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Lucien Freud

Sue Tilley at Tate Britain in 2002 with her portrait ‘Benefits Supervisor Resting’

Sue Tilley at Tate Britain in 2002 with her portrait ‘Benefits Supervisor Resting’

“To be honest, I think most of my memories might be made up. I’ve told these stories so many times, I may have embellished them a little. But as they say, ‘What is a lie, but the truth in disguise?’ I met Lucian through Leigh Bowery, who was one of my best friends and a complete control freak. The problem is, so was Lucian. Leigh wanted me to pose for Lucian, he was always pushing his friends into interesting situations, but he needed Lucian to think it was his idea. So he planted the seed and let it grow in Lucian’s mind until he suggested it.

The first sitting was absolutely petrifying. Leigh came to see me first and got me to strip off at home so that I’d feel comfortable. It didn’t really work. He then proceeded to tell me all of these stories about Lucian, most of which were complete lies and made him out to be the most petrifying person in the whole world. So I was petrified by the time I got to Lucian’s house. In we went and Lucian told me to strip naked and get on the floor, which I did. I have never been so uncomfortable in my life – I was in absolute agony – but Leigh had me so worried that Lucian would explode with rage that I didn’t say a word.

“I thought my picture might be in the paper and I’d get a bit of attention for a day – but now I’m forever associated with Lucian”

Lucian had lots of magazines lying around, one of which had an article by Paul McKenna, who was just getting famous then, about how to hypnotise yourself. I still remember it now: you have to hear three different sounds, feel three different feelings and stare at three different things and that would take you into a trance. So I tried to do that – anything but complain. I would have given up, but I was brought up that if you agreed to do something you see it through – so I stuck it out.

It took nine months. I’d sit on weekends as I was working full time at the job centre, where I still work.

‘Benefits Supervisor Sleeping’ which was sold to Roman Abramovich for £17.2 million in 2008

I’m so glad I agreed to pose. I ended up finding Lucian incredibly amusing – still scary, but not as frightening as Leigh had made out. He paid me £20 per sitting and of course a wonderful lunch – that was the best bit. He was a wonderful cook, he believed in buying the most expensive ingredients he could afford – and of course he could afford anything – and cooking them very simply. The only problem was if you said you liked something you’d get it every meal for the next month – he was that sort of obsessive. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I got sick to the death of lobster – it was lobster and hard floors for nine months.

The mood would change every day. Sometimes I wouldn’t want to talk and I couldn’t shut him up, and sometimes I’d be lively and he’d be feeling grumpy or unwell and would be completely silent. But when we hit the happy medium, that was my favourite time. We’d talk about anything under the sun, but my favourite subject to get him on was his brother Clement. He was so vile about him, no holds barred whatsoever – complete and utter hatred for no good reason I could ascertain whatsoever. What most people would consider totally normal behaviour Lucian would interpret as the most appalling action on earth – just because he wanted to.

‘Self Portrait, Reflection’, 2002

Lucian hated a suntan – he thought it was repulsive. In the middle of the picture sittings there was an exhibition in the South of France, and I begged him to let me go. He gave in and arranged everything for me, it was a fabulous exhibition and I go to meet Madame Pompidou and everything. But this slightly naughty side of me came out and I stayed out in the sun too long.

Although I’m quite good at doing what I’ve been told to do, I have a tiny rebellious streak and I thought I’d been so good lying naked on that hard floor that I deserved a treat and got a tiny bit of a suntan.

Lucian wasn’t impressed. He didn’t really shout at me, but we had to stop work on the picture. It wasn’t much of a tan, just a little bit on my chest and the top of my arms, but Lucian couldn’t look at me until it faded. If he wasn’t looking at what he saw when he started, then he found it very disturbing and couldn’t continue. He had to see exactly what he was painting – he couldn’t work around it. It was the same with my tattoos, but I suggested he painted over them with flesh-coloured paint, which he did and he was happy with that.

I had no idea I was involved in something so huge [Tilley’s portrait, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, sold for £17.2m in 2008 – the most expensive painting by a living artist in history]. I thought my picture might be in the paper and I’d get a bit of attention for a day – but now I’m forever associated with Lucian and his pictures. All the kerfuffle is a bit odd, but I have a habit of finding myself in odd situations.”

Lucian Freud, 8th Dec 1922 – 20th Jul 2011

 

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