvets and also the very famous cape with the image of Adolf Hitler made out of the different shades of paint rags. One day as And the Bridegroom was being painted, the paint palette that Lucian had been using was discarded amongst the rags, so I asked Lucian if I could have it as to me it was a piece of art in its own right. I thought the paint palette was fantastic and I told him so; I loved the fact that it was made especially for him because Lucian was left-handed and painted with his left hand while holding the palette in his right. I loved that you could see the outline of his thumb. I also wanted a reminder of the time I sat for And the Bridegroom with Leigh because I wasn't sure if Lucian would want to paint me again after the painting was finished, but fortunately, he did.

I was being painted by myself in 1994 for Girl in the attic (1995), a particularly poignant painting to me. It was while I was sitting for this that my husband, Leigh Bowery, became very ill with Cryptococci meningitis, and because he developed AIDS he died five short weeks later on New Year's Eve 1994. Lucian continued to paint this picture, and basically looked after me by demanding me to come and sit for him and getting me a job with his daughter Bella Freud. The two of them kept me very busy, and with my family's help I managed to overcome my total devastation and grief of the death of Leigh, whom I loved with all my heart.

Bruce Bernard came and took a photograph of me at this time, and in this photo he managed to get me to smile and laugh—quite a feat in those dark days. He also very kindly gave me a photo that he had taken of Leigh, which was very thoughtful of him. Lucian had a bin in his kitchen that was exclusively used for all the newspapers he read. Sometimes there would be a book or some artwork left sticking out, and as I write this, it occurs to me that maybe Lucian deliberately left these items on show for me to have. It's not that I was digging through the bin: these things were placed on top in the open, and now as I really think about it, the bin would sometimes be placed right in the middle of the kitchen in the way, which I would move to stop Lucian from bumping into it.

Lucian Freud Reclining Figure, 1994

Some of the artworks I retrieved were a book called the case of the Wolf man, which contained woodcuts and etchings by Jim Dine with an introduction written by Richard Wollheim. There's written extracts by his father Sigmund called "From the history of an infantile neurosis." I asked Lucian why he had thrown it, but he said he didn't find it interesting and that I could have it if I wanted. I looked at him as if he was crazy, which amused him. Another time, there was a small bronze abstract sculpture that had been given to him at Christmas 1993 by Momart. Another time there was paint brushes placed in the bin which he said I could have. I made a tribal chest piece out of the brushes which he found amusing when I showed him. There were beaded wooden curtains that had been used in a very early painting called Father and daughter (1949) and, as previously mentioned, there was the etching of Bruce Bernard sticking out.

I want to sell the rest of the etchings...and I know that I would have the approval of Lucian Freud, who always looked out for me.

Lucian Freud Large Head, 1993

Throughout my time of sitting for Lucian, which lasted about three years, he gave me an etching of Leigh Bowery called Large Head, which I gave to Leigh's father Tom Bowery because I acquired the same etching that Lucian had given to Leigh. I also acquired the other two etchings on sale. Lucian also gave me the first painting he did of And the Bridegroom, which was unfinished. He had only worked on it for a couple of months before he realized that he wanted to make the painting a lot bigger. But this painting I sold back in 1998, when I wanted to buy a house for my daughter and myself to live in after a failed relationship. Lucian suggested that I sell the painting and he had organized it for me. Now that it's 2017, I want to sell the rest of the etchings so that I can buy my three children a house, and I know that I would have the approval of Lucian Freud, who always looked out for me.

These select works from Nicola Bowery's collection are now on view at Phillips Berkeley Square through 19 August 2017. View the exhibition details here.