In his early years, drawing rather than painting was Lucian Freud's preferred medium. Richard Calvocoressi looks at an exquisite work from 1944
Lucian Freud was the greatest painter of the human frame in the latter part of the 20th century. A grandson of Sigmund Freud, he came to England with his family from Berlin in 1933, at the age of ten. In 1939 he went to study under Cedric Morris at the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing. Apart from a few months spent after the war in Paris and on the Aegean island of Poros (with the artist, John Craxton), Freud made London his home.
In spite of his reputation for portraiture, and especially the naked portrait, Freud's early work is dominated by studies of animals, plants, objects and landscape. Drawing, rather than painting, was then his preferred medium. Freud once said that he "did 200 drawings to every painting in those early days".
In its intensive scrutiny of the minutest details of feather, wing, beak and claw, this magnificent pen-and-ink drawing of a dead seabird recalls northern masters such as Dürer or the artists of the early Netherlandish school. The walls of Freud's parents' apartment in Berlin were hung with reproductions of drawings and watercolours by Dürer from the Albertina in Vienna. The young Freud's combination of incisive line with acute observation of the texture of natural objects – hair, fur and feathers but also leaves, grass and fruit – is best seen in the studies of animals and birds, mostly dead, that he made in 1943-44.
In the winter of 1944, when Freud was only 22, he had his first one-man show (shared with Felix Kelly and Julian Trevelyan) at the Lefevre Gallery in London. Of the 27 works exhibited, only six were portraits. The remainder included landscapes, still-lifes, and studies of animals and plants such as Oil-bound Puffin which was priced at 13 guineas.
1944 also saw the publication of Nicholas Moore's book of poems, The Glass Tower, with drawings by Freud, which complement rather than illustrate Moore's poems. The book's cover is decorated with a palm tree very similar to a drawing shown in the Lefevre Gallery. The same plant, which Freud had bought at a nursery-garden, reappears in the oil The Painter's Room, the masterpiece of Freud's brief flirtation with Surrealism. That phase over, from 1945 onwards, Freud increasingly turned his attention to the human head and body.
Richard Calvocoressi is the co-author (with Sebastian Smee) of Lucian Freud on Paper.