Shortly after I first got to know him, I asked Lucian Freud whether he collected pictures by Frank Auerbach (he owned a number of splendid examples). Lucian was mildly put out at the idea of being a collector, because – as the most individualistic of men – he never liked the thought that he belonged to a group of any kind. He put his objection, again in a characteristically unexpected and memorable way, by rephrasing a remark by the American writer Djuna Barnes about her relationship with Thelma Wood, "I'm not a lesbian, I just love Thelma". Lucian said he felt like echoing that: "I am not a collector, I just love Frank's work."
It was a notable tribute from one great painter to another. Auerbach and Freud maintained friendly relations for more than half a century. They met frequently, often in later years for breakfast, both being risers at dawn and believers in an early start at the easel. By the 1970s, as William Feaver has noted, "Auerbach was the living artist most admired by Freud."(The latter did not have a high opinion of Francis Bacon's later work.)
It was an admiration returned by Auerbach. He spoke to me in 2009, of the way in which Freud, while using an essentially naturalistic idiom – which according to conventional art historical ideas ought by now to be completely outworn – was nonetheless able to produce results that were unfailingly fresh and novel. Despite long years of friendship, he retained a feeling that Freud was in some ways enigmatic. While Francis Bacon would discourse brilliantly about art, Auerbach remembered that Freud said less on the subject.
"Although he's more concerned, I think, with guarding his instinct and not making too many pronouncements, when Lucian does say something about painting it's very well worth listening to. You realize that there's a great intuitive mechanism underneath that he's not going to expose. Sickert defined genius as 'self-preservation in a talent'. I think Lucian's got a very strong sense of the self-preservation of his talent."
In 1975-6, Auerbach sat for Freud which resulted in a magnificent portrait. It was a return of a compliment: in 1960, Freud sat for Auerbach for the charcoal portrait, which will be auctioned in the Bonhams Contemporary Art Sale in February.
"Of course," Auerbach said during one of our meetings, "I've known Lucian all my life." By that he meant, perhaps, since the early 1950s, or late 40s when Auerbach himself (born in 1930), was just starting out on his career as a painter. Freud, eight years older, was by that time an established figure.
Stella West provided a glimpse of their closeness. She was Auerbach's lover and most constant model in the 1950s and early 60s, always identified in titles as 'E.O.W'. She moved to Brentford in 1961, and Auerbach would regularly take the train there; on occasion Freud would too. As she told Robert Hughes, "We had the Saturday Night Nosh. I used to put the joint in the oven, turn it low, and then model for him for a couple of hours, by which time the joint was done; sometimes my kids would bring their boyfriends; we had this big table in the room, Frank would sit at one end and I at the other. It was wonderful." On occasions, Freud would cook breakfast for Auerbach – I remember an early morning feast including game – and vice versa. Lucian commended a Christmas meal made by Auerbach including lamb and an especially delicious variety of dried apricot he had not eaten before.
There are a number of similarities as well between the methods and artistic habits of the two: working from life and taking long periods of time, years in some cases, to complete a picture. Evidently, each was in search of a hard-won kind of visual truth that owes nothing to photography (another point that divides them from most contemporary figurative painters).
There are even parallels in their behavior in the studio. Hughes has described how Auerbach "works on the balls of his feet, balanced like a welterweight boxer, darting in and out". I observed exactly the same athletic approach when I sat for Freud. He too was constantly moving back and forth, in to add a touch to the canvas, out to judge the effect, forward to peer at the model.
Hughes, who sat for Auerbach for a charcoal portrait, notes that he would recite lengthy passages of poetry. This was a feature of sittings with Freud too, though his choice of verse – I remember Larkin, Belloc and Schiller – was somewhat different from Hughes's list of Auerbach's recitations (Yeats, George Barker and Auden). Nonetheless, as artists Freud and Auerbach are, in several respects, entirely distinct. Auerbach's work has always been far less straightforwardly naturalistic, his use of paint and line more gestural; he makes, at times, great demands on the viewer's capacity to interpret gouts, whorls and clotted masses of paint in terms of visual reality. Also, Auerbach has always been more extreme in his need for continuity both of place and of models.
Certain people recur in numerous works by Freud – Leigh Bowery, Harry Diamond and David Dawson, for example – but many others were depicted, as I was, in only one or two pictures. His cast of characters, from the Queen to bohemians and near down and outs, was very wide. Auerbach, in contrast, has preferred to work again and again over six decades from a very restricted number of people. At the launch party for my book about sitting for Lucian, Man with a Blue Scarf, Catherine Lampert remarked that she was not impressed by my remarks about the sheer length of sitting involved (perhaps 130 hours for the oil). "I've been sitting for Frank for 31 years," she observed drily.
Similarly, for Auerbach continuity of place is vital. He began to paint and draw E.O.W. in the lodging house she ran at 81 Earl's Court Road. However in 1954, when he moved into his studio in Camden Town (which he still occupies today), he carried on painting and drawing her in her cramped bedroom.
The work that Bonhams is offering from this period in the 20th Century British Art Sale in November gives a powerful sense of proximity – and for a good reason. Auerbach could not step backwards to get a more distant look at model or canvas. According to West (quoted by Hughes), he "used to paint with the canvas propped on a wooden chair, because he had no easel at my place. Everything was all dripping with paint. Mostly we worked in my bedroom, because I could lie on the bed and so on, and the chair became more and more encrusted with paint, like a stalactite."
Painter and model were close in every way, so near as almost to be in bed together. Auerbach observed to me that "if you are in bed with somebody, you are aware of their substance in some way in terms of weight. I actually think that is the difference between good paintings and less good ones in whatever idiom." One of the qualities that Freud and Auerbach emphatically share is that in different ways, they both convey just that physicality: the feeling that you could reach out and touch the person in the picture.
Martin Gayford has written books about Frank Auerbach and Lucian Freud. His most recent book is A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney.
Sale: 20th Century British and Irish Art
New Bond Street
Wednesday 16 November at 2pm
Enquiries: Matthew Bradbury +44 (0) 20 7468 8295