Oil-bound Puffin signed and dated 'Lucian Freud/Oct 44' (upper left) pen and ink with crayon 22.2 x 30.7 cm. (8 3/4 x 12 1/8 in.)
PROVENANCE: Private Collection, London
EXHIBITED: London, Alex Reid & Lefevre Gallery, New Paintings and Drawings by Lucian Freud, Felix Kelly and Julian Trevelyan, November-December 1944, cat.no.20 (13 guineas)
Where he found the puffin that became an object of his lingering fascination is uncertain. Thinking back, Lucian Freud had an idea that he picked it up, already dead, from the bank of the Regent's Canal. As was his habit, he worked from it until it had served his purpose. In his drawing the sorry creature is far gone, bones protruding like umbrella ribs through the bedraggled plumage. In death pathos attaches; but drawing is commemoration and Freud's detailing represents his tireless delight in tackling complexity.
Once this particular puffin was no longer capable of flying and fishing or nosing into a rabbit burrow for purposes of reproduction, it was good for nothing beyond maggot culture. Freud happening upon it gave it this strange graphic afterlife: extinction metamorphosed into a marvelous still life image.
The same had happened to the dead monkeys that, a couple of years earlier, Freud used to get hold of from Palmer's Pet Stores in Camden Town. These, with their clenched paws and tightly closed eyes, tended to look half human and that was why he drew them. And similarly, when he drew a black cat asleep or another time made a friend sit holding a live pigeon firmly enough to prevent it from doing anything more than twitch, his aim was to convey a sense of dormant animation. A dead rabbit on a chair, on the other hand, a stuffed owl in a glass case, a stuffed sandpiper in a glass case surrounded by cacti or a dead-or-alive lobster: such things were simply eye-catching and to draw them was to enjoy oneself exercising concentration.
With a rotting puffin a different degree of fascination applied. Freud liked puffins, as everyone does, because of their toy size and perky appearance. (Puffin Picture Books for children with a cheerful puffin colophon were popular at the time: exemplary cheap, high quality, colourful wartime publishing). When, in 1945, he decided to paint a puffin, such as those he had seen in the Scilly Isles, he took as his model the late 18th century specimen engraved by Thomas Bewick for his 'History of British Birds'. 'The bite of these birds is very severe', Bewick reported. 'One sent to the author, in a box covered with netting, caught hold of the finger of a poor man, and brought away the fleshy part as if it had been cut out with a knife: but they may be tamed and soon become familiar.' Freud's specimen was in this respect risk-free. Placed on the table, laid out on its back, legs inert, beak ajar, a confused mass of bone and feather, it was all his.
The drawing process was accumulative. Freud used a mapping pen (a puffin quill would have been more appropriate, perhaps, but less conducive to precision) and he set out to delineate it in much the same way that the previous year he had spent an otherwise boring summer holiday beside Loch Ness giving the view from his hotel window the pen and ink treatment, every inch of ground translated into busy markings. And now here, on the little landscape of the tabletop corpse, complications bloomed. What once was streamlined water resistant fluff and plume is mangy, wispy, deranged: the bird that once sported wings and breast is now as crash-landed as the flock of downed Luftwaffe planes painted by Paul Nash in his wartime masterpiece 'Totes Meer' (Tate). The more he looked at it the more he saw. Just as he was to find when painting the massed leafage of Two Plants (Tate) in the late Seventies, density of detail isn't just a challenge, it's more a defiance. When painting Dead Heron (see Fig.1) in early 1945, he was at pains to give that magnificent specimen a satin allure, its plumage flattened as though soothed in death. The puffin died with no such style. It is however no less cherishable.
Freud rarely signed his work. However when preparing for his first one man show at the Lefevre Gallery in November 1944 he went through the drawings that he considered worth exhibiting on a par with his paintings and treated them as exceptions. 'Oct 44': this more than accomplished drawing with its faint touches of conte crayon colour, was a sort of marker for him, an indication of what he now might aim for in terms of painting. Afterwards, as his friendship with Francis Bacon grew, he was to work his way into a painterly equivalent of the pen strokes that - trailed, contoured, dotted, nicked and hatched - so tease and test the eye.
As the fifth year of the war began Londoners were still being bombed and no immediate end in sight to shortages and restrictions and dreadful news. Though Freud would never admit to symbolic or allegorical or, worst of all, spiritual implications in his work, Oil-bound Puffin is soaked with implications. In its complexity and intensity, it is Freud's account of what happens when the preening stops.
We are grateful to William Feaver for compiling this catalogue entry.