David Dawson is an etching on white paper produced by the British artist Lucian Freud. The sitter is presented to us from the front, with his head and shoulders in view. He wears a loose light shirt over a dark t-shirt and appears to be in a relaxed pose, with his lips parted as if about to speak and his face set in a relatively neutral expression. Dawson’s face and neck are described by a network of finely drawn black lines and cross-hatching. Freud has concentrated most fully on rendering the detail of the lines and play of light and shadow across Dawson’s features, with multiple layers built up around the right side of his nose and the hairline on the sides of his forehead. This has led to dark, dense areas in these parts of the image, and these, as well as the cross-hatched lines above Dawson’s left shoulder and alongside his left ear, indicate depth in the composition.
This etching was made in 1998, most likely in Freud’s studio in Holland Park, London, to which he had moved in 1977. The work is an artist’s proof that was produced during the creation of an edition of forty-six prints, and it is signed and inscribed ‘A.P.’ (‘Artist’s Proof’). Freud tended to produce his etchings in an unconventional manner by propping up the copper plate on his easel and working directly onto the prepared plate from the model in front of him. Etchings like this were therefore made from direct observation, in a similar way to Freud’s painted portraits, such as Leigh Bowery 1991 (Tate T06834). As with the painting of Bowery, here Dawson is presented in intense close-up and against a largely featureless background that divorces the sitter from his physical environment.
Dawson was Freud’s assistant and model from 1990 until the artist’s death in 2011. He posed regularly for Freud and appears in paintings such as Sunny Morning–Eight Legs 1997 (Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago). Dawson was himself a painter and a photographer who frequently photographed Freud at work. In a 2004 interview Dawson described how their relationship evolved:
In the beginning I used to run around, get the paints in, make sure canvases were primed. Now I still do that but then you become more of a friend, more involved in the work. I’m always talking about what I think of his paintings as they’re progressing. We have big discussions. We’re quite good mates.
(Rachel Cooke, ‘Life with Lucian’, Guardian, 21 March 2004, http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2004/mar/21/art2, accessed 20 May 2015.)
The relaxed intimacy captured in this etching is characteristic of Freud’s tendency to avoid dictating the poses of his sitters. As the artist has explained: ‘I am only interested in painting the actual person; in doing a painting of them, not in using them to some ulterior end of art. For me, to use someone doing something not native to them would be wrong’ (quoted in Hughes 2000, p.20). For Freud, it was vital to paint and draw only people he knew well and he therefore regarded all images to be about himself, claiming that ‘my work is purely autobiographical. It is about myself and my surroundings’ (quoted in Feaver 2002, p.35).
Freud is known mainly for his oil paintings of the human form which combine expressionism and realism in their depictions of the body. However, printmaking was an important part of his practice and etchings allowed him to describe the physical qualities of the human face and body through the application of different types of line. In 2002 the art historian and Freud biographer William Feaver discussed the enjoyment the artist gained from working in this medium: ‘to Freud etching is a kind of reflective drawing – he draws, scrawls on the copper plate, and then, once it’s been put into the acid bath and has been proofed by the printer, he discovers what it’s like – it’s rather like getting your snaps back from the chemist’ (Fever in ‘Lucian Freud, room guide, room 7’, online exhibition guide, Lucian Freud, Tate Britain, London 2002, http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/lucian-freud/room-guide/lucian-freud-room-7, accessed 16 May 2015). Freud had made his first two etchings in 1946, but did not return to the practice in any quantity until 1982, preferring instead to concentrate on painting and drawing. Later etchings such as this one are larger in scale and have a bolder, darker style of draughtsmanship than the 1980s prints. While Freud’s etchings were often linked to his paintings, David Dawson is not and exists only as a print.
Robert Hughes, Lucian Freud: Paintings, London 2000.
William Feaver, Lucian Freud, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2002.
Starr Figura, Lucian Freud: The Painter’s Etchings, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art, New York 2007, pp.30, 137, print from the main edition of forty-six reproduced cat.78, pl.108.
Supported by Christie’s.