One of Britain’s preeminent postwar painters, Frank Auerbach was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1931. Arriving in England as a Jewish refugee in 1939, he attended St Martin’s School of Art, London, and studied with David Bomberg in night classes at Borough Polytechnic. He then studied at the Royal College of Art and has remained in London ever since. His first exhibition was held at London’s Beaux Arts Gallery in 1956; since then his works have been collected widely. Photo: © David Dawson/All rights reserved, 2022/Bridgeman Images
Richard Calvocoressi is a scholar and art historian. He has served as a curator at the Tate, London, director of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, and director of the Henry Moore Foundation. He joined Gagosian in 2015. Calvocoressi’s Georg Baselitz was published by Thames and Hudson in May 2021.
Richard CalvocoressiFrank, can you recount your memories of those John Deakin photographs of you, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Michael Andrews, and Tim Behrens at Wheeler’s restaurant in Soho in 1963?
Frank AuerbachI remember every single detail of the photo shoot. Francis Wyndham, one of those people who tended to circulate in Soho, organized it.1 There seemed to be some sort of community between Mike, Lucian, Francis, and me, and he suggested that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have a photograph taken of us, as, if not a group, in inverted commas, a sort of coven of artists who congregated to some extent. And he wanted to commission Deakin, who by that time was in a pretty bad way.
It was arranged that Deakin would photograph us at Wheeler’s at eleven in the morning. Wyndham had thought that Tim Behrens was, as it were, one of us—which he wasn’t quite. He’d been a student of Lucian’s and for a time was very friendly with him, but he was of a different generation and didn’t take part in the actual continuous conversation that took place between the rest of us.
So we all turned up at eleven at Wheeler’s. A table had been laid. We sat against the wall and Deakin got up on the bar and started taking a few photographs. And that was more or less it. Francis always hated being associated with other people. He declared he didn’t like the whole business. The rest of us—Mike, Lucian, and myself—were much less pleased to have to go somewhere at eleven in the morning when we would rather be doing something else.
FAAnd when the shoot, which took no more than five minutes, was over, Tim suggested that we open one of the bottles on the table, which nobody wanted to do, but . . . and if anybody had been asked to pay for it, it would certainly have been Francis. So a bottle was opened at Tim’s behest, and we may have had a sip of champagne, and then went our separate ways. The photographs were not entirely in focus, and Queen magazine rejected them as not up to their standard. That would have been the end of the story except that one of the photographs resurfaced and it’s now been reproduced about fifty times, as far as I can tell.
RCYes, it’s become iconic, to use that overused word.
RCIn another of them, it looks as if you’re giving Francis Bacon a light.
FAI am indeed, yes.
RCFor someone who would later claim that he never smoked on account of his asthma, I was a bit surprised by that.
FANo, no, he smoked. He smoked Gauloises. He smoked them for quite a long time. There was a court case, and it was said that pot had been found in circumstances that cast a slightly dubious light on the police—I think there’d been a backstory, somebody wanting to get his own back on Francis phoned the police and said there was pot in his place, and they said they found some—and Francis said at the trial that smoking gave him asthma and therefore he couldn’t have smoked pot. But he did in fact smoke. I don’t know whether he inhaled, and not very excessively, but he did smoke, yes.
RCIn Deakin’s photos, you, Bacon, and Andrews are all casually but tidily dressed, while Behrens is the stereotype of the scruffy art student. But Freud, in jacket and tie, looks as if he’s just come from an interview with his bank manager. Was Lucian always dressed so formally outside the studio?
FANo. Lucian was sometimes conspicuously scruffy, sometimes in very well-tailored suits. But always with a sense of style—he was very conscious of clothes.
RCBehrens, who looks from the photographs like a sort of hanger-on, and as you say was much younger, was nevertheless very close to Lucian, who painted him a number of times.
FAAbsolutely. Lucian had taken a great interest in Tim when he was a student at the Slade—he may in fact still have been a student there when the photographs were taken—and became friendly with him and did some paintings of him. And then, I’m not sure on what grounds, they had a sort of falling out, which was a falling out both ways.
RCI believe around this time, the early ’60s, you photographed Deakin.
FAYes, I did take some photographs of Deakin! This was the circumstance: someone—almost certainly Francis—asked Deakin for some photos of himself. Deakin’s response was to go across the road to the Golden Lion pub—less crowded than the Colony Room—and thrust a camera into my hand and ask me to take some snaps. I was totally unfamiliar with cameras.
RCMoving on to the subject of friendship portraits, if we can call it that, Lucian painted you, he painted a double portrait of Mike and June Andrews, and he also painted Francis. Francis painted Lucian many times. Mike painted miniportraits of both Lucian and Francis in The Colony Room 1 (1962). Did you ever paint any of the other three?
FAFrancis also painted a double portrait of Lucian and myself.
RCOf course, it’s in the Moderna Museet in Stockholm.
FAIt was done from photographs in Paris Match of French soldiers relaxing in Algiers, as you might expect. I suppose it registers, for me, as a painting rather than a portrait.
I did a drawing and an etching of Lucian, but I never painted either Mike or Francis, although I painted a number of pictures of Leon Kossoff, who, simply because his lifestyle was different, was not a great habitué of Soho. Even before he was married, he always had a more domestic background. The people who tended to drink in Soho were people who didn’t really have what’s called homes.
RCWhat are your memories of sitting for Lucian?
FAI sat for Lucian in one of his very run-down apartments, in a condemned terrace of empty houses. I sat for three hours at a time, I don’t know how many sittings. Lucian would, I think—memory fails—give me a lift at both ends. It was always very well heated and warm and there was often a restaurant meal afterwards, four times out of five paid for by Lucian. The whole process of painting from a person is so very familiar to me that I cannot remember anything as being remarkable.
Lucian sat for me in my studio for the drawing, and did a surprising number of sittings—perhaps fifteen—for the little etching in his Holland Park flat.
RCBy 1963, when Deakin’s photos were taken, Bacon was already quite famous, having had a big retrospective at the Tate.
FAOh, he was almost like Dylan Thomas: as soon as he appeared he was famous. People regarded him as quite remarkable and on a different level from almost the whole of current English painting. The fact that his audience grew is true, but the quality of his reputation was there from the very, very beginning. It has to be remembered that the painting that the Museum of Modern Art in New York bought was bought before any retrospective—perhaps from his second show at the Hanover, or even from his first, after the war.
RCPainting (1946), the one with the umbrella?
FAThat’s right, yes.
RCI think the museum bought it from the Hanover in 1948.
FAYes. Alfred Barr may have been a genius among twentieth-century curators in the English-speaking world. In the late 1940s or early 1950s he acquired some small paintings of Lucian’s before there was any question of his having any sort of international standing or fame.
RCOf the three of them—Lucian, Francis, and Mike—who were you closest to, or did the relationships change over the years?
FAThey certainly changed over the years, in the sense that Francis fell out with all of us. But for a time I was closest to Francis—some of this sounds self-serving but it’s absolutely true. He was, from the beginning, quite interested in what I had to say—or so he said—and after my first show he went out of his way to get to know me. He arranged with Helen Lessore that we should all three of us go together to the premiere of the film that Eduardo Paolozzi and Mike were in—
RCOh yes, Together.2
FAYes. We’d spoken before but he wanted to be formally introduced. And he took us to Wheeler’s afterwards. Then, for about fifteen years, we spoke frequently, and probably incoherently, but I think with a sense of mutual stimulation. In fact I remember one occasion, after a meal with Francis and Lucian, when Lucian said he was so stimulated by Francis’s and my conversation that he rushed home and went on with his painting in the middle of the night.
This persisted for some time, and Francis was extraordinarily kind to me in many ways. I lived in . . . I guess you’d call it rock-bottom poverty, and he took me to many, many meals. But then he fell out with all of us. I think with me first—I think he got fed up with me and my work. I very slightly got fed up with him as well, after about fifteen years.
With Lucian it was more complicated because they were the two closest. I might have seen Francis twice a week for about fifteen years, but Lucian and Francis were together all day, when they weren’t working, for a very considerable time, and it was very rare to see one without the other. Francis expressed a sort of polite respect for Lucian’s work. Lucian was totally loyal to Francis and was clearly fascinated by his work and admired it. But as was Francis’s wont, whenever Lucian had a show, he would go and start telling people it wasn’t really the sort of thing he liked, he preferred [Walter] Sickert really, this looked like Stanley Spencer, he didn’t care for it, and so on.
But I think Francis was stimulated by, as it were, cutting himself off and being on his own, and very often spoke of the delights of treachery, which to some extent he practiced. It has to be said that this was run concurrently with extreme generosity and friendliness, and in fact, in my case, before we fell out, he was very helpful—I mean, I think he told people about my work a bit and perhaps persuaded one or two people to buy it, and may have even praised it for a while. But then he got fed up with it. And he got fed up with Lucian too, later, and he got fed up with Mike as well, although for a time he’d admired his work. I’m probably overinterpreting, but I think Francis felt stifled by having too close a relationship of that sort. And the people he was more at ease with were people like Miss Beston at the Marlborough, Sonia Orwell, his nanny—that is, friends who were in a different sphere.3 He sometimes said, since he was inclined to be provocative, that he preferred what he called ordinary people to artists.
RCFor those fifteen years when you and Francis spoke consistently, what were the sorts of topics that you covered?
FAWell, that was the trouble, you see, when I was told we would do this interview, I found it very difficult to remember. We spoke about painting. We spoke also about literature and gossip and all sorts of things. It wasn’t in any sense structured. We never had, as it were, a debate about painting. You can’t say that this was artists discussing art. It wasn’t quite like that. There were implications of certain standards of extremism, a certain disdain for painting as being in any sense of social value or something that makes life more pleasant or anything like icing on the cake. And I think it touched on poetry and literature as much as it did on painting. I mean, we spoke a great deal about, I don’t know, Yeats and things. But it was more gossip and jokes and so on. For God’s sake, don’t represent it as like Van Gogh and Gauguin seriously discussing art! There was no discussion of that sort. We were in the same ambiance. We kept seeing each other because presumably we felt there was some sort of sympathetic community. We talked of everything under the sun, and by implication, something fairly ambitious in all four of our attitudes to painting was part of the undercurrent. Mike had immaculate manners but underneath this mask he was intensely ambitious, as was evident in the fact that, right from the very beginning, he was clearly focused on painting large masterpieces of National Gallery quality.
RCWere the four of you competitive?
FAI think we were more competitive than cooperative—there was obviously a bit of both. But I think the basis of the association was a feeling that the others were worth contending with.
RCSo if you were influenced by each other at all, it was really lifestyle and behavior rather than each other’s painting.
FAExactly. I mean, when I was younger and even more callow than I am now, I found Lucian’s idiom, and particularly his use of the sable brush—the intense clarity of his early idiom—and indeed Francis’s idiom, what seemed to me slightly vaporous, sensational, unstructured: I rejected both. And then I gradually began to accept and admire their work because I realized as I grew up that it wasn’t a question of idiom but of intensity and range of sensibility.
RCGiven that figurative painting went out of fashion in the late 1960s, early 1970s, with the rise of Minimal, Conceptual, politicized art, and so on, what did the four of you feel? Isolated and unloved? A dying breed? Or something like a sect whose time would come?
FAI think we all took a longer view. It may be pretentious but I’m all for pretension—it gives one something to live up to—but we all, while interested in everything that was going on in art, related in our own ways to the whole history of art. That is, we noticed, oh, [Jean] Dubuffet, [Henri] Michaux, Yves Klein, [Jackson] Pollock etc., etc. I don’t think we thought of all that as necessarily comprehensive, but in our own way we were all aware of history. Lucian, quite broad-minded, related to all first-class art ever made. Of course, the tradition has always been, in Ezra Pound’s words, “Make it new.” It’s now almost two centuries since Baudelaire suggested that the phrase “avant-garde” should be given back to the military and that we should look for the absolutely new (which is slightly harder to detect). Paul Valéry’s claim that “The new is always the old” is a typical French paradox but one can sense a meaning.
Francis’s behavior was very grand, he simply didn’t waste any energy on telling people what he thought of Pop art and so on. Possibly sometimes in an aside, he would say something—I may say totally mistakenly—derogatory about David Hockney, who’s a rather remarkable painter in my opinion. It was quite clear that Francis was certain that if you painted well enough, if you made a great image, that was all that was necessary. You didn’t have to take notice of what was going on around you.
We talked of everything under the sun, and by implication, something fairly ambitious in all four of our attitudes to painting was part of the undercurrent.Frank Auerbach
RCYet, of all of you, he seems to have been more intrigued and open to including passages of what one might call abstract painting, large flat areas of a single color, even though he was at the same time decrying abstraction.
FAWell, we’re all affected by what goes on, whether we’re aware of it or not. But I think it’s a little simplistic to think that when he went down to Cornwall and saw Patrick Heron cover a canvas with orange, he was affected by it. Francis was enormously inventive. His avatar, his model, would be Picasso, really, if it was anybody. And in the same way Picasso can in some moods be regarded as the greatest artist who ever lived, in the sense that he made radical images at various points of his life, Francis too, as soon as he’d done something—I think this is true of most artists—he wanted to do exactly the opposite.
Francis was fairly contemptuous of most of his contemporaries, actually. He might have been affected by anything he saw out of the corner of his eye, including furniture in a shop window, but I don’t think he would have been influenced by anybody. I remember him once pointing out to me in the National Portrait Gallery a portrait of James Joyce by Jacques-Émile Blanche—not in my opinion a tremendously distinguished painting, but he liked the way the paint had been put on in the background and he went on about it as though it actually mattered to him. So anything could affect him. But I don’t think there’s anything linear about influences being exchanged in that way with English painting—particularly since he always had a greater respect for French thought, and spoke French fluently. Michel Leiris and Alberto Giacometti and so on became people he spoke to a lot, and I think Georges Bataille—that was all part of his background.
Looking back, I’m struck by the extraordinary reasonableness and honesty and clarity and modesty of whatever Lucian said. He was very lively as far as gossip and life were concerned, it was full of interest and excitement. He didn’t make many pronouncements about painting but when he did, they were fairly simple and always worth listening to.
So we did have an effect on each other, but I don’t think it was any—there was no particular community between us. As I said, Francis’s habitual tendency towards treachery was combined with extraordinary generosity and sympathy. I mean, he gave money away and performed many acts of extreme kindness. It made him, I think, what he wanted it to make him—on his own and not part of any sort of gang.
RCIn his landscapes of the 1970s and ’80s, Mike Andrews used a spray gun to cover or stain large areas of unprimed canvas with acrylic paint. Bacon also, I think, used an aerosol spray in his pictures of sand dunes and jets of water. Were you ever tempted to experiment technically in this way, or does working from the live model—as opposed to photographs, like Bacon and Andrews—preclude this?
FAI was never tempted to use a spray gun. I think, or feel, that for me, painting is a form of drawing. But the use of painting is always experimental, different every time.
RCWhat about art critics—David Sylvester, for example? Did he help to sustain this idea of an association or group? He wrote about all of you quite positively, I think.
FAYes, I think he wrote about Lucian positively at the very beginning and then turned against him. He certainly wrote positively about Mike, but I think turned against him as well. And the same was true of me. But I think Francis and David were quite close—I’m making everything complicated because Francis would seem and be extremely friendly with people and then run them down behind their back. But I think he respected David Sylvester’s intelligence, and what I think of as the admirable clarity of his prose, which seemed to me very simple and direct. I think they worked together on that book of interviews—I think Francis had very considerable input. He always said that he didn’t take any notice, this all happened behind his back, but I think he worked on the book with David over a period of time. And like many things in life, when I first read it, I was excited about it. When I read it again ten years ago, I thought Francis was talking for effect. When I read it again recently, it seemed rather good again. Francis was quite frank about “Who can’t you tear apart if not your friends?” So all of his friendships had this ambivalence about them. But I think he was close to David.
And as far as I was concerned, David, by himself and without being told, seemed to respond to my first show. He liked me for some time, and then I think he hoped that I would become something like an American painter who had an artistic profile that he held to throughout his life. Whereas I don’t think I would have liked to be [Mark] Rothko, for all his talent. As my work developed, it seemed to trace a certain autobiographical line that wasn’t—I’m interpreting—entirely the sort of thing that David Sylvester went for.
RCYou all identified very closely with London as a setting for living, and also as a subject. I think only Mike left London for the country—in the late 1970s—and didn’t return for another fifteen years.
FAWell, Francis was always going on about how he’d like to move to Paris because that’s where the center of corruption was. I don’t think that Francis painted London particularly, although all those men in suits somehow seem rather English. But I don’t think there was an avowed attachment to London. There certainly was in my case and in Lucian’s case, for the quite obvious reason that, you know, we clung to it as a raft in the sea, that we’d come here from somewhere we’d escaped. This meant survival for us, really, London. And of course, in London, particularly after the war, there was a curious feeling of equality and freedom, because we’d all survived the war and nothing else was all that important. It had a feeling of adventure and freedom and unconstraint and a sort of—not that I particularly believe in equality—a sort of equality, that anybody could be anybody. Gradually, of course, everything became stratified again. Before the war, it was largely on the basis of class; after the war, I think to a very large extent on the basis of money.
RCOf the four, you were the one who painted images of London postwar, the period of destruction and reconstruction.
FAYes, and Leon Kossoff too. But I mean, you would have to be totally insensitive not to—if you went on the bus, you saw these wrecked buildings all around, deep holes in the ground, five stories with fireplaces and pictures on the wall and the rooms sheared away, great heaps of rubble everywhere. It wasn’t that different from the photographs you get now of Ukraine.
RCIn Lucian’s paintings, you get glimpses of down-at-heel parts of the city such as Paddington, through windows and so on.
FAYes. And he painted a waste ground or two as well. There’s a feeling of time in Lucian’s immediate postwar work: everything seems to be unstratified and loose before it all settles down again.
RCBoth Francis and Mike died in the early 1990s. You continued I think to see Lucian on a regular basis until his death.
FAYes, I did. I was very fond of Lucian. Apart from the fact that we had quite a lot in common (we’d both been to the same sort of school, and had the same sort of background, and our families in Berlin had known each other), I found Lucian quite exceptionally nice, an exceptionally sweet man, and a good friend, and very frank and honest and everything one could wish for in a friend. He would sometimes ask me to go round and see what he’d done, and I used to do that. I saw him frequently.
And Mike, I liked Mike very much as well. We certainly never fell out. We saw each other more rarely—I had dinner there once or twice, he had dinner with us once or twice. We met in Soho. I think he knew that I respected and admired his work. But even during the time that I saw him frequently, I didn’t see him quite as frequently as I saw Francis, and certainly not as frequently as I saw Lucian for something like fifty or sixty years.
RCAnd I believe Bruce Bernard was a mutual friend of—
FAAbsolutely, of all of us, yes. He took a photograph of me a week before he died. I thought it was a very good photograph. He was already extremely feeble. Virginia Verran came with him. He couldn’t actually set up the camera tripod by himself, and I remember Virginia quietly doing everything for him, everything physical, and then squatting in the corner as though she wasn’t there in the studio. And he took this photograph, which was I think quite a good photograph. It’s got me in the mirror and there’s almost like a hangman’s noose hanging over my head.
RCHow did Lucian’s large collection of your work come about?
FAWell, he said it was his taste. He said he liked my work and he started buying things very early on. And he bought over a period of forty years or something—it wasn’t bought in one go.
FAI think he bought very early on from Helen Lessore, and he bought fairly late on, you know, before he died. In fact, there was a time when I felt slightly uneasy: I thought all my best pictures were going into Lucian’s house.
RCWell, in the end he had I think fifteen oil paintings and numerous works on paper, which were all distributed around museums in this country after his death. Did you ever yourself acquire the work of any of the other three?
FAI’m not a collector. I’ve never actually lived in a respectable place. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but—I mean, I’m still—this is comparatively luxurious, but it’s total squalor compared to the way all the others lived. And I could totally afford to, but I just haven’t been bothered. Lucian gave me his prints, and I’ve kept one of Kai and one of Ib, but I gave the others to the Courtauld Gallery.
RCAnd are you still painting?
FAYes, I’m doing my best. But as you may discover if you’re lucky, old age is fairly difficult.
RCBut you still have sitters, or—
FAI still have one or two. Otherwise I’ve been painting self-portraits. I’m rather glad that I didn’t do self-portraits before, they seemed a little banal to me—everybody’s done self-portraits. But in the last few years I’ve been working from myself, and in fact I find it endlessly interesting. It’s different every time you do it.
Conversation recorded in London, August 3, 2022
1Author, editor, and publisher Francis Wyndham was at the time an editor of Queen magazine, which commissioned John Deakin to photograph the five artists at Wheeler’s. Wyndham would later be painted by Freud.
2Helen Lessore was director of the Beaux Arts Gallery, London, which gave Auerbach his first show, in 1956. The film Together (1956), in which Michael Andrews and Eduardo Paolozzi play deaf mutes, was directed by Lorenza Mazzetti, a founding member of the Free Cinema movement, together with Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, and Tony Richardson. She had been a contemporary of Andrews’s at the Slade School of Fine Art, and in 1954 he painted her portrait.
3Valerie Beston looked after Francis Bacon at Marlborough Fine Art, London, from the time he joined the gallery, in 1958, until his death, in 1992. Sonia Orwell was the second wife of the writer George Orwell, having married him three months before his death. As Sonia Brownell she had been assistant to Cyril Connolly, editor of Horizon magazine. The final days before her death in 1980 were spent penniless in a comfortable London hotel, where Bacon visited her and paid all the bills. Bacon was devoted to his nanny, Jessie Lightfoot, who died in his studio-apartment at Cromwell Place, South Kensington, in 1951.
Friends and Relations, Gagosian, Grosvenor Hill, London, November 17, 2022–January 28, 2023