The first time​ I saw Lucian Freud’s prints I was repulsed, for reasons I could not have explained. Freud’s paintings of female flesh can be difficult to look at, but these were monochrome portrait heads, etched in hard black line. Did I find them cruel? I’m not sure. I certainly thought they were ugly. Decades later, after I had learned a bit about the process of etching, I became preoccupied by these strange, twisted, touching works, made in the last thirty years of Freud’s life. I was drawn to them with a vehemence that matched my initial distaste.

The art historian Lawrence Gowing, who wrote a monograph on Freud in 1984, told him in accepting the commission that Freud’s work put his teeth on edge. ‘One … shamelessly prizes the frisson,’ Gowing said, and it was no good hoping the sensation might wear off if you looked at the work for longer. ‘Familiarity does not shield but sharpens,’ he concluded, ‘engaging one more deeply in a relationship that is addictive.’ Freud’s regular sitter Angus Cook said that the work he saw around him as he was modelling in Freud’s studio aroused ‘feelings of antipathy’, but that its prolonged ‘capacity for bother’ was part of its power. ‘Not to acknowledge the resistance that his work puts up is to miss out on the grandeur of its resilience.’

'Esther' (1991) © Lucian Freud Archive.

‘Esther’ (1991) © Lucian Freud Archive.

Leafing through a book of Freud’s works on paper I came across a portrait of someone I knew: Freud’s daughter Esther. It was just like her. Or rather, it was and it wasn’t. It shared with many of Freud’s etched portraits a contorted nose, irregular upper lip, eyes deep-set in cross-hatched shadow and curious scratches within the cheek that looked less like contours than defacements. As an offering it was almost an insult. Yet there was an uncanniness to the resemblance, which was all the odder for having been recorded thirty years earlier, when Esther was in her late twenties. It seemed to me like a premonition of Esther as she is now. I could make no sense of the image up close; the marks defied all conventions. It was a portrait that shouldn’t add up. I fell asleep with the book in my lap, trying to work out where in the dense, rackety lines the likeness lay.

The following evening I bumped into Esther in person. On another occasion I might have been more circumspect, knowing nothing about the feelings of Freud’s many children towards their father’s work. But, discombobulated by the coincidence, I asked her about the portrait. She said she had it at home somewhere, not on display, and had never liked it. ‘I felt my father had seen what I was trying to hide, that I was unhappy,’ she wrote to me afterwards. ‘It was that pivotal age, 27/28, when life often shifts you from one stage to another, and can be very uncomfortable. I’d developed an allergy to a medication and my skin had flared up, which had stopped my acting career, such as it was, and forced me to focus on writing, something I’d been trying to avoid doing. I’d hoped the scars of all this didn’t show, but he saw them. Which also shows how enticing it was to sit for him. Because even though I felt self-conscious about my appearance, the very act of sitting was irresistible.’

She liked the evening sessions best. They would begin with a longish stretch – fifty minutes or so – then break for tea in the kitchen and do a shorter stint before dinner. He always had delicious food (a lobster or Manchego cheese and lamb’s lettuce) and sometimes they would eat at a restaurant. After dinner, the sitting would continue until about midnight, when one or other of them would admit they were tired. At a certain point in the session, Esther would notice his concentration shifting and that was her cue to be quiet and let him, in his words, ‘get on’. Most of the time, though, they would talk. Everyone who sat for Freud said this: he was a consummate conversationalist.

‘Woman with an Arm Tattoo’ (1996). © Lucian Freud Archive.

‘Woman with an Arm Tattoo’ (1996) © Lucian Freud Archive.

I once attended a life drawing session in which Sue Tilley – the model in Freud’s painting Benefits Supervisor Resting and related etchings – answered questions from the audience as she modelled, inspired in part by her experience of chatting to Freud during her sittings. I found it almost impossible to draw her. Only later did I remember that in most of Freud’s portraits of Tilley she is asleep. The talking is indicative, however. It would take Freud several months and many sittings to complete a single etching, and in that period he was coming to understand the person’s features in motion over time. That hadn’t always been the case. Michael Wishart, the son of Freud’s lover Lorna Wishart, said that when Freud was young, you couldn’t blink while he was painting your thumb or he became ‘distressed’. The majority of Freud’s prints, made three and a half decades later, were part of a different way of working. ‘I was puzzled that he did not draw verifiably from a fixed position,’ Gowing reported after sitting for one of Freud’s first etchings. Freud explained: ‘I take readings from a number of positions because I don’t want to miss anything that could be of use to me. I often put in what is round the corner from where I see it.’ This accounts for the strange torsion in some of the etched portraits. They look at first like mangled bits of realism but are in fact stealthy works of cubism: many selves, many facets, many moments in one. They display two kinds of time: the time it took to make the work, and the person the portrait anticipates as a result of that long observation.

Caroline Blackwood, who was married to Freud in the 1950s, pointed out that he had an ability to make people and objects seem ‘more themselves, and more like themselves, than they have ever been – or likely will be’. ‘When Freud paints a sink,’ she wrote, ‘it gives off a “sinkishness” so powerful, it seems to exceed what even sinks can exude.’ She argued that Freud’s portraits were ‘prophecies rather than snapshots of the sitter as physically captured in a precise historical moment’. Bruce Bernard, who knew Freud from adolescence, also described the portraits as ‘prophetic’. ‘In the past,’ Blackwood wrote in 1993, ‘this was not so obvious because his prophecies had not yet become so dire and grim. When I used to sit for him nearly forty years ago the portraits he did of me in that period were received with an admiration that was tinged with bafflement. I myself was dismayed, others were mystified why he needed to paint a girl, who at that point still looked childish, as so distressingly old.’

Freud made his first etching in Paris the year after the war ended. He was 23. A girl he knew from art school in East Anglia was staying at the same hotel, and she gave him a small prepared copper plate to try. The process of hard-ground etching involves drawing with a needle on a plate that has been coated with a mixture of beeswax, rosin and asphalt. The lines of exposed copper become grooves once they are bathed (or ‘bitten’) in acid; when the surface is inked, it can be printed again and again. In Paris, Freud tied a sewing needle to the side of a pencil and drew a shape he called a Chelsea bun, though it could be a softened seashell, or a sunken rose. He persuaded a local chemist to sell him some nitric acid and used it to bite the plate in the sink in his room – but he didn’t have anywhere to print it. On his way to the cinema one day, he bumped into Picasso’s nephew Javier Vilató, who told him about a printer on the Quai Voltaire. The printer made an edition of four.

At the time, Freud was making precise line drawings in pencil, conté or ink. His conté drawing of Lorna Wishart in an ocelot coat, his ink drawings of a dead monkey and of sea holly (all 1944) and more obviously his self-portrait in ink, Man at Night, from 1947, all suggest that a transition to hard-ground etching would have been logical. The minute dots with which he composed the shading in his ink portraits, and his almost fetishistic way with fine strands of hair, would have lent themselves to drawing with a needle. For a short while, that seems to have been the case. He made six etchings between 1946 and 1948, half of which – all portraits of Kitty Garman – were in this vein. His Girl with Fig Leaf, etched in Aix in 1947 using tools given to him by Graham Sutherland, is a close relation of his paintings and drawings of Garman at the time. Among the best-known of these are his strange strangling sitter Girl with a Kitten (1947, in oil) and the petrified-looking Girl with Leaves (1948, conté and pastel).

Then he stopped. Freud made no more prints for 34 years, and by 1950 he had rejected drawing as an end in itself, too. As Toby Treves points out in his catalogue raisonné of Freud’s prints (Modern Art Press, £125), Freud’s reputation at that time rested as much on his drawings as on his paintings. His solo shows had tended to feature more works on paper than oils, and critics had praised the clarity of his line drawings. Between 1950 and 1974, however, he showed no drawings at all, having come to think, as he told his biographer William Feaver, that his compulsion for linear accuracy was a ‘limiting and limited vehicle’. ‘He seems to have distrusted his own facility as a draughtsman,’ Treves writes, ‘and feared the future it promised of book illustration and decoration, but those negative reasons, if significant at all, were secondary to the positive one of wanting to dedicate his life to painting.’

When Freud returned to etching in 1982 it was as part of an attempt to save his mother’s life. The immediate occasion was Gowing’s monograph: in order to cover the costs of production the publisher suggested Freud make prints to accompany one hundred deluxe editions. Freud had recently sat for Frank Auerbach, who had taken up etching in 1980 and was making portrait heads out of agglomerated dashes on several superimposed plates. Freud resolved to try etching again as a result. It was the year he turned sixty. He made several prints and editioned four for the Gowing monograph, the strongest of which, a portrait of his mother, remains one of the most extraordinary portraits he produced in any medium.

Lucie Freud – after whom Lucian, her middle and favourite son, was named – had attempted suicide following the death in 1970 of her husband, Ernst. When she was revived, Freud, who had avoided her for decades, found her to be ‘as good as dead’. ‘Every morning when I wake up I’m disappointed,’ she said. He took her to visit Auerbach at his studio, where she sat in complete silence, only rousing when they mentioned Weill and Brecht’s opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. ‘Fifteen, sixteen times,’ she muttered: she had seen it in Berlin before the family fled to London. She showed no interest in Freud or anything else, and because she was no longer a threat to his privacy he felt he could paint (or etch) her.

It wasn’t just her detachment that propelled him: ‘I suppose I felt I needed her to forgive me,’ he said later. He developed a routine that would give her something to do each day. He would pick her up most mornings from her home in St John’s Wood, take her for breakfast at Maison Sagne in Marylebone High Street, then head to his studio, where a sitting would last four hours. For years, Freud’s mother was his main daytime subject (he described himself as ‘working from my mother’). Lucie Freud sat for her son more than a thousand times before her death in 1989.

In the etching, she ‘seems to ask questions’, as Bruce Bernard put it, ‘that she never did in paint’. Her hair is playful and her irises occluded by scratches. The portrait contains many recognisably unrecognisable Freudian hieroglyphs: a mysterious loop above one eyebrow, an inverted horseshoe over the other; an almond-shaped net of lines across one cheek, a trill of doodles on the other; nose and philtrum contorted to near abstraction; forehead and fringe echoing each other, almost indistinguishably. None of these individual units seems to play a part in the total effect. Yet there it all is: regret, tenderness, ageing, dispassion. A nakedness entirely different from that for which Freud is known. Across the right-hand side of the print, an accident has been left uncorrected: a veil of foul-bite, where the hard ground has given way to a stain, like a blind spot or a birthmark – or a visitation from Freud’s grandfather, Sigmund, perhaps, seeping through the acid. ‘His steady gaze,’ Bernard wrote, ‘might be that of an exorcist.’

‘The Painter’s Mother’ (1982). © Lucian Freud Archive.

‘The Painter’s Mother’ (1982) © Lucian Freud Archive.

At the time I bumped into Esther Freud I was interested in figuring out how her father worked on his etching plates. They were so built up – and he kept on at each of them for so long – that I assumed he must have drawn a faint sketch first and bitten it in acid before recoating the plate and working on the portrait layer by layer. This is what Rembrandt did, overwhelming his initial drawing with successive richer ones. Or perhaps, like Morandi, he controlled the depth of his etched lines very carefully, rendering pallor or darkness with acid as he would with shades of paint.

But Freud didn’t do any of that. He worked for months at a time on plates whose outcome was impossible to predict. If he didn’t like the final result, he would often ditch the plate altogether, sometimes sabotaging a year’s worth of work. ‘I suggested printing it differently,’ Marc Balakjian recalled of Naked Man on a Bed, jettisoned in 1987, ‘but he said it could not be saved; that what was wrong was the drawing.’ After the early foray of the 1940s, Freud never touched acid or ink himself, relying on printers such as Balakjian. Nor was he interested in any of the distinctive textural techniques etching offered. ‘I could do aquatint and lots of things but I don’t want to get into it that deep,’ he told Feaver. In a sense, Freud wasn’t really a printmaker at all. He was a gambler. The appeal of etching was that it allowed him to leave a great deal to chance. It’s easy to imagine him hovering in Balakjian’s studio, waiting to see how the print would come out. ‘He derives a mild satisfaction from winning,’ one of his sitters, Arnold Goodman, wrote, ‘but an absolutely perverse delight from losing.’

What Freud looked for in the finished print was the emergence of certain forms. ‘If you look at the forms,’ he told Gowing, ‘it is clear that some of them want to be liberated.’ His 1985 etching of Bernard is topographical: a footpath here, a tramline there, a series of rings to suggest a hill. Freud maps Bernard’s head as if prospecting – for thoughts, perhaps. ‘That’s lucky,’ Freud murmured when making an etching of Martin Gayford’s head. ‘A form has appeared which I am delineating. It is always there, but it doesn’t always show itself. It will help me very much.’ When the first proof was pulled many months later, Gayford was disheartened to see that the helpful form was a small roll of flab under the right side of his jaw.

Sometimes an etching preceded a painting of the same subject, but usually it came afterwards, when Freud was in a closer and freer relation to the sitter. In all cases the etchings were works based on numerous new sittings, never preparatory sketches. Balakjian gave Freud copper plates that were almost twice as thick as the usual ones, so he could place them directly on an easel and stand as if painting. He would sketch out the broad composition in white pastel before beginning his endless small scratches, working outwards from the centre and focusing, as Sebastian Smee puts it in an essay in the catalogue raisonné, ‘on hollows and protuberances, swellings and slippages, skin conditions, sagging jowls, and all the inherent mobility of faces’. He preferred to make etchings at close range (there are three times as many heads as bodies) and the intimacy of the process was closer to painting. ‘It was a direct jump from paintings to etchings,’ he told Feaver, ‘not from the early etchings.’ At his death in 2011, he left almost two hundred finished paintings and more than ninety etchings, sixty of which were editioned and the rest taken no further than a printer’s proof.

Treves’s catalogue raisonné of the prints provides invaluable information about all of this, and offers clues to much more. In publishing every print, in every state, Treves allows us to see Freud’s working methods in a way that would never be possible with the paintings. Here we witness Freud irreversibly cropping a large-scale portrait of Susanna Chancellor with whippet, until it’s a portrait of the whippet with half a headless person. We see him removing a knob of hair from Emily Bearn’s head and a raised arm from a portrait of Angus Cook. The appendix includes not only plates that were never printed but plates that were never finished, including the very last: a portrait, with traces of pastel still visible on the copper, of the restaurateur Jeremy King. At the time of his death, Freud had been working on it for three years.

Perhaps the most dramatic, and most intriguing, revisions are those that offer evidence of a struggle. In particular Freud seems to have grappled with the top of Leigh Bowery’s skull in 1994 – Balakjian erased and proofed it in five permutations – and with the head of his daughter Bella in 1995. In the case of the latter, we see her face in three distinct variants, alongside two proofs with her head erased. Freud drew and painted Bella often; for this particular print she sat three times a week. In each of the three states she looks like a different person, and the size of her head relative to the rest of her body shifts too. It feels like something of a revelation to be let in on Freud’s difficulty and persistence.

Etching involved collaboration. Freud was introduced to Balakjian by the artist Celia Paul in 1986, and Balakjian went on to process and print Freud’s plates for the rest of his life (even when, after an outburst, Freud switched technicians for the biting of his plates, he returned to Balakjian for the proofing). The partnership appears to have encouraged Freud to go further. ‘It was stimulating to give Marc the plate and see what he would make of it,’ he told the curator Starr Figura. Balakjian would make several proofs, sometimes on different papers, and wait for Freud to choose between them. Anyone who has a chance to see Balakjian’s prints in person will notice not only their technical sumptuousness but the subtle way in which he introduced a tonal warmth to Freud’s harsh lines. A 2015 essay by Balakjian, who died in 2017, is included in the catalogue raisonné, and a set of 142 printer’s proofs showing different stages of work was acquired from his estate by the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2019.

Over time, Freud’s plates got bigger, partly out of ambition and partly out of what he described to Figura as a ‘contrarian’s reaction’ to the miniaturisation and charm of traditional etching. ‘I’ve become increasingly ambitious with age,’ he told Bowery. ‘It’s a fascination with the difficulties.’ Woman with an Arm Tattoo (1996), his close-up portrait of Tilley asleep, is a dense and perverse piece of work. The patterns that detail the forms in her forearm are almost surgical, and her nose, crushed into her palm as she rests, looks painfully contorted. The print features, in Figura’s words, ‘some of the most complex and imaginative markings of all of Freud’s oeuvre’.

My favourite etching, however, is the monumental head of Freud’s stepson, Kai, an image of overpowering proportions that conveys an air of proximate sorrow. Kai’s head is at least ten, if not twenty, times larger than the viewer’s. His gaze is cast towards the floor and the light catches his lashes. His shoulders have been adjusted but not cleaned up, leaving the remnant of a shrug along with a good few scratches on the plate. It’s a statue and a sketch at the same time. The more you look at it, the more compelling it becomes to try to resolve its irregularity. How is the liquidity in his face achieved? How do the random-seeming dashes on either side of his forehead amount to that contoured effect? Why this patterning on his shirt collar here and a different patterning there? And – lest you think it’s anything other than acutely observed – the angle of his eyeballs is a model of precision.

These large-scale works exemplify the character of Freud’s prints as a whole. At first they seem bleak, merciless; after a while they begin to suggest a more compassionate inquiry, recalling Bernard’s observation that Freud’s work tests, but ultimately increases, our capacity to bear reality.

Several months after we first spoke about her father’s work, Esther lent an etching to the Freud Museum for an exhibition and put in its place on her wall the portrait of herself she had so disliked. She found herself looking at it for the first time in many years. She recognised it as a portrait both of her past self and of the person she had been about to become. ‘With the etching, he caught a sort of melancholy, some damage and disappointment,’ she acknowledged. ‘But now I look at it, I also see that I was young, and that there was another side of myself, inside, that was going to burst through, as it did. Into a life that suited me so much more than the life I’d been living.’

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