Last week I had the privilege of drawing model Sue Tilley over Zoom. Best known for Lucian Freud’s depictions of her in the 1990s (including Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, which set the record for the most expensive painting by a living artist sold at auction when it went for £17 million in 2008), Sue was also prominent on the 1980s club scene where she was a regular at nights such as the Wag Club and Taboo, run by her friend, the performance artist Leigh Bowery. It was Bowery who introduced Sue to Lucian whilst she was working as a benefits supervisor at the job centre. A friend of theirs had attended university with one of Lucian's daughters, who had gotten Cerith Wyn Evans and Angus Cook to model for her father, and they in turn introduced Lucian to Leigh. In fact, they'd introduced the flamboyant Bowery as a ruse to shift Freud away from his neutral, beige pallet (Their words). It didn't work though as Bowery stripped out of his colourful clothes and makeup, and became one of Freud's most successful subjects. "Punctuality was the main thing he looked for in a model," Sue says. "That's why he has so many self-portraits; if someone didn't turn up he'd paint his own reflection."
As the session drew on, Sue spoke about her first painting with Freud, Evening in the Studio, an experience she describes as 'hideous' as she had to pose for long periods in an uncomfortable position propped up by filthy pillows on the studio's hard floorboards. She expressed her growing fascination with those pillows and how they contained the all DNA of all the previous models. Each painting took about nine months, posing 2 to 3 days a week. With that level of required dedication and discipline, it's no surprise to hear Sue tell of her joy when she entered Freud's studio to begin work on Benefits Supervisor Sleeping and saw the sofa waiting for her that Lucian had bought specially for her. "Although it's all falling to bits, it cost about £3000 or £5000 or something."
She was paid £20 a day for sitting for Freud, though was always taken out for lunch at some of the artist's favourite restaurants. This wasn't just a fuel stop though. Freud used this tactic to continue observing the model, gleaning new visual information about the sitter in a more relaxed environment. Martin Gayford, who wrote an account of sitting for Freud in his book Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud, recounts one dinner following a sitting where he asked what the artist was thinking about. "Your ear," came the reply.
During the session, we went through several poses ranging between five and twenty minutes. Sue is incredibly animated as she has so many stories to tell about her life: the most recent chapters include her moving to St Leonards on the South coast, starting her own fashion business and her continuing relationships with artists such as Rui Miguel Leitão Ferreira. In one pose, Sue recreated the position of another Freud painting, Sleeping by the Lion Carpet, and a related etching. I took my sketch away and used it over the following day as the foundation to a work in oil.
It's easy to see why Freud found Tilley to be such a compelling model, not only for his painting of flesh, but also to spend time with her vibrant personality. Freud didn't leave the studio much, Sue even described how he would fabricate slights from people in his mind in order to not have to socialise with them which would have meant taking time away from painting. But Sue recounted how modelling for Freud was a bit like being a companion, since he didn't have time to go out because he was painting, he had his social life while he was painting instead. They would talk about current events and tell each other stories, to point that she would fall off the sofa laughing.
Even David Hockney said of sitting for Freud: “He mixed every tone, and it did occur to me that he could have been a bit quicker if he’d premixed quite a few of them because they were quite similar and then it wouldn’t take him as long to mix it. But I then realised I was just thinking of myself there, because his method is that he wants you there as long as possible, so why not mix every colour slowly meaning he’s got more time with you that way.”