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Sitting for Giacometti

David Sainsbury recalls his teenage experience of sitting for a portrait by Alberto Giacometti in 1955

Alberto Giacometti, David – Full Length, 1955, pencil on paper, 55.2 x 37.5 cm

Alberto Giacometti, David – Full Length 1955, pencil on paper, 55.2 x 37.5 cm

© Alberto Giacometti estate/ACS+DACS in the UK, courtesy Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, photo: Pete Huggins

My parents had known Giacometti since 1949, from the time when they first bought his work. The visit to his studio came about at the end of a family holiday in France. When we got to Paris I was taken along to the studio on the rue Hippolyte-Maindron in some trepidation – I was a thin and lanky 15-year-old schoolboy, sitting for an internationally known Swiss artist. I don’t think I had any concept of Giacometti at the time at all.

I remember that the studio was extremely dilapidated. It had white walls, but was quite grimy. One sensed that the state of his studio was deliberate. He was someone who lived a spartan kind of life, with few possessions so as not to be distracted from his mission. There were works of art, including various plaster forms and drawings on the wall, but it was dingy.

My parents introduced us, which was just as well because he didn’t speak any English and I had only schoolboy French. They then left me in the studio. Giacometti asked me to sit on a chair. He sat opposite and began to draw. There was almost no communication between us, other than every so often he would put his head in his hands and groan.

About two hours later my parents came back and he laid out five drawings on a table for them to see. They asked to buy three of them, but Giacometti then said:

I can’t possibly sell them to you, because they’re no good, I couldn’t draw today …

After a while, [Giacometti’s girlfriend] Annette came into the room, and there was a general chat, and it was revealed that what she wanted above all else was a Marks and Spencer’s mackintosh. So it was eventually decided my parents would have the three drawings and she would get a mackintosh. (It turned out that my parents thought an M&S mac was not appropriate, so they bought her an Aquascutum one instead. Annette loved it.) Giacometti was an incredible draughtsman. I feel that he understood what sort of person I was. I can see my teenage self, in spite of the fact the drawing has the standard Giacometti style. He was also the most extraordinary and interesting man – and perhaps the most mysterious. With many other artists it is easy to analyse the impression they make on you. But with Giacometti it is never easy to say why one finds his works of art beautiful and moving.

Photograph of David Sainsbury

David Sainsbury is the son of Sir Robert and Lady Lisa Sainsbury. He was Minister for Science and Innovation from 1998 to 2006 and has been Chancellor of the University of Cambridge since 2011.

Giacometti is on at Tate Modern 10 May – 10 September 2017

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